Sunday
Mar022014

But Are They Still Doing It?

Michelle Seaton


 

At first she just thought that her husband was having a flirtation, you know, one of those things where he moons over a girl at the gym while pretending not to, or when he's sweetly flummoxed over some wide-eyed new hire at work. She didn't think it was an actual affair or anything, according to Connie, who had talked to her when she was in a weak moment. But she did begin to keep track of him, Ellen told Sonya. She did begin to call his office at odd hours and ask for him. No, said Amanda, she never did anything like that. She's not that type. You mean she wasn't the least bit suspicious, asked Margie. Not when he lost all that weight? Didn't we all say to her that he looked so different, with his hair, his clothes? He looked so young, said Margie. Didn't she notice? She trusted him, said Amanda, like you do after all this time. No, said Connie. If my husband ever stopped eating carbs, if he even knew what they were, I'd call a detective.

Well, how did she find out? That's what Ellen asked Amanda, but Amanda just shook her head. Margie didn't know either.

It was that picture on his phone, said Grace, who had known her since college and who had been calling her every day to check in. Ellen asked what kind of picture and Grace gave her a look. Oh, yuck, said Ellen, I thought only teenagers were sending each other naked pictures. It wasn't a naked picture per se, Grace told Ellen and then Jennifer and then Connie, it was just sort of provocative. And then they all wanted to know if Grace had seen it. No, said Grace, he keeps his phone with him all the time now, and anyway, she says that he denies that it is what it obviously is, which is a photo taken in the girl's apartment, in her bed, probably by him.

She's doing fine, said Sonya, if anyone cares about that right now. And Ellen wondered aloud if it would be okay to go over there and see her. And if so, what do you say to the husband? I know, said Connie, what do you say to that rat bastard? Nothing, said Sonya, because he's never there anymore. After he finally, finally came clean, he started coming home later and later. We need to spend time with her, said Grace, get her out of the house, give her a chance to socialize in ways that don't force her to talk about it. She doesn't want everyone to know, said Grace. She doesn't want anyone to know, said Sonya, but everyone already does.

Once you realize the truth, it must be a relief of sorts, said Amanda. No, said Grace, this kind of news is never a relief, especially not after twenty something years of marriage. Sonya admitted that she had asked her about that moment, had pressed, really, even though she knew it was wrong to press. I asked her, too, said Ellen, who then blushed, and added that it's hard to stop yourself from asking things you shouldn't ask. That's when Grace snapped, like what? What did you ask? Like about sex, said Ellen, about how they were getting along, and about money, about those things that cause men to cheat.  I asked if he'd ever done this before, said Sonya, and who is this girl, anyway, and where did he meet her? Stop asking her that shit, said Grace. That's nobody's business. We should be leaving her alone, said Amanda, and not using her situation to feed our own insecurities. Speak for yourself, said Connie, you're as obsessed as we are.

He called it love, said Ellen. He said he was in love, that's the word he used when he finally admitted it. I mean you expect the I-made-a-mistake speech, said Connie, the she-came-on-to-me speech, the it-was-meaningless speech. You expect him to say that it was just the one time, knowing that it was more, but you can ignore that. You expect him to say it was protected sex and that you don't have to go to the clinic to get some sort of test for chlamydia, said Ellen. But you will, anyway, said Sonya, and make him do it too just to rub his nose in it. But no, said Grace. He tells you that he's a new person, in love for the first time ever. What do you do with that? She told Sonya that as soon as he'd said it, as soon as the words were out of his mouth, she'd felt the room swaying.

What did she do? asked Amanda. What did she say? As soon as he'd said the words she'd walked out of their bedroom and to the stairway and fell halfway down the stairs before she caught herself on the banister.

