The Year I Drove Around With “Character” Carved in My Door.

cheating husband_by denharsh_flickr

John Espinosa Nelson tells the story of the year he drove around with “F%*&ER” carved into his car door, and what he learned in the process.

A whole year! Couldn’t go anywhere without catching people’s double-takes and obliging demands for backstory. This is what my “get character or become one” philosophy  is made of. I didn’t have the character to resist cheating on my girlfriend, so I became—for about a year—the jerk with “FUCKER!” carved into the door of his Jeep Cherokee.

At the time I had no idea what any of it meant, other than that I’d been caught and my girlfriend’s response was excessive and crazy. It took a while for me to get a clue. But from that year behind the wheel my biggest takeaway turned out to be a giveaway—and you’re reading it.

Cheating is one of  those dummy-moves that convinces you it’s not a mistake: if you’re getting away with it, you’re good at it! Cheating is practically its own trophy and I had myself convinced I was smooth despite having no say whatsoever in luck or timing or chance. I believed I always had the right answer and left a clean communications trail. Also, I could account for my finances and work hours and had a ready menu of traffic-related alibis. The reality was I lacked the emotional intelligence, simple ethics, and courage to disclose my desire to leave the relationship. I dealt with it in the lamest way possible: making room for the other woman—for 15 months. Neither was aware of the other.

When it all came crashing down I didn’t see it as my fault, especially since it wasn’t the result of anything I’d forgotten or failed to prepare for. I’d been wronged by a meddling former roommate who had decided to rat me out for my own good, but all I saw were his actions, not mine.

In fact my “sorrow” was so devoid of any internal examination that it took me a year of humiliation and explaining “FUCKER!” for any of it to form a reflection. In that likeness I saw everything, just not all at once and not in one place. It was spread way out and spared no amount of awkwardness.

So there, beneath my window, was a well deserved caption left to the interpretation of anyone reading it. Pedestrians, parking attendants, panhandlers, all three Pep Boys, and dudes delivering pizzas; bicyclists, blondes and beggars; my neighbors, my friends, my mechanic, my family, and my boss; car-wash guys, cops, contractors, garage-sale crowds, students, hipsters, the girlfriends of my buddies, and anyone at fast-food windows #1 or #2—every damn day for a year.

She used a Wusthof boning knife, so her mark wasn’t going anywhere. Because she’d carved so deeply into the sheet metal, the managers at One Day Paint & Body and Maaco Collision Repair laughed out loud, rounding up other employees to come look at the trench I foolishly hoped coats of paint would fill and conceal. And when I say laugh out loud, I mean they were crying and wailing with pleasure.

Getting caught cheating cost me a lot more than just my girlfriend and the companionship of the woman with whom I was having the affair. I was forced to be alone, which remained uncomfortable until it wasn’t; at which time I vowed never to put myself through such disillusionment, guilt, and castigation again. If I never cheated on another woman as long as I lived, I decided, it would be because I deserved to feel better about myself. Any future girlfriend would benefit from that, but my self-respect would come first. I didn’t want to cheat or be a cheater: It was official—I deserved better than that title.

But as far as dealing with the car door, toward the end I became a real pro:

I was called to the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood for example, for a small writing job. Mid-day parking on Sunset is worse than pus oozing from an infected hole on your arm, so I’m happy that I’d been encouraged by the project’s producer to use the Fancy-Schmancy valet. I roll up, and up walks the debonair attendant to decorate my otherwise presentable Jeep with a $35 valet ticket I don’t have to pay for. Score!

I have stuff to carry, so when he opens the door for me I’m genuinely appreciative, but the look on his face is a mix of embarrassment and disbelief. He even points as if perhaps I’m unaware that my car says, “FUCKER!”

“Oh-yeah, that,” I say, reaching for my phone and sunglasses. “Don’t cheat on your girlfriend.”

His eyes got wide and he covered his mouth. Me, I kept going. The story behind the “engraving” had become a matter-of-fact measure with a daily role to play in my life. I had learned to own it so it would stop owning me. In so doing I gained even more than character: I earned back the respect of the girl who carved the word into my door.

She loves this story, by the way. Her name is Jill, and she and I are better friends today than we ever were lovers or partners.

As for my Jeep, the last time I told this story with my hand on its door was the day I traded it + some cash for a fixer upper classic muscle car. The buyer didn’t seem to care and was impressed with Jill’s work. ”Look at how big it is!” he marveled. “She took her time!”

