Laura is not her real name. She is in her mid-40s, tall, voluptuous, beautiful by any standard, intelligent, successful in her profession within the civil service. She laughs nervously, tossing thick auburn hair. Her long fingers pluck at the table linens. We sit in an Ottawa restaurant in the early evening, eating salmon and mahi mahi, making small talk, both of us waiting for her to feel comfortable enough to tell me a story.I know the outline of what is to come. I know Laura is going to say that she has cheated on her husband of 25 years, and I know she doesn’t regret the affairs. I recognize that her tale is not simple; so many marriages do not fit the definition of “to love and cherish from this day forward.” But I don’t yet see why she did it. I will not show her my knee-jerk resistance to this tale of adultery that offers no apology. “Start at the beginning,” I say. “Tell me about your marriage before you say anything of the affairs.”
“I married at 19. What was I thinking? I was an only child from a working-class family. My mother wanted me to be a lady. She was always terrified about what people would think. I was really attractive when I was a teenager and intimidating to young guys. Older men would approach me and I was so naive, I didn’t know what was going on. Then I met my husband, Ben. It was love at first sight, but I realize now I was looking for someone to love me. He was very attractive, and at 22 he already had a good job. We were set for life. It hadn’t been acceptable that I’d move out on my own; I think my parents were relieved that someone was going to take care of me.
“When we got engaged, we started to have sex and I really liked it. It was my first experience and I knew nothing at all. Neither did my fiancé. I thought you could only have one orgasm, so when I felt it building I’d suppress it because I didn’t want things to be over too soon. As the wedding got closer, I did begin to have doubts, but you get so wrapped up in plans, and by then the dress was bought and the reception hall was booked. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could call off the wedding.”
Laura relaxes as she speaks, searching for cause and effect, a little surprised at her own daring in telling me these things. I recall being 19, desperate for love, or at least for an idea of love—an escape from life in my parents’ house. Friends dreamt of bridal gowns and sugared almonds and happily-ever-after; I desired a garret and its resident poet. Laura chose the first in line.
“Life was pretty good. We bought a big house, and he’s a really nice man. But sex wasn’t as good as it was before we got married. I think because it wasn’t taboo anymore there was no excitement. I was very disappointed. I tried to understand what was happening. I read The Joy of Sex and studied the pictures. I bought sex toys, but they weren’t well received. He thought I was attempting to replace him. We had sex, but not very often. I don’t recall really talking about it. We’ve never been able to communicate when things aren’t going well. It’s difficult to know when the intimacy was lost. Things were OK. Not great, but OK.
“Then seven years ago my father died, only a short time after the death of my mother. I’d always had the love of my parents. When they were gone it had a huge effect on me. It became more and more clear there was an acute void; Ben didn’t even try to fill it. I remember him patting me on the back, telling me it would all be fine. He told my girlfriend he was waiting for the old me to return. I think he still is. But he made no attempt to bring me back.”
She’s falling apart and he’s patting her on the back! “Didn’t you scream out your frustrations?” I ask. She looks at me for a long moment. Speaking about these things finally exposes them to daylight, making her consider their meaning. “You’re right. I never did. I internalized it. I seem to think if you don’t talk about something, it doesn’t really exist.
“When I hit my 40s, my libido was suddenly a driving force in my life. I would initiate things and he’d say, ‘I can’t turn on when you want me to.’ That was a problem because every night I wanted it and I’d think maybe this time, and then nothing. It wasn’t just sex, I wanted to be held. The last time we had sex, ever, halfway through I said, ‘We shouldn’t do this,’ because there were no feelings coming through. A little after that he was ill and we slept apart for a week or so. One night he came into the room and started getting ready for bed. I said, ‘I think sleeping together is a very intimate act and we don’t have that kind of intimacy. So, I don’t think we should share a room anymore.’ He turned and left. He never said anything, and we never talked about it.”
“Nothing. We don’t even touch now. He was in the hospital once for appendicitis and was in a lot of pain. I wanted him to know that I really cared about him, so I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He went very stiff and pulled back. That was the last time we touched.”
“How can you function within the house or when you have friends over?” I ask. “What do you talk about at dinner?”
