Quite recently, while visiting me here in Edinburgh, a friend told me his wife had had the briefest of affairs. They had been married twenty years, had one child and, he was quite sure, his wife had always been faithful to him. But the previous year their only son had gone off to university abroad, and during that year the friend had worked away for a six-week stretch too. It was during this latter period that the affair took place. As they discussed what had happened when he got back, she told him she had been very lonely, and instead of reacting with scorn at such an obvious way of refusing responsibility for her actions, he remembered those first couple of months after their son had gone away. For several weeks she would leave his bedroom door open, feeling that by doing so she could somehow give the impression that he was still there. But instead of invoking his presence, it instead made her feel all the more his absence. Each time she would pass the room, she would glance in and find herself sobbing. After two months she closed the door, only now and again opening it – each time she did so she would find herself crying. She had told her husband this, and he suggested that he would lock the door and put the key somewhere she couldn’t find it.
While writing this, I cannot help thinking also of a story my girlfriend told me of a lover of hers when she was in her late teens. I had asked her, one afternoon while we were sitting on the bank of a river in a small town forty miles from Paris, what she was thinking about as I saw a sad look cross her otherwise happy visage, and she said that perhaps she shouldn’t say. There we were on a ten day trip in Paris, our first holiday together since we had started seeing each other six months earlier, and she admitted she was thinking of an ex-boyfriend. We were sitting on a blanket, or rather she was lying with one hand supporting her head as she leant towards me on her side, while I was sitting with my knees pulled in close to my chest. We had just finished a lunch of pan l’ancient, chevre, tomatoes and peaches warmly succulent from being picked perfectly ripe and warmed in the noonday sunshine. Was she ruining an idyllic moment, I might have thought, but at the time I had been inclined to think she was giving it the temporal texture often missing from moments that are almost memorable. In such moments we often don’t say what exactly happens to be on our mind.
What had happened, I asked. She told me that when she was sixteen and living in Inverness she met someone five years older than she was. He had long since left school and had just started working; he had recently finished his training as a spot welder and would work near Aberdeen, offshore. It was two weeks on and then two weeks off. He was earning a good living and treating her well and often: they would eat out to least once a week, go the cinema and concerts, and would go on trips round the Highlands in his car. Though her parents wondered whether it was appropriate for her to see someone who was older than she was, what appealed to her about him was how much she felt like an adult in his company, and also in his absence: at school she was seen as mature because she had a boyfriend with a car, a job and who would take her places.
They were together for two years but, when she went off to university, the qualities she saw as so attractive waned, and others that Donald didn’t have became manifest in other boys she would meet. Perhaps they were still boys and not quite men, she would sometimes wonder in those first few weeks at university while she was still with Donald, but they seemed possessed of a potential far greater than her boyfriend’s already fulfilled quota. The more she thought of her love for Donald, the more she noticed were that its best moments were behind her: all she could see were family and kids and probably a life in the north, either in Inverness or Aberdeen. When she thought about staying with him, she would feel constricted and arid; when she thought of leaving him, a vague sense of vertigo would come over her: a mixture of fear and excitement, guilt and unhappiness. It wasn’t even as though there happened to be one man that she was attracted to in particular. It was the environment in general; a milieu she couldn’t easily see Donald moving in. During that first term at university, she travelled back up north three times, but never once suggested that Donald visit her in Edinburgh. In her mind, she would tell herself that he would have been exhausted from working offshore; that the last thing he would have wanted to do was go all the way down to Edinburgh and stay with her in a small room in the halls of residence. No, better that she travel back up and stay in his much roomier studio apartment that he had managed to get a mortgage on in a development not far from the canal.
It would be wrong, she believed, to say that she was in denial over this: she knew well that she couldn’t consolidate her new life at university with her old one with her boyfriend, and it was hardly likely that she would leave university. She would leave him.
