High Infidelity

Photo: Thomas Allen

It’s the mid-seventies, a hot day in Pittsburgh, and Emma,* my sister-in-law and best friend, is taking ten minutes just to enter the doorway of the psychiatric hospital. She pushes in the revolving door, paralyzed with terror. Everyone looks lost here, even the doctors. There’s no sense of anyone’s getting well, and when she gets on the elevator, she doesn’t know why, but she opens her purse and swipes on lipstick.

The doors open on the fourth floor, and she takes a step forward. People in street clothes are wandering around. A nurse whisks past, arguing with a doctor. Someone is bellowing, “Ger-on-imo! Ger-on-i-mo!” and Emma looks toward the sound.

Dan, her husband, is in the far corner. He’s naked, and he’s pounding on his chest, staring straight ahead. He was a brilliant doctor, and this is his third psychotic break, his third round of shock treatment and meds, and when he gets out again, he’ll be so loving to Emma, so funny and smart, that you’d never know anything was ever wrong with him. Not until the whole cycle begins again. “Ger-on-i-mo!” he shouts, gorilla-banging his chest. Emma, heart thudding, edges quietly back into the elevator and stabs the ground-floor button. And then, as she always does, she rushes outside, gets in her car, calls me, and tells me everything.

I loved Emma the moment I met her, which wasn’t long after I married her brother, Tom. She’s small and beautiful, a talented painter, and everything about her—her willingness to reveal herself, her sense of fun, her staunch support—are things I’m beginning to miss in Tom. All of us live in Pittsburgh now, and the main topic of conversation bonding Emma and me together is the sudden sorry state of our marriages.

The day before Dan was committed to the hospital, we were all at Emma’s. She was whisking shrimp into hot oil, so it snapped and sizzled in the wok. Tom was sitting sullenly in the living room, and when I saw him get his jacket, I grabbed his elbow. “Don’t do this tonight,” I say.

“Can’t I even go get cigarettes without you thinking I’m having an affair?”

I try to touch him, and he sidesteps. “You’re always going someplace that doesn’t include me,” I say quietly. He zips his jacket.

“Stop,” he says. “Just stop.”

“That jerk,” Emma says when she discovers he’s gone. She knows the story, because I confide everything in her, and even though he’s her brother, she’s annoyed and on my side. She scatters salt over the shrimp. Dan is snapping his head back and forth like a metronome. He mutters something and taps his fingers against the wall. Emma turns toward him. “Dan?” she asks. “Honey?” He leans toward her and says something I can’t hear. He walks unsteadily out of the room, and Emma looks at me, defeated, and puts the spatula down. “He’s getting sick again. He’s hearing voices, and he’s talking to them. I’m going to have to call the doctor,” she says. Wearily, she shuts off the flame. The shrimp have burned in the pan. Dinner is ruined.

Dan is in the hospital for a month, and he has a new doctor named Alex Coter, who is tall and in his sixties, with a shock of black hair. He gives Emma a list of foods Dan can’t eat because they’ll interfere with his meds, and he wants to start talk therapy as soon as Dan is out. “It would be a good idea for you to come in, too,” he tells her. “It will help you help Dan.”

“Fuck,” Emma says, but she makes an appointment. Marriage sucks for both of us these days, but it draws us closer. Both our husbands are somehow gone, Dan locked up and Tom on mysterious business trips and late nights at the office, and when I call him, no one answers. One night, when Tom doesn’t come home, I call Emma at three in the morning. “Cab over,” she orders. “Don’t be there when he gets back,” and I do. In the morning, the phone rings at six and Emma grabs it from me. “Oh, now you want her,” Emma says. “Now that she’s the one who’s gone.” Emma winks at me before handing me the phone.

It’s winter and Emma has been seeing Alex for three months and she’s dressing for her appointment, sliding on a new black dress, taking time with her makeup. “He’s so nice,” she tells me.

Of course, it’s transference. Alex tells her that at every session when she blurts “I love you.” But so what? Feeling love is glorious. She’s energized and painting, and she has a glow. He’s warm and reassuring, and he always pulls the conversation back to why she shouldn’t consider Dan’s illness her fault. “I think,” he tells her, when she starts crying, “you should come see me three times a week now.” She looks up at him. She hides her delight. I’m jealous, but I tell myself, Think of what Emma’s going through. Think of what it would be like to be married to someone like Dan. It doesn’t really help.

Photo: Thomas Allen

She knows it’s ridiculous on some level that she’s turned into a cliché, the woman who loves her shrink and hopes he loves her back. She spends one afternoon trailing Alex, and when she sees him with a woman, she goes to his office and demands to know who the other woman is. “You know that’s not your business,” he tells her, and then he says, “Her name is Nita and she’s a nurse and that’s all you need to know.” That night, Emma sprays the sheets with perfume. She lights candles and puts on her prettiest nightgown and takes Dan to bed. He can’t perform. The meds suppress desire and make sex impossible, but still there’s cuddling, there’s closeness. He sits up, knocking one of the candles to the floor so it catches the edge of the curtain. “Oh!” Emma cries and stamps the flames out, and the room smells like smoke and defeat. “It’s all right,” she says, and though she curls up beside him in bed, he doesn’t answer. He stares at the wall and rolls away from her.