“We never entertain. No one comes to the house. At dinner I’ll take something into the family room and eat watching television. He eats in the kitchen. I have my own life at home—my own bathroom and bedroom with my phone, stereo, computer. I don’t want you to think he’s horrible. He’s a good dad and a good provider, and he would help anyone—he’d fix their car in the middle of the night and then bring them home. He’s very handsome and fit—and he’s got a really big cock. Oh, God, you’ll think I’m terrible! Are you sure this is anonymous? We are like brother and sister. We get along OK.”
No, Laura. This is not OK. I’ve been married, divorced, in love, out of love. I know what it is to live with another human being and yet remain completely alone, to be immersed in mind-numbing predictability. But this is different. This is agony. Ben left that bedroom so easily; he was relieved to return to his sanctuary. Platitudes rush to my tongue. But to suggest counselling would be naive. Counselling demands a preliminary conversation on why such therapy is necessary. And as there have been no real conversations since…well, you see the problem? So, the loneliness remains, highlighting the vacant, nondescript apathetic days.
“I started to look beyond. I went online to chat rooms, not really wanting anything except connection. Men found me interesting. I started feeling differently about myself. I met a man online, married, living in the southern states. We chatted for a long time, and there’d been some telephone calls with sex talk. Then he said he was going to Maine on business. In his picture he wasn’t very good-looking, kind of geeky. But I didn’t care. I was attracted to all the attention he was paying me, and by then I was more in touch with my body than ever before. I cared for myself, making sure my toenails were done and my legs were shaved. Putting creams on my skin was so sensual; when I made the kids’ sandwiches, I’d lick the peanut butter off my finger and feel it was so erotic. It was as if a switch had been turned on all of a sudden. Friends said I looked different, so happy. And I hadn’t even slept with a man.”
I remember my own first relationship after divorce, rediscovering the pleasures of lust and femininity—things that had imperceptibly seeped away year by year. Only when they returned in a rush of heat and longing did I even realize they had gone. Suddenly, someone declared me beautiful, revelled in my ability to arouse and be aroused, and so the sense of failure was replaced and I was reinvented.
“I agreed to meet him in Portland for two days,” continued Laura. “I told my husband I was going on a shopping trip to Toronto. In the afternoon I went to Victoria’s Secret and spent $17 US on a pair of lacy black panties! He booked a room for me with a king-size bed and Jacuzzi. His room was on my floor and he was waiting for me. My heart was racing. It was a very long corridor and he was standing at the end, but I couldn’t really see him as there was a window behind him and the light coming in made him just a dark shadow. Walking down that hall toward him was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We kissed a little. We went out for dinner. The sex happened quite quickly and didn’t last long, perhaps because we’d had a bit to drink, but it was exciting to have someone touch my body.
“The next day I felt ill. The guilt was overwhelming. I thought I was ready mentally, but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of it. I’d never been unfaithful, and so the fact that I’d planned every step, knowing what was going to happen in the end, was too much for me. I spent the whole day in bed with the curtains drawn. The second night we went out for dinner but didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. We continued to write, and I was hoping that we’d still be able to get together once in a while. But after about a month he said he was falling in love with me and it was affecting his relationship with his wife, and so he had to end things. Maybe they all say that. Do they?”
“He’d been married less than two years, Laura,” I said. “Did you never think about the type of person he must be?”
“I think he had the same needs as I did. He was lonely.
“I went back to the chat room because I liked the interaction and the flirting. Then a year later a name popped up saying hello. Matthew was divorced, a successful lawyer in Florida. We started to write long e-mails. I opened up a post office box so he could send me real letters and photos—his dog, his kids, house, car, friends. It was a thousand times more intense than with the other guy. One night I was in bed with the lights out talking to him on the phone, and he said, ‘I’m in love with you.’ That’s really something. The whole package, you know. I got so caught up in having this man in love with me. I went to Florida to visit him. A friend in Kingston, Ont., was my alibi.”
“Sitting on the plane I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I wore a denim Liz Claiborne dress with a scoop neck, really cute. When I arrived, he was standing there, looking so handsome I can’t even tell you, holding 18 long-stemmed pink roses. We hung on to each other. I didn’t want to let him go. We went to a restaurant on the river. I remember looking at his hands, so strong. He said, ‘I want you to kiss me.’ I went over to him and kissed him. He tasted incredible. Musk, a distant smokiness.
“We drove home through the back roads and passed alongside a cornfield. I’d never seen corn so tall. I said I’d love to walk through that, and he stopped the car and we walked through this tall, tall corn. And all that stuff—I don’t know what it’s called—was falling down and was in my hair and all over my shirt, and he was brushing it from my face and laughing.