She is reported to have told Amanda that she can't stand the taste of food anymore and the only way she can keep from crawling out of her skin is to take long walks and smoke. You always imagine this perfect incandescent rage, she told Amanda. You imagine yourself hurling insults at him, flinging him out of the house. And instead you are just wandering around the house, opening closets and trying to remember having bought anything in them. Once again, we are not who we prepared ourselves to be.

Jennifer asked Grace if she had ever suspected him before, if she'd seen any signs. And Grace shook her head, but Jennifer wouldn't take that for an answer and said it wasn't possible for there to be an affair, a sudden affair with no warning. Ellen agreed, and said that there must have been something wrong between them and she became sort of insistent upon the subject. These things don't just happen, Ellen said. He must have been unfulfilled. What utter horseshit, shouted Amanda, when all of this was reported to her. Talk about drinking the Kool-Aid. It was Amanda's oft-stated assumption that men do what they do because their dicks make them stupid, especially as they get older because they are men and they don't know that they're getting older. They think they're still 25. Why do they think this? Amanda asked the universe while throwing up her hands. Because they can. Everyone ignored these statements.

But were they still doing it, was what Connie wanted to know. Before the affair, you know, how was their sex life? Grace said it was fine, that she knew for a fact that it was fine. And she said it with authority. Of course they were still doing it, said Ellen. Why wouldn't they be, what with the kids gone all day, at school, at lessons and practices, at a friend's house. The kids had all gotten to the point where they only came home when they wanted money or needed a ride, and spent every minute inside the house holed up with their phones, texting, calling, posting, brooding. Connie agreed, and remarked that the one thing you can pretty much always demand of your husband is sex, and in fact you can reliably shame him into it, no matter what else is going on in life. They are, after all, said Margie, in that stage of parenting in which there are plenty of chances for sex, when and if you can remember to focus on it.

That's the problem, added Ronnie, remembering that you are supposed to be having sex, scheduling it, fitting it in, which requires a certain amount of energy, and that's not to mention all the grooming, tending to everything that has to be waxed and tweezed, and brushed and deodorized. And to do all of that, said Ronnie, without actually looking into a mirror where you might get a glimpse of what's sagging under your chin, under your eyes, and where you might get a clear view of your hips and the spongy fat that's multiplying there, no matter what you do. Connie said, you know what I should have done. I should have taken about a thousand pictures of myself when I was in my 20s and 30s. Thousands of them in slinky dresses, in swimsuits, so that now I could blow them up, mount them all over the house. And then I could point to them and say, That's the real me.

Besides, said Ronnie, it's not as though she'd let herself go. Ellen had heard her bragging that she hadn't gained a single pound since college. But that simply meant, said Ellen, that she spent two hours after dinner in the basement every night, pounding away on the treadmill and doing those calisthenics, having spent the whole day subsisting on a couple of saltines and a cup of skim milk. Just like all of us, said Sonya. That's what we all do. She looks fantastic, insisted Grace whenever the subject came up, and yet she couldn't deny that looking fantastic means next to nothing. Looking fantastic isn't the same as looking 30, said Margie.

And the really tough thing, said Grace, is that he's contrite now that it's been a couple of months. He says he's sorry and that he's broken it off, that he made a mistake. About fucking time, said Amanda. Well, said Ellen, he's still seeing the girl, whoever she is. How do you know that? asked Grace, and not nicely. I was over there the other day, and she said to me that his phone goes off constantly. He turns it off or he hides it in his sock drawer but it buzzes with text messages at all hours. And here he is cleaning up after dinner and fixing things, and taking the kids out on errands, buying them things. It's eerie, and she says she just sort of watches him do this and she feels a dozen shades of humiliation. She says she wants to fuck him constantly, and yet she screams at him when the kids aren't home and demands minute details of his time with that girl. Says to him that he owes her. And when I see her she's a wreck. She says she's in love, she says she wants him dead. She says they can't afford to get divorced, she says she's afraid to be alone. She says he's a good person, a victim, and then she calls him a thousand filthy names. It's exhausting. And it's clear that she knows this girl, knows her personally, and seems to know a lot about her, but won't say how she knows all of this.

