We left the party in a drunk stumble neither of us had the maturity to manage. The night would’ve felt warm had the house we escaped not been stuffed with sweaty bodies. I tipped the last of my drink out of the bottle and into my mouth before dropping it into the garbage can at the curb. She closed her eyes and let the air outside wash over her. I smiled, took her hand, and guided us toward the creek we could hear tumbling through the city in the distance. We had been friends a long time and we matched one another’s pace with comfortable ease.
But we did more than walk the creek that night. “Adultery has existed since marriage was invented,” says expert on the subject, Esther Perel, “yet this extremely common act remains poorly understood.” My friend and I clocked a lot of platonic years as friends before fumbling our way past ill-defined boundaries in a tense drunken hurry. When my wife called—wondering where the two of us went with both suspicion and relief in her voice—we had enough wherewithal to conclude our brief tryst and return. We also had enough shame, I suppose, to cut off contact for a while, until we ran into each other at a Nine Inch Nails show sometime later.
I could justify my actions and say that my wife and I were never a good match. We got pregnant as teenagers, decided that marriage was our best option, and tried our hardest to have a family. We did what everyone said was the “right thing.” It ended badly. My friend and I may have never consummated our extramarital relationship with anything more than making out and petting. But infidelity played as much a role in the end of my marriage as teenage immaturity and the stress of caring for a child with little to no real income. I was guilty of what I now decry with bitter frustration. “The intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator,” Perel argues, “and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying.” So I understand. But I don’t justify.
My friend and I finally got around to a romantic relationship after my wife and I split. But it was an endeavor doomed to fail. As it turns out, the ones you obsess over rarely live up to the delusions that inform your obsessions. We’re still good friends though, and that was an endeavor worth the struggle. We still walk the creek as we did that night and support one another no matter how many tons of bricks life drops on us. Ours has been an unexpectedly happy ending to a failed romance that set a standard for how I approach both romantic and platonic relationships today. I understand my capacity for unconditional love. I strive to place no expectations on those I have grown to love. I accept that love defies the simple straightforwardness of a stress-free life. I choose to do what is hard rather than what is easy if love is the reward. It’s sad it took infidelity for me to learn that.