written and performed by Jess E. Jelsma and Matt Jones | illustrated by Franz Lang
When you have an affair, you learn to speak in a coded language only the two of you can understand.
Out in public, you tell your colleagues that the two of you have become “close friends.” That you are strictly platonic confidantes. That your connection is akin to a brother/sister bond. That your conversations are equal parts vapid college anecdotes, light-hearted work gossip, and generic commiseration. That even if there was more there, you don’t even find each other attractive.
At home, you tell your husband that you need someone to talk to about your flailing marriage. That the other man is too pretty and effeminate to be a real threat. That, after months of getting to know one another, you think of him as stupid and arrogant. That the other man is little more than a nice-looking sounding board to bounce ideas off. That even if there was something there, a man like him would never be attracted to someone as emotionally beat down and self-conscious as you.
Even around one another, the topic is one you never directly address. You speak to each other in vague hypotheticals and swap stories that always seem to center the narrative around other relationships. You talk about awkward first kisses, blind dates gone horribly wrong, and the odd sexual proclivities of former partners. When you do discuss your desires and attractions, the gaze is always directed at someone else. Aidan Turner. Ciara. Taylor Lautner. A mutual colleague.
You leave these conversations feeling frustrated, hot-faced, and angry.
In public and private, however, your body language tells a different story. At the bar, you stand so close to one another that, to others, your bodies appear fused from the shoulders to the hips. You share bottles of Bud Light and swap bites of cheap, overcooked game day hot dogs. You find whatever ways you can to swap spit. Shared bananas. Passed slices of greasy pizza. Alternating pulls off a water bottle filled with vanilla vodka.
So when the question finally does comes up — yet another childish, truth-or-dare hypothetical — the words should feel inevitable.
You lay your forearms on the other man’s pock-mocked kitchen table and ask, “What would you do if I tried to kiss you?”
Because you’ve learned that, in the coded language of affairs, the only way he can answer is with a physical response.
When you have an affair, you begin to hear stories that you did not tell. Sometimes just about her, and sometimes about the two of you, and other times about all three of you together.
Someone says that you are all swingers. That you get off on watching each other.
Another person says that you and her are exhibitionists. If you aren’t fucking inside of the windmill that marks hole 12 at the local putt-putt golf course on Route 69, then you’re fucking in the library. In the bathrooms of the empty football stadium. On the quad in front of the birds and the group tours the university gives to potential students.
Everyone always assumes that you’re fucking. People think you are slowly winding your way through the canon of iconic Hollywood adultery: Julia Roberts and Jude Law in Closer, Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson in Little Children, Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful. When you have an affair, you think of the casual way with which Richard Gere’s character in Unfaithful picked up a snow globe and bashed in the head of the other man who had been sleeping with his wife. When you tell your mom about the affair, not in those words — instead you confess that you are simply in love with a married woman — she asks if her husband owns a gun. If he is an angry person. If he might cause you any harm.
You assure her that this man owns no guns. His body is narrow and soft. You have envisioned — sometimes fantasized — on too many occasions what it would be like to confront him — to have it out with him — whatever that means. When you have an affair, you are sometimes consumed by desires of different sorts.
You never refute the stories that you hear about the two of you. Not because they are true, but because you are tired. So is she. After all, who has time for rebuttal, or refutation, or explanation, or apology? Who has time for confession or justification? Not you two, of course. After all, you’re so caught up in each other, what with all the exhibitionism and the sneaking around and the fucking like banshees across the Bible Belt. Or so you hear. So you have been told.
When you have an affair, you are driven by bodily needs and a set of latent, previously undetected instincts.
Not by the desire to stray or fuck or be wanted by some new man fresh out of his cardboard, shrink-wrapped packaging. Not by jealously, or insecurity, or any of those other motives that so many movies and TV shows have led you to believe. But by the need to breathe. To break the surface after four years of being forcefully held beneath the waves. Of existing in a state of suspended animation, your heart rate slowed and the blood vessels in your limbs constricted to direct all flow of oxygen to your brain. Of being drowned — for all intents and purposes — but not yet dead.