“Don’t cheat on your girlfriend.”

I don’t want to come off all sanctimonious (not that I could with my track record), but I’m pleased to say I’ve never cheated on another woman. The lesson I learned remains applicable elsewhere in life too.

This post originally appeared at Where Excuses Go to Die and is an expansion of a story found in John Nelson’s memoir of the same name.

Photo: denharsh/Flickr

About John Espinosa Nelson

Award winning author, speaker, and native Angeleno, John Espinosa Nelson writes about character, the funhouse mirror of American culture, and the excuses we all make. His sarcasm can be like a farm tractor, pulling readers through dirt, growth, and life. His take on personal evolution and what it means to “get character or become one” are the basis for his irreverent memoir, Where Excuses Go to Die (available in bookstores and online through Highrise Press). Check out and say hello on Twitter @defcon_john


  1. Dina Strange says:

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing!!!

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that apparently he learned something from all of this and that the two of them are friends now. I do find it a bit immature to deface a person’s property though, and there is a double standard there because it is generally accepted if a woman does that but a man would definitely be seen as scary if he spray-painted “whore” or “fucker” on a woman’s car. I’ve been cheated on in a marriage while pregnant, and subsequently endured a rash of inflammatory emails from the other woman, and I still had enough maturity not to resort to defacing anyone’s property or participating in harassment. Why? Because I knew that doing things wouldn’t solve the issues anyway. It might make you feel better briefly but what has it really solved?

  3. Very good post. There is no reason to cheat, ever. You have 100 other options besides cheating to solve whatever problem you have with your partner. Cheating has everything to do with the cheaters character flaws and nothing to do with the faithful partner. It also about having respect for your self as well as others.

  4. Dawn Sunshine says:

    Yes, what she did was wrong … but before we call her abusive, when it was more of a criminal retaliation … let us look at the lack of laws in this area. In this country you can emotionally abuse and hurt someone deeply without consequences unless you are married. In many countries it is still legal ground to kill or hurt the other considering it a “crime of passion” … No, I am “not” saying that is right at all … I am saying the pain and emotional consequences that it can cause someone entering an agreed upon “relationship” should be legally bound so partners can’t abuse each other this way. Right now emotional abuse is considered illegal, but unlike physical abuse or rape, extremely hard to prosecute but yet considered “more damaging” psychologically. That is the hard truth of our culture. (yes I’ve worked in advocacy/volunteer work for abuse victims).

  5. You still sound like a little boy who got to spin a funny (to him) yarn about something naughty he did once, as if it were all about YOU. Yes, don’t cheat on your girlfriend, don’t lie to your friends, be courteous & kind to the people you love, pick up your trash, don’t pee on the floor. Basic decency. It’s not a fad you try on for fun. It’s about deciding what kind of man (person/human being) you want to be in the world.

  6. I’ve actually changed my mind on this a little bit.

    If she vandalized his car and then she willingly accepts the appropriate legal and social consequences of that without making excuses or trying to avoid responsibility, then I don’t have much to criticize about it. Most of my disgust at her vandalizing his car was the suggestion that she was entitled to do it or that she should not be held accountable for doing it. If you do the crime and accept the punishment, then I can’t really demand more than that.

  7. Uhh, is anyone else really bothered by the amount of people reading a story about someone who manipulated and lied to his partner for over a year, probably causing pretty traumatic emotional damage no matter how ‘friendly’ they are now, and then saying the girl is in the wrong for trying to teach him a much needed lesson simply by telling everyone the truth?

    It might be overreacting if it was a onetime thing, but it wasn’t. It might be overreacting if their relationship was going through a serious hardship, but I don’t think that was the case either. Anyone who says “cheating is its own reward” should probably not be in a relationship to begin with. They should also probably be in therapy.

    • No, they are saying the girl is in the wrong for vandalizing his property, which is not only wrong but is actually a crime.

      • Exactly. Being cheated on is not justification for destroying someone’s property.

        • wellokaythen says:

          I agree, at least for items of more than token value. (Putting one of his ties through the shredder seems okay to me, for example.) It’s especially bad in the case of a car, because we’re also talking about damaging a person’s ability to make a living, their means of escape, or their ability to travel safely. Damage a car in some ways and you actually make the car more dangerous to its driver. So, property isn’t just property.

        • Dawn Sunshine says:

          In some countries, actually, killing or hurting your partner is justified … a crime of passion for cheating because of the psychological damage. Is what she did legal? No … do I feel bad for him at all – NO … until we have laws where we can prosecute those who hurt us in this manner, these things will continue to happen. What he did was emotional abuse.

