Three years ago, my husband of 17 years started an affair with a young Japanese intern. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I’d always considered us the lucky ones. We had sex that was stellar, varied and memorable. We had great conversations. We’d loved and liked each other — until the moment he texted the girl who’d just flown into Tokyo on business and was getting settled in her room at their hotel: “Are you awake?”
The affair went on for five weeks until the young lady in question boarded a plane back to Japan a few weeks later. But after my incessant beating of the suspicion drums, my husband confessed that they’d intended to keep it up a month longer until her internship ended.
I started with the basics, winging and shattering his cellphone followed by his laptop, whose life ended cockeyed in a snowbank outside our condo in Vermont. Though my husband deleted the most damning correspondence, the leftover bits were plenty painful. No one can predict which remnants of information left behind will scald with a ferocity that continues to stun to this day. Over time, I strung what remained together into a timeline (through, at times, admittedly weird levels of sleuthing).
If you’ve ever watched slalom ski racing on TV, you’ve seen how the athletes’ descent is tracked simultaneously on screen, and eventually you can see where one starts to make mistakes and fall behind. I made the timeline to try to pinpoint where I fell behind in my marriage. What small mistakes echoed out to become the clarion call for a third person to join the party?
Our first therapist announced that she only accepted couples who wanted to work things out. And while agreeing to that was like putting a cigarette out on my arm, my husband’s chant was, “I’ll do anything to make this work,” and so trying became our tenuous way forward. I couldn’t fathom how to counterbalance a future together with a shame as big as the world — of being a cliché, of being compared, of being traded in for a woman whose prefrontal cortex was still in flux for another three years.
On confession day, I took off my wedding rings forever. My husband clung to his band, but once I pointed out that his ring had been elbow deep in some other DNA pool, he threw his ring in the garbage (and later fished it out because it protected our privacy as we bushwhacked our way forward).
The intern had gone back to Tokyo to graduate college, so there was no issue there. She admitted in texts to me that she’d used her youth and beauty as power over my husband. She told him that her seduction plot was really meant for the head of sales (also married with children), but he didn’t happen to go on the trip. So my husband was not only joining me as a stereotype, but had the bonus of being runner-up as well.
Now that our marriage was gasping for breath, we chose our therapeutic team wisely — one for him, one for me, and one for us (who could, thankfully, dispense drugs as needed). Two years in, I found temporary carbon rings for us both on Etsy. Retail price: $40. Commitment level: perfect.
As a couple, my husband and I have always coped by being productive. Since Kana, we’ve pretty much changed every aspect of our lives. My husband stopped working for the first time since high school. We up and moved to Miami, and looking for our new house was middle-aged porn real estate fun. The house came with a beautiful, unused pizza oven in the backyard, so my husband has become a bread baker.
One day I woke up wanting real wedding rings. On a lark, we went to Cartier and got matching gold bands. It was romantic and overwhelming. The saleswoman thought us sweet and said love must be in the air because just before us, a young Japanese couple from Tokyo had come in to buy a ring for the young woman. My husband and I couldn’t even look at each other. Later, when we talked about it, gallows humor prevailed.
Our new reality was always tapping us on the shoulder like that, right on schedule. How many movies had we rented over the past three years, only to seize up when the subplot involved a cheating man whose wife gives him the posthaste boot? It usually involves a scene where she throws clothing from a second-story window while stridently reviewing her self-respect — and all the other qualities that I apparently fail to possess because I stayed.
People who write about staying together after betrayals tend to gush about being closer than ever. I beg to differ. We were close before, and we’re close now. We’ve solved some problems and reconstructed a common purpose and culture — all with gobs of therapy. But I hold a sizable piece of myself in reserve. Not for any other plans, but because I must. The good days are often followed by deep emotional hangovers, and that’s when my husband knows to come looking for me at the bottom of the well. Shame still hides behind trees. It flattens out, back to bark, head cocked to one side listening for me.
When my husband bakes bread in our backyard oven amid the rustling of the palm trees and soft tropical nights, I ponder something I saw on an episode of Michael Pollan’s series Cooked. Of food scientist Bruce German, Pollan says, “He told me something I didn’t realize. That if I gave you a bag of flour and water, and you had nothing else to live on, you could live on that for awhile, but eventually you would die. But, if you take that same bag of flour, and water, and bake it into bread, you could live indefinitely.” Maybe my husband and I had the ingredients all along, but they weren’t mixed together in the right way to sustain us and prevent malnourishment.
After we bought our new rings, we went to celebrate over lunch at a little spot near Cartier. The young Japanese couple was already there. Can you beat it?