Relationships are complex, like a beautiful and intricate spider web. Or a straight jacket. Here’s how I ruined one. Unlike Newt Gingrich, I’m not blaming my patriotism.
From the time I was young my life has resembled a Tori Amos song.
I rarely talk in detail about my first marriage. Not so much out of reverence, but because fifteen years after having said “I don’t” I’m still not able to process what happened during the six years that I did.
The basics are this: two completely broken people–19 and 20 years old–thought that being together in their miseries would beat being alone in them, so they took the plunge. Then, they spent the remainder of their time together–and some of the decade and a half since–torturing each other with mostly slight unkindness but, sometimes, outright cruelty.
But this isn’t the story of my first marriage. This is the story of my first, and only, affair.
Around my twenty-third birthday, having just had my first child, I began to grow listless. My husband, baby, and I lived on a tiny military base on a tiny island in the Pacific. The only people I had contact with were other military families, but it was hard to get close to anyone because we were all perpetually in one of three states of transition: coming, waiting to hear where we were going next, and going. And all of the wives seemed so happy, so content with their tiny lives, so busy being married and making babies and cooking and cleaning and leaving the house only to go either one block to the commissary or a few miles to church, which was in town, both just once a week.
I was neck-deep in my eating disorder and slipping under fast. My whole life consisted of caring for my child and covering up my problem. The walls were closing in, my life was closing in, and I had no one to talk to.
Then, I got a job. It was no big deal, really, more like hanging out at the combination base gym and bowling alley (two lanes!) and getting paid for it. I was in charge of ensuring that everyone signed in and that no one left sweat on any of the machines (two Stairmasters, two rowers, a few weight benches) or goofed around on the alleys. But, I was out of the house, and I can’t tell you how huge that felt. A woman who lived across the street watched my son, while I worked.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that it’s not a great idea for a person with an eating disorder to work at a gym. I was permitted to work out while on the clock as long as I kept an eye on things. And I did–from the comfort of the Stairmaster. For hours and hours every day I climbed the staircase to nowhere until I looked like a bobbleheaded version of myself: all noggin, no body.
And I met people while I climbed. I’d hear the door open and catch my breath just enough to holler “Sign in on the clipboard on the desk, please!”, then wait to see who appeared in front of me. People would come and go, climb on to the Stairmaster next to me, talk for a few minutes, then set in to sort of silent synchronized climb with me. The difference is, they would leave, but I would keep climbing.
After a while, I noticed that the same man was coming in at the same time, nearly every day, to climb with me, and I started to find myself looking at the clock when that time drew near. I’d stare at the mirror-lined walls and make sure my hair wasn’t too plastered to my face with sweat and my mascara wasn’t too drippy. If I needed a touch up, I could do that while climbing, too. I was a monster.
What started out as a daily exchange of pleasantries soon turned to more personal conversation. At home, I’d hear nothing but mean things about my appearance, my weight, my intelligence, my homemaking skills (like I said, I was no angel, myself), but this man complimented me. He said I was smart. He said I was pretty. He most decidedly did not seem to think I was fat. After a while, he asked to see me–outside of the gym. Eager to continue hearing these things, I agreed.
We only carried on for a month or so, before word got around. I hadn’t told anyone, but it was a tiny place. Maybe somebody saw us together, maybe he couldn’t keep banging someone else’s wife to himself. I don’t know. But my husband confronted me, and I denied it. Because if there’s something that improves your relationship after infidelity, it’s lying.
Then, my husband confronted him with the oldest trick in the book, saying “Look, I know you’re sleeping with my wife.” The man broke down, saying he was sorry and that he never meant for it to happen. My life fell apart. I was forbidden from leaving the house, except for trips to the commissary (this was also partially because I didn’t trust myself to not screw everybody I met). I spent nearly every moment apologizing and sucking up to a man who had never been nice to me but now displayed outright contempt and called me names, constantly. I was angry with myself for having done it. I was angry with the man for sweet talking me and then not being strong enough to keep our secret. I considered killing myself to end the pain of being a complete failure at marriage.
There’s this thing in military law (or at least there was at the time, I don’t keep up) that says you can’t have sex with another soldier’s spouse. No, really, it’s a law. My husband took my lover to court and had him discharged from the military. I tried in vain to see him before he left, then I begged his friends for his phone number so I could apologize. Or tell him I hated him. Or loved him. But they all discouraged me from contacting him and told me to just go back to my husband and let it be.
Not long after that, my husband told me that the man had died. Apparently, he had gone back to his home state and been involved in a drunk driving accident that killed him instantly. The story had been relayed to my husband by the man’s best friend who was still stationed with us. My husband revealed the details slowly, never once looking away from my face, his eyes were small and cruel and he dared me to show any emotion. He delighted in telling me that the man got what he deserved.
We stayed married for two more years. Two years I spent crying, and apologizing, and agreeing that I was the worst human being on the planet and he was the best for sticking around and keeping our family together. We even had a second child.
I guess this is the story of my first marriage. Or at least the part where the seams began to show. I’m convinced, now, that I purposely ruined everything. I was not strong enough to leave the life I hated, so I burned it to the ground. It was wrong, and cowardly, but the truth is it was made of kindling anyway. Hey, Tori, I think I just wrote your next album. Call me.