I remember the day I lost, and she won. It was always going to be that way: a titanic, dirty, silent fight between me and her, and there could only be one victor. She knew, even though she didn’t say it until the day the evidence could no longer be denied. Deep down, she knew, and it drove the both of us mad.
The sun was out, it was too warm for a winter’s day. He was unstable, drunk in the morning. The night before had been the night she found out. The next day, we walked down the road, the two of us, in shock, and strangely at peace.
We went out to eat, like nothing and everything had happened at once. We ate a greasy breakfast special to ease our hangovers while somewhere else in the city, she raged.
“Fuck you! Thanks for fucking my boyfriend,” said the text.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. I meant it.
I remember the crushing guilt, and then the relief. It’s over, finally. I don’t have to lie anymore.
Some time ago, after she found out and rained hellfire on all of our parades, a friend asked me, “How does it work?”
A better question than, “Why?”
“Why?” is a pointless question to ask about infidelity, because it’s pointless trying to rationalise irrational behaviour. But I can explain how it works.
There is a real attraction, something so intense that it surpasses whatever morality governs why people stay faithful to each other. There is weakness in the relationship between him and Number 1, but he loves Number 1 more than Number 2.
But there is enough attraction between him and Number 2 to push the boundary between attraction and action, and so the line blurs. It’s a white lie here and there, at first. A “drink with the boys”.
Harmless flirting. Excusable, understandable, light-hearted “what if you were single?”. And then a real, hot, peel-me-down-from-the-ceiling kind of kiss.
And then it happens, drunkenly, messily, weirdly, regretfully. It becomes easier after the first time. The line is crossed now, so one more time won’t make it any worse. The first time turns into the second time, turns into a month, turns into feelings, turns into a choice between two women.
The stereotypes aren’t true, that the thrill of the secret is the engine that propels it, as if the secret was a sneaky piece of lingerie under your ugly hand-me-down tracksuit. There is no thrill at all, except the thrill of being together.
Cheating is a wretched business. It drove us all to the brink of brokenness. I wanted to tell her, out of guilt, out of spite, to punish him for not leaving her, out of a desperate need to be recognised, to stop being invisible. I didn’t tell her, because by that time I was a first class liar, and telling the truth would have required an admission on my part that I was doing something deeply immoral; introspection I was too selfish to attempt.
But if I’d told her, I would have said this:
That gut-wrenching suspicion you have had for some time, but put out of your mind because you trusted him, was spot on. He cheated on you.
I know this, because he cheated on you with me. I am the other woman.
The time he turned his phone off all day because his “battery died”, and something nagged at you, like maybe he wasn’t alone? That was me.
And the time he didn’t come home, told you he’d been too drunk to drive and stayed over at a friend? You thought he was being responsible and, even though you were worried, you breathed a sigh of relief. You shouldn’t have. That was me, too.
I am the deleted messages on his cell phone. I am his late nights and early mornings. I am the plans with you that he cancels. I am sometimes the smile on his face, sometimes the aching guilt that makes him seem distant to you.
I am your boyfriend’s lover.
Let me say upfront that this confession is another exercise in the extreme selfishness to which I have become accustomed. I need to process some of the guilt, and I’m doing it at your expense. But I also want to make you understand what is happening to your relationship, because the three of us will not survive this unless we accept some hard truths.
You are witnessing a relationship between two people. It happens all the time. You have not been laughed at or humiliated. You have been hurt and you have been lied to, but you are witnessing something quite beautiful happen between your boyfriend and me.
If it wasn’t for the fact that you are also in love with him, you would have been happy for us, even envied our connection.
I need you to understand the reality of human relationships. These are truisms, and frankly, you could use a dose of cynicism to be your armour in your next relationship.
Sometimes, love and hurt can coexist in a relationship, and trust and suspicion can take turns showing up, like in yours. Sometimes a relationship can exist and not exist at the same time, like mine.
To accept this is the only way to move forward for you. The picture in your mind of a white picket fence, a loving husband and a lifelong partnership is a fantasy. Your happy home doesn’t exist.
Trust me on this. I’m from the other side of fidelity. I bear witness to this truth. You’re never going to be the same after this, but you’ll be free of your unrealistic expectations of relationships. Welcome to the dark side. Thank me later.
Here’s the part that is going to hurt you the most: he pursued me. He loves you very much, but he actively sought me out. Try to imagine how frustrating that was, to know that the only reason things couldn’t be public about me and him is because he met you first.
Ultimately he chose you, but the reality is that you and I have one thing in common: neither of us was enough.
We could carry on forever this way, your boyfriend and I, if only I never had to see you. You make me burn with hot, black jealousy. You make me storm out of restaurants, bang doors and whisper “fuck you” when you hold his hand. Thank you for trying to incorporate me into your social circle as the lie that we were “just friends” went on, but I have no interest in torturing myself that way.
What he and I had was enough for me. I had enough care, enough sex, enough emotional support, enough affirmation. The only problem in my relationship was you, because to me, you were the other woman.
You must be wondering whether I feel guilt, or compassion for you. I do, sometimes. I know that this is going to tear your life apart, and I regret what I’ve done, and I empathise. I have been Number 1 before. I know how much you are hurting. I know your future relationships are already damaged because of what I have done.
I know all of this, and still, I care very little about you. I can’t care about you because I have found a way to cope with you by creating a wall in my mind that keeps your relationship with him confined to another reality. Cognitive dissonance. As uncomfortable as it is, it lets me convince myself that you are not real.
I’ve convinced myself that I need this more than you do, that you are better off without him, and I am better off with him.
Now that you know, you will have obvious, naïve questions. Let me be honest with you again, while we’re at it.
How long did it go on for? For about half of your relationship. Did he love me? No. How could he do this to you? With ease, actually. He simply wanted two women. One, he wanted a relationship and a future with, and the other, someone with whom it became too easy, and there wasn’t enough of a reason to end it – you weren’t enough of a reason to end it – so long as it was a secret.
Yes, you missed all the signs. But your greatest mistake was to assume that you could have all of him. You can’t have all of anyone. He or she will always, at some point in your lives, go away emotionally to indulge another part of themselves for a while. Maybe he or she will simply vacillate between these parts of themselves, these worlds that you can’t visit. Maybe he will leave and never return, or maybe he will simply hide these parts of himself from you, as your boyfriend has done. Either way, you will always compete with something to which he will give himself to from time to time: it could be his job, his family, his insecurities, his illness, or another woman.
And at that point you’ll have two choices: hold on tighter and demand all of his attention, or make peace with the fact that you simply can’t have all of someone, all of the time. I suggest you choose the latter, for your sake, and for mine.
I hope you recover. I hope you find love again. I hope you can forgive, but mostly, I hope you never have to experience the pain of being the other woman.