Divorce, separation, growing apart — these difficult life events can lead to less than stellar individual behaviors, as many people can attest to. My situation was no different.
My ex (call her Katie) and I had spent our 20s together, in essence growing through some turbulent times. But as we approached our 30s, we were locked in patterns that even we ourselves didn’t see. Hidden affairs, not talking to each other, not being completely open and honest in marriage counseling, all of these things left us both frustrated, confused, lonely, and unable to cope. She lashed out, I withdrew, she withdrew, I got frustrated. Doors slammed.
Ultimately, our world views to how you handle that level of conflict were incompatible. She wanted to fight things out in high-volume screaming matches for the rest of her life, as she saw in her large multicultural family. That wasn’t the way in my family.
Of course, how we arrived at the end is a road through marshy swamps and the pit of despair. The breaking point of my first marriage wasn’t just one thing, but there was one thing I did that was so out of character, I still can’t believe, these 25 years later, that I did that.
I’m the epitome of the nice guy. Really.
I get friend-zoned the moment I meet people. I hold the door open for complete strangers. I pet ugly dogs on the street and coo at how cute they are. I’ll bring everything not checked off on a potluck list to make sure everyone has something to eat. I’m well-versed in “please” and “thank you.” And I’m honest to a fault, always seeing the good in people.
But during my first divorce, something snapped. I was a monster. I hesitate even to write this piece because I acted so badly.
First, you should know, Katie and I stayed friends for several years after our divorce. We worked through things. We had spent our 20s together and had some deep bonds. After two or three tough years, counseling, and separation, we finally went before a judge who asked us, “Do you really want to do this?” We both said, “No, we’re not sure.” The judge gave us a 30-day stay to rethink our decision.
After two more weeks of trying to talk to each other, we knew we had reached the end and mutually agreed to go forward with the divorce.
Katie and I no longer talk. We both remarried, I divorced again, our lives took us in separate directions. But I harbor no ill will toward her and hope she’s thriving.
But divorce brings out the ugly in people. Not more so than in me.
For complete disclosure, I told my present girlfriend about my past actions. She scowled at me, and when she learned of the repercussions of my actions, she said, “Good! You got what you deserved, you monster!”
While I felt right about my decision at the time, it came with severe repercussions that took me a long time to shake. At the time, I would have done it again — and that’s why it was a problem.
Katie and I were near the point of permanent separation. We had already had a trial separation. I had gone off on a mad affair one weekend leaving just a note: “I’ll be back in a few days.” No phone number, no address. No one knew where I was. To her credit, Katie never asked where I went.
The affair was a complete shambles. I learned I couldn’t secretly cheat. It left me stressed and completely limp.
As these things happen, I didn’t just start seeking other relationships out of the blue. I was lost, unable to sort out why Katie had shut me out emotionally and physically after all these years.
What I found out, almost a year later, is that Katie was hiding her own secret. She had had an affair a couple years earlier, only a month after our wedding! I was shocked when I found out because she had been angry with me for so long. I thought she was angry with me for my behaviors, but really she was beating herself up for her own sins.
In trying to patch things up, I asked her what the one thing was that she most wanted in life right then.
She said that she wanted to go see the Billy Joel/Elton John concert that was touring the country at that time. The first CD we ever bought with a brand new state-of-the-art one disc CD player was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I and Volume II double CD set. We were both big fans of Elton John as well.
Since I’m into surprising my partner with gifts and special trips, I secretly tried to find tickets to the concert.
I had been chatting online with strangers. It was the early days of meeting people on the Internet, which means chat rooms, names, and live texting. One young girl was boisterous and funny and very dramatic. Let’s call her *Shelly*. The asterisks around her name indicated that she was a member of the CompuServe CB Chat club, part of the in-crowd with a reserved handle.
*Shelly* stood out in this crowd of ne’er-do-wells and chatters with a flair for double entendres and sexual come ons. We started chatting, one thing led to another, and we started flirting heavily, but nothing more. I had learned my lesson from my first fling.
Things with my wife were still difficult. She wanted nothing to do with the computer and “those people,” and we weren’t interacting with each other well. Frankly, I had more interesting conversations with the brick walls of our apartment. I spent my nights staying up late, reading, grading papers, and chatting online, anything to avoid the mountain building between Katie and me.
I had heard that the Billy Joel/Elton John concert was coming through *Shelly*’s town, Ames, Iowa, and asked her if she could try to find tickets so I could take Katie. Ames was only a 3 1/2 hour drive away. Soon thereafter, *Shelly* told me she had gotten two tickets. Fantastic! Katie will be so happy — everything will be forgiven and we will live happily ever after.
One day online, *Shelly* asked, “Can we talk privately?”
“Sure, let’s grab a private room.”
People on the chat channel were aware whenever couples went off into a secured private room. It was generally assumed that those people were having “hot chat” sex in those rooms, what we would call “sexting” today. There was no voice chat, just one person texting to another. When people would emerge back onto the public channel after going off to a private room, there would be lots of “Oooooo, naughty!” type comments. Most of us were in our 20s and 30s, and the majority of us were lost 30-somethings in failing relationships. It was a good time to relive junior high school.
“I got two tickets to the concert,” *Shelly* said.
“Fantastic! How much are they?” I asked. Grad. student teaching assistant incomes were not extravagant.
“It’s my treat,” *Shelly* said.
“That’s so sweet of you! How will we pick the tickets up from you? Will you mail them to us, or will we meet you and get them?” I asked, innocently. No, really. I presumed nothing.
She was silent for some time.
