Individually, Allison and John were the sweetest, kindest people. And together they were the perfect couple. The perfect marriage. The perfect children. They went to church, ran a successful business, owned two beautiful homes, a Range Rover, a BMW. They had it all. “Now see, why can’t we be like them?” my wife, Jennair, would look at them and ask me. “They work together and you don’t see them at each others’ throats. Why? Because they respect each other. You need to learn to be more like John.”
Fridays, I decided recently, are my beach days, my time to sit and just think. Breathe. Stare aimlessly at the waves for hours, letting the rhythmic churn of the surf lull me into a restorative trance. Yesterday morning I awoke, turned on the coffee and stood there in a fog, as the aroma slowly wafted up into my nasal passages, clearing them. I took it in and let out a low moan of pleasure. “Nectar of the Gods,” I mumbled, something Jennair and I used to playfully say to each other when we would have our first cup of coffee in the morning. But as I took my first sip, a feeling of uneasiness came over me. It was going to be one of those days. I packed a bag and headed for the beach.
“Those days” don’t happen as often anymore. I have been working hard for months with my therapist and my spiritual advisor to heal, to use tools and language, not to hide from my feelings, but to work through them, process them so they don’t take over, and I can function and feel productive. It had been weeks since I felt like this. Overwhelmed. Defeated. Hopeless. As I parked alongside the beach and got out, I noticed an old, beat up, Volkswagen Microbus, hand painted three shades of yellow, the hub caps mottled with rust and the slightest glint of original chrome still showing. It was a far cry from it’s hey day, but there she was, basking in the Friday morning sun, quietly listening in on conversations of surfers with their boards and couples riding by on bikes.
I walked fifty yards and sat down on a flat, dry spot of sand, just inches from the wet foam of the outgoing tide. It didn’t take long. The cool ocean breeze on my face, the morning sun warming my back. I laid back onto the sand, my eyes closed and hands folded behind my head. In seconds, my mind flooded with thoughts. Why? How could I? Was I really that unhappy? We had loved each other for twenty-eight years, married for twenty-four. There were hard times. But there were also good times. Great times. And I just threw it all away. She didn’t see it coming. It destroyed her. I destroyed her. And now I’m left sift through the ashes the aftermath. I did this. I chose this.
It’s not something you get over. A painful reality you learn to live with. It changes you. Ages you. Robs you of who you used to be. Who am I now? What’s next? Some days I pretend I know. Others, like this day, I’m honest with myself and sit in deafening painful silence.
An hour or so later, feeling the effects of the salt air and the sun on my now pink face, I sat up, noticeably lighter. For now the burden had been lifted. As I stood and stumbled through the warm sand toward my car, she again caught my eye, still sitting silent ablaze in an aura of yellow and gold paint. I couldn’t resist. I pointed my phone toward her and captured the aging, but timeless beauty. Moments later, from the front seat of my own car I posted the image to Instagram along with a caption. “I don’t have much. And I ask for much less. But for some reason I want this.”
Before I got to the first light, my phone pinged. It was a text message from John. I hadn’t heard from him in months. When the killings had hit the news twenty months before, he had been among the first of my friends to reach out and offer me condolences and whatever he could do. Since then the few discussions we had focused around work and our respective careers. At the next light, I clicked on his message.
“I just saw your IG post,” it read. “It reminded me I never told you. Allison asked me for a divorce.”
I thought he was joking. But I didn’t get it. I read it again. He was serious. “WTF?” I typed. The light turned green before I could hit send. No way. This couldn’t be real. My mind flooded with memories of seeing them together. Smiling. Laughing. Embracing. Before I could get to the next light, my phone pinged again.
“She had an affair two years ago and it hasn’t been the same since,” John wrote.
Realizing the inappropriateness of my initial response, I deleted it, opting instead for, “I’m so sorry. Are you okay? If you only knew how much Jennair admired your marriage. You two seemed so happy.”
“Everyone thought she was happy,” John replied. “Even me.”
For the next few moments, we continued to exchange a flurry of text messages. When it was over, I turned off the radio and began a silent ascent through the canyon, speeding, leaning into the sharpest of curves. I was floored. Angry. Shaken. And then unexpectedly, a strange feeling came over me. A sort of peace. While I felt sadness for John and Allison, I selfishly took solace knowing that I wasn’t alone. If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. And despite the shiny, happy facade that so many couples work to put out there publicly, relationships are hard. And there is no perfect marriage.
If you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I’m not. I have to live with what I did and how I did it for the rest of my life. Instead of dealing with the challenges and dysfunctions of my marriage head on, I avoided them. Normalized them. Pretended they didn’t exist for years. But they were there, laying in wait. And when I met someone who was struggling to deal with her own unhappy marriage, I could see all the flaws and cracks in ours. That’s all it takes. A crack. A spark. A life changing spark that reignites your passion for life. But allowing it to burn out of control can burn everything and everyone in its path.
Over the past 20 months, I have met so many others who have been burned, who’ve suffered the heartache of an affair and a marriage too far gone to put back together. As I continue to heal, I want so bad to have hope, to believe that happiness is again possible. Not like some born again phoenix rising from the ashes, but simply finding the strength to live again, a little older, a little wiser, perhaps rustier, and if need be, wearing a few coats of gold paint. For now at least, I’m still running.