When Everyone in Your Family Is a Cheater
I started watching Showtime’s Golden-Globe winning drama, The Affair, because it came on after Homeland. I’m a sucker for a spy story. I am less interested in stories about upper-middle-class people who can’t keep it in their pants, particularly if they live in New York, as I do. Everything about the show felt a little too familiar for comfort. Dominic West’s character, Noah Solloway, is a failed novelist/high school English teacher. On a bad day, I have felt like a lady version of “Noah,” with a few minor alterations: substitute novelist for playwright and high school teacher for adjunct professor.
I watch TV to escape; take me to Pakistan, Fargo, or Nashville, but please don’t make me sit through a Brooklyn dinner party with writers worrying about their writing—that’s breakfast at my house. I was supposed to like The Affair, so, on principal, I didn’t. Yet, I couldn’t stop watching. (For the record, I now count myself as a fan of the show. It takes a an-all-too-familiar story and turns it on its head with immeasurable skill.) But I think my real resistance to The Affair came from someplace else.
I come from a long line of cheating cheaters. It’s virtually an epidemic in my family. My maternal grandfather was married four times. Three of those marriages ended because he was already getting busy with the wife-in-waiting. One of his divorces was so scandalous the court records were sealed for 50 years, so one can only imagine the kind of misdeeds that were going on. No doubt it would make anything happening on The Affair seem pretty tame. My maternal grandmother was married three times, and there are hushed rumors that one of my aunts may really be the child of someone else. Typical dinner conversation on my mother’s side of the family is to wonder who your real parents might be.
Though my father was married to one woman for a very long time (not my mother, mind you), he remained resolutely unfaithful to her and was said to follow home women he met on the bus. I’m not sure what exactly happened on those bus rides. I’ve personally never met anyone on a bus that I ever wanted to see again, so I’m going to chalk it up to another time and the fact that my dad was handsome and had an accent.
While I would love to say that my mother was a paragon of virtue amidst all this infidelity, she had a penchant for very unavailable, very married men. Many of her more infamous dalliances happened before I was born, so I didn’t experiences these affairs firsthand. Before she died, she was trying to write a memoir about her early love life. She never finished it. I’m not sure she ever cheated on her husbands when she was actually married, but those two marriages were so brief, there wasn’t really enough time.
The phrase “happily married” has always made me uncomfortable. I grew up in a household where my mother was mostly not married and she was generally happy. When I was a kid and imagined my life, I imagined a family of me and two little girls of my own. There were no visible husbands or dads in the picture. But now in my real life, my most immediate family is composed of another man, my husband P. We are happy and we are married. And in many ways it is my mother’s fault.
My mother lived a good part of the last 15 years of her life on a small Greek island restoring a 300-year-old stone house. She had spent the moderate advance she received for a memoir about her romantic life on what was essentially a ruin. The house was all she owned in the world. It remained unfinished, as did her memoir. For much of my 20s, if I wanted to see her I had to take a 10-hour plane ride to Greece, spend a night in Athens and then brave another six hours on a ferry to get to the rocky outcrop she called home. This was an expensive endeavor for a barely employed actress/massage therapist.
The September of my 25th year I made the journey out of necessity. I thought I was in love with an actor who had played my husband in a summer stock production. He was a drunk and a cheater—and I was smitten. When I reported this news to my mother over the phone, I hoped she would empathize. After all, she had loved so many men who were unavailable. There was no commiseration, but there was the promise of a ticket. She had fortunately just been issued a new credit card. A cheap, inconvenient plane ticket was bought for me via Belgrade. My mother assured me that September in Greece would heal my broken heart.
I was a terrible houseguest. I cried at breakfast while my mother pretended not to notice. She hummed to herself and bustled about, pointing to cracking walls and leaking faucets that she could not afford to fix. She ignored my dramatic pronouncements. One morning, after a grim breakfast under an ancient pine, I accused her of being coldhearted and jumped on a bus for my favorite beach.
I sat on a rocky promontory, listening to Alanis Morissette on my Discman, and sobbed to the glassy Mediterranean about how alone I felt. There was a tap on my shoulder. It was P. I have known P since I was 10. His family is also from New York and, like my own, had been seduced by the crazy idea of building a house in Greece. He was on the island visiting his mother, who had her own ruin to restore in a neighboring village. We dived into the cold sea together. We laughed and reminisced about the elaborate alphabet we created as children the first summer we met. Later, as the sun dipped into the Aegean, we ate fried cheese balls and drank crisp white wine at a beachside taverna. P told me that he had run into my mother in town. She begged him to find me and console me. She had thrown her arms up in the air and confessed, “I am hopeless with the depressed!”
My mother threw me a birthday party a few days later. She borrowed a house that was fully completed for the occasion. Apart from the generous hostess, who was my childhood friend, she only invited men. The tourist season was officially over on the island, so it was slim pickings. She invited the two jewelers from town, who she thought were “devastatingly handsome.” They may well have been, if you squinted. She invited a Frenchman she’d picked up on a bus because she found his eyes “terrifyingly blue.” And also a teller from the National Bank of Greece, whose only special accomplishment was that he spoke better English than anyone else at the bank. She tried to invite the island garbage man because, though very obese, he was a good dancer. She wanted dancing men at my party.
I had a sudden wave of sympathy for Penelope in The Odyssey. It must have been so stressful for her to juggle all those suitors while Odysseus took his sweet time getting home. I pondered my options. I could either leave, or drink. I drank three big glasses full of Retsina, and then noticed P sitting alone at a small round table. His smiling eyes calmed me. He handed me a miniature malachite box with an uncut garnet inside. He had found the garnet on one of his long ambles around the island. Holding the smooth stone in my palm, I felt brave. I slipped off my flipflop and played footsie with P under the table. He slipped off his espadrille and ran his tanned toes up my ankle. I felt an electric shock up my spine. I tipsily whispered to him that I wished everyone else would leave. P jumped into action. He stood on the table and bellowed, “The party is over! Everyone needs to go home. Immediately!”
One of the joys of my married life was how easy things were between P and my mother. For someone who had made a string of questionable choices in love, she had been tough on my previous boyfriends. They were either “spiritually young,” “lacking gravitas,” or “small in their outlook.” But she sometimes praised P to the point where it got annoying. “He has such a fine mind,” she would say. “Of course he’s clever but he’s more than that. He’s an original thinker. So few people are original, darling.” As her own fine and original mind began to come apart, she would sit sipping sweet tea and talk to P about books. “P, which of Hawthorne’s Roman stories do you like the most?” Though he is the kind of man who looks like he could have read Hawthorne’s Roman stories, he hasn’t. But he is the kind of man who will ditch his afternoon plans to help out a childhood friend crying on a rock. He is also the kind of man who will stand on a table and yell at the top of his lungs to get the girl. He is the kind of man you are lucky beyond measure to have as a husband.
I sometimes think my mother was able to leave this world a little early because she knew her girls were settled in love. My sister K married one of my mother’s best and finest friends. She somehow managed to point us away from the romantic mistakes she had made again and again. Rather than dwell on her regrets, she helped her daughters find the thing she was never able to find in her own brave and bold life: the right guy.
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