In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The first time the married man tells you to kneel and wait for him, you are at home in your pajamas. He is at work, and his text arrives over your phone: how fast can you put on a sexy outfit complete with shoes and unlock your door and be kneeling silent in your apartment when i come in.
Terrified, or excited, or both, you do everything he says — black heels, halter top, hands held at your sides, heart banging on the curved bars of your ribs. When he comes in, he kisses you all over, then grinds your face against his crotch. He pulls your hair and drags you across the floor. You climb onto the bed wearing heels.
You don’t take them off until I say so, he says and climbs behind you. Then he snakes a hand around your mouth and whispers softly into your ear. Tell me to stop, he says. Beg me hard.
The words burst out of you. Stop. Please stop. I don’t want this anymore. It feels like praying. He doesn’t stop. It is everything you’ve ever wanted. You are electric, ashamed.
At some point that first night, he reaches down between your legs, and his hands come away speckled with blood. You aren’t on your period. He stops instantly.
Are you OK? he asks.
Did I tell you to stop? you ask. You won’t meet his eyes.
You won’t use the safe word. You won’t.
When you look up the French roots of the word affair, you see it comes from the verb afaire: what one has to do. It seems appropriate: sometimes you have a choice; sometimes you don’t.
The day you met him, a voice inside your head said, Here he is. This is your person. It felt like destiny, like you didn’t have a choice.
But you didn’t know he was married and his wife was four months pregnant.
Here is how it starts: you are just friends. You work together in a psychiatric ward — you’re in administration, and he counsels patients. You eat lunch in the staff room and trade stories about growing up in the same town. You go out for dinner with other co-workers; you rate Simon & Garfunkel albums; you text each other about the TV show Flight of the Conchords. On slow days at the hospital you joke around. Months pass.
One night, after a late shift, he walks you back to your apartment. His wife is at home with the new baby.
Won’t she worry if you get home late? you ask.
He shrugs. She’ll be asleep, he says. She’ll be dreaming when I get home.
He walks you to your door, and something between you feels different. There is a long hug on your porch before he leaves.
The next time he comes over, after another night shift, you sit together on your couch and talk about work, and sadness. You live in a tiny attic apartment with secondhand furniture and still feel like a student even though you’re thirty-one. At one point he reaches over and tugs on your hair, but you don’t move, don’t blink, don’t say anything. He is married. He flirts with everybody. He loves his little girl.
When you go to get some water, he sneaks up behind you and puts his arms around your waist. You wiggle away and hand him a glass and sit down on a chair instead of the couch. The minutes tick by while you talk about how disappointed you are — in your job, in your life, in the book you are writing — and how angry you are with yourself for being disappointed. He is an excellent listener.
Then he says something — you can’t remember what — and in response you find yourself moving back beside him.
You resist for a while. You say: You should go. You almost escape.
Suddenly you are kissing.
You are not sure exactly when it happened, the realization that living a God-filled life was no longer enough. After your book came out, perhaps. After you discovered that working hard and keeping the faith doesn’t guarantee anything. Writing hasn’t made you feel less alone in the world, and neither has believing in God.
Once upon a time you were a good person who wouldn’t have dreamt of kissing a man who was married to someone else: What God has joined, let no (wo)man tear asunder.
What about his wife, this woman you’re hurting, even though she doesn’t know it? She texts him all the time. He calls her at 7 PM when he’s working the night shift so he can sing their child to sleep.
You think you might have liked her under different circumstances. You could even have been friends.
Your husband, you would say to her. You might want to keep an eye on that one. I don’t know that you can trust him.
What you would mean, of course, is that you can’t trust yourself. Who knows what you might do next? Maybe this married man is only the first, and the next won’t be as hard. What if you get married? Will you always be a cheater? Will those you love never be able to believe you?
Your heart has become hardened to the suffering of others. Tonight a patient came into your unit because she was depressed. She is well-known on the ward — a former sex worker with borderline personality disorder. The last time she’d been on the unit, she’d shit on the floor in front of the nurses because they wouldn’t let her out for a cigarette.
“I’m suicidal,” she came in saying. And you almost said, If I had your life, I’d want to kill myself, too.
What have you become?
