What do you do when you know your friend has cheated on his girlfriend?
The fall semester had just wrapped up and I headed over to my buddy Andrew’s house because I had said we should go for a walk. The high of the day barely nudged above thirty degrees. No snow, but crisp, lip cracking winter weather. I planned to talk to Andrew about his writing and reading, but also tell him I had heard a rumor that he had cheated on his girlfriend by making out at a party, and perhaps having sex, with a woman in our graduate program.
Andrew and I are similar guys: Our folks live back East, we identify as Appalachian and Southern, and our heritage roots in West Virginia. We both have cats. We originally started off as writers of poetry. Both our last jobs were tossing pies at pizzerias. Our girlfriends work for traditional agriculture—for a farm and a nonprofit—championing organics and they are close friends.
As Andrew and I walked on a trail by his house, he pointed out the gnawed stumps of saplings cut down by beavers. In the stream we had just crossed on a bridge, Andrew pointed out the dam the beavers had created. On a larger tree, the bottom bark was gone. Andrew said that the beavers probably used the bark to clog up the spaces between the wood of their dam.
Andrew explained that beavers don’t live in dams like I thought. They create dams to foster fish. Small fish hide around things in the water so big fish can’t easily spot them; but beavers sitting on their dams just snatch any and all fish from above. I admire Andrew for these investigations and insights of the non-human world that he tells me.
As we looped back toward his house, I was thinking about everything I wanted to tell him as I stepped in a squishy mess. I didn’t try to wipe it off or figure out if it was mud or dog crap. I kept walking alongside Andrew.
“I need to talk to you about something as a friend,” I started. “You can stop the conversation whenever. But I need to tell you some things.”
“Okay,” Andrew said. “How about we turn around?”
I figured that he was willing to hear what I had to say. He probably already knew what it was. I told Andrew about the rumors.
“Well,” Andrew said. “First, I’ve figured out I’ve got a bit of a drinking problem. And I can honestly say I’ve got no idea if I did the first thing.”
I was glad to hear that it might not have happened, but I also didn’t believe it was fair to brush off one problem with another. I didn’t say this, though. I just nodded.
“But yes,” Andrew said. “I slept with her.”
“Oh no,” I said, even though I wanted to ask, Why?
Before I could question, Andrew answered, “Again, I was drinking and we were alone and it wasn’t a good situation and … .”
“Damn,” I said.
“That’s the first time I said it out loud,” Andrew said.
“Well, thanks for trusting me to talk to me about it,” I said.
We continued to walk further back. The trail dipped underneath the Union Pacific’s tracks. A train clacked into town.
I had considered hitting Andrew if he told me he had cheated. When he told me, even though he had betrayed our similarity, I didn’t hit him because it wasn’t a pattern. It was once. A mistake.
Still, his girlfriend didn’t know. He wasn’t sure when he would tell her. He said it wasn’t a good time.
I looked at a small steamroller parked on the grass beside a newly poured cement walk that connected the trail to another section by the university. Orange plastic stripes staked around the walkway fluttered with the light breeze picking up. Some sunrays cut through the cloud coverage.
I told Andrew that I thought he should tell his girlfriend. This was something he was covering up and he was building more of his relationship on top of it. I said, when he told her, he’d have to tear everything down on top of this and start over again once it’s unburied.
He said it was going to be hard to tell her over the break, because they’d be traveling and seeing family together.
“You know,” I said. “When you’re back, I’ll ask you if you told her.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said.
We left it at that.
At home, I told my girlfriend Lauren everything. I said that we should probably keep quiet until after the break, unless directly asked by Andrew’s girlfriend. If he didn’t tell her, I said, then I would.
Lauren agreed, and then told me to take my shoes outside. I remembered I had stepped in something on the walk. I was too caught up in our conversation to notice it.
On the back stairs of my place, I scraped off what turned out to be dog crap from the clogged grooves of my soles. I brought out a mixture of water and a splash of bleach in a cup and sat it on the railing. The bleach disinfected and masked the sour smell. I did my best to clean everything, brushed the mess into the yard to disintegrate, and brought my shoes back inside.
Image credit: VanDammeMaarten/Flickr