Just the three of us: my wife, her lover, and me.
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of ELLE magazine.
Three weeks after my wife told me she was having an affair, I decided to buy a pair of new pants. For a functional adult under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be much of an event, but I’d never been able to buy much of anything for myself—and all kinds of everyday actions had recently taken on layers of meaning. The last time I could remember buying my own pants had been in an emergency, when I discovered a rip in the seat of some raggedy khakis at work. Before the affair, I’d often worn pants until the cuffs were stringy and the lap was spotted with olive oil from eating salad at my desk; I had begun to muffin out of some of them as well. Sometimes my wife just threw my pants out and ordered new ones online—in black, so they would be harder to ruin.
I needed new pants because I’d shrunk. Almost as soon as I began to understand that my wife was having an affair and was imagining a whole new life for herself, I started to lose weight. That first week, I was mostly too confused to think about food. I started smoking again, which killed what was left of my appetite. At the same time, I also began to set personal records for push-ups, sit-ups, and distance running. The obsessive exercise was more a way to stay busy and burn off sorrow and anger than a conscious attempt to get in shape, but I lost 15 pounds, and all of my pants now had enough room in the waist for me and a box turtle. I had abdominal muscles for the first time since high school. My neck was thinner. My whole face looked pleasantly more rugged, maybe from the exercise of crying.
The physical changes were surprising, but the changes in my psychology were harder to explain. Walking into a small shop in Manhattan’s NoLIta to talk about pants with a younger, bearded salesman, I didn’t experience the familiar fear of being judged for trying on something too cool or expensive for someone like me. I wasn’t paralyzed by the terror that no pants would be just right—the same terror that, in other forms, had made it impossible for me to buy gifts for my family or shampoo for myself, to plan a date or vacation, or to decide what to make or order for dinner without calling my wife to ask. I also couldn’t pay our bills; do the taxes; make a budget; schedule appointments with my dermatologist, ophthalmologist, dentist, or barber; clean my glasses, fingernails, or ears without being reminded; do the dishes or, alternatively, keep my hands off my wife’s butt while she did the dishes.
With the salesman’s help, I chose a pair of khakis in my new size, more or less like my old pants but slimmer in the leg, in a lighter fabric, in a shade boldly closer to white than my usual beige. I was feeling oddly confident for a man still in love with a wife who, after 18 years together, had suddenly fallen in love with someone else.
One unusual thing about my marriage, which may explain some of its weaknesses as well as the odd blossoming that has taken place since it began to fall apart, is how long my wife and I have known each other. We met and became best friends immediately in the first weeks of college, before I had hair on my chest or knew how to pronounce Chianti, before she had a butt or, in my opinion, knew how to kiss. She was a little uptight but had a brutal wit that reminded me of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. I was an absentminded A-minus philosophy major who needed a dose of that kind of realism. She fell in love immediately, she says now, although she didn’t tell me so then. For a long time I didn’t want to spoil our friendship. The sexual tension was comically obvious to everyone. It mostly took the form of constant fights, but the fights sometimes ended in sex. After college, without ever “dating” exactly, we just started being together, quietly and with a little apprehension. Last year we realized that we’d lived through more than half of each other’s lives. We also realized that we were both unhappy and didn’t know why.
For two years, maybe more, I’d spent my mornings failing to write a book proposal, afternoons at my job as an editor surfing the Web, nights crashing early or waiting up jealously for my wife to come home, whole weekends napping on the couch. She was depressed and anxious, juggling medications and occasionally stricken by panic attacks. She was always telling me to do stuff that I never did. We made hasty dinners and found nothing to talk about over them other than what to watch on Netflix. Our most enthusiastic shared interest was Candy Crush. I mostly blamed work, which had become much harder for both of us—for opposite reasons: My career had slammed into a wall just as hers was bouncing up to a more demanding level. I also blamed the chemistry of our brains, and just getting older. I saw our relationship, in other words, as contaminated by all of our other problems rather than as a problem of its own.