It was perhaps on odd feeling caressing Helen’s hair as she talked of how she went about breaking up with a partner ten years earlier, but I never felt for a moment that she was loving me any the less in the process of telling me how she had loved, and left, another. She told him between Christmas and Hogmanay, believing that perhaps the notion of a new year could allow him to see that new beginnings were needed. She expected him to feel sad, maybe even try and persuade her to stay, even offer to move south, but no. He first allowed his head to fall into his hands, then he started sobbing into them. His body was rocking gently at first and then more furiously. After a few minutes he got up, moved towards the cream wall that he hadn’t yet put any pictures and posters on, and started furiously banging his head against it. For a moment she looked on, as though this wasn’t happening because of anything she did or to anyone she knew, before going over to Donald and putting her arms around him. She wanted to tell him that she would stay, that she loved him and would never leave him. If she had more than one self perhaps she would have. She reminded me of a conversation we had a couple of months earlier. I believed in parallel worlds as a way of looking at meaningful relationships. In an affair of little consequence it has no afterlife, no continuation in a parallel world because it hadn’t earned the right to be meaningful enough in this one. I admitted there were two girlfriends before Helen where I thought that they could have continued: they ended not because they were meaningless, but our wishes and hopes incompatible. In one instance she wanted to travel far more extensively than I wished; in the other case she wanted to settle down when I didn’t. Very different reasons for parting, but this didn’t mean that the world of feeling couldn’t have continued.
I then asked Helen if it took him long to recover from their parting, whether he had managed to love someone else. After all, I believed that was the point of my emotional theory of parallel lives: there were others still to be lived, however important the ones we let go. When he accepted they wouldn’t any longer be together he refused all contact, but Inverness was not a large town and so she would hear every now and again about his entanglements and his whereabouts. He continued working offshore, and after around a year he started seeing someone who would have been a couple of years younger than Helen: she recalled that her older brother was in the same year as Helen happened to be. This was the woman he married, and with whom he’d had a child. She would sometimes hear one or two friends of hers say that they believed he never quite recovered from the break-up with Helen, and that the person he married always suspected that his feelings were never that pronounced. Others said that this might have been so; or it might have been an excuse – that she was rumoured to have affairs when he was working away. There were also rumours that he had a few episodes: that he’d been violent with friends, and Helen had heard he’d signed himself into a mental health clinic too.
She of course didn’t know the truth behind some of these claims, but she wasn’t surprised by them: he had shown instability that day when she said that she was no longer in love and had shown another sign of it around six months later when she was back in Inverness. She hadn’t left Donald for anyone else, but after about four months she started going out with someone at university, a French student who was on an Erasmus programme and wanted to see the Highlands. The course had finished; he had decided to spend the summer in Scotland to see more of the country and more of her, and so up to the Highlands they went.
They visited Aviemore, Nairn, and Strathpeffer, and drove around Loch Ness. They hired bikes and cycled the thirty-three miles from Inverness down to Fort Augustus, stayed the night there, and cycled back up the other side, through Foyers and then Dores. It was a new experience, cycling everywhere with a partner; with Donald they went everywhere by car. It was perhaps why she felt freer with Andre – not only was it new, not only was he foreign, not only was he interested in books and art, they were also out in the open, sweating their way up hills, breezily careening down them. It was a liberating feeling until the day before they returned to Edinburgh. She had attached their bikes to a lamp post, and as they started to walk hand in hand along the high street, she saw coming towards them Donald.
She automatically let go of Andre’s hand, and wondered if he might to do to Andre what he had done to himself, but instead he simply walked by as if he hadn’t seen them at all. She felt relief, guilt and dismay, and when Andre said with irritation why she had so suddenly pulled her hand away she apologised and grabbed his hand again. It was a strange moment: there she was fearing that Donald might attack Andre, and instead Andre didn’t even know that Donald had walked past them. A few days later she got a phone call from Donald’s mother. He had been arrested several nights before (the day he would have passed her on the street) for drunk and disorderly behaviour in the town centre. His mother asked if there had been any contact between them. Perhaps if she had ever felt any affinity with his mother she might have told her what had happened, but she always sensed that his mother didn’t like her as she remembered a remark the mother had made a few months after they had been together. “I hope you’re not here to take advantage of his money”, she said, in a tone that indicated any humorous intent was contained by a hint of threat. Helen said they hadn’t been in contact: said that she hadn’t talked to Donald since they had broken up. Thanks, the mother said.