Here are some reasons you are attracted to the married man: The brightness of his eyes. His humor. His smile. He’s more patient than you are, more balanced, more at peace with his place in the world, and so much more daring. He sends you racy text messages that you delete right away and then regret deleting so that, months later, you spend fifty dollars you don’t have on software to retrieve them. Half of the text messages are gone anyway. You wonder if this means that he deleted his replies. Is he trying to cover his tracks? Is he also ashamed?
More than this, though, you appreciate how he listens to you and seems genuinely interested in your life. He read your book’s online reviews and scoffed at the person who gave it only one star: Clearly that idiot doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When you went away to a writing conference, he researched it and asked you all kinds of questions about the people you’d met.
You aren’t shy when you’re with him, and you’re shy with almost everybody. Beside him you feel beautiful — your feet, which have troubled you since childhood, are normal, you do not limp, your scars from those surgeries disappear. You’ve never had sex with the lights on before.
Here is what you do not have with the married man: Dinners together in public, lunches in public, any kind of meal in public. Longer than two hours together outside of work. Waking in the morning to the sight of him, bleary-eyed and rumpled beside you in bed. Holding his hand when you’re walking down the street. Once, he kissed you in the foyer of your building, and you worried about it for days: Had anyone seen? It must have been so obvious.
What you will not have with the married man: a date, a wedding, a child, a life.
He texts you: do you have any toys?
I have a vibrator, you fire back. And a creative disposition.
A few days later you go out and buy lacy underwear, velvet rope, a riding crop, and a flogger. The next time he visits, you blindfold yourself and spread the toys out on a blanket. He flicks you with the flogger first — not nearly hard enough. He wraps a hand in your hair, takes the crop, pulls you to the bedroom.
What do you want me to do? he asks. I am giving you an opportunity to tell me what you want.
I want you to consume me is what you want to say.
But what you say is that you want him to fuck you until you scream.
You don’t scream, even though you want to. He comes in your hair and then leaves.
For two months in the winter you do not see him outside of work. You convince yourself that the relationship is over — he’s grown bored, or maybe his home life is better. Maybe it was never bad to begin with. And then one afternoon he texts you: are you home?
You are getting groceries ten minutes away. Seven, if you walk fast. You text him back: Can you wait? If you can’t, that’s OK.
By the time you get to your apartment, you are sweating, and your legs feel heavy, as if you’ve been hiking through deep snow. You vault up the stairs, drop the groceries by the door. He is already inside. He climbed your fire escape.
Do you want anything? you ask, but you’re reaching for his jeans, his zipper, slipping his briefs down so that he’s in your hands now, warm and alive. The two months without him disappear.
When you tease me at work, he says a little later, when we’re laughing — I want you up against the desk. I want you over the chair. I want you to beg me until you don’t remember what words mean anymore.
You love when he talks dirty, and you hate yourself for loving it. You hate him for leaving you alone for two whole months. You don’t hate him at all.
You love the way he threads a hand through your hair and pulls until it hurts. You love when he pushes you to the floor.
But what you love the most is when you see that softness in his eyes, when the mask slips, when he hugs you after weeks apart, and you think maybe he’s afraid. Maybe he fears that you will tear him from his life.
Are you the kind of woman who could do that?
Repeat after me: He is not going to leave his wife.
He is not going to leave his wife.
When pop singer Zayn Malik left the boy band One Direction, physicist Stephen Hawking offered the following consolation to millions of grieving teen fans: My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics. Because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another different universe — and in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.
The possibilities are what keep us going.
Like you, the married man was raised Catholic. One night the two of you run through the Ten Commandments and see which ones you’ve broken. At least you haven’t killed anybody.
Unlike you, the married man never really believed in the Bible, even though he liked the stories.
Religion is interesting, he tells you one day, because people are interesting. It’s like a massive key to people’s hearts and minds.
You marvel at the truth of this even as it makes you uneasy. You were the first girl in your church to don the altar server’s robe. You flirted with the idea of becoming a minister. You hungered for God and denied other yearnings: no sex before marriage, no love without God.
If you are honest, you envy the married man’s way of dividing the world into neat compartments: God and people, husbands and wives. That first night at your apartment you asked him if cheating on his wife made him feel guilty or sad.
