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Some things take time
I have been working on organizing my old poetry to make it available on a website again. I had some infrastructure for this already in the form of a very old semi-private blog that I used to post draft poems. There I used a word cloud of tags to flag various themes and allow navigation to other poems with the same theme. I wanted to retain this functionality in the new more public-facing version.
There are a number of words that jump out of that word cloud (or will, once I finish adding poems to the site). Some won’t surprise anyone who’s ever read any of my poetry. Things like “love,” “heartbreak,” and “past” have been themes since I first started writing 34 or so years ago. Others like “L.A.” and “writing” are newer, but no more surprising. One word in the list, however, gave me pause.
I could omit the word cloud and introduce some other form of classification. I could use the tags and just not use that one, even for the poems it so clearly applies to. I could simply accept that these poems are, mostly, a decade or more old. The events that inspired them are nearly two decades past. Once I removed the duplicate drafts of poems I worked on repeatedly and culled out the poems that simply didn’t work, would the word even jump out of the list? I could probably build the page as planned and just leave the tag in with the rest without comment. Maybe nobody would notice.
I could, in short, continue to tell the story obliquely, let it be defined by its edges and its aftermath.
The word is “adultery.”
It’s a story that at times felt like it defined me and it’s a story I didn’t feel like I could tell, because to tell it I had to give away someone else’s secrets.
I have always been fine giving away my own secrets. I find it safer not to have them. Or maybe this is a lie. Maybe I just find it safer to hide them in plain sight. Either way, my writing has, since the beginning, been confessional, maybe even self-indulgently so. Back in the day I was nothing less than the epitome of the target audience for livejournal.
Given that, I suppose it is not fair to say that I have not told the story. As it was happening I told it all the time. Those were the days that livejournal was my connection to the world. I told the story there in shadowy pieces, in desperate gasps, as I tried to staunch the bleeding of my broken heart. I told it in person to people who would never meet the other party. I even told it to B. on our first date (thus making all the subsequent dates and close to ten years of living together that followed a minor miracle). But somehow, despite those tellings, it has felt at some level like a secret I had to keep.
I am not going to name names (or even use initials as has been my usual practice when discussing real people on the internet in places where I have no control over the audience) but I am also not going to make any particular effort to disguise anyone’s identity. After twenty years the risk of harming anyone besides him or me with my words is low and, I think, some secrets aren’t worth keeping. If I learned anything, it was that I needed to be free to speak my truth.
Even if I commit to claiming the story as my story and telling it, it’s still hard to find the right words. I’m not sure he’d agree that we had an affair. I certainly don't think he would have described me as the other woman or his mistress or his girlfriend (certainly not that). I learned, years later, that our ideas of what constitutes “sex” differed so I’m not even positive he’d describe me as a friend he had sex with a few times.
This is what I can say for sure. When I was 25 I fell in love with a man who had a partner, two kids, a house, and no room for me in his life. He squeezed me into its margins anyway. We saw each other twice a month at meetings for an organization we were members of and often found ourselves talking endlessly in the parking lot afterwards. We talked on the phone. We exchanged emails. It’s almost incidental that a few times we found ourselves naked in my bedroom. Except, of course, it wasn’t incidental. And by the end I sometimes wondered if my heart was irreparably broken.
I should stop here and take some responsibility for my verbs. We did not just happen to find ourselves so entwined. We chose to be there. Both of us. He made the first move but I made a conscious choice (considered over a few weeks after having pushed him away initially). I have never had any great commitment to monogamy. I think it must be intuitive, instinctual, for some people but it never has been for me. So from my perspective the fact that he had a partner wasn’t a problem. The problem was that he’d made promises to her that he’d be breaking with me.
I rationalized my choice with the argument that it was him that had made the commitment and him that would be breaking it. It was up to me to have integrity in my relationships and up to him to have integrity in his. I wasn’t the first of his dalliances (and I’m sure I wasn’t the last). So I figured if he was going to be cheating anyway, there was no particular reason it would be worse if it was with me. In short, I was 25 and I wanted what I wanted.
Twenty years later I still see the logic of those arguments, but the thing I didn’t understand is that you can’t have integrity in a relationship built on secrets and lies. Even if his relationship with her was none of my concern, his relationship with me was. And it was doomed from the outset.
Actually, I think I actually understood that part. I knew from the very beginning that I would fall for him and I knew that I would end up with a broken heart. By the afternoon that he tried to kiss me I was already falling for him and I knew that wasn’t going to end well no matter what I chose. I felt like my choices were a broken heart with sex and a broken heart without sex. Put that way, what would you choose?
If I knew then what I know now, would I have made the same choices? No. And I’ll never make that choice again because I never want to hurt like that again.
The thing is, I didn’t know then what I know now.
I didn’t know that the broken heart of unrequited love is different from the way your heart breaks when caught in the yo-yo of affection from someone who seems to worship you when he sees you and forget you when he doesn’t.
What I did know was that I wasn’t supposed to love him. I tried to hide it. At first I was able to lie to myself about it, but I was drinking too much in those days and I don’t lie well when I’m drunk. Not even to myself. Eventually I accepted two truths. 1. I loved him. 2. The moment so much as hinted at that to him it would be over.
I swallowed my love. Tried to hide it because if I didn’t, I’d lose him.
I remember one fight we had where he wanted to know why something bothered me so much and I almost blurted out “because I’m in love with you, you asshole,” but I wasn’t ready to let go so I clamped my mouth shut and shook my head and hid my tears instead.
My love became a festering wound.
And then I decided I was done. I said the words and I was free.
It’s important to me to tell that part of the story. He’d tell you that he pushed me away. And he’s not wrong. He pulled away from me the way I knew he would.
But I made the choice. I was ready to walk away. I was ready to heal. I was ready to tell the truth.
It took time, but eventually I did all three.