Forgiveness After An Affair

No matter who has the affair, we all participate in the demise of our love, says Arielle Silver.

At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair scandal, I was newly graduated from college and living in Boston with my boyfriend. Our spacious apartment on the lower level of a two-family Victorian had a sweet backyard garden that the beekeeper next door unwittingly kept in beautiful blooms. In the summer we would brew tea from the clover blooms and mint we found, make cherry pies from the tree, and stuff lilacs in jars that we placed in the kitchen windows. On Sundays the dining room table was strewn with sections from the Globe as we lazed about until someone picked up a guitar and retreated to a quiet corner.

The political scandal was the first of our young adult years. We followed it nonchalantly, unsure of what the fuss was about. Meanwhile, I spent that year fielding angry/sad phone calls from my brother and mother. At home in Florida, they were tangled in their own confusing clues that my father was also having an affair.

Up to that point, for nearly 25 years, my parents managed to keep a tenuous hold on our shaky family. There were slammed bedroom doors, and a lot of silent car rides, but mostly I remember my younger years with a bottled up feeling like a jostled two-liter of soda ready to explode. My parents were in college when they met, and only six months older when they married, but in my own early years I could not understand why their youthful romance didn’t equip them to cobble together more than the wobbly foundation on which our family was built.

“Get a divorce!” I shouted from the top of the stairs.

My brother and I often speculated about our futures.

“Whatever mom and dad do, I’ll do the opposite,” he’d say.

“I’m moving far away. To France, maybe,” I’d say.

“I’ll go to England. We can visit each other,” he’d say.

By the spring of President Clinton and my father’s affairs, when I wasn’t making cherry pies from the garden, I was working my first office job. The job smothered my spirit. I detested the passionless work, but my student loan repayments had kicked in. On the weekends, grasping for a thread of the artsy, bohemian life I’d always envisioned for myself, I lugged my guitar and an amp out to busk in Harvard Square. Between the trouble in Florida and my gloomy job, I felt like I was fighting for my life one song at a time.  

Meanwhile, after taking a year off, my boyfriend went back to school to finish his Fine Arts degree. He was exhilarated by his work there, and spent long hours in the sculpture rooms welding hunks of metal into large clumps that, frankly, I didn’t really understand. Despite our already-three years and promises of a lifetime together, we were becoming less like two peas in a pod and more like two boats adrift.

One night, at the end of a long day, we tiredly crawled into bed. I curled up in a ball and closed my eyes as my boyfriend wrapped himself around me. I had nearly drifted off to sleep when I felt his hand on my leg.

“Hon?” he said into the darkness. With my eyes closed and halfway to dreamland, I felt like there were a million miles between us.

“Mmmm?” I said sleepily.

There was a long pause.

“I kissed a girl at the studio today,” he said.

A black hole enveloped me, sucking in all the breath and light of the universe.

“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice small as a seed. “One time? You kissed a girl one time?”

“Well, for a few weeks. Just kissed.”

Twenty minutes later, I stood wrapped in blankets in the middle of the bedroom, bright overhead lights glaring in interrogation. We re-enacted the Lewinsky trials in our home. As the clock ticked, the story changed, and the details drew out one by one. Six months. Her apartment. Sex? That depends on your definition.

“Do I know her?”

“No,” he paused. “Maybe.”

Years later, in grad school, I told my then-lover, “Don’t tell me. If you have an affair, I don’t want to know. It’s your betrayal, you deal with it.” That night with my boyfriend, though, I didn’t know how deeply the heart could crack. He and I had been each others’ first loves. He was my expanding universe, my proof of undying passion. Affairs were something for presidents, or fathers, or movies. There could never be something like an affair between us. Until there was.

He and I stayed together for a while longer, but by the time the Lewinsky scandal faded from the news we were long lost from each other. I blamed him for our demise, refusing the slightest notion that I played any role in our dissolution. During that time I also lost touch with my father. In my mind, my mother and I were the victims. Every few weeks my dad called and left messages on the machine, but I never responded.

Then, a number of years later, I found myself once again living in the Boston area. With my graduate school application tucked under my arm, I stepped into the queue at my old Harvard Square post office. A familiar voice behind me said my name. My old boyfriend. He was wearing an old leather coat of my father’s that we found one spring break in the attic of my parent’s house. It was almost five years since we last saw each other. I’d forgotten how tall he was.

How do you greet the man who was your first love? The one who showed you the happiest days of your life, and then broke your heart? We mailed our respective envelopes, and went down the street for tea.

That afternoon, as we sipped our tea and Turkish coffee at Café Algiers, I couldn’t help but look at him with wonder. By then I had long conceded my own participation in what led to the end of us. In those post-college days we bounced off each other so much we had ended up in different corners of the ring. Across from me sat the boy who first cracked me open. I realized with amazement that my heart, while somewhat scarred, had finally healed.

Six months later, in the Back Bay library at the college where I was doing my graduate studies, an email from my father popped in my inbox. My parents were long divorced by then. My dad had remarried a year or so earlier—I was invited to the wedding, but of course never responded—and now was expecting twins with his new wife. It was strange to think those babies would be my half-siblings. I softened in compassion for them. They’d find out in due time how tricky relationships are. Until then, I thought, they are too innocent to be spotted with the petty dramas of our family history.

The heart-wrenching messiness of an affair is never good. If only we could always end relationships with the love and grace we have when we start them. Maybe, ultimately, optimism is what makes us hang around too long. Then at the very end, in our rush to be free, or our attempt to hold on, we wreak havoc. Over the years, as I made my way through layers of healing, I discovered my own culpability. By extension, I found my mother’s as well. No matter who has the affair, we all participate in the demise of our love. It takes two to tangle.

Out of the blue, after years of silence, I finally responded to my father’s note.

“Hi, dad. I’m sick as a dog. My head is filled with snot. Love, Ari.”

Forgiveness is a powerful thing, but it doesn’t always come easy. For me it took years, but I can imagine my dad’s smile when he got that note. It wasn’t eloquent, and it didn’t catch up on lost time, but he had thrown a line over and over, and, finally, I cast back.

Arielle Silver is a writer, musician, and yoga teacher. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and stepdaughters.

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