My phone buzzed again; shit I knew it was him. As the woman wasn’t, I supposed to be the overly attached one in this scenario. I stood in my perfect kitchen, in my perfect house, baking cookies during quarantine, playing perfect wife and mother to the life I had built. Well, quarantine life was not what I had built, but like the entire world, I was making the best of it. We were in week three and both my husband and I had moved our lives from outside to inside. We both travelled a lot for work, separately of course. All that time apart left a human need for intimacy, so on occasion, I took care of it, sometimes alone, sometimes with company. My husband, Ken, and I never discussed it but I felt that he had done the same. My actions of infidelity weren’t weaponized, they just filled a basic need, nothing more.
I remember sitting in a cab in Prague when one of Ken’s flings called me. She was angry that he had broken off whatever arrangement they had. I had my suspicions that he was sleeping around but had not confronted them until now. In the back of that taxicab, his actions slapped me hard. The woman on the other end of the phone was hysterical, and something inside me told me that I was not going to play the victim, that I would handle this on my terms. I told the woman on the phone, “that’s what happens when you sleep with a married man. Never call me again,” and hung up the phone. When I got back to the hotel, I walked up to my room and changed into clothes to go out, like I was on autopilot. That night I got blindingly drunk and took some random man back to my room. Honestly, I don’t even remember his name. The next morning, with the worst hangover of my life, I kept waiting for the feeling of guilt, but it wasn’t there. I didn’t run home and tell Ken what I had done, I kept it to myself.
From that night on, when I wanted company, I found it, and although Ken and I never discussed it directly, I felt that he understood and was relieved. When Ken and I both happened to be home at the same time, it now took pressure off of both of us. My actions were like a relief valve on a pressure cooker between us, it just worked. After my first night in Prague, I did set some ground rules which I had never broken until recently.
Rule # 1: I never used my real name.
Rule # 2: We always got a room. I didn’t bring men back to the hotel where I was staying, nor did I go to their place.
Rule # 3: The guy had to be a local
Rule # 4: No contact information, exchanging of phone numbers, emails etc.
Rule # 5: Never sleep with the same guy twice no matter how good the sex was.
Paolo had not just caused me to break my own rules but smash them entirely. I met him one night in Seattle out at a bar. I was there on business and he was too. We struck up a conversation at the bar. He was in town for a musician’s conference and expo. He made bespoke guitars out of his loft on the West side of Chicago, the same city where I lived. Rule #1- broken. He had this indie rocker vibe going on, the night we met, with his chocolate brown hair resting on his shoulders, and a wool beanie on his head. He wore a beard, thick, and normally that was turn off for me, but that night it was working. The first night we slept together I made a mistake and broke my second rule, we went back to my room. When we got in, I popped into the bathroom to freshen up and didn’t think anything of it. Paolo spotted my papers that I had left out on the desk, seeing my real name, Katie Morgan, not Jenny Anderson, my fake name. This was rule #3 broken. That first night with Paolo I didn’t know it was possible to feel that much pleasure. It was the best sex of my life. The next morning when I woke Paolo was gone but he had left his card on top of my papers on the desk in the room. I went on with life, often thinking about him and that night, wondering if it had been my imagination or if the sex had really been that good. I wanted to see him again and challenge my own perceptions of that night. Ken had a birthday coming up and had always dabbled with the guitar. I decided to buy him a new bespoke guitar and I knew who to buy it from. I called Paolo to see about ordering a guitar for Ken and was surprised when he remembered me. We arranged a time when I could come to the warehouse and pick out the elements for Ken’s birthday gift.