        • John Anderson says:

          Nor is cheating a crime.

    • wellokaythen says:

      “trying to teach him a much needed lesson….”

      The problem is that this is the way that bullies think. They think they’re justified in their vengeance because they convince themselves that lashing out is “educational” somehow. The cheating partner probably thought he was “teaching her a lesson.” In fact, just listen to what it sounds like if someone wrote this:

      “trying to teach her a lesson.”

      That sounds like a total asshole bully thing to say, and we ought to call out ANYONE who talks like that.

  8. He decided to leave his car damaged not because he thinks it’s appropriate for women to shame men by vandalizing their property, but because he realized that the attention it attracted was prompting him to do some self-exploration he’d otherwise have found excuses not to do. His article was about that process–not about the potential benefits of having your car vandalized in retaliation for cheating.
    He decided not to pursue criminal charges or a civil action for the damage to his car because he didn’t want to spend any time thinking about her and what she did wrong and how she can be better–he wanted to focus on himself.
    Should she have vandalized his car? Absolutely not. But whether to press charges or seek compensation was his call. His car, his relationship, his priorities. He didn’t owe it to any of you to “do something” about his ex’s behavior or “send a message” that it’s not okay for women to vandalize cars because they’re angry. If it happens to you, you can make a different decision.

    • John Anderson says:

      True, but whether to pay for the damage she did to his car whether he sued her for it or not is entirely her call. So does that make him a better person than her?

  9. No question about it what both of you did was wrong and the fact that you cheated on her doesn’t justify damaging your property despite some of the comments are trying that it does.

    And besides the fact that she did this might mean you’re better off without her anyway.

  10. wellokaythen says:

    I recently saw a country music video all about a jealous woman who takes a baseball bat to her boyfriend’s jeep. I couldn’t help but think there’s a definite gender double standard to that.

    Look at the following two sentences and notice how different they sound, even though they really shouldn’t:

    1. He took a bat to his ex’s car.

    2. She took a bat to her ex’s car.

    The first one is usually treated as evidence that a man needs to be locked up because he’s a menace to society. The second one is usually treated as something humorous and/or he deserved it anyway. Both these cases are anger management problems and maybe even a kind of domestic violence. Or, if one of these is an act of an abusive person, then BOTH are.

    I’d also add that this double standard is pretty patronizing towards women, as if their anger is comical and their “sugar and spice” is really no threat to anyone. As if an adult with a bat can only hurt other people if the arms are male.

    • Doesn’t it matter why he/she took a bat to the ex’s car?

      I would think it makes a big difference whether it’s an expression of anger at a particular act, like unfaithfulness, versus stalking or trying to intimidate or frighten. If the message is “You’re a jerk, now get out of my life” it’s one thing; if the message is “I’ll destroy your ability to get out of this relationship, that’s another story.

      And yes, it can go either way for both sexes.

      • John Anderson says:

        @ glen

        “I would think it makes a big difference whether it’s an expression of anger at a particular act, like unfaithfulness, versus stalking or trying to intimidate or frighten”

        But does that make one of them right? Many people believe that both are wrong. Maybe then they should both be punished just not to the same extent.

      • wellokaythen says:

        Sure, the reasons may make a difference. (Though I’m having trouble imagining defensible reasons for attacking an ex’s car, unless they’re trapped inside.)

        I’m saying that the chromosomes of the person swinging the bat should have no bearing on how we treat the case. Anger, muscles, bat, car, violence. Those are the key elements, not whatever’s between the legs.

    • Don’t worry! My ex smashed the trunk of my car (resulting in it not closing and now leaking) when I told him I was going to counseling that afternoon, then another time when I tried to get birth control from planned parent hood he punched the radio so the lights don’t work, punched my door so my window doesn’t roll up and broke my visor. And you know what? PLeeeeeeenty of guys think he behavior was A-okay 😀 (I personally thought he was going to murder me and leave my body in the woods because, hey, why else would he be driving down this long desolate road we’ve never driven down before? Intimidation! Yay!)

      • Would you get more help dealing with it as a guy or a woman? Legal,emotional support, help lines, counseling are all more readily available to you. Currently, abuse is much more likely to be condoned if perpetrated against a man in “western countries”. Many times it even considered humorous…….and reflective onto the victim yet not the perpetrator.

