His simple question rocked her; hurt bubbling to the surface and etching itself on her face.
Paul was alarmed he had spoilt their growing rapport. “I’m sorry, Sara. I didn’t mean to pry. Let’s talk about something else.”
“No. It’s not your fault,” Sara replied, her smile watery, “It’s been a few months since my break-up, but I guess I am still a bit raw.”
“I know what you mean by rawness. I’ve been separated longer, but still not completely through the grieving.”
Sara’s smile warmed at the thought they had something else in common. She had surprised herself by being more friendly and open tonight and didn’t want Paul’s simple question to have her scurrying back into her shell. When alone, she stewed over her marriage breakup which wasn’t healthy.
The two of them had spent the last hour sitting together in the hotel bar, winding down after their firm’s annual conference. Every year the east coast firm got its significant staff together out of town to build a shared vision for the next year and stronger links between the different offices.
Sara and Paul knew a little about each other, having previously been on a couple of the firm’s working groups. Located in different branches in New York gave them that in common too. And they both knew they were considered rising stars, both on track to partnerships.
That familiarity was enough for Paul to join Sara at the bar and for her to feel quite comfortable with him doing so. But, even so, this was the first time they had spent significant time together.
The conversation had flowed easily. Starting with the working group, then the conference before laughing over some intra-firm gossip. Amazingly they discovered a shared interest in sports and opera. Paul’s surprise to find a woman as interested as him in sport, paled beside Sarah’s surprise to find a man interested in opera.
So, despite the bubble of pain, his question brought to the surface, Paul’s friendliness had been strong enough for Sara to stop herself from running to the safety of her hotel room. Instead, she asked the question that was front of her mind, “Does it get any easier?”
“Yeah. Every month I have more and more good days. Sorry, shall we keep to work, sports and opera?”
Sara paused deep in thought. Feelings of failure following her marriage breakup usually drove her to safe subjects she could have fun with, like teasing Paul about his love of all things Cleveland.
But her instincts told her that tonight could be different. Sharing experiences might help reduce how haunted she felt by her marriage failure.
Paul saw her indecision and wanted to reach out and comfort her. He had warmed to her; she was intelligent funny and sports-mad. And he wanted her to be at ease with him. But, having only just really got to know each other, he could hardly reach out and touch her hand despite her obvious distress.
But, when she interrupted his thoughts, he was surprised to hear, “No Paul. It would do me good to talk about it.”
“Ok Sara, but if it gets too much let me know. We can always discuss Washington.”
He paused and Sara's spirits rose with his smirk. She so knew what was coming next.
“Perhaps not Washington,” he said giggling, “That’s even sadder.”
She grinned, a little more cheerful, and replied, “No-one’s as sad as a Brown’s fan.”
They both knew they’d broken through a barrier. Able to begin to discuss the painful issue of separation and quickly move into easier and funnier banter if necessary. Sara was suddenly a lot more confident in her ability to talk about her marriage with Paul without dissolving into tears.
“I so didn’t want to get the redeye flight back east,” Paul said, “But I didn’t plan anything for tonight. Do you want to get something to eat?”
“Yes, me too. It’s not like I have anyone to rush home to. And I have only done the overnight flight once and I swore never again.”
Paul finished his beer and watched Sara dig out her phone.
“There it is,” she said, “I am told the steak restaurant near the hotel is very good.”
“We could go there.”
“I will ask the concierge about a reservation,” she responded.
Paul watched her walk out of the bar towards the concierge and realised his eyes had been drawn to her butt. She is, he admitted to himself, not only very nice but also a very good-looking woman.
It didn’t take long for Sara to return with a look of triumph on her face. “Better hurry, reservation in fifteen minutes,” she said.
They walked to the restaurant chatting about the path to partnership.
“You know it’s good to talk about this,” said Paul as if reading her mind, “Usually promotion is not discussed. But, in reality, there will be several partnerships offered across our firm. It’s not like one of us getting promoted stops the other.”
