Early into my marriage, my father learned that he could no longer call me on the phone and start talking openly. If my husband wasn’t home when my dad called, I’d answer the phone and say, “Hey, I can talk.” And we’d talk about the divorce we both knew I wanted, or else I’d just cry while he listened, furious and helpless. But it was rare that I answered the phone this way. My husband was always home.
We shared the most stifling homes together: first, my junior year dorm room and then, during my senior year, an apartment in downtown Annapolis that was so tiny we couldn’t even fit our sofa through the front door. We had to move it in by dragging it around the back, smashing in the glass rear door of the vacant apartment next door, and pushing the sofa through that apartment until it was free to come through the other side into ours. These were spaces that were never meant to house more than one person.
That was my husband’s position: We fought because we were jammed in unnaturally stifling circumstances, like factory-farm chickens packed so tightly that they have to be debeaked so they don’t peck each other to death. I was only a year away from graduation, at which point we’d have a second stream of income that would allow us to upgrade our space. This apartment and the fights for which it was responsible—all that was temporary. Soon, we’d move on to better things. “Tell your dad not to worry,” he’d say, which I never did.
My friends were sympathetic, but all of them put together didn’t have the resources I would have needed to leave and live alone. Plus, it would have cost me a couple thousand dollars to break our lease and put down a deposit somewhere else. Once, after a particularly bad fight, I attempted suicide. In the hospital, I knew no one would be able to see me outside of visiting hours; such was my desperation. But during the hospital visit, I was foggy and sad. When I got home, I was furious with myself. I’d wasted the last precious time I’d likely ever have to myself when I could have been hatching a plan.
In the end, I didn’t set the wheels in motion to end our relationship. Or at least it didn’t feel deliberate at the time. One day, serendipitously, my husband was too sick to join me to see a friend. I went alone, and the friend, whom I’ll call Jake, confessed his interest in me. Under any other circumstances, I likely would have shot him down, but I was starving.
The sex alone was nothing to write home about, but the whole assignation was an unprecedented hours-long span during which I felt free. Most of the time, I had nowhere to go and no money to spend when I got there. I had no option but to spend my free time with my husband, in whose presence it was difficult to imagine a future free of him. I was less thrilled by the physical act of infidelity than by the freedom it had rented for me. At Jake’s apartment, I could call my father and speak candidly to him, and I did.
“Hang on,” my dad said a few minutes into our conversation, during which Jake had put on headphones and was bobbing his head to some music. “How long can you talk?”
I barked out a laugh. Nothing was particularly funny, but a year of the nervous energy that characterized my marriage was bubbling up through the cracks any way it could. “I can talk all day,” I said, and then, still laughing, I started to cry. Jake peered over at me and hurriedly looked away. “I can talk to you all day about anything I want.”
When I got home to my husband that afternoon, I was blissed out. “Hope you’re feeling better,” I said.
Some well-meaning people want to know why I cheated and didn’t leave, and other even more well-meaning people understand why I didn’t feel like I could leave but still think I shouldn’t have cheated. I understand. And to an extent, I agree. It’s not a kind thing to cheat on somebody; it isn’t respectful. When you cheat, the other person has an understanding of your relationship that you’ve secretly decided you no longer share.