“Is Polly there?” I began when a woman answered the phone.
The first few times I’d asked this question, my heart had been tangled in my esophagus, sweat sprouting at my temples. But this was the sixth woman I’d called, so I’d calmed down a bit, already anticipating her. “I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.”
Across the line, there was a pause, and the voice continued. “Well, there is someone here by that name.” Her confusion was rom-com adorable. “But she’s a cat.”
The heart-esophagus-tangling phenomenon surged, and I instinctively pulled the phone away from my ear. I knew that I had found her, that the woman on the other end of the line was my boyfriend’s other girlfriend.
For a while, I’d suspected that my boyfriend might be seeing someone else. My underwear did have some prime real estate in his sock drawer and he’d dutifully chatted up my dad over sea bass and lobster egg rolls at Atlantic Grill when my parents visited me in New York, but we’d been together nearly a year and still only saw each other a couple days a week on very specific days. And though he had taken me to his house in the Hamptons for weekends of red wine and sand-filled flip-flops, I’d begun to notice that it never happened on two consecutive weekends, and that there was a hearty lag time to his responses when I tried calling during those off weekends.
He always had an explanation — a big project to edit, a big client to entertain, a big tennis/golf/squash game. It all sounded wonderfully reasonable at first. But it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was the one being played.
And then, his cat disappeared. He’d been out of town for work, and the first morning (after our first night together) of his return, I noticed a decided lack of cat hair on my clothes.
“Is Polly still at the kennel?” I asked as he got coffee creamer from his refrigerator.
“I actually didn’t board her this time,” he said. “She’s at a friend’s.”
In a fractured second, everything became strikingly clear: He had another girlfriend, and she had the cat.
“Are you seeing someone else?” I asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” At once he was twitchy, ice blue eyes bouncing from the Splenda packets on the counter to something through the window, anywhere but on me.
Boyfriend’s denial bugged me a lot more than the actual idea that he was unfaithful. He was a lot older — just a few years shy of my dad — and he’d never misled me about where our relationship was headed; there were no false promises about platinum rings and baby buggies.
But even knowing things were temporary, I liked him a lot. I liked the way he didn’t casually dismiss my aspirations to be a writer. I liked how open he was with painful childhood memories of his mother’s death. I liked how he remembered little details about stories I told about girlfriends back in Ohio. In many ways, he was just a really good friend. And it’s a punch in the gut when you realize a really good friend is lying to you.
So I gave him another chance, asked him once more if there was someone else. A second time, he waved away my concerns with absolutely no conviction.
A better girl than me probably would have ended things over that coffee. Not stayed for a second cup. Not lingered over his bitter breath when she kissed him goodbye. A better girl than me most definitely wouldn’t have emailed herself the contact list from his computer while he was in the bathroom.
But the betrayal burned on my cheeks; it wasn’t right that he could not only step out on me but then lie about it to my face. There had to be some sort of comeuppance for this sort of thing, didn’t there?
I have a talent for mentally twisting things until they seem justified.
And I told myself that if I were the other woman, I would want to know.
Sitting cross-legged on the unmade bed in my own apartment, I searched his contacts for listings of single women. One by one, I called them and asked to speak to Polly.
And then I finally found her.
"Well, there is someone here by that name. But she’s a cat."
My resolve vanished. Mumbling something about a misunderstanding, I hung up. Even though it wasn’t, the phone felt heavy in my hand.
If I was right (or at least right-ish), shouldn’t there be some satisfaction in that? Shouldn’t I quit while I was ahead (well, behind)?
Though my reasons for reaching out to the other woman may have had more to do with that blaze of betrayal than altruism, it was true that I would have wanted to know if I were her.
So I called back.
“Hello?” the woman sounded less adorably puzzled and more frustrated.
“I’m sorry, I called a few minutes ago,” I said. “I know this is weird, but is Polly your boyfriend’s cat?”
The puzzlement was melting into downright annoyance.
I asked if her boyfriend was Boyfriend; she didn’t need me to explain.
Surprisingly, there actually was a moment of feel-good sisterhood. Since we’d both been suspicious about Boyfriend, it was a relief to have those notions confirmed — a sense of validation that we hadn’t been crazy or irrationally inventing problems.
We established that Boyfriend must have met us just weeks apart, and that he clearly had a type — she, too, was significantly younger than him and loved how he was supportive of her passion for design.
“I’m really glad you called,” she said, and I felt good too . . .
Until her questions started. Had Boyfriend celebrated Thanksgiving with me? Had he met my family? What did he get me for my birthday? Girl Power was gone, and I could literally hear how my responses were hurting her.
Still she wanted more. As if knowing the details of how Boyfriend and I met (a gallery show opening for an abstract painter) or the places Boyfriend and I had traveled (a New Hampshire B&B, with floors so slanted they’d bolted down the furniture to keep it from falling over) would help her.
She seemed to start a running tally: “Well I guess, I got him on Valentine’s Day, but you were the one he took to Massachusetts to meet his father.” This wasn’t sisterhood, but masochism. I wanted to hang up, but I was the one who had tracked her down, so I figured I owed her all those answers.
“So what are you going to do?” she finally asked.
Then I was the one confused. “Like, do you mean am I going to try to work things out with him? I stole his address book and called you, I don’t think that’s really an option for me.”
How in the world was staying with him still on the table for her?
“If you want to keep seeing him,” I added. “I promise, I’m out of the picture.”
Seeming to remember the sisterhood of the two-timed pants, she thanked me for calling.
“Would it be okay if I kept your number, in case I have any questions?” she asked. And I agreed, even though the thought of speaking with her again — listening as she heavily seasoned an open wound — was as appealing as dental work.
An hour later, my phone did trill. Not the other woman, but perhaps the only call I wanted to take even less: Boyfriend. I let it go to voicemail.
“You’ve been making some phone calls, I see.” His message was contrite and had this sort of whimsical nostalgia. “I guess I deserved that.”
It made me remember the reason I’d actually liked him in the first place: He was like a good friend, someone I enjoyed talking to. And then a part of me DID want to pick up. To find out if his stories matched the other girlfriend’s, maybe do my own tally to determine which of us had been winning.
But, even as flattened and bummed out as I was, I knew that confirming they’d met at a mutual friend’s party or that she’d taken him to her college roommate’s wedding wasn’t going to make things any better.
So I did what that better girl would have done in the first place, and let it go — let him go.
I never found out if the other girlfriend stayed or went. But I’d wager a weekend in that Hamptons house that, despite what she said on the phone, she would have been a lot happier if I hadn’t called.