“True enough,” Sara replied, “I just realised the other day that I never really focused on a partnership when I was married. But it is now more on my mind. Perhaps I want to succeed at work to make up for my failure at marriage.”
“Hey,” said Paul stopping just outside the restaurant, “Don’t say failure. I don’t know your story but the way you reacted at the bar tells me it wasn’t your fault.”
“It takes two Paul.”
“Yes, I know that, and my wife blames me for our breakup even though she had the affair. But beating ourselves up for being failures does not make the recovery easier.”
“I get that in theory, but it doesn’t give me much comfort in the middle of the night.”
“Then I think it will help you to talk. I have recently been able to sleep more soundly. Let’s go inside and have dinner.”
The restaurant was formal and a little old-fashioned. Certainly not the meat-packers district they both thought. But then again as Paul remarked, “There is a timeless elegance to places like this.”
“Yes,” Sara whispered, “But it seems so business orientated.”
They were seated in a booth at the side which was elegant and somewhat private. The servers, who were all in white tops and black skirts or trousers hovered with menus and offers of cocktails. Paul focused on the wine list and asked Sara whether she would like a pinot noir.
“It’s my favourite red wine, so yes, please. You choose but we should have something local.”
The server hearing this was quick to point out one and Paul agreed. “Nice service,” he remarked after the server had left, “Didn’t recommend anything too expensive.”
They read the menu and chatted comfortably about what was on offer. Both were attracted by the crab cakes but for entrée, Sara focused on a smaller fillet steak while Paul went for the sirloin. Orders taken Paul asked, “Did I hear you correctly before, you have season tickets to the Giants?”
“Yes, my husband and I have two season tickets. But when we separated, I kept them. I so could not imagine us keeping one each and sitting beside each other. And my husband felt so guilty about our separation that he didn’t argue.”
“Win for you.”
“Yes, we split everything fifty-fifty, except for the opera and football season passes. My triumph over Voldemort,” Sara grinned.
“Well done,” Paul replied laughing, “Voldemort?”
“That’s what I call my ex; he whose name cannot be mentioned.”
Paul laughed and Sara giggled as well. Perhaps she is still not quite as hurt as she fears and is beginning to accept, Paul thought.
The wine server arrived with the wine. They were each poured a glass and they toasted each other and sipped the wine.
“This wine is very good,” Paul said before gently adding, “Feel up to telling me?”
Sara paused, swirling the wine in her mouth, before swallowing, “Yes I think so.”
She was nervous, yet the thought of opening up to someone who had been through her trauma comforted her. “Well just like you really, he cheated and left me for the other woman.”
“I’m sorry, I know how that feels, well more precisely I know what it feels like to be cheated on. I think my story might be a little different. Let’s hear yours and I will tell you mine.”
“Well, those are the facts,” Sara said.
Paul noticed her defensiveness asked gently, “Yes, but how do you feel about it?”
Sara took another sip of wine and as it swirled around her mouth, the question swirled around her mind. Do I really say how I feel, she thought?
Her instincts took over and she said, “Honestly deep down I feel so stupid. So naïve, so trusting, so dumb. The affair had been going on for three months and I had no idea. There were subtle changes, but I put them down to what was happening in our jobs. And now what really makes my skin crawl is knowing that sometimes when we were intimate, he had also been intimate with her. And I bet he even talked to her about me, about our marriage.”
“He took what was precious to you and shared it.”
“Yes exactly. Intimacy is so personal. We had been a couple for many years, shared memories, shared dreams, shared futures. I had told him things I have told no one else. I felt I loved him without reservation. And that wasn’t enough to hold him.”
“I understand, but are you okay if I say three things.”
Sara nodded, and Paul continued, “First putting the change down to work is perfectly logical. I did that too and I now realise it was the right thing to do even though it was the wrong answer.”
Sara looked confused so Paul explained, “Look when someone seems withdrawn, it could be because of work or because they are having an affair or even something else. But you love and trust them, so in your mind it is unimaginable that it is an affair. Thinking it is work-related is much more logical. And I bet you even asked him about the subtle changes.”