It's the nanny, Ellen hissed at Max over the phone one morning in late spring, and then at Jennifer, and then Connie, Margie, and finally Amanda. Every one of them said: What?  They all said that word in the same high-pitched tone of incredulity. Except Amanda, who said: Are you motherfucking shitting me? Ellen never called Grace, because presumably she had known all along and had chosen to keep quiet. The secondary responses didn't vary much, either. Jennifer noted that they don't actually have a nanny. Connie insisted that you can't have a nanny if your kids are old enough to date. And Ellen had to explain that it was their old nanny, the one from when their kids were little. Not that Polish au pair, said Jennifer. I thought she was deported? No, said Ronnie, the other one, the serious one, the one in grad school.

It was a weird time in their marriage, Ellen said to Connie, she had that job offer and so she just sort of hired someone more or less full time to get the kids back and forth to preschool and kindergarten and playdates and such. God, said Connie, I remember those years, mini-karate, mini-gymnastics, Suzuki piano, nursing one while shoehorning another one into a clammy swimsuit, and simultaneously taking calls about work. A nightmare of tedium. But that was, like, ten years ago, said Margie. What happened? She just resurfaced, said Sonja. Like they do sometimes. Fucking Facebook, is what Amanda said whenever the subject came up. For once, they agreed. I mean, said Connie, sleeping with the nanny, the former nanny. It's just so, so very, I mean, shouldn't he get struck by lightning or something?

Or something, said Grace. And on the question of whether a divorce was imminent, Grace shook her head. Of course not, said Ellen, don't be crazy. That's absurd, said Amanda. You spend 20 years building a life with someone, creating everything together, a home, your holidays, your inside jokes, your memories, your decisions and collecting all this stuff, these kids, these friends, these routines, you don't throw all of that away because he's a fucking idiot. I know, said Connie, but don't you sometimes wake up and look at your husband and think, God, not you again? Well, said Ronnie, just because you've become indescribably annoyed by the sound of your husband's chewing, by his crippling cynicism, by his love of Duran Duran, or by the careless way he reaches for you in bed, doesn't mean you're going to jump into the sack with someone else. Someone younger, agreed Margie, you couldn't do that because it would kill him. Oh, I don't know, said Connie, I think I could manage it.

Besides, said Amanda, it's not the sex, is it? Sex isn't that hard to get. The reason we hate cheating husbands is that they're getting romance and adoration. They're getting little text messages, furtive dates, gifts, harried conversations in which everything is meaningful and charged, and each exchange promises more of the same. That's why you want to punish him, said Amanda. That's why you think you have to leave him at least for a short time, at least to put some sort of exclamation point on this whole violation.

Wait, said Jennifer. Is she leaving him?

No. She's not leaving him, said Grace, but she's pissed, as anyone would be. She's told him to pull it together, and to get rid of the girl for real this time, and he has to come to counseling and work on it. And, so? asked Max. What did he say to that? That's what they all wanted to know. Grace repeated this same little litany several times and they all asked the same question. What did he say to all that? And at this moment Grace would purse her lips and with great gravity deliver the phrase, he said he would try. Grace liked to draw out the word try as though it were its own little sin.

But then Jennifer took her out to lunch and reported that she had been mum on the subject of the affair, and had referred to her husband in all the same ways that she had in the past, remarking as usual that he's working too hard, and that they still haven't decided on the paint scheme for that downstairs room that she'll use as an office when she starts consulting full time, and how they've made plans to go to Vermont the weekend of their anniversary. It was eerie, said Jennifer, who swore to avoid the subject in the future. Amanda agreed that they should all stay out of it in the short term.

