The night he found me I was standing in my kitchen wearing a plaid nightshirt that screamed “Mom” eating peanut butter off a spoon. It was 2:00 in the morning.
A safe, predictable 2:00 am: baby tucked in tight and husband snoring soundly. It had been years since 2:00 a.m. had been anything other than this; years since it had seen me sneaking through the backdoor with runny mascara and no shoes, the taste of gin and cigarettes still on my tongue.
My cat—who had awoken me with his constant mewing—repeatedly bumped his head against my ankles as I stared at the Facebook friend request. One friend request from a high school flame I thought of often: confirm or ignore. I quickly hit “confirm friend request.”
Within minutes, a messenger notification popped up on my phone. Although I knew answering the message was dangerous, I did not imagine it would lead to a month-long whirlwind of emotional and sexual texts culminating in a tryst that made me face long-suppressed realities about my 15-year marriage and identity.
The first message from John asked, “What have you been up to?” I gave the routine answer: college, marriage, work, and child. I made things sound better than they were, as had become my MO.
How could I tell him, or anyone really, that I struggled everyday with the fact my husband had pressured me into having a child? What would happen if I spoke honestly about what it felt like to be married to a man I allowed to call all the shots in our marriage? These questions terrified me.
My life had become a regimented, well-structured response to the problem of a pot always on the brink of boiling over. I planned familycentric weekend activities (The farmer’s market! The zoo!), took elaborate baby photos (look at her in a carved-out pumpkin!), and filled my days at home with enriching, Pinterest-approved developmental baby activities (Sensory bags! Crafts! Books!).
I did all this while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in a graduate program. The picture my Facebook page painted was of a happy mom, wife and student.
But it was a well-curated lie of omission. The picture of the happy family at the pumpkin patch didn’t show the frequent and intense fights that often erupted over the very existence of the family at the center of the photo.
While my husband wanted a child, I remained a hold out in the twilight years of our 30s. My husband’s emotional manipulation and sloppy birth control use resulted in a pregnancy I felt deeply conflicted over.
I knew I wasn’t ready for motherhood, but I let my husband’s tide of desire drown out my misgivings. This was a pattern in our marriage. He wanted to move a state away from our family and friends. We fought. I gave in.
I had a low-paying job I loved. He was surly and hateful until I quit for a better paying job. I felt isolated as a stay-at-home mom. He said daycare kids were not as well cared for as a kid that stayed home. So, I stayed home, keeping a careful watch on the pot.
It didn’t take long after reconnecting with John for the pot to boil over. Our first messages were of the innocent “catching up” variety. John discussed the recent break-up of his 12-year relationship and I provided antidotes about life as a stay-at-home mom. However, there was a crackling energy to our communication that took me back to the time we dated when we were 17.
We grew up on the same street and harbored crushes for the other. There was always a deep sense of understanding between us. He was smarter than anyone I knew. Also, unlike my friends and family, he was interested in the books I loved reading and, even at a young age, had a philosophical bent on life. We could talk for hours.
The rhythm of this old connection quickly permeated our conversations. John still attracted me with his intelligence, wit, and sharp sense of humor. Within a couple of weeks we were discussing our history. I admitted I loved him when we were kids and he said he imagined growing old with me. We recalled a steamy make out session in my basement.
Our comments became flirtier; I called him “Choirboy” for his reluctance to made advances toward me and he casually mentioned I was pretty. Two powerful factors underscored our flirtation: an intellectual attraction I had never experienced with anyone else and an emotional bond that made me feel deeply heard.
After talking to John for a few weeks, I finally gave voice to my fears about my marriage, opening up to someone for the first time about the resentment I felt toward my husband and the corrosive impact it had on my love for him.
John didn’t encourage me to end the relationship. He was an advocate for working on the marriage, especially for the benefit of my child. However, after weeks of talking to John every night for hours I could no longer ignore a deep sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with my life.
My marriage was crumbling and had been for a long time. Perhaps the most powerful impact of reconnecting with John was the person he helped me recall.
When I dated John I was a smart, engaged, ambitious person who loved literature and writing. I planned to write books and firmly believed dreams could be realized. Over the years of my marriage I lost pieces of this identity as I gave more and more of myself away to my husband’s demands and dreams.
While John could be extremely flattering and seductive—telling me things like “your mind is sexy as hell” and “no other girl I met could fill the void you left—” the most powerful thing he texted me was, “I’m listening.”
The intense, personal interest he took in me allowed me to bridge the difficult years of my marriage to the time before I began giving pieces of myself away. John provided me a map back to the girl he knew. Did I want to be that girl again?
Of course not. I wouldn’t trade the wisdom and experience of years for the glory of youth. But I did want to live up to her potential; I wanted to rescue her dreams from foreclosure.
Several weeks after beginning my emotional affair with John, I shared these feelings with my husband (but did not tell him about John) and asked for a divorce. The following week I left for an extended weekend away at a relative’s.
At the end of the weekend, I met John for a date. We had been sexting all weekend, as well as sending texts that alluded to love. He told me he was “falling quickly” for me and may never want to let me go after seeing me. Needless to say, expectations were high.
As with most fantasies—and make no mistake there was a very real element of fantasy to our connection—reality held mixed results. Things moved quickly. We spent about 10 minutes having mundane conversation followed by sex that, while not awkward or bad, may best be described as distracted.
At some point during the encounter I thought, “My marriage is now truly blown up.” I realize such a thought should cause me guilt or shame. However, all I felt was relief: relief I could finally acknowledge my marriage was over and I was somewhere within the remains.
I made the five-hour drive home after leaving John’s that night. As I drove into the city, I marveled at how pretty the skyline was in the early morning hours. It was almost 2:00 am. And here I was sneaking in backdoor, the taste of gin and cigarettes still on my tongue. Nothing would ever be the same.
The day after I returned home John sent me a brief text saying he thought of his ex while he was with me and wasn’t ready for a relationship. He called our date a “fail.” I spent a few days angry at him and feeling a bit foolish for believing he was attracted and connected to me, as well as for developing genuine emotions for him.
However, I soon realized this experience went beyond whatever I imagined existed between us. Would it have been better for me to end my marriage without sleeping with someone else? Yes. Should I have needed to reconnect with John in order to acknowledge these truths? Maybe not. Does life unfold in a simple, straightforward line? No.
As I now move forward and recreate my life, including embracing motherhood on my own terms, John will always be a lesson, a gift and a caution. I hope I never become so lost again, but, if I do, I now hold my own map. I’ll find my way.