“Yes, and Voldemort said he was busy at work. But I still feel a bit stupid believing him.”
“I don’t think you should feel stupid. Angry at him for deceiving you, perhaps. But it is reasonable to trust his love and it’s his lie that is the problem. Neither of us should feel stupid,” Paul said firmly.
“I think the logical part of me gets that but I still keep wondering about what I did wrong.”
“Sara, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Before Sara could respond, the server arrived with the crab cakes. Conversation ceased as they started to eat. After the first mouthful, Paul and Sara looked at each other.
“Wow these are good,” Sara said.
“They so are.”
They ate in companionable silence both savouring the food. Once they had finished Paul asked how Sara had got into opera. She replied enthusiastically about singing as a teenager and how she had always loved the big soprano voices. Paul told her about his schoolboy singing, which had stopped in his early teens because of peer pressure.
But, after their plates were removed, rather than continuing the opera conversation, Sara took a deep breath and asked, “There were two other things you wanted to say earlier?”
“Yeah. Let’s start with intimacy. I actually came home early to find shit-face in bed with her lover.”
“Oh no,” Sara empathized, though she giggled at the shit-face comment, “Sorry your description of her made me laugh.”
“I know it’s childish. But that’s how I feel, I’ll use SF in public.”
“Ok, SF and Voldemort it is.”
“Just before I barged into the bedroom, I watched and saw her react just like she reacted with me. Horrible seeing an act of love with SF played out with another man. And then when I rushed into the room something small but very painful; she gasped in shock, pushed him away, and looking up at me, pulled the sheet over her breasts. Hiding her body from her husband.”
“Thank God I didn’t have to see anything that horrible.”
“But you are right, it is knowing that the person you love has shared the intimacy that makes your relationship great. That’s the most painful thing. I think I am over that pain now.”
“I would love to know how you did that.”
“That’s my third point. You know the four stages of grief?”
“Denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance, you mean?”
“Yes. What stage do you think you are at?”
“Well, not acceptance. Voldemort gave me no chance to bargain in the sense that after he told me of his affair, he was gone from my life and I didn’t even have the opportunity to try to make the marriage work. So, I seem to oscillate between anger and denial, throwing myself into work and blaming him, and sometimes me.”
Their steaks arrived and, while the server poured the rest of their red wine, Paul said, “Let’s continue this after we’ve eaten. I will tell you about the horrible bargaining stage I went through, that I think you lucky to have avoided.”
Sara was sceptical as she felt she had earned the right for her husband to at least try to salvage their marriage. But she suspended judgement on Paul’s comment and cut into her steak. It was perfectly cooked and the first bite melted in her mouth.
“Thank you for suggesting this place, Sara. So very good.”
“Yes, it is. Much to my amazement, I am really enjoying the evening.”
“Must be the company you are keeping.”
Sara smiled, “The company was never the issue. It’s the subject matter, I so shy away from talking about my marriage.”
“And Washington,” Paul teased.
“No, I am always happy to talk about how we will win Superbowl.”
“A comedian too I see.”
The banter continued as they ate. And, after their plates were cleared, as they sipped their wine, Paul continued, “After I found SF in bed, I walked out of our house. I couldn’t believe what I had seen and was just so angry. But, following her desperate phone messages and the pleadings of our friends, we ended up talking. And, to cut a long story short, she was totally apologetic, swore she loved me and had just been caught in the moment.”
“Just the once?”
“No. Her idea of being caught up in the moment was three months. I might have got over just a one-time thing.”
“The real betrayal was choosing to go back again and again.”
“Yes exactly. You get away with it once and the next time is easier. Then she changed her tune, insisting it was just sex, the thrill of a roller coaster ride with no emotional connection. She said she only loved me.”
“I'm not sure I buy that you can have sex without emotional connection.”
“Yes. But the counsellor got me to understand that was exactly how SF saw it.”