Weeks later, Margie ran into her at the garden center and reported that she had been in raptures about their weekend in Vermont, about the food and the enormous suite with a balcony and a hot tub, and how they'd planned to go to Italy next year. Ellen went out to the movies with her and learned that things were mostly going great, and that she said she had found a marriage counselor who was amazing and how they were talking about things differently and treating each other differently and making love with real passion and pulling themselves out of their old rut. Of course, there were good days and bad days, said Ellen, but that's something anyone would expect.

At the end of summer, Connie said that she walked the dog by their house and saw her husband loading a suitcase and some boxes onto his car. I was too shocked to say anything other than good morning, said Connie. Oh my God, said Jennifer. Is he leaving her? No, said Grace. Not a chance. He'll come around.

Grace said that Margie was spending a lot of time with her lately because Margie had been married once before, even though Margie didn't like to talk about those years. Margie told Jennifer that there are basically two phases in this sort of thing, there's the phase where you want to get him back, you know, entice him with perfect domesticity and crazy sex and profound understanding. And then there is the second phase, the one where you want to kill him and her and pretty much everyone else, too, everyone who is happy and safe. Jennifer wondered aloud how long this other phase is likely to last, but Margie just shook her head.

Max agreed that she would now go on rather endlessly about the girl and intimate that the girl had enjoyed certain surgical enhancements, which no one believed. She went on and on, said Connie, about the fact that the girl had spent eight years getting her PhD. In fact, she liked to say it twice—eight years—for emphasis. And her favorite detail about the girl was that she had never, not once, held a full-time job, and had been a part-time nanny for all these years and also some sort of aerobics instructor. Or sometimes she said pilates. It was during one of these rants that Max had had the temerity and monumental bad judgment, said Connie, to remark that it maybe it wasn't the girl's fault that she couldn't get a job in her field, you know, said Max, in this economy and all. Max had said this at Starbucks where they'd met for coffee. Connie said that there was a nanosecond of utter silence while the rage etched itself into the features of their friend's face. Then she had shrieked out the words: her field? She had said it so loudly and in such a high pitch that she had startled a sleeping baby at the next table. She had at that point lowered her voice, said Max, but continued every bit as stridently when she said, her field is babysitting.

I'm with her on that one, said Margie. It's not as though newly minted PhDs are getting snapped up anywhere these days, but my God, to spend all those years studying anthropology? Is that for real? Who paid for that? No one, said Amanda, at least not yet. And that's the thing, said Margie, or at least it's another thing. How can you throw away a wife with a career and a salary in order to get a girlfriend with, like, $80,000 in student loans? A girlfriend who is over thirty and who has spent her whole life taking care of other people's babies but never had one of her own, said Jennifer, but probably wants to find someone with a good track record as a dad and quietly get pregnant. Oh Christ, said Grace, if that happens, it's Armageddon. You'd have to get a divorce, wouldn't you? asked Ronnie, and when no one said anything she asked again, as if to clarify her question. If the girl got pregnant? If there was a baby? You'd have to leave him, right?

These were questions that no one acknowledged, except Connie, who said, can we please stop talking about this? She said it pleadingly but no one listened. Can you even imagine, asked Grace, writing child support checks to your husband's girlfriend while your retirement account is being gutted by college tuition bills? Please, said Connie, will you please just shut up about this? She repeated herself several times over the next few weeks and made each one of them agree in turn to shut up about it. They agreed not to talk about it in front of her anymore. And then when she wasn't around, Jennifer told Ellen that it shouldn't surprise anyone how touchy Connie was. After all, her husband was also one of those flirty and insecure types, the kind of guy who would likely cross the line at some point.

But then it was at Jennifer's end-of-season barbecue that she had come alone and had consumed three glasses of wine in quick succession before spending much of the sunny afternoon crying in Jennifer's kitchen while the other guests took turns plying her with coffee and Kleenex. Jennifer said that it was not her fault that she was so sad, that anyone would be sad, but that perhaps she shouldn't go out quite as much while she was sorting herself out. Grace had plenty of responses to Jennifer's little salvo, but delivered none of them to Jennifer's face. Instead, she called Ronnie and Margie and Amanda and Ellen in succession to remark that under no circumstances should they abandon their good friend, and Grace insisted that the word sad doesn't begin to describe her feelings. Grace hinted darkly that this could happen to any one of them, even Jennifer.