One day, the first thing Emma says when she walks into Alex’s office is “I love you.” She’s wearing jeans and a silk shirt, and she can’t look at him without feeling nearly hysterical with desire. Alex stands up and comes toward her, and she shuts her eyes. “Don’t give me a fucking Kleenex,” she says.

He licks her eyelids. He kisses her hair, her mouth, her neck. He pulls her on the floor, and every time he touches her, she feels a jolt of heat. She stops crying. He pulls her panties down and opens his pants, and then he’s inside of her, one hand gently over her mouth so she won’t call out and disturb the patient just outside the door.

It’s over in ten minutes, and he helps her up. He buttons her blouse tenderly. And he kisses her mouth. Neither of them speak. When she leaves his office, her panties are damp and her mouth is swollen, and she thinks the sex was terrible, but she feels this beam of joy inside of her, flashing like a go signal.

She calls me and tells me, and I hold my breath in wonder. “I did everything for Dan for years,” she tells me. “He can’t sleep with me anymore. He won’t ever get better. I haven’t left him. Don’t I deserve happiness?” “Of course you do,” I tell her. I want to come over, I want to hear more of the details, but she tells me she wants to paint. She’s fired with creativity. “I’m going to do his portrait,” she says.

I’m alone in my house. I don’t want to write my novel, though my deadline is looming. I don’t want to do anything, and then I go outside and there is Tom, standing on our porch, and his face is terrible. “I want a divorce,” he says. I shove him, so that he stumbles. “Are you seeing someone?” I scream.

“That was animal consciousness,” he says coolly, and then he leaves me there, weeping.

“He’s seeing someone, I know it,” I tell Emma when I call her crying, and as soon as I tell her I’m calling a lawyer and I’m moving to New York, she cries, too. “Don’t go,” she pleads. “This is your home. Stay here. He’s a jerk, but I know he loves you. He’d tell me if he was seeing someone—I’m his sister, for God’s sake.” It changes. All of it. I go to the lawyer’s and pack and call my friends in Manhattan, who tell me to come stay with them until I find a place. I call my agent, who tells me I can work in the office until I find something better. “Was there someone else? Do you know?” I ask my friends in Pittsburgh. I even call all of Tom’s friends. No one knows anything.

Emma is wonderful through it. She stays with me, she takes me to lunches I can only pick at, and she tells me how she and Alex are always together now. “Things have a way of working out,” she says, and what she means is that Dan just got out of the hospital and told her he wants to try living on his own, that it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her, he’s just not sure he can handle the relationship. He has no idea that Emma and Alex are a couple, and in fact, he still goes to Alex for therapy. “Alex says as soon as Dan is stable and working again, I should think about divorce. I should marry him.” I grab her hands. “God, I’m so glad something is working out for one of us!”

“It will work out for you too,” she promises. It doesn’t, though. The day I leave for New York, Tom has been gone for two days. “He just can’t bear to see you leave him,” Emma tells me. She’s at the house, helping me finish up, waiting for the cab to the airport. I know she’s being nice, and I hug her. “I’m going to miss you,” I say.

In New York, all I want to do is forget my past. I throw myself into my work and finish my novel. I find a shoebox studio in Chelsea, and I start seeing a man I fall in love with, a guy who wants to be with me all the time, who calls and comes over when he says he is going to. And every week I speak with Emma. “Dan has a girlfriend,” she tells me. “A bank teller in a little bunny fur.” She tells me Alex is practically living at her house, and when I ask, inevitably, if Tom had had a girlfriend, if he has one now, she sighs. “Absolutely not.”

A week later, I’m getting ready to go out with my boyfriend when the phone rings. “Why can’t you leave him alone?” a voice says. She says her name is Stella and she’s been Tom’s girlfriend for four years now. She tells me all the things I wanted—needed—to know. How she met Tom when he was buying a present for me, how they tumbled into love. And then she tells me how Emma joined them for dinner all the time, how she covered for Tom so I wouldn’t know they were a couple. I couldn’t breathe. “I have to go now,” I say.

I pick up the phone again and call Emma. Her voice when she answers is breathy. “Fuck you, you lied!” I shout. “You covered for Tom! You knew he was seeing someone else, and you never told me!” She doesn’t deny it. “He’s my brother, you’re my best friend. How could I choose whom to hurt?” “Fuck you,” I say again. And I hang up before she can explain. For weeks afterward, I let the machine take my calls, and the second I hear her voice, I delete the message.

So what happens with Emma while I am living my new life, a single young woman in the big city with a busted marriage and an ex–best friend? Emma, of course, feels terrible. I am no longer in her life, but Alex is, until one day she goes to his office, impatient about getting married, and he’s wearing a plain gold band. “Aren’t you jumping the gun?” she teases, but he looks serious. “Emma,” he says, slowly. “I married Nita, my nurse.” She jerks to her feet, her head pounding. All the colors drain from the room.

