“It’s not cheating if your wife is there.” A chapter from Jesse Kornbluth’s new novel.
David Greenfield, a Manhattan divorce lawyer, goes to the gallery opening of Jean Coin’s photography show. They meet and talk briefly. A few days later, Jean makes a remarkable offer: She wants David to be her lover, once a week for six weeks, until she leaves the country for several months. He should say no. He does say no. But then he starts thinking about his marital history, and monogamy, and this strange and beautiful photographer….
Two years into our marriage, with our daughter still in diapers, I had an affair. I wasn’t overwhelmed by young fatherhood or turned off by a lactating wife. I had a “deeper” rationale—I felt it was crucial not to commit completely to any relationship; I thought it was soul-saving to keep a sliver of me for me. And, inevitably, I met a young, newly married lawyer at a conference who felt the same way. Hours after we met, we were having incendiary, bounce-off-the-walls sex.
I got caught because I was a fool. My lover and I collected the small bars of gourmet soap you get in better hotels. To use that soap at home produced a secret smile in the morning. And to see that soap next to the grocery-store brand that Blair used gave me a sense of abundance.
Yes, I was quite the sophisticate.
In a matter of months, Blair figured out something was going on. Holy hell followed and weeks of no sex, a punishment that punished us both. Then something surprising: a fresh idea, reality-based, looking a lot more like wisdom than the dull affirmations you find in the how-to-be-married guides.
What I proposed was this: If you’re tempted to stray—if you find yourself moving beyond an innocent flirt—you’ve got to stop and tell that person: “I have a partner who is the dearest person in the world to me. Cheating may be okay for others, but it’s not okay for me, not okay for us. So I can’t do this alone.” And then ask: “May I bring you home?”
Our theory—Blair immediately saw the logic, so I considered it our theory—is that any couple is a group of two. So is an affair. It’s just a different person who’s on the outside. But if you expand the circle, nobody’s left out. An infatuation that might have become marriage threatening is reduced to . . . an episode. A couple can then grow old together without hypocrisy or deception.
But here I was, considering a solo hookup with Jean Coin once a week for five or six weeks, a complete violation of my understanding with Blair. Not a misdemeanor—a felony.
Why was I about to do it?
When you’re justifying yourself, you always have answers:
I’ve been so good for so long, I’m owed.
My wife knows me, every last corner; I know her, in every possible way; we’re bonded. And while that’s thrilling, it’s also diminishing—I’ve become nothing more than half of a couple.
I’ve been feeling a pressure that needs relief, a pressure my wife can’t tap. I wear sunglasses even on cloudy days so I can check out the breasts of women walking my way. I follow any woman with an attractive ass, just to watch. If I don’t do something to relieve the pressure, I’ll start locking my office door, watching porn on my computer, and . . .
I’m not as hot for my partner as I used to be. I crave someone new. And I just happen to know who . . .
Those reasons are all the same reason, which is the punch line of this joke: Two guys walk into a restaurant. At a table, alone, clearly waiting for someone, is the most beautiful woman in the world. One of the men says, “Somewhere there’s a guy who’s sick of fucking her.”
I wasn’t sick of Blair. I didn’t crave a new thrill. I didn’t feel that years of fidelity entitled me to a no-fault affair. I had success in my work and stability in my home and, most of all, I loved Blair even more than I did on our wedding day—I envied my own life.
So why get involved with Jean Coin?
I told myself that Jean was a dream lover—a nomad in her work, a hermit in New York. A walking secret and almost certain to remain that way. Somewhere inside, there was a lonely, vulnerable person, but a short-term lover would never have to meet her. The boundaries of the relationship were the four corners of a bed. Once a week. For six weeks. Then gone, and goodbye. As I say, a dream.
This isn’t an explanation, and, looking back, I can’t recreate one. The best I can do: Something was wrong with me. I couldn’t name it. I didn’t want to think about it. But instead of doing nothing, instead of letting my distress pass, I took a step forward.
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Copyright © 2015 by Jesse Kornbluth. This excerpt is published by arrangement Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.