Well, that was harsh, was what Ellen said to Amanda later. But Margie agreed with Grace. It's not sadness, is what Margie said to Max, it's grief. Sadness is what happens when you realize that the industry you've worked in for 20 years is dying, or when you realize that your children may never have financial security, no matter what they do or how hard they work. Grief is what happens when something gets ripped out of your life, something essential. Sadness you can cope with, said Margie, but grief is different. Grief can make you crazy.

Later in the fall, Max reported that she saw the husband moving a lot things out of the house, including furniture. Are you sure, asked Connie, because I heard he had moved back in. Wait, said Jennifer, he had moved out before? Is that certain? Well, said Max. He was staying elsewhere for a while, a week or so. Told the kids he was going away on business. What? said Jennifer. Oh, yes, said Ellen, with her trademark smirk, let's spare the kids any bad news. Oh, God, the kids, said Jennifer. They don't know? Oh, they know, said Ellen. They know everything. And here Max interjected to insist that this is exactly what's not okay about that whole situation. Max said forcefully that the kids should be left out of it, at all costs, a statement that was always greeted with charged silence. And after this interval of silence, Max would march ahead in defense of the husband, saying that as parents you can't bring the kids into it, you can't use the kids against each other. You just can't. It's wrong.

At some point, she made this little speech in front of Grace, who sucked in her cheeks with great menace. First off, said Grace. She said it slowly and she pointed a finger in Max's face when she said it the way you do with a child, it's not the wife's job to keep a secret like that. Also, said Grace, are you completely crazy? Max had sputtered at this but Grace barreled on to ask if Max had any idea what it's like to live with teenagers, and then rushed in with, no you do not, and pointed again with her finger. They know everything about you, said Grace, everything you don't want them to know. Connie agreed. She's right, said Jennifer, they do, and that's because if you're ever out of the house, they go through your things. They know where you hide everything, said Connie, and they know whether you know how much money is in your purse, and if you don't know, they will fleece you. Oh, God, Connie said to Max, you've got to purge your house before your kids turn twelve, you know, and throw out the vibrator, I mean, Connie added dramatically, assuming you have one. They can go through your bank statements, your emails, all of that, but the day they drop a hint about your secret stash of top shelf booze, and your dear diary and all those old love letters you should have thrown out, that's the day you learn about real humiliation.

Why do they do that, asked Sonya, whose kids were also younger. Because they have no morals, said Grace. No, said Margie, it's because you aren't people to them, a statement to which Jennifer nodded vigorously. To them, said Jennifer, we're just the poor saps who can't afford to buy them the really, really good bike, or clothes, or vacation, or send them to the best college. We're the losers who didn't become rich and famous like we were supposed to, said Connie, and therefore we don't have privacy. Only they have privacy. And so don't tell me, Grace said to Ellen, that anybody brought the kids into it, or that the kids are getting used, because they aren't.

But then Ellen repeated this conversation to Amanda, and Amanda sided with Max. You can't let your kids push their way into this, said Amanda. You can't use their anger. They're kids, which means that they get all enraged about the wrong things, and they never, ever get over it. They think they can fix it, but they can't, Amanda told Margie, who didn't disagree. You have to be unified in front of them even if you hate each other. You have to smile at each other over the cereal bowls even if you're dying inside. That's what marriage is when you have kids.

Then Ellen wondered aloud what it would be like to defend your husband's girlfriend to your children while also preaching to them about sexual abstinence and all the other moral crap we feed them about stifling their baser urges for the greater good. But nobody had a reply for that. In fact, they pretended not to hear her.