Well, he said, I’m just sociopathic enough to make that not matter as much as it should.
He isn’t a sociopath. He’s funny and sweet and kind and a little nerdy (much like you), and, when you are down, he knows just what to say.
Other people you work with find their way into his office, sit across from him, and tell him about their worries and their broken hearts. He listens to them, and everyone seems to leave feeling lighter.
You’ve never seen him upset or frustrated or sad. Beside him you feel like a child thrashing about in a calm sea.
But he is also a cheater.
You ask him when he started thinking of you as more than a friend.
I knew I was going to fuck you the first day I saw you, he says.
When you hear this, you remember that small voice in your head that said you were meant to be together.
Months later a good friend of yours points out that his answer is actually a pretty shitty thing for someone to say.
At some point you realize how naive you used to be, how easily you believed your dreams would come true, that hard work and faith were enough.
Better, perhaps, to have tempered your dreams; to have been a little more afraid, a little more unsure.
When you’re married, he tells you, you get to a point where you don’t have sex as much as you used to. He has only been married for three years. What he doesn’t say here, the words that you fill in: I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
He doesn’t want his wife to find out, which you suppose is steadfast and loyal in its own way. But at the same time he is protecting her heart, he is setting fires all around it and waiting for it to burn.
This, too, shall pass, another friend tells you. She says it without knowing why you look like you are about to cry. It’s just a phase, you tell yourself. It will blow over. It will all be OK.
You don’t want to hurt his wife and daughter, even though you already have. You don’t want to hurt anybody.
But there is something inside of you that wants the truth to come out.
When you were twelve years old, your aunt and uncle met at a basketball game. Your aunt later told you that, after the game, she went home and heard a voice just before she fell asleep.
You will marry him, the voice said. And so she did.
Growing up, you longed for something like this to happen to you. You wanted the light of God to come down from the heavens and anoint your beloved. You wanted to be absolutely sure. How could one bear to get married if one was not absolutely sure? How could one possibly do it?
Your aunt and uncle are divorced now. It did not end well.
When you were fifteen and very churchy — dutifully attending Bible study and Catholic Mass — you knew that you would be happily married at twenty and one day have five children. You wouldn’t have sex until you got married, you weren’t going to drink, and you would fast and abstain and purify your soul through prayer.
In your twenties it all began to fall away. You stopped going to church. You fell in love with unavailable people. You had sex for the first time.
And now you have plunged headlong into an affair.
You wouldn’t recognize that fifteen-year-old anymore if you passed her on the street.
You think about suicide a lot during your months with the married man. The thoughts are fleeting but insistent — a fantasy you’re probably too chickenshit to see through.
Still, at night — after he has pushed you onto the floor or into the bed and covered your mouth so that you can hardly breathe; after he’s been rough, but not rough enough to make you say stop; after he comes and slides away from you and pulls on his clothes and hugs you hard and leaves; after you’ve showered and are alone in your quiet house — that’s when the thoughts come. The voices in your head are incessant, and they keep on talking into the daylight, even into the moments when you are laughing with your friends.
Sometimes when you walk down your street and smile at your neighbors, you want to scream the words out loud, just so someone else will hear them: I’m having an affair!
You don’t scream. You don’t talk about it. You don’t even think about seeing other men.
Repeat after me: Do not have an affair with a married man.
Do not have an affair with a married man.
One time, when he comes over, he shoves you to the floor and fucks you in the ass and then slaps you across the face.
Again, you say. Again, again.
He hits you so hard you feel your lip split, your skin puff up and rise. You are crying now, and still you keep on saying, Again. Again. This is the only thing that he will give you anytime you ask.
He stops. His eyes look fearful. Are you sure?
Yes, you say through the sobs and the blood on your lip.
He pulls away. I think we should stop. Go get yourself cleaned up.
As though it were your fault, all of it. And maybe it is.
Are you asking for this because you think you deserve to be punished?
It takes weeks for your mouth to heal completely. When you speak, you feel the wound opening again, a fluid leaking onto your chin as though you were drooling. Or crying.
You believe in God. You don’t believe in God. You can’t make up your mind.