“Well, I was hoping you could take me to the concert. But you can go with your wife if you want. I’ll totally understand,” *Shelly* said.
I was deeply flattered, and I felt myself flush. I was 30 years old, and *Shelly* was 22. I told her I’d think about it. We had talked a bit about my marriage difficulties, and she had proved a sympathetic ear. What had started with *Shelly* as harmless flirting led to a torrid affair of late night phone sex.
Things weren’t improving at home. Of course, Katie didn’t know about the phone sex, but she also didn’t know about me trying to get tickets for the one thing she wanted most in her whole life!
Katie had locked me out of our marriage emotionally and physically. We didn’t have sex anymore. All I got were dry pecks in the lips. I was feeling irascible and ornery and completely helpless about the whole situation.
As the date of the concert approached, I knew I had to make a decision. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of secretly cheating again.
Here’s where the bad part is.
On the day of the concert, I told Katie that I had something to talk with her about.
“I know things have been going badly with us. So I wanted to tell you this in person, rather than running away like I did last time,” I started.
Katie waited expectantly. We had been practicing listening to each other during counseling.
“I got tickets to the Billy Joel/Elton John concert for tonight,” I said quickly.
I saw the flicker of excitement in Katie’s eyes and face.
“But I’m going with someone else,” I said. “The concert is in Iowa. I’ll be back right after though, and we can talk then.”
She opened her mouth to say something but then stopped herself, pushed some papers idly around on the table, got up abruptly, and went upstairs.
Yeah, I know. Who does that? Not my proudest moment.
But it gets worse, and I got what I deserved.
It was a magical night — that led to the most excruciating, worst 15-month relationship of my life.
The concert was amazing, a warm clear summer night at an outdoor theater under the stars, a capacity crowd. We were in the middle near the front.
I had not met *Shelly* before. We arranged by cell phone to meet in the parking lot. She told me where to go and said, “Wait a sec until you get out of the car.” She had posed herself, leaning casually against the car, presenting herself in the very best light. She had to. It was part of her game.
You see, *Shelly* was a pathological liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a home-wrecker, lost among her own lies.
She had told everyone online that she was a nurse, would disappear for days and return online to say she had been distraught that one of the cancer patient children that she had treated had died. No, in reality she was a bank teller, a college dropout who was still living at home with her mother and ex-boyfriend, who she claimed had abused her, who spent her time reading the earliest of young adult romances because that’s all she was capable of. After awhile, I couldn’t tell where the lies ended and the truth began.
But I didn’t know that then. All I saw that night was a beautiful young girl who wanted me, me, who had been completely shut out by my wife almost from the day we were married.
*Shelly* and I had a fantastic time at the concert. We started a relationship but we didn’t consummate anything until after Katie and I separated. That pent-up, unconsummated lust led to frequent online and phone arguments between me and *Shelly.*
Between the fighting with *Shelly* and the separation from Katie, I felt tossed about in stormy seas. What a horror show.
For the first and only time in my life up to then, I was lost, too — abandoning my integrity, the focus on my career, my marriage — for what? A dysfunctional, lying, cheating, emotionally-stunted 22 year old sex addict. Yes, there was sex. Lots of it. We fought and fucked for 15 months.
After the emotional and physical abandonment I was enduring, I welcomed any sex: alluring, hungry, ravenous sex, like a fishhook in a soft fleshy palm.
We had good sex, bad sex, sleepy sex, car sex, walk-in-the-door happy-to-see-you sex, slam-the-door I’m-leaving-for-real-this-time sex, make-up sex, good bye — no, wait — up-against-the-wall — okay, now goodbye sex. We had more sex in that awful devastating 15 months than I had had in the 10 years I had lived with Katie.
And we fought, and we fought, and we fought. *Shelly*’s cheating with other married men happened almost immediately, but we still saw each other as a couple, taking turns driving the 3 1/2 hours to visit each other every weekend. I didn’t hide this affair from Katie. We talked openly about it in counseling.
I think Katie secretly gloated that it went badly for me.
When it was over, my marriage and my relationship with *Shelly,* I mourned for only the loss of my marriage. I only had myself to blame for my broken integrity and my loneliness.
Even after the first affair and the *Shelly* situation, Katie still thought we should try to work things out. But we couldn’t get past her affair. Not my open violation of vows and boundaries but her secretive take-it-to-the-grave affair.
After my divorce, I found myself alone with a massive pile of bills, no job, and my grad school pursuits in shambles. It took all my strength to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to have the energy to face the day.
I had superb will power and self-control, but during this time, I had neglected everything important to me, most notable, my integrity. From that day on, doing the right thing became a way of life for me.
I don’t know if I needed this experience to set me on the path of honesty and compassion, of strength of character in the face of adversity, but that’s what happened. I would never sacrifice integrity again, even with ever greater challenges in my life.
When Katie and I separated, shortly after the concert, still a year from our divorce, we sat in the middle of the carpet in our mostly empty apartment, fairly dividing up our CDs and videotapes. We were heartbroken friends and didn’t really know what we were doing. We made a game of it.
Katie chose first.
She picked the Billy Joel Greatest Hits 2 CD set and threw it at me.
“There. Bastard. Your turn,” she said, with faux anger.
I flinched and winced at the subtext. “Touché,” I said. We both kind of laughed through our sadness.
There was nothing left me, for us, except my next move.
I reached for the Elton John CD, pulling it toward me, and smiled weakly through my tears.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He writes about sailing, movies, literature, baseball, mental health, growing up in the San Fernando Valley and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please, or his Medium publication Valley Dude.