“Nothing has to change between us,” he says, but she starts throwing things in his office, books, his framed diploma. She yanks open drawers, ready to scatter them, and it’s then that she sees all the condoms, like balloons, just waiting for the next occasion.

She doesn’t eat. She doesn’t sleep. It’s Tom who tells her Alex needs to be stopped, who finds her the high-powered lawyer, and it’s the lawyer who finds out that she’s not the first patient Alex has slept with. “There’ve been lots of other women,” he tells her. “And they want to testify. But you need to use your full name now. You can’t be Jane Doe.”

Of course it makes the papers. Of course Dan, living in his little apartment, sees it. He gulps 200 Seconals and never wakes up. His parents call Emma to tell her she’s not welcome at his funeral. And the trial is about to start. Her lawyer calls me, and as soon as I hear her name, my heart slams shut like a door. He asks, “Would you be willing to testify on her behalf?”

I think of how Emma lied to me about Tom. I wasn’t just cheated on by Tom. Emma cheated me as well. “I can’t,” I say, and Emma’s story goes on without me. It’s three in the morning, and Emma’s asleep when the phone rings. She struggles for the receiver. “Yeah?” she whispers.

“Cassandra,” a voice hisses. “Cassandra—” The phone goes dead. Emma knows who Cassandra is. The poor woman in the Greek myth punished by the gods by being forced always to tell the truth and never have anyone believe her. When the phone rings again, she yanks the plug out of the wall.

The calls don’t stop. She buys a big dog, Jean-Luc, a standard poodle that she walks every day. One day, when he’s been outside in her backyard, she calls him, and when he doesn’t answer, she’s frantic. She checks the neighborhood, and an hour later, she finds him in some bushes, dead. Hysterical, she cradles him in her arms. She carries him, heavy, cold dog, all the way home, where she gently puts him in her car and drives to the vet and insists on an autopsy. The vet, when he comes out to talk to her, has a funny look on his face. “I’m sorry,” he says. “He’s been poisoned.” And even though Emma can’t prove it, she knows who did it.

Two days later, she is in a courtroom, staring straight ahead, one of six women sitting beside three lawyers in expensive suits. Tom is in the audience. She feels Alex in the room, but she doesn’t look at him. She stares straight ahead day after day, and when the other women take the stand, she closes her eyes. When they call her, she’s sweating, but her lawyers have practiced her and she knows what to say and how to say it, and that day, when she goes home, she spikes a fever of 102 and throws up all night.

Alex is found guilty, and she and the other women are awarded millions. He can’t practice anymore. He’s going to prison. Nita has left him. After the sentencing, Emma stands very straight and doesn’t look at Alex, though she feels him watching her. When she walks out of the room, for a moment, she remembers the way he had touched her naked, but she keeps walking.

She gets an unlisted phone number, but it doesn’t matter, because every time the phone rings, she still jumps. She buys a new dog, another poodle she calls Marcus, and she keeps him with her all the time. One day, he bounds away from her and races into the brush and she screams at him so harshly, he stops in his tracks. A young mother, walking with her daughter, pulls the girl closer. I’m sorry, Emma wants to scream. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

The Greek gods always punished humans for pride. Alex gets a cancer so virulent, he’s dead in months. The day she hears, Emma begins seeing a new shrink, a woman. “When there’s a shrink involved, it’s never the patient’s fault,” the new doctor says. Later, the shrink tells her that whenever she relates Emma’s stories to the psychiatric students she teaches, the room gets very quiet.

One day, Emma notices colors again. Experimentally, she drives by the hospital where Dan spent so much time and, when she doesn’t feel sick, she pulls over by the side of the road, the motor idling, her heart racing. Continuing to where Alex had his office is harder, but she feels like this is something she has to do, and when she gets there, it’s boarded up. And then she drives to the bank and takes out some of the money and begins to spend it, and it’s the first time she can without crying.

This story begins with Emma, but it ends with me. It’s late one night and someone I loved has died and I want everyone who ever hurt me to know that this may be terrible, but I had something special: I was loved. I’m angry and desperate and flooded with grief. I call Tom, and he’s surprisingly kind. “Whatever you need, I’m here,” he says. I call Emma, and for weeks afterward, I call her every night because she lets me rant on the phone and carry on and she doesn’t ask me to listen to her life. Not yet. Not until I’m ready. And when I am, her story spills out and I’m stunned.

“Do you forgive me for not testifying?” I ask.

“Do you forgive me for not telling you the truth about Tom and his girlfriend?”

Neither of us needs to answer that.

“Will you call me again? Can I call you?” she asks. I stop a moment. We each breathe into the phone. No one’s cheating or being cheated on. Not Emma with Alex, not Tom with Stella, not Emma with me, or me with Emma. The past is past. The betrayals are over. The scabs have formed.

I hold the phone against my face. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I say.

* All names have been changed.

From the book The Other Woman: Twenty-One Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal, edited by Victoria Zackheim, to be published in June. © 2007 by Victoria Zackheim. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

High Infidelity