There wasn’t really much more to the story than that, she said, and even wondered why she was telling me. Perhaps, she added, happy moments need to contain within them sad memories to be fully themselves: it is partly what makes us human. There was nothing she would have wanted to do more than lie there with me, but if she had been thinking these thoughts and not sharing them would it somehow have taken something from the moment? During the six months she had been with Andre, she had told him nothing about Donald at all. She said no more than that she had a boyfriend before university, and now she would say that this probably created a shallowness between them and in her. She enjoyed those moments with Andre very much, and it was lovely to have someone with whom she could lie in bed and read poetry with, or lie on the couch and watch films. But throughout those months she supposed that sitting beneath these new pleasures was an underfelt of old pain. After Andre went back to France, and for most of her second year at university, she felt very lonely and often listless. Initially, she believed it was because she was missing Andre: they had agreed to break up when he returned before the start of the new term. But she tested that feeling by visiting him in Paris during the Christmas break, and though she stayed in his apartment for several days, and they went to see films and would go for walks when the weather was dry, she could see that her trip to Paris was perhaps more an escape from returning to Inverness. She knew she didn’t love Andre, or at least not in a manner that was consistent with my notion of parallel lives. But did she still love Donald? No, of that she was sure. They could never talk about so many things, and she accepted that the only time in her life she could have gone out with him was the time that she had: when she wanted to feel grown-up before the event as he provided her with a prosthetic maturity. Now that she had to find it for herself, she knew that it was so specific a love – yet still, unlike her relationship with Andre, a meaningful one. After all, here she was talking about her time with Donald, and somehow Andre was no more than an appendage to it. She would sometimes dream of Donald, and in these dreams, both his mother and his wife were harsh women who could not give him the solace he barely knew he required. She would be there, neither quite his mother nor his wife, but someone who would not judge him, as though hoping he, in turn, would not be judging her.
As she finished she started to sob. I held her there on the banks of that river I would probably never see again, and I said that perhaps we never love enough or in the right way: that we always fail. No, she said, I was not failing at that moment.
There are various reasons why this recollection comes back to me, but the most obvious one would be that Helen that day had been telling me about her ex-boyfriend who was an offshore worker, and my friend, David, was saying that his wife, Melanie, had a brief affair while he was away. Yet there was no sense in which during Helen’s telling that she was lonely with Donald, her own loneliness came afterwards: long after she had left him. It wasn’t his absence; it was her absencing herself from him.
I asked David if he wanted to talk a little bit more about what had happened. Did he know the man Melanie had slept with? He said it was somebody who had come round a few months before and moved an oak tree from beside the house to the bottom of the garden. I recalled they needed to move it for the extension, and in an absurd aside asked how the tree was coping with its displacement. It seemed to be doing fine he said. And how did she see this man again?
David said he lived a few miles away from the village, in a house the man had built himself. He was in his late thirties, had never married, had no children. Some said that he had been in love with a woman in Istanbul, that they lived and worked in Saudi as English teachers, but they parted because she wanted children, or he wanted them, or she met someone else, or he did. The rumours proliferated out of ignorance, but what seemed clear was that he had lived abroad for around a decade, and had returned about five years ago. Melanie met him once more at an arts fair they would put on once a year in the village hall. She was one of the organisers; he was one of the painters. She didn’t initially know this as she assumed he was there to buy something, but when she said that she especially liked a couple of paintings that might interest him, he replied that they were interesting enough for him to have painted them.
As David told me this I was a little surprised that his wife wouldn’t have known who the painters were in advance but more surprised that David knew in such specific detail how they had met again. It suggested he had interrogated her for some time. I thought about how Donald had reacted when Helen had told him it was over, and yet, as David said, his wife didn’t want to break up their marriage; just admit to a misdemeanour and find a way of staying together. I asked if the affair was over; he said he was sure it was. How did he feel? Oddly, he admitted he felt quite secure and yet felt also an inexplicable guilt towards this man who slept with his spouse. He found himself thinking more of this man alone in his house a few miles away than of his wife in bed with him. Why did he feel sympathy for this man when he should have felt jealousy?
