This is the coat I have affairs in. The thought hit me, hands in my pockets, walking through the Times Square subway station with old Death Cab pumping through my earbuds. It was raining, and I was wearing my favorite trenchcoat. I thought of the first line of Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman”: “Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.” This coat had been with me through years of rainy-gray Marches and Aprils, months spent with men who weren’t mine, who belonged to someone else.
I had my first affair when I was twenty and didn’t own a lot of nice clothes yet. I have a photo he took of me, sitting on a plastic chair outside an abandoned steel mill. In it, I’m wearing a coat with some kind of gray weave, something smaller than houndstooth. It’s fitted at the waist, with princess seams and a small, upright collar. It fit me but didn’t; I wasn’t old enough to know how to wear it. He was seventeen years older than I was, with a newborn baby, and I never had to try very hard. All I had was being twenty, and that’s all I needed to give him.
Or maybe what I gave him was the last year in which I didn’t know I was beautiful, the last year in which I wore sales-rack coats over cut off sweatpants and didn’t care. I wasn’t innocent then, but I didn’t know how complicated everything could be. I saw the pulsing, truthful way in which he loved his wife, and years later I would understand that the world was just as I suspected, much more gray and much less clear than I had thought at twenty. I look at that photo now and think, I gave him the last time in my life when I truly did not know what love was.
Two years ago, I had an affair with a married man twice my age during the exact two months of my life in which that math would be absolute truth. The affair began on a day I didn’t expect it to. There were other days when I thought it might have happened but didn’t. On those days, I wore a vintage red chiffon dress, or matte red lipstick, or billowy red blouses that showed off my collarbone. When it did finally begin, I was wearing some androgynous getup, a collared shirt and tie. It felt perverse, watching his man-hands remove a tie from my woman-neck. I watched his hands do it and I felt embarrassed for him. He was using muscle memory, but backwards, inverted. I felt embarrassed for myself. I didn’t feel like a child, but worse: I felt my age. I wished I had been wearing anything else, anything that didn’t make me feel so youthful and free-spirited. I got dressed and stuffed the tie in my bag because I didn’t know how to put it back on without the aid of a YouTube video.
I started dressing older, or at least what I thought older dressed like. They were all so heavy, the things he held: our professional relationship, a wedding ring, my schoolgirl heart. I didn’t want him to think of my age, because if he did, I don’t think he would have trusted me to balance everything and still breathe. I wouldn’t realize until months after it ended, having a panic attack in a Pittsburgh grocery store, that I was in fact, not breathing.
I let myself buy an expensive silk dress that I couldn’t afford. I had the image of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. I wore this dress to lunch, under the trenchcoat, with strappy, ladylike heels. They were brown suede and fastened around my ankles and cut a little into my legs. Lunch happened two miles away from where the affair started, on the other side of Cambridge, where we wouldn’t run into anyone we knew. He made reservations under his own name and we talked for two hours about how we shouldn’t be having an affair. He talked