Two weeks later I drove over to the warehouse on the west side of the city. It didn’t look like much from the outside. I knocked on the nondescript green metal door, hoping that someone would hear me. I had butterflies in my stomach the entire drive over. I knew this was a bad idea but I had not been able to help myself. The door jerked open and there Paolo stood in the daylight, in the same city I lived in, knowing my actual name, and he was just as handsome as he was the on the night we had met. He smiled as he invited me in. The warehouse smelled of wood, as various workstations had been abandoned for a lunch break. There were numerous guitars in various states of construction. Paolo showed me around the shop floor. I noticed his hands, how he moved, it all felt like a mating dance. I picked out the materials for Ken’s guitar, feeling the whole scene was surreal, as he backed me up against the brick wall in the shop. We barely made it to his office before we were ripping clothes off of each other. He fucked me on his desk, it was the most erotic moment of my life.
Sleeping with Paolo soon became a regular occurrence when I was home, and that unnerved me. I only stepped out of my marriage while travelling, and when the need arose, not at home in the city I lived with my husband. Paolo could do things to my body that I didn’t even know it could do, and I found myself addicted to his touch. I felt untethered to reality when I was with him like I wasn’t in control of anything, and that scared me. One night as we lay in his bed, in his apartment in the top floor of the warehouse, I mentioned that I had to go to London for work for the next two weeks and that it would be a while before I could see him again. It was my way of putting some distance between us, this arrangement was turning into something else quickly and it unnerved me.
Two days after I arrived in London, on a Friday night, I came back to the hotel to find Paolo standing out front. Seeing him there scared me. I kept my feelings to myself. We did not leave the room for the entire weekend, neither of us able to satisfy the need for each other’s bodies long enough to consider leaving. That Monday, when I went off to work, as I walked down the wet sidewalk, I knew I was in trouble with Paolo. This felt like an affair, not something transactional, satisfying a need. I knew I needed to end it. I told myself when I got back to the hotel that evening I would. That night I fell into bed with him again and didn’t end it.
We flew back home to Chicago early, due to the virus that was spreading, as there was a rumor that the borders would be closed. As we sat on the flight together, and it was clear to me that he had fallen in love with me. I had feelings for him too but mine did not match. I still loved my husband and had made very clear from the beginning of the tryst that I was married and had no intention of leaving my husband. I went back to the warehouse with Paolo that night and ended things, I had to, the situation was swallowing me up whole.
The next week was a blur, with quarantine lockdown coming into effect. Ken and I both had our jobs move from out in the world to inside our own home. Our three school-aged sons were home too. I found it odd how easily I slid into the life of devoted mother and wife, but I felt like a fraud. Paolo had called and texted begging me to come back to him. I knew as I looked at my phone buzzing on the edge of the counter, it was him calling. I transferred the hot chocolate chip cookies off of the baking tray onto a cooling rack trying to ignore the call. I felt a pang of guilt to cut him out of my life so swiftly, as I sent the call to voicemail.
That evening as I made dinner my phone rang and rang. I eventually had to turn it off, as I made dinner. Ken and I watched a movie after we put the kids to bed. I poured myself another glass of wine as Ken announced he was going upstairs to bed. It wasn’t until the house was quiet that I was brave enough to turn my phone back on. I sipped my wine as I listened to Paolo’s voicemails. His voice was raspy as he said he had come down with a cold. He professed his love for me over and over again. I was so tempted to text him, I felt terrible, I had not intended for things to get so complicated. I stared down at my phone, taking one last drink of the wine in my glass. I typed, “I’m sorry.” I stared at it trying to think through what my actions would cause. I had unintentionally done enough damage. I erased my text and went up to bed.
That night I slept poorly. I dreamt of Paolo and me together. I was happy in my dream. I woke the next morning feeling unrested and conflicted. I dug into my work for the day, as Paolo kept calling. I found that part of me wanted to pick up the phone and talk to him, to make it right, but deep down I knew I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to leave Ken. I loved my husband and had always made that clear. The whole world seemed so surreal, with everyone at home, sheltering in place from the virus, and me going through a breakup. I debated whether or not to tell Ken. We had the sort of marriage where I knew I could tell him anything, but during a quarantine was not the best timing I thought to myself. Over the next two weeks, the Paolo stopped calling and I was relieved.