“Isn’t that letting her off the hook.”
“No, the counselling got SF to see that she’d broken my trust and the right strategy would have been to talk to me beforehand. Deciding to take a lover, and expecting me to be okay with the secret roller coaster ride was wrong.”
“To cut a long story short,” Paul continued, “she seemed truly sorry, so I moved back home. I forgave her; she promised never to do it again. I slept in the spare room as I didn’t feel like sleeping with her. Partly as I was worried that I was a less exciting roller coaster ride. SF was upset but the counsellor was firm, saying that intimacy was my decision and SF had to give me space. On the surface, everything seemed good. Our parents and friends were relieved.”
Paul finished his wine, and Sara said, “I feel you are about to say, but…”
He smiled and said, “But, one night she texted me about being caught up at work. Genuinely, I think. I had a horrible evening, wondering if she was really at work. Having so successfully lied to me once, I couldn’t work out how to be sure she wasn’t lying a second time.”
“So, after a second night when she said she was working and I fretted, I went back to the therapist and spent two hours with her. She got me to see that while I could forgive my wife, even love her, I was having difficulty trusting her.”
Paul paused and continued quietly, “And I realised the implications of not being able to trust her were that for me the marriage had died. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering about SF’s truthfulness.”
“I’m sorry,” Sara whispered.
“Me too. That’s what I mean about bargaining being something that you are lucky to avoid. After cheating, there are no foundations to build on. SF couldn’t continually prove a negative,” Paul said, looking up, “Depressing, isn’t it? Shall we have some more wine to cheer us up?”
“I’d really love some dessert wine. I hardly have it, and I don’t want our conversation to stop.”
Paul caught the server’s eye and he brought over the wine list and dessert menus. Sara chose a half bottle of dessert wine, which was quickly served. She tasted it, enjoying the luscious sweetness of the wine.
Paul watched her bubble as she told the server how good the wine was. She seemed so warm, confident, and genuinely nice except when speaking about her marriage drew an underlying sadness to the surface. Her separation had left a scar on her. Perhaps even more damaging than his separation had been for him.
“So how was SF when you told her the marriage was over?” Sara asked.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe how angry and upset she was. She said I hadn’t tried and that I was weak for giving up.”
“But,” Sara interrupted, “She was weak when she had the affair. I don’t get how it is your fault.”
“I know. It’s like you said, it takes two. But in her mind, I think she didn’t see it as all her fault and so it was up to both of us to forgive and move forward.”
“You know,” Sara said, “I keep thinking about if I could have done something different with Voldemort so his affair wouldn’t have happened.”
“No,” Paul, replied, with an emphasis that surprised Sara, “No, even if Voldemort thought something was wrong, he should have talked to you about it. The betrayal was not talking to you and instead, starting an emotional connection with someone else.”
“So, what did SF do when you told her it was over?”
“Fought and fought hard. Fought the separation, tried to get more of my assets, tried to turn my friends and even my parents against me. The end of our marriage was so ugly that sometimes I wonder how I ever loved her.”
“Oh. Sounds like your second chance was more painful than my not having a second chance.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant by negotiation being a stage that I would rather not have gone through.”
“And your friends and parents?”
“Ok now. Mum and Dad were always supportive. I think they would have preferred we reconciled. But Mum in particular found it hard to accept SF’s casual cheating. The couples who were our friends were torn. SF made them take sides and some I now no longer see. My male friends were good particularly when I told them there was no chance of reconciliation.”
Paul paused, sipped his wine, and then added, “Though my friend’s wives and girlfriends have taken a different approach. Often when I see them now, there is a single girl around. I think they are trying to throw me into the dating pool.”
“Have you dated?”
“Twice. It’s not as if the girls weren’t nice, but my heart wasn’t in it. Some things reminded me of SF and I even wanted to talk about her. Not that I did, but it is hard to be fun when you are hurting inside.”
“I couldn’t imagine dating. This is the first time I have been alone with a man in a social situation other than with my boss and my dad.”
