The Cowardly Cuckold
The day I found out she had cheated on me I drove around aimlessly before arriving at the early dinner to which I had offered her a ride. However improbably, I spotted them on a busy sidewalk just as my ignored call was put through to her voicemail. I couldn’t stop and stare from behind the wheel, but I didn’t need to glance again. Didn’t I recognize her pigeon-toed sway in the midst of any crowd? My heart tried to pound that instant of recognition out of my head, and my mind raced to suggest a hundred alternatives for interpreting the visual image that was now burning beneath my brow. But my capacities for self-deception were spent, and all that was left was an aching echo – she cheated.
I don’t remember dinner that night. I can’t recall if I tried to hide my emotions from my tablemates with boisterous laughter or vague lassitude. Either way, nobody noticed. When it was time to go I drove on autopilot, expecting to stumble wearily through my front door and up the stairs to lie silently in the floor staring at the ceiling fan. When I parked, I found I was not outside my apartment but across the street from my favorite pub. I sat for a moment weighing the prospect of a long night before I removed the key from the ignition and walked slowly to the bar stool closest to the door.
It was a Sunday and old-time music was rising from a fiddle and some guitars in the back corner. I let the music blanket me with that comfortable inability to be heard above the noise, an automatic buffer against chatty strangers who tend to congregate on bar stools. The bartender nodded at me in recognition and asked if I wanted the usual. I did – double Jameson neat. Unlike bartenders in movies who chat up the guys that look sad, this guy didn’t even raise an eyebrow as I quickly downed four in a row and asked for a Belhaven chaser. Maybe I didn’t look sad enough. I’m just glad he left me alone.
All that whiskey was aflame in my throat and chest before its embers began to glow in the pit of my stomach. I was trying to light a liquid backfire against the searing pain of betrayal that was threatening to sweep through my entire being and consume me, but the flames kept seeping into places where the alcohol couldn’t go. It gripped my gut with a burning fist and yanked out my emotional viscera to scatter in disarray at my feet as all the warmth rushed out of me. That’s when I realized I was one of those drunks – the kind who can’t quickly drink himself into numbness or anger or even unconsciousness. I could only resign myself to the mechanics of swallowing, the quick release of nausea in a bathroom stall, and the slow crawl through the interminable, insomniac night.
I never learned how to tame that burning. I found out that pain is potent fuel for feeding years of latent rage, and all of mine was suddenly focused on her. I wallowed in my pain, savored it and used it as a trigger to unleash the viciously vengeful impulses hidden behind my silently suffering demeanor. I ignored my grief and simply became aggrieved, carrying out a sometimes subtle, sometimes appallingly obvious smear campaign. We weren’t even together anymore, but I wanted to pull out any thread of goodwill toward her that remained in our circle. The worst part of it was that I didn’t even have the balls to confront her directly with the truth. Instead I tried to drag everybody else through the muck.
She was so graceful and contrite that my campaign eventually ran out of steam. No matter how hard I tried to paint her as a bad person, it always rang false. No matter how angry I was about what happened, none of the aspersions I tried to cast on her character would stick. After all, that’s why I dated her in the first place. Her sincere apology and unflinching acceptance of her momentary moral failure made it plain that she had been and always would be a person of deep convictions and even deeper humility. She just fucked up. Frustratingly, the verbal and emotional violence I directed toward her lost its force when it did not meet defensiveness and indignation in return. Looking back now, I’m thankful that our friends never had a chance to see her as anyone other than who she is, and my attempts to sow dissent remain to this day buried in forgetfulness.
I learned a lot about myself through that experience, about my weakness and my insatiable appetite for losing control despite knowing the abyssal letdown when the consequences begin to fall. More than that, I learned about my fear. I was afraid to confront her. I was afraid to confront my pain. I was afraid our friends would like her more than me. I realized that even in our relationship I had been afraid to face the reality that she was gone long before she left me, which almost made it like she didn’t cheat at all. How’s that for perverse logic?
It’s taken quite a bit of time to dig through much of that fear, but as I have I’ve found that the grief I tried to bypass still remains. I was reading a novel this evening that describes a gut-wrenching betrayal which is exponentially worse because you can feel it coming. Though I expected the devastating narrative turn, I was not prepared for the visceral reaction it elicited in me. As the author describes the main character’s reaction to being betrayed, I felt that fist in my gut again. There was no yanking or burning this time, but instead a slow leak of tears that had apparently been waiting for release like the anger before them. I want to say that crying about it was cathartic or cleansing, but I only feel weariness where the grief was.
Loving, forgiving and grieving require so much of us, not least of which is the requirement to choose them. It’s so easy for me to choose apathy, to drown everything in a self-medicating flood of booze, fried food, and fantasy novels. It is that ease that so often makes a coward of me. I have come to realize that I am scared to love again, and that fear has haunted every kiss since I saw her on a sunlit sidewalk with a stranger.