1999 was a tough year for me.
It was two years after our tragic school bus accident, and I hadn't talked about the emotional impact of that event yet. On April 10 of that year, exactly two years after the event itself, we were served with lawsuits from the truck company that employed the driver who ran the stop sign and hit our bus, killing three of our students. By early that summer, I was sleeping nearly 18 hours a day and trying to keep up with work and family. Finally, I succumbed and started taking anti-depressants. I started with Prozac but hated the side effects and switched to something else. I took that medication for almost a year, and was actually glad when I stopped taking it. It helped me through a tough time, but it also made me feel much like a zombie most of the time. It felt good when I could feel things again.
That was the year that my husband opened our CompuServe account and started going to adult chat rooms. Eventually, I found I really liked that environment - it was like a party only you didn't have to get dressed up and go out in the cold to be social. But ridiculous things happened there, primarily people falling in "love" with people they had never met in person. Honestly, how can you fall in love with someone when you don't even know how they smell? Dumb.
I met someone online who agreed with me. His handle was Pjcjr34 and he was hilarious. He thought the couple/love thing was ridiculous too and we started to have private chats mocking all the online lovers. Eventually, we agreed to meet online every Saturday night at 11:00 pm and he'd tell me stories about his life and I'd share stories about mine. We talked other times too as family life and his dating life allowed. We were the best kind of friends - we could be as honest and open as we wanted to be because neither of us knew the people involved, and so we weren't being disloyal or creating an awkward situation for anyone in our lives. For me, the people in his life were more like characters. I fell in love with his children and enjoyed the comedy of many of his dating stories.
And I shared my life. At first, it was completely innocent. I'd say something and could tell he disapproved. As the level of intimacy evolved, so did the amount of information I shared. He was the first person who told me to get out of my marriage - and he was the first person who knew enough to say that with conviction.
One morning after a long night of intense conversation - by that time on the phone - I got to work and opened my email. I had one from him. I opened it and read these words: "I'm just going to say it. I love you." My world sort of imploded in that moment because I realized I cared for him too. It still seemed safe - he was a long ways away and sort of a work of fiction. I kept that single sentence taped inside my drawer for a long time and when my life was most unbearable, I opened the drawer and reread it.
Things were evolving in my marriage too. My porn-addicted husband started talking about which of my friends might agree to a threesome, and he talked of adding another man to our relationship. He wanted me to wear certain things and do other things. There was a very strong divide between who we were as a couple in public and who we were in the dark. And it was too hard for me to reconcile the two sides and not feel shame and guilt. That's when I stopped going to confession. I knew that part of our life was wrong, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it, so I erroneously thought I would be making a false confession if I went. I have since learned that I could have and should have kept going. It would have helped. Instead, I tried to deal with the shame and guilt on my own. Sex became cheap.
Meanwhile, my relationship with PJ was a steady source of peace and lots of giggles. I sort of envisioned him as if he were my husband (all the good parts) but also as someone who cared what I had to say, made special time for me in his life, and treated me with respect. I was wrong about that. He's just as flawed as anybody else, and he doesn't have all my husband's good qualities. He also doesn't have his bad ones, and for that reason will remain a friend for the duration of my life.
One day something changed for him. "The relationship has to move to the next level or it needs to end. It's stagnant," he said. He wanted to meet in person. A year later, I met him.
Without lying directly to my husband, I left for the weekend and drove to Tomah, WI, for the Cranberry Festival. PJ met me there and we had a great time. We crashed a wedding, went to the Festival to shop for cranberries, and ate some amazing meals. It felt like hanging out with my best friend, except we shared a bed too. That was a little surreal to me even though sex with my husband was not the religious experience it should have been. I knew that PJ and I were not meant to be together as lovers. But we made great friends.
After that weekend in Tomah, I stayed with him a few other times. Twice we stayed in Chicago and twice in Nashville. I agonized over keeping that relationship, but it was a really good thing at a really bad time, so I kept on keeping on. There's no justification for an affair. It's wrong. I knew it was wrong. I didn't care that it was wrong. It gave me a friendship I valued and still do.
When my husband found out about it, I was relieved. I had debated telling him repeatedly, but thought I was only doing it to purge my guilt, and I rationalized that it wasn't fair to him to do that. He found out eventually, though I never told him all the details.
His response makes me sick to my stomach to this day. "Had you told me, I could have watched."
Yeah. There's a broken man. A sad man and victim of a wife's poor choices. Or maybe that's a man who has spent far too many hours watching and dreaming of pornographic sex.
After that my husband and I opted to renew our marriage vows and make a new creation of our relationship. I believed we had, and that things were going in the right direction. It wasn't long before he discovered Watcher's Web with amateur housewives posting nasty pictures of themselves and it because his new home. By 2009, he was engaged in a relationship with an employee who denigrated me both in my workplace and via her social media; he believed her when she denied it and maintained that relationship for eight months. His loose ideas about sex and about other women led to him wanting to have sex in public in San Francisco during our anniversary trip. What he said the day after ("You are the best wife ever [for having sex with me in public]!") killed any hope I had of experiencing a truly good and intimate marriage. I resigned myself to living with his needs and desires for the rest of my life - with the full knowledge that he would never appreciate my whimsical nature, intelligence, or care-giving self as I was.
Thank God my husband's subsequent choices forced a different resolution. I many never have a 50th wedding anniversary like I imagined. But I will also never be 71 years old looking back at my life in sadness and regret for living fifty years like that. Instead, when I am 71, I am going to look back over these next 25 years and be grateful for the opportunity to start fresh and to maybe find someone who will value all of me and the gifts I have to offer. Or maybe I'll be happy just as I am, independent and content in the new world I am creating for myself.
My husband continues to threaten me with then possibility of revealing a chat message he found between PJ and I from 2004. I'm not sure what relevance that had or has after more than a decade, a forgiveness, a restatement of our vows, another decade of marriage, followed by a pornographic relationship with a former friend of mine and a nasty divorce, but there it is.
And guess what? I know that I value the friendship I have with PJ, and am thankful for his presence in my life. He is a Christian man who acknowledges his own failings, and accepts mine. He recently married and is happy in his new life as a husband and grandpa. I still love hearing his stories, and know he will listen to mine and be a champion in my corner. He still makes me laugh out loud at his sheer unadulterated goofiness. That relationship has evolved from something sordid and shameful to a real, loving friendship I value.
I no longer feel the need to live in shame and guilt. I did what I did and paid the consequences. The truth isn't scary, nor does it need to dwell in darkness. It just is what it is. I don't mind talking about it; in fact, I told my friends, including the one who now lives with my husband. And I will attest that I am thankful that my choices didn't destroy three families, four children, nor any friendships or community connections. My husband never had to look PJ in the face or suffer me meeting him around town at the racquetball courts, the community center, various parks, and the local Walmart. I will cling to that little bit of integrity that remains. Even doggies don't poo where they eat - or something like that.