      • John Anderson says:

        @ EM

        Sorry to hear that. I hope you pressed charges. Restraining orders sometimes don’t work, but every cop I’ve spoken to especially in the case of women tell me that you should ensure you have a paper trail to protect yourself.

  11. wellokaythen says:

    I love the photo of the car with “hope she was worth it” spray-painted on it. It plays to my smartass personality — I would leave that on my car and underneath I would write “She was.” Don’t ever mix sarcasm and graffiti.

  12. Anytime your friend/roommates rat you out about cheating, it is because they want your girlfriend either overtly or covertly. I do not condone cheating but telling on your friends like this is not the type of friends I would keep anywhere near me. Loyalty is everything!

  13. Hi John Espinosa

    What you say here sends chills down my spine:
    ✺”Cheating is practically its own trophy “✺

    It is admirable to speak up when your borders are violated and your trust abused.
    But violence agains property or people is not the way.

    Both men and women sometimes take revenge by spreading rumors about the other, that’s not acceptable behavior either.

    What to do in situations like this, other that show how you feel, ask him why it happened and end the relationship or marriage if his answer is as full of lies as his behavior.

    ASK WHY it he had a fling.
    Somehow I feel this guy needed a shock treatment to open his eyes, but there must be better ways to make a person understand he is totally messed up.

    • I completely agree!!! This guy is a sociopath who lied and took advantage of his girlfriend for over a year, and who even went as far as to brag about how well he orchestrated the illusion so that she never caught on.

      ” If I never cheated on another woman as long as I lived, I decided, it would be because I deserved to feel better about myself. ”

      Oh really? And not because of HOW HURTFUL IT IS to ANOTHER PERSON? Not ONCE does this guy feel any real guilt or display any ability to think of anyone but himself. I’m honestly glad that his girlfriend did this – apparently it’s the only way to get through to someone so clinically emotionally immature, and honestly I’m not even sure it was all that effective in the long run.

      And joe- did it ever occur to you that maybe your friends are also friends with your girlfriend and feel she has a right to know she is being screwed? Not because of their own selfishness? What about your straight female friends? They might tell her but not be interested.

  14. Being publicly shamed is how a man is supposed to develop character? Would engraving “Slut” or “whore” into the door of a cheating women be appropriate behavior. Scarlet letter days?

  15. Don’t get distracted by the sideshow, people.

    Guy writes an article about how wearing a scarlet letter provided him with a chance to develop character; you all get in a twist about the car and the carving. You don’t eat the parsley. Just leave it politely on the side of the plate and enjoy your steak.

    • John Anderson says:

      So is shaming then the best way to go to correct behavior? So we should publicize the names, pictures, and addresses of women seeking an abortion? That should teach them to use birth control responsibly.

      • Why do you consider seeking abortion a behavior that needs “correction”? Unless you are replying to a different comment than the one you intended, your comment is peculiar.

        • John Anderson says:

          @ glen

          Not abortion, correcting the improper or negligent use of birth control and / or lack of family planning, which calls into question whether they are having sex responsibly. If a person has an abortion (and it’s not rape or incest), they haven’t taken adequate precautions to prevent a pregnancy. Would routine shaming of people having abortions have a positive affect on a couple’s use of pregnancy prevention methods and if it did, would that justify implementing it?

    • The sideshow is much more telling about gender roles then the steak. It’s also more filling.

      • To all the people saying this is public shaming and that his girlfriend was at fault, it’s kind of ridiculous to compare enjoying sex (slut), women seeking abortions and being raped (as if you could deserve such a thing!) to someone who cheated on his girlfriend. Your examples are controversial issues that are debatable (and rape, which is not a crime, raping is a crime, duh); cheating is universally evil behaviour that should be shamed.

        Also, vandalizing a car is not violent behaviour and she only did it once (she wasn’t harassing him). I’d think her behaviour was overboard if she did that just because he broke up with her or because she had suspicions of him cheating on her or she was so jealous that she got mad about him having female friends, but this isn’t that kind of psychopathy. He did something really shitty and she did something really shitty right back.

        • So revenge is okay as long as there some approximate equivalent?

        • John Anderson says:

          @ Genny

          “nd rape, which is not a crime, raping is a crime, duh);”

          So is vandalizing a car, duh. It’s called criminal damage to property for a reason.

        • “Also, vandalizing a car is not violent behaviour”

          Wrong. Destroying someone else’s property is commonly regarded as a sign of an abusive personality.