I was making dinner one evening about a month later, watching the kids play in the back yard through the kitchen window when Ken came in. He came up next to me and kissed me on the cheek, putting his arms around me. It felt wonderful, right, to be in my husband’s arms. I stirred the chilli and I hugged his arms across my chest. I could hear our children laughing out in the back yard. There was something in Ken’s body language that was off. I took the spoon out of the chilli and set it on the spoon rest as I turned around. Ken walked over to the small bar in the family room and poured us each a drink. He brought the two glasses over and set them on the kitchen table.
“We need to talk,” he said.
My stomach sank, as I knew Paolo had to have contacted my husband. I tried not to tremble as I walked across the kitchen and sat down next to him. He slid my glass over to me.
“I have something I need to tell you and I am not sure how you’re going to react.”
I stared at him blankly, trying to give him my bed poker face.
“Paolo passed away.”
I sat there still, unsure how to react.
“His family asked that you get this letter he wrote to you,” Ken said as he took it out of his back pocket and slid it across the table.
My hand shook as I reached out for it.
“Did you read it,” I asked as my voice cracked.
“No, but I did know about him, that you two had a fling.”
“Yes, one of the kids scratched the guitar you gave me. I took it back to him to have it fixed. I walked into his office and it smelled like you, your perfume was still in the air. I asked him outright, if he was sleeping with you. He didn’t hide from it, he answered that he was and that he was in love with you.”
Ken took a sip of his whiskey.
“I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure if you felt the same for him.”
“I didn’t. I’m sorry, this mess is my fault. What happened?”
“He died from the virus.”
I felt the tears on my cheeks before I even realized I was crying.
“Did you love him?”
“N..no, not like I love you.”
“He called me a few weeks back when you got back from London and told me he was going to ask you to marry him.”
“What? No, he never asked, I wouldn’t have let him. Why didn’t you say anything to me about this?”
“I wanted you to be free to make your own decision. I love you but I wasn’t going to make you stay with me.”
I picked up my glass that he had set in front of me and drank the whole pour in one massive gulp.
“Do you want to stay with me?”
“Katie I love you and I am not going anywhere. This time together with all of us home and put things in a different light. I am not going to sit here and pretend to be the model husband. I know you know about my own infidelity. It just seemed when things were so busy that it was just the way things needed to be. I realize now, being together like this, that maybe it isn’t worth it, this life we’ve chosen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I want you, all of you. I want us to be together. I want to reevaluate things. What are we doing? We’re never here for our kids, each other… What so we can have a membership to the country club we never go to? I want things to change, this time has given us a glimpse of what life can be like if we choose it.”
I sat silently as I wondered when our priorities had changed so drastically.
“Will you read the letter, I don’t think I can?”
I slid it back across the table, and Ken picked it up. I watched him open the envelope and he unfolded the letter. I scanned his face for any emotion as he read it. He finished reading and folded putting it back into the envelope.
“He saw what an amazing person you are too. He really loved you.”
I wiped the tears from my cheeks, as Ken put his and over my hand that rested on the table. Our kids burst through the back door and ran through the kitchen as our son, Trevor stopped, noticing I was crying.
“What’s wrong with mom,” he asked?
“A friend of her’s passed away. Go play.”
“I’m sorry about your friend mom,” he said as he walked out of the kitchen after his brothers.
I stood up and Ken rose too. I wrapped my hands around him and there was a split second where I wondered if he’d reciprocate, when he did, I was filled with relief. He kissed the top of my head.
“Let’s change some things. You’re right, this isn’t the life either of us willingly signed up for. We’ve been walking these paths in our careers not looking at the true cost. I want to fix this. You are the most amazing man, I’ve ever met. How you can stand here holding me right now after all of this…”
“I love you Katie.”
“I love you too.”