Your co-workers in the psych ward spend part of an afternoon discussing, in all seriousness, the ways they would kill themselves. Someone tells you about an anesthesiologist who put potassium chloride in a bag and hooked up his own IV. You file it away and think, Maybe later.
The married man tells you an anecdote about someone who overdosed on a motion-sickness medication, and you think, That’s my way out, right there.
When you check your diary, you see that the conversation on the first night went like this:
You: There’s no way that this will end well.
Him: Well, no. Not for you. Because it can only be physical.
Didn’t you sign up for this right from the beginning? You screwed around with someone you knew you couldn’t have. Why, when it’s falling apart in exactly the way you envisioned, are you surprised?
Do not have an affair with a married man if he says it can only be physical.
Correction: Do not have an affair with a married man, period. Just do not do it, no matter what he says.
Maybe the idea that his love for you could grow — just like yours has for him — is a delusion.
Or maybe the delusion here is that you think you are in love at all.
He talks about his family so much, yet he is still coming over after work to have sex with you. Why? Is it just the sex?
Of course it’s just the sex. It’s sex with no strings! Biology, plain and simple.
Or maybe he does care about you and still thinks occasionally of what it would be like to leave his wife and child behind and create a life with you.
Maybe he cares about you but not enough to leave her. Maybe he cares about you a lot and is wretched. Maybe he is a sociopath. There are so many possibilities, and you’ll never know the truth.
One more time: You don’t want to hurt anybody, but sometimes you want the world — his friends, his family, his wife — to know that he is not who he seems to be.
But, then, is anyone? Don’t we all contain the universe?
You, for example, have just spent the last year and a half having sex with a married man. Three years ago you were still a virgin. And now here you are.
For the five weeks before he leaves, he can talk of nothing but his new job — a job without night shifts, a job that is better for the family. He’s so excited. His wife will be much happier now that he’ll come home at a normal time. He’ll have his own office with a window. He might even get a business card.
He is still occasionally coming over to have sex with you.
For the five weeks before he leaves, you are insufferable — snappish, touchy, aflame. Most nights you walk home from work alone and sob over the sink while brushing your teeth. When you aren’t crying, you try to remind yourself that you had a life before this person came along. Weren’t you happy at times? You can’t remember. You hardly sleep or eat. You wake up at three every morning and feel panicky. Four more weeks until he leaves. Three. Two. One.
At work you burst into tears at your desk and leave early, claiming to be sick. It is only half a lie. Everyone — maybe especially the married man — seems worried.
I’m fine, you babble. Really. I’m just tired. Someone offers to call you a taxi. Embarrassed, you refuse.
He texts as you walk home: if you need to talk let me know.
Thanks, you text back. Maybe later.
What you really want to say is Please follow me. Come over. Stay for a while.
It will end eventually. For this there are no maybes. One night you and he have sex on your cold floor. You don’t know it yet, but this is the last time: his hands around your wrists, your fuzzy striped pajama pants tangled around your feet. You want to kiss him, but you don’t. At some point he slaps your face but not too hard — it doesn’t hurt at all — and you think how much you want him to kiss you, how much you want him to hug you and bring you back to bed and climb in beside you and stay there, even though he is already leaving, already gone. The words you want to say but can’t: I love you. I love you. I love you.
For many months, every time you hear his first name, you feel sick.
His first name is not uncommon, so you hear it a lot.
You tell yourself you deserve all this pain and more. Because what you are feeling, right now, is a fraction of what his wife would be feeling if she knew.
What you are feeling is a fraction of what his wife would be feeling.
Sometimes we are more than we think we are; sometimes less. Sometimes it is possible for a man to love his wife and not want to leave her but also to want to have sex with someone else. Why have cake if you can’t eat it?
Sometimes it is possible for a woman to fall in love with a man who is married. You are not as strong as the girl you once were — she would never have had an affair — but you aren’t helpless, either, and neither is he. It is one of the biggest surprises of your adult life: sometimes terrible things don’t seem as terrible when you’re up close to them. Sometimes they even seem necessary.
At the end of your last book tour, before the affair, you visited an island in Scotland called Iona. Every night you went to Mass in the historic abbey, and afterward you ate tea and cookies with the people in the community. One man talked to you for a long time about taking pictures on a beach.