    • wellokaythen says:

      There’s obviously a thin line between shame and pride. I’m not so sure driving around with that on his car is all about character building and shame. I detect a little bit of pride as well. (Which is what happens in the original _Scarlet Letter_ story — Hester feels shamed but also a kind of self-respect from wearing the letter. Feelings are complicated.)

    • Spot on, JimG…

  16. Laurie A. Couture says:

    Violence is never acceptable, no matter in what form. If the woman doesn’t want to be with the man, she can leave, not shame him. Infidelity speaks to the relationship, needs unmet and early childhood trauma and poor attachments. I would never treat someone I loved this way even if I was the victim of infidelity.

    • Why assume that monogamy is normal?Why assume that infidelity means there was childhood trauma?Lying is wrong but people do it.Stealing is wrong but people do it.There are many common “sins” that people commit everyday.We are flawed.I am certain people who have never experienced any of the ills you mentioned,cheat.

  17. Christopher says:

    I own body shops and, easily, next to normal traffic accidents, the next most common incident is women vandalizing cars… of either sex. I had one woman who had her car vandalized 4 times by the same woman over an affair. It got to the point when I saw her face I knew she needed 4 tires, and a complete refinishing. I asked how this woman was not in jail, she said the police could just never prove who did it.

    • But then it is a cultural issue, a semi-sanctioned method for women to express their displeasure with men or romantic rivals. Jail a bunch of them, the same way as a culture we act towards men’s acting out……just avoid the normal sentencing discount that applies to women. Treat the behavior just as harshly as you would if it were a man.

  18. Maybe should just reskinned the door? Allowing this behavior to go on without “official” sanction or payment to repair the damage, just encourages/allows her the “right” to act out if she has similar issues with the next poor schmo .

  19. There you go men.
    Perhaps it would be good if part of your basic education was how to fix/repair/preemptively maintain stuff, all KINDS of stuff, rather than relying on the invoices of “experts” who apparently excel only at laughing.
    The danger, of course, is becoming known as “that guy” who can “fix”/repair, (or at least cobble) anything.

  20. I want a picture !
    Also to trey, criminal charges yes, restraining order no. She didn’t harass him. Also he accepted his punishment that was his choice. Perhaps it would of been seen different of she was a he, but I remember when I cheated on my ex bf and If he had done it to me then I would accepted that ‘ punishment ‘ to. As long as the bf didnt harass me

    • John Anderson says:

      @ Natty

      Punishment if it was deserved. Revenge most likely. Most people have a hard time reconciling violence as being deserved. How about breaking up with him? A lot of victims don’t press charges. We’re continuously told that most rapes go unreported. Does that mean that the victim accepted it?

  21. Why no restraining order? No criminal charges? It’s Funny how differently it would be looked at with the sexes reversed.

    • Yeah, I was just thinking that.

    • Why no restraining order? Because he can go about again blame others when really he is facing his consequences of his actions… Jill will go ahead and hopefully learnfrom this experience how to positively react…. You can get restraining orders etc.. they are a mask to a problem… Facing consequences head on.. that’s where emotional growth comes in.. it takes courage to own your mistakes.. and this man is far beyond courageous… He’s found strength to ask and go for what he wants in his life rather than settle… He’s entered a rare group of men.. he’s become quite a catch now!! If we all can face our actions rather then focus the blame on others..

      • John Anderson says:

        @ sarb

        “Because he can go about again blame others when really he is facing his consequences of his actions… Jill will go ahead and hopefully learnfrom this experience how to positively react…”

        First, not filing charges doesn’t mean that he couldn’t learn or change from the experience and would probably have been the responsible thing to do. If Jill learned from the experience, she’s just as likely to have learned that if someone hurts me, it’s OK to react violently. Unless I missed where she apologized or offered to pay for the damage.

        I broke up with a woman and she tried to claw my eyes out. Violence ain’t cool. I hope he didn’t leave that for someone else to deal with.

      • Because he can go about again blame others when really he is facing his consequences of his actions…
        Um no so that he and his property are safe from her.

        It sounds like you’re conflating “protect himself and his property” and “take responsibility for his actions”.

    • Yes, he could have filed criminal (or civil) charges, but you seem to misunderstand what a restraining order is. To obtain one, legally, someone would need to threaten or physically harm you (not your property), or repeatedly harass, stalk, or threaten you. No court would issue a restraining order simply because someone vandalized your property one time. If Jill had repeatedly harassed or threatened John, he would have been well within his rights to obtain a restraining order.

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