By Erin Branning
It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”
“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.
“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”
“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”
“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”
My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.
But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.
“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.
“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.
“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”
“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.
“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”
Our other children were ten, seven and three.
“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”
“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”
The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without. Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.
During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.
The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.
In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.
When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.
So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad? We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.
I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.
I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.
So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.
And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad. And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.
Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”
I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.
“You look stupid. Take it off.”
“I’m wearing it. I like it.”
“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”
“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.
“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.
And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.
“Give it back!” he shouted at me.
“Not until you apologize.”
“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:
Nothing is worse than what you did.
You’re a cheater.
I hate you.
And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”
And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.
Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.
“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.
“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?
“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”
I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.
But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”
He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”
I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.
Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.
Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.
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