I had known David for many years. We met at university and I recall an incident after I had known him around nine months that made me aware of what I can only call his character. He had been attracted to a fellow student and met up with her a couple of times. It wasn’t until the third occasion that she told him that she had a boyfriend studying in another city, and that perhaps they shouldn’t remain friends. He concurred, but then they would see each other occasionally on this small campus (it was in Stirling) and she would again invite him to spend time with her. On the first couple of occasions he refused, and then when she saw him again, and asked him again, he said that he would, but only if the boyfriend would be there. She looked at him with a perplexed expression on her face and said she didn’t think that would be a good idea, and thereafter, when they saw each crossing the bridge, or at the gym, or out at night, she would look down rather than at him. Perhaps he would never have told me any of this if we hadn’t passed her and, knowing that a couple of months earlier he had told me he liked her, I was surprised they ignored each other. He told me what happened, and insisted that he wasn’t ignoring her at all. He had tried to meet her eye but she wouldn’t look up.
I asked him why he suggested the boyfriend should be there when they met. He couldn’t be certain of his motives, but he thought it was because by being there he could turn himself into the friend that he ought to be if she was already seeing someone else. Or, I suggested, he could be the person who could have power in an awkward situation. The boyfriend wouldn’t know anything, the girl would have felt uncomfortable, and he could feel empowered. I knew this was a grotesque reading of his motives, and there was little zeal to my devil’s advocacy, yet he responded with a smile, saying he couldn’t say. Who are we to judge our own motives, he said, as if wondering who ought to. Though he wasn’t religious, more than anyone I have known, David seemed to possess a religious sensibility. What I mean by this is that many of us assume that motives lie within us and our behaviour can be judged by others. This gives a twofold security to our value system. Let us say David’s motive was to have power in a situation with the girl and her boyfriend, and my purpose would be to judge his behaviour as manipulative and unreasonable. We don’t need a higher value there: the person and society can suffice. But if someone doesn’t know their motive, how can society be so sure in how to judge it? I always felt that David’s modesty in the face of his own motives, his willingness to say that he wasn’t quite sure why he would do something, rested on some vaguely religious notion, and I was reminded of it again when he told me about his wife’s affair.
Perhaps I bring together Donald and David’s stories as much because of their dissimilarities as their similarities. Helen didn’t cheat on Donald but she left him unequivocally; Melanie cheated on David but still very much wanted to be with him. But what I sensed when Helene left Donald was his selfishness, and what I saw in David was his selflessness. Donald reacted as if he didn’t really exist in the world, but chiefly in his nervous system, with Helen in the tissue of his nerves and Donald determined to bang his head off walls and hollering drunk in the town centre as if to eradicate her from his tissue. He acted with the height of selfishness because we are never more ourselves, and nobody else, than when our nerves dictate our behaviour. Yet David was not himself when he talked to me about Melanie’s affair; it was if he could evenly spread his being empathically across three people: himself, his wife and the lover. His own nervous system mattered less than a broader system of which he was a part. And yet this didn’t feel like a social system either, nor a particularly moral one. I have known of people who have been left, and cheated upon, and they draw either on self-pity as it seems Donald did, or social values: the notion that we have certain obligations to the person we are with. How could they just leave like that? We speak to friends and family, and they confirm our judgement that the other person has acted appallingly. David, though, seemed to find a position different to these two places, to discover some principle beyond, one that we might be inclined to call spiritual, and that would leave his own nervous system intact, and his values assured.
As I visited him a couple of weeks ago, and as he picked me up at the train station, I asked him how Melanie was by way of talking about whether he had sorted the situation out. He said she was fine; they were fine. He asked me how Helen was, and I said we would talk about it over the weekend at the house: on the car journey up to the cottage; it might be best to concentrate on his life first.
David said he didn’t feel there was very much to tell: that Melanie had never felt so lonely as she did during those six weeks. For the first week, she said that she slept in her son’s bed, after finally finding the key, but it was as if there was nowhere in the house where she felt a hint of companionship. She would come home after midday (working part-time as a teaching assistant) and the afternoon and evening lay in front of her: an insurmountable object of time. After a fortnight of this she would come back home, get changed and go for long walks. She would go to town and then round the loch on the way back, sometimes all the way down the hill to Contin. It was on one of these walks she passed the man who had helped her in the garden, and as they stopped to talk she could feel for the first time over the last fortnight the loneliness subsiding. She asked if he would walk often, and he said he tried to do so two or three times a week. As they both had no interest in the destination, they walked together, and by the end of their walk she knew she would like to see him again.