Your body steps in to take the lead on every movement and decision. Your hand gracefully lifting your low-ball glass to your lips when the three of you sit down together at a bar. Your face stoic and unblinking when your husband shakes an all-too-familiar t-shirt in your direction and starts shouting questions. Your hands steady on the steering wheel as you drive back home from the other man’s house in the rundown part of town. Your voice calm and de-escalating as your husband shoves his hand down your underwear and says, “Remember. This is mine. Not yours.”
At your in-laws house for Thanksgiving, you sleep for eighteen hours straight. You hibernate right through breakfast and early-morning football and the first matinee showings of Skyfall and Lincoln. During dinner, you are straight-faced and demure as your husband weaves elaborate lies about your life together. How well you are both adjusting to your nascent marriage. How there may be a dog or a home purchase in the near future. How many good friends you have both made at your new program.
You stare straight ahead without thought or comment. You bring your glass of wine to you mouth. Let the expensive Pinot Grigio sit on your palette. Carefully swallow the liquid down.
Later, when your husband tries to push apart your legs while you are sleeping, you wake up just in time to elbow him in the stomach.
At every turn and juncture, you always seem to know what you are doing. Gone is the part of your brain that is meant to second-guess your actions, your frontal lobe stored elsewhere for safekeeping. You are all cerebellum and brainstem. Pons. Medulla. Midbrain. An unconscious series of reactions. Asleep vs. awake. Inhale and exhale. Pain sensitivity. Heart rate.
With the other man, you are aggressive, cocksure, and brazen because this, your body tells you, is what the situation necessitates.
With your husband, you are cruel, dishonest, and unapologetic because this, your gut keeps reminding you, is the dog-eat-dog arena of heartbreak. Causalities are expected when one is determined to claw their way back up to the surface.
When you have an affair, you occasionally spend time with her and her husband.
You’re friends — kind of — you and her husband. In a parallel universe, you might even be good friends. Groomsmen at each other’s weddings. But parallel universes don’t exist — at least not as far as you know — and yet, somehow, here you both are, married to the same woman at the exact same time even if only one of you knows it.
It’s a fucking paradox, really. Mary Shelley says, “The silence of midnight, to speak truly, though apparently a paradox, rung in my ears.” Mary knew something about paradoxes, and about monsters, too. Some people thought that Percy Shelley actually wrote Frankenstein, but he was just a minor collaborator. When you have an affair, you are sometimes Percy and sometimes the monster itself, which is all to say that sometimes you feel like a minor collaborator while other times you feel cobbled together by electricity and raw materials, alive in a way that is both thrilling and lonely.
An affair can feel a little like a horror story. Not the blood and guts kind, but the mundane kind where the things that terrify you are the things that are normal. How when you all spend time together — you, her, and her husband — you go home at the end of each night while they climb into the same bed. That scares you, how routine it can all begin to feel, how this secret that you have begins to seem like just another organ in your body. Even Prometheus got used to the eagle that ate his liver every day while he was chained to a rock. That’s actually the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, and when you have an affair, that’s kind of what you feel like.
Every day that the routine goes on — that the three of you get together for lunch or drinks or football or whatever — you feel this secret ache and swell up in your body. It reminds you of your inflamed appendix when you were twelve.
But some nights, the husband goes to bed early, and when he does, you kiss her in the kitchen or on the couch and she carves that secret right out of you. It’s both monstrous and beautiful. Strangely alive. Before you drive home, she reaches right into you and puts it back inside your chest because it’s not quite ready to survive out in the world just yet.
Jess E. Jelsma is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Chicago Tribune, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Post Road, and various other publications. She is currently at work on a collaborative, serialized nonfiction podcast with Matt Jones, and can be found online at jessejelsma.com.
Matt Jones is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program and his prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Clarkesworld, The Journal, Post Road, Slice Magazine, and various other publications. He currently teaches at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University and can be found online at mattjonesfiction.com.
Franz Lang is an Italian illustrator creating colourful worlds of quirky characters from his studio in East London. Instagram: @franz_lang_
Music Attribution: Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)