“We went to bed for three hours. He was a good lover. We immersed ourselves in it. It was as if I went to another place. I can’t describe it. Almost like in a dream. Later we walked around the neighbourhood with his dog, talking and laughing and holding hands. A week later I caught the midnight plane home. I cried from the time he said goodbye to when I landed in Ottawa.”
I watch across the table at how the romance of it all holds her still. As with the brief Portland affair, the descriptions of dresses, underwear, flowers, how he opened the car door or held her chair, remain in vivid detail. She was loved, “the whole package.” The scenes she paints—the cornfield, the dog, the request for a kiss—are the scenes of a movie. It is still the fairy tale, still dressed with sugared almonds. I recall her comment on how good premarital sex had been, how the taboo of it heightened the thrill, how the thrill dissipated within convention. If an illicit affair stretches on, will it inevitably become as banal as marriage?
“We saw each other three more times over the next year. I had been honest with Matthew about my relationship with my husband. I knew the affair couldn’t have gone on in that way, but I’d pushed that fact to one side. Then he ended it. I was devastated. He said if he could compartmentalize his life it would be fine, but I’d taken over so much of him. I know he was hoping I’d leave my husband, but it wasn’t ever talked about.”
Whispered words, illicit desires, yet nothing of reality. Laura never speaks directly to her husband of their estrangement; she never spoke to Matthew of the real impediments to a permanent relationship. She seems to live in a vacuum—not once giving voice to the clamouring problems of what any of this means in the outside world.
“It was after he dumped me that I really started thinking. He made me see what life could be like. But he is a lawyer from a good family; my dad had worked in a factory and came home dirty. I have a Grade 12 education; he has a string of degrees. He was everything I wasn’t. How could I go there, how could I leave my family?” There it is again: the spectre of being working class; the ghost of her mother rising up, requiring her to worry about appearances, about what people will think.
“What are you terrified of?” I ask her.
“I’m afraid of abandoning my children and their idea of what a family should be.”
For a moment I am stunned into silence. Doesn’t she see the insanity of this sentence? Her children must know only too well that this shared isolation is not a family.
“I’m afraid of being on my own. I have so many divorced friends and they all seem miserable. I have a nice house and a swimming pool. I have my own life. Ben and I get on OK. We have our tense moments, but we both make sure to pull back.”
“In what way?”
“Anything that’s not about the weather or what’s for dinner is fraught with danger. It escalates really, really quickly. Our voices get louder. It becomes hard and sarcastic. And when that happens we both retreat to our own part of the house.”
“What could be worse than this?”
“Losing my home, my security.”
When I discovered my own husband’s affair, he was never allowed back into our house. Someone said, “If you wouldn’t even listen to his explanation, then you must have been simply waiting for the opportunity to end your marriage.” It took me a long time to accept that she was right, that I needed that kick in the head to give me the courage to finally take control. The betrayal is no longer important to me, except as a catalyst for an understanding of self, a move into a better life. Perhaps Laura needs that kick, needs Ben to force the decision.
I ask if her husband found it strange that she took so many vacations.
“He never said anything.”
“Did he recognize that you were calmer, happier, glowing?”
“He probably never noticed.”
“What happens now, Laura?”
“I know I can’t go on living like this. I am afraid what will happen when my children go to university. Right now they are my friends.”
I feel like the cliché-ridden host of a daytime talk show, but I have to ask: “Did you learn anything?”
“I know a lot more now than when I first got married. I know you have to hold the other person’s feelings in your mind. I miss Matthew so much. And I don’t regret anything. I feel lucky that he loved me. Having someone feel that way for me made me more content with who I am. I only learned in my maturity what love is. It’s taking care of each other, wanting only what is best for the other person, cherishing each other. Not with my husband, of course. Ben and I have grown so far apart there isn’t a way back.”
The sexual transgressions left behind utter confusion; they burrowed into the ordered appearance of suburban life; they sullied the “lady” her mother wanted her to be, the veneer of respectability shielding a toxic marriage. But wasn’t that the point? They created unpredictability, a seductive chaos. The preachers would spout, the politicians intone. Yet who are we to judge? As Anne Kingston writes in The Meaning of Wife, “…marriages are often calculated partnerships requiring un-fathomable compromise.” Perhaps, until she is ready to be reinvented, all Laura can have is a scene from a romantic film, a temporary slice of “the whole package.”