As David told me the story, I couldn’t understand why he allowed his wife to tell him this, and why he chose to tell me in such detail. Yet as he continued I knew that this was part of the spiritual sense he possessed: he managed to see his wife’s loneliness over the man’s seduction. I think even if Melanie had left him he would have retained his equanimity. David wouldn’t have judged, he wouldn’t have got angry. These walks continued for a couple of weeks, he said, and then, Melanie admitted, she slept with him twice, over at his house. In the final week, knowing that David was coming back, she didn’t see the man at all: she felt no desire to see him and waited with excitement but trepidation for David’s return. This is how she described it to him later, he said, as she met him at Inverness airport, and drove back to the village without saying a word. They had hugged and kissed at the airport, but afterwards, just as they got in the car, she said she had something to tell him, but it must wait until they arrived home.
As soon as they were through the door she started to sob and talked for an hour. He didn’t hold her until afterwards, saying that he shouldn’t have gone, not then, not when she was so fragile; when she had lost her only son. By the time he had finished telling me this we were several miles from the house, and David looked close to tears himself. He suggested we shouldn’t go straight back. It was a late June evening, it was still light, and we could park the car outside a village bar, get a drink and walk the twenty minutes back, picking up the car the next morning. I had no more than a rucksack. I thought it was a good idea.
In the bar we talked about my situation, as though by talking about me we would arrive at the house and see Melanie within the context of my problems, and not David and Melanie’s – though I am not sure if they had any problems, since a problem is what hasn’t yet been solved, and they seemed to have solved theirs.
So what then was my problem? That Helen and I had broken up. The story Helen had told me about her ex, was one of several that she conveyed to me in the following few months, and as she would describe her love life I felt increasingly like someone who was not her lover into the future, but the one of the moment. It wasn’t that I expected we would be together till death us do part, and we hadn’t talked at all about marriage or children. No, it was that I felt part of a chain that had started long before me and would continue long afterwards. What I also noticed was that she would talk about these ex-lovers in a way that suggested many of them ended up becoming obsessive and left her feeling suffocated, and that she would have to leave. I didn’t want to suggest to David that there was anything wrong with Helen; more that she seemed often to choose to be with men who wanted more out of the situation than she did. While I remember thinking that afternoon in the small French town where she talked about Donald as a moment of personal reminiscence, that she told me about what she thought, how she felt and something of her past, increasingly I saw it as a means by which she would keep her distance from me: to suggest that it would eventually end, as all the others had.
David might have been someone whose seriousness to the nuances of other people’s feelings could give the impression of humourlessness, but in fact he was very humorous indeed. I have often thought that his sense of humour came from the same place as his capacity for empathy: both suggested a sense of perspective. So, he asked, had I left Helen because I was worried that she would leave me, and isn’t that what teenagers do? He was being facetious, he admitted, but knew also that I had over the years sometimes confused hurt feelings with a hurt ego: that I would protect myself and forego certain feelings. Was I doing it again?
I couldn’t easily answer that, but I told him why I had extricated myself from the situation. A week before, Helen and I were at the cinema watching a film set in Lithuania about two strangers who meet and start to fall in love. She has a lesbian lover in France, he has a daughter in Finland but a wife who left him years earlier. Instead of talking about the film, Helen started telling me about a similar fling she had several years before. It was one of the most memorable affairs of her life, she said, and lasted no more than seventy-two hours. Unlike the time when we lay on the bank, with the river flowing slowly and the sun melting the brie, and where our bodies were sweatily entangled, this time we drank wine in the cinema cafe bar and the room echoed with the laughter of people who had just come out of another film (a comedy that we had wanted to avoid), I felt a distance much greater than two people sitting across from each other at a table. I looked at her and said I would have liked to have talked about the film; not yet again about her love life. She looked at me startled; we had never argued at all in the year that we had known each other. I looked back I suppose with a dismay I would have understood no better than she, and left. She phoned me a couple of times; left a text message, and emailed me too. I didn’t reply to any of them. David was right, I had on occasion removed myself from situations to protect myself, but never in such a way that it was as if I was turning into someone else in the process. I would always talk, always be open for communication. Yet not this time.