“Your boss, Frank, you mean.”
“Yes. He took me out for dinner to thank me for letting him use my football tickets.”
“That was good of you.”
“He supports the Cowboys and early on I so didn’t feel like going to the football with the memories of Voldemort. But Frank was sweet, carefully asking whether I was coping following my separation, and promising to provide whatever support I needed. I got the impression the firm thought I might need time off, but in truth that was the last thing I needed. Work keeps me from stewing over what went wrong and what I could have done differently.”
“Don’t think like that. Even if there was some fault on your side, nothing justifies Voldemort’s unilateral actions. For mine that makes it unambiguously his fault.”
“No Sara more than maybe. I think you trying to find a reason why it is your fault is part of the denial. You have to accept your husband was not what you thought he was, he was Voldemort all the time. Be angry about it but accept that he wasn’t right for you and look for Mr Right.”
Sara paused deep in thought. She knew deep down that Paul was right about one thing though, in reality, it was Voldemort’s fault. Never once in the middle of the night had her emotional side come up with a reason that convinced her analytical side that it was her fault.
“What are you thinking?” Paul asked.
“Well, I hope you don’t think me arrogant but I am not stupid...”
“I know. It’s an attractive feature in a woman.”
Sara smiled, liking the hint of flirtation in Paul’s voice, “…and never once have I been able to come up with a plausible reason why it is my fault. It’s been good to talk to you, now I’m even more convinced that it was not my fault.”
“That helps you through the denial stage Sara, but are you still angry?”
“Yes. Maybe I shouldn’t think like this, but I have so enjoyed my little triumphs over Voldemort. Keeping the football and opera season tickets. And…”
“And what?” Paul asked gently.
“…Well, I’m not really proud of this. But sometimes, sometimes I’ve tried to turn our friends against Voldemort.”
“You realise that’s normal and okay, don’t you? Most of your friends would naturally support you.”
“Perhaps, but I’m not proud of my desire for revenge. And I discovered I can’t really get revenge on him as he doesn’t care enough. When we met with our lawyers to settle things, Voldemort was distant and cold, wanting to get it over and done with, so business-like. I had my little victories like getting the football tickets, but they didn’t really matter to him. The strongest feeling he had was one of embarrassment.”
“That is worse than me. At least SF cared enough to be hurt. But I didn’t leave for revenge or to hurt her. I left for me for myself, because I felt I needed a relationship based on trust and respect.”
“Paul, do you think you can trust another woman?”
“At first I thought I couldn’t. But I realised that’s not any way to live my life. I see a lot of people in relationships that work. So, trust is possible.”
“Yes, deep down I know that is what I want, a relationship that works. But how can I be sure of someone else again? Voldemort was so deceptive.”
“Can I ask you a personal question then?”
“Of course,” Sara replied; surprised given the whole conversation had been personal.
“Why did you trust me enough to talk about your marriage breakdown?”
Sara hadn’t expected that question. She paused uncertainly, knowing it wasn’t like her. But she had known she had to be braver. And Paul seemed so easy to talk to with attitudes and approaches that were familiar.
After a few moments, she smiled and responded, “The shared experience and the way you react on work issues. When we talked in the bar you seemed empathetic and share a lot of my views. So, I guess I was kind of comfortable that you would understand what I was going through.”
“Thank you. I hope I’ve helped.”
“Yes, you have. How can I thank you?”
“Well, you said you had two tickets.”
Sara looked startled, so Paul quickly added, “Not a date, that’s too raw, Sara. As friends.”
“It’s not like…”
“I know,” Paul interrupted, “Maybe one day when you feel up to it. But now you need friends.”
Sara smiled, liking that Paul was empathetic enough to understand her need for space.
And her cares seemed to slip a little from her shoulders. “Interesting,” she thought, “Maybe trust is more important than love.”
As they walked back to their hotel there was a spring in her step. Her first glimpse of a path going forward, one that could allow the ghosts of her failed marriage to fade into the past.