During the fall, news of her dried up. Jennifer asked everyone in turn how she was doing. I haven't seen her, said Connie. Margie had stopped by her house, and she'd come out on the front step to chat in the cold. Margie said she watched her smoke a cigarette, something the kids had recently forbidden, while casting furtive looks at the house. She looked tense, said Margie, and kept the conversation on work and the weather, and she never invited me in. Grace hinted only that she was seeing someone, and that they should all give her space while this new relationship was in its earliest phase. Max would shake her head when the subject came up, saying let's drop it, okay?

At Grace's annual New Year's Eve party, Jennifer asked if she was coming, and Grace nodded. Oh, that'll be great to see her, said Connie. Yes, said Grace, it will. Afterward, Max told Sonya that there was an eerie silence in the room when she walked in on the arm of her husband. Connie said that she had looked at several of the women pleadingly at first, as though begging them not to ask, but Amanda totally disagreed, saying that she looked confident, well perhaps not confident, but fine. Ellen snorted at that and added that she was wearing a tight dress that was cut down to here and quite a lot of make up, at least for her. And heels. She looked, said Ellen, whose lips formed the outline of what might have been the word good or the word okay, but then Ellen couldn't finish whatever word it was.

Max said that people only pretended to chat whenever the couple approached, and that the laughter around them seemed sort of loud and forced.  Connie said that she couldn't get over how her husband rested his hand on the small of her back and fetched her drinks for her. Ronnie noticed the small smiles she gave him when she thought no one was looking and how she sometimes studied the floor while they stood talking in the group, as though every subject bored her. Grace said that she had been really nervous about showing up, and that she was glad no one had broached the obvious subject, at least people had been kind enough to do that, even if they hadn't stopped themselves from staring. They can't pretend no one knows, said Sonya, do we really have to pretend we don't know? To which Grace said, we can steer clear of the subject, for their sake.

Ellen was rinsing dishes at one point during the party, as she explained to Jennifer, and had looked out the window to see him standing there alone outside the house. He had his back to the house, said Ellen, and you could see by the way his shoulders hunched that he was breathing hard. Or crying, said Ronnie, or maybe trying not to. Maybe, said Ellen, but it was the first time I felt sorry for him. He looked so exhausted when they left, said Connie.

But what happened, asked Jennifer. Max said that he'd moved back in. Grace said that there been a pregnancy scare with the girl, and that it had really scared him, and he finally realized the risk he was taking. But Max said no, the girl had this old boyfriend, someone she'd been living with before, a guy who had refused to marry her right along. He reappeared, said Max, changed his mind or something, and she moved with him to another state. That's cold, said Sonya. Well, that's what single people do, said Ronnie, they look for the best deal. No, said Amanda, it's just that these things often fizzle out. Sonya agreed, saying that it's all well and good to sneak around, but when you're stuck with each other day after day, that's when you have to work to get along. At least it's over, said Ronnie.

What about the kids, said Jennifer. Nightmare, said Grace. Yes, said Ellen, there's a lot of talk about how their whole lives have been ruined. Their lives, said Grace with great sarcasm, their whole lives. They'll get over it, said Amanda. In a decade or two, added Jennifer, when they have their own problems.

God, said Connie. Do you think they're still doing it? Now? After all that? Who knows, said Grace, that's not a question I'm ever going to ask her. They probably are, said Amanda, no matter how angry they are. That sort of thing is like a near-death experience. It shakes you out of your own head, and you can realize that you really aren't going to be together forever, and that you're getting older, and that it's happening so fast. Well, said Ronnie, I don't know about that. I've never agreed with the idea of angry sex, and I think it would be unbearable to live with someone after all that. You just get over it, said Margie, the same way as always. You just make yourself get over it because the alternative is so much worse. How long does that take, asked Ronnie, but Margie just raised her eyebrows and smiled. Well, said Jennifer, at least she's still married.