David couldn’t but admit he found it ironic that there he had been willing to listen to his wife’s affair while they were a couple, and there I was unable to hear about a fling Helen had with another man long before I had started seeing her. I couldn’t easily explain it rationally, but I said even though he had met the man whom his wife had briefly been seeing, it was not a film of their affair. It was like I had seen the complicity of those seventy-two hours between Helen and this man by watching the film that had accessed certain feelings in me. Perhaps Helen was seeking to replicate the odd intimacy where her telling me about Donald made me feel closer, but this time it appeared to generate not just distance, but anxiety in me too. All those glances between the characters, the caresses they gave each other, I imagined she had given to this man. Where I was one of many boyfriends, I was not the lover. I was the prosaic and not the poetic. David laughed loudly at my final flourish, saying he always found it interesting where one’s imagination goes; then said we really ought to be going: Melanie asked him to be back for eight.
That evening as the three of us ate together I watched to see if anything had changed between them. I wondered if David’s tone might be a little resentful; Melanie’s attitude subservient or mocking, anything that would have hinted of the affair which had taken place. Melanie knew that David had talked to me about it, and at one moment she even alluded to it as if to say that she didn’t want me to think that she was refusing to confront it at all. I had always enjoyed their company as a couple, and I felt no differently that night. Yet I couldn’t help imposing upon their marriage a few issues of my own. Over the next couple of days I would sometimes go on walks with them, but each morning go on a solitary one too. I needed time to myself to understand an aspect of myself: why had I reacted so strongly to Helen’s last confession?
Of course, we are each of us made differently; but it is all very well to say that David and I were dispositionally dissimilar, but I believed there was in his remark about imagining things in certain ways what I can only call a failure in my being. It is not as though I believe in the perfectibility of the human, but I have always wondered whether political improvements count for anything if we can’t make progress within ourselves. A world full of Davids would probably not be at war and wouldn’t have great inequality, but a world full of people like me? If David’s imagination seemed so often to concern itself with others and their well-being, did my own not usually focus on myself and my fear and distrust of others? I often thought not of what people were doing or thinking, but what they were doing or thinking about me. Of course, I have never reacted to a break-up as Donald did, but that probably speaks of self-control rather than consideration: between Donald’s mental instability and David’s capacity for thinking through the minds of others, I suspect I am closer to Donald than David. But what about Helen? If she had been thinking of me more, would she have talked so fondly of the lover that she couldn’t easily get out of her mind and who found his way into mine in the form of a character in a film? For the first time on one of those morning walks I started to think about Melanie and the richness of her imagination towards her son, so vivid in its reminiscing, and so constant in its sense of loss, that she could not pass his room without a sudden rush of tears.
Imagination is indeed a strange thing: it can drive us half-mad like Donald, into an affair like Melanie, into her emotional past, like Helen, or into words on a page as I happen to be doing here. I can’t deny I am preoccupied with myself over others, and no doubt this story confirms it. But if I cannot easily empathize with others people that isn’t quite the same thing as saying I have no interest in their predicaments and their problems. It is more that I cannot do so without feeling certain vibrations in my body, the selfishness, I suppose, of my own nervous system. When I think of Helen, when I think of her past lovers and especially this briefest of flings that she had, I cannot do so without feelings coursing through me that include anger, resentment, frustration, betrayal and jealousy. David seemed to feel none of these things when thinking of Melanie, or rather they were of secondary importance to how she felt.
As I prepare to leave and go back down south, I wonder whether I will contact Helen again. Perhaps I do not need to possess the equanimity of David, the capacity to regard the feelings of others as more important than my own, but merely accept that my anger with Helen doesn’t reside in my empathic abilities and their absence in her, but that we are both selfish people pre-occupied by our own concerns and occasionally hurting others in the process. I suspect what will happen is that neither of us will contact the other one, but we might soon enough pass each other in the streets and instinctively, without thinking about it, say hello and walk on, stop and have a conversation that could lead to a meeting or to a quick goodbye, or ignore each other altogether. Perhaps it will depend on whether we are in the company of friends, or with a new partner. If she happens to be with someone else I hope I can walk past her with rather different results than when she walked past Donald with Andre. Yet, as I’ve just proposed, maybe I am closer to Donald than I am willing to admit, and I sometimes wonder whether the purpose behind writing this story finally isn’t to explore a friend’s saved marriage, but to say something about a young man’s lurch into mental illness after a break-up that led to a break-down. I feel if it is more the former than the latter, then I might be able to claim a degree of well-being I felt was temporarily taken from me in an affair of the heart that infected just a little the workings of my mind. We will see.