“The sea and the sun and the clouds were so beautiful,” he said, “that I couldn’t stop clicking my camera. But when I got home and looked at the photos, they all seemed wrong. I had tried to capture every angle of light, and instead I’d captured none of it.”
This made him understand, he said, that we cannot hope to capture anything in life. It is best just to let go and see what comes to you instead.
When you visited the beach, you collected handfuls of speckled green stones that dotted the sand. The locals called the stones mermaid’s tears. The legend goes like this: Once there was a mermaid who fell in love with a young fisherman. But because mermaids do not have souls, the fisherman could never marry the mermaid. She prayed to God each day to give her a soul. Each night she would come ashore and sit beneath the fisherman’s window and wait; and each morning, when she realized that God had not answered her prayer, she would return to the sea crying, and the tears that fell onto the beach became the stones.
You filled your pockets with them. The stones were so pretty — smooth and shimmering, flecked with bits of white and darker green.
The married man and you were just friends then, nothing more.
When you unpacked at home, you saw that the stones you’d gathered were mostly white and beige — not green at all.
One of the last things he says to you is This has been a difficult situation for both of us. You can see in his eyes that he feels guilty and terrified and sad. Maybe he, too, wants this love that he can’t have.
It seems inconceivable, but you will get past this eventually.
The first time the married man comes to your home, you watch him look around at your attic space, and even though he doesn’t say it, you feel hints of his sorrow. He loves his wife and daughter, but maybe he also yearns for freedom.
You want to say: This is not a good idea.
And here you are, the two of you, in this moment before you become more than friends. Before anything happens. Before anything breaks. You won’t realize the value of what you are losing until years into the future, the universes that could have been and won’t be anymore.
I think you should go now, you say — to yourself, to him, to no one. I think you should go.
Claire Halliday’s essay “The Possible Universe” [September 2016] was infinitely more interesting than the pieces you typically run. Your decision to print it was gutsy and surprising. Halliday’s essay also makes a fine point: Why would any woman have an affair with a married man? Even if she convinces him to leave his wife and family, she’s getting a cheater.
I look forward to the flurry of protest mail you will receive.
I was dismayed that readers in your December 2016 Correspondence came away from Claire Halliday’s essay “The Possible Universe” [September 2016] with only the sense of it as vulgar or erotic. I found much more in it than that.
As a woman who has had an affair with a married man, I found it more realistic than many pieces in your magazine. I’m glad Halliday was brave enough to talk about things few writers will. Some of us need to hear them to know we are not alone.
In your December 2016 Correspondence, reader Jennifer P. labeled Claire Halliday’s “The Possible Universe” [September 2016] as “erotica.” I can’t say I’ve shared Halliday’s experience, but I’ve been close to women who were sexually abused and humiliated. It upsets me that anyone would think of this as erotica, which implies it might be titillating. I believe most men would not find Halliday’s essay erotic. I am loathe to think of anyone enduring what she did and am heartened that Halliday was willing to share her experience, as it may help those with similar histories.
I was disappointed in your selection of Claire Halliday’s “The Possible Universe.” Vulgarity is everywhere these days; why add to it? Please cancel my subscription.
You printed Claire Halliday’s “The Possible Universe” with no trigger warning of its content. It caught me off guard and sent me into a tailspin of memories and anger.
It’s a free country, and you can choose to publish whatever you want, but a simple disclaimer would have let me know what was to follow. Instead I read the first paragraph and felt the bile rise in my throat. I closed my eyes and was back in the situations I have struggled to move on from my entire life.
Erotica has a place — a place I choose not to visit. You took away my choice. I would like my subscription cancelled.
Though some of your readers were upset with Claire Halliday’s essay “The Possible Universe,” I’d say she achieved what she set out to do: show what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship. As someone who has been in abusive relationships, I found it painful to read. It wasn’t just about sex, as some readers seemed to think. It was about the author’s self-destructive need to win love from someone who is unavailable.
In the December 2016 Correspondence two people wrote in to cancel their subscriptions because you didn’t warn them there was explicit sexual content in Claire Halliday’s essay “The Possible Universe” [September 2016]. Sigh. I am going to order a subscription for my sister. We both realize the world is a difficult place and that the best writing may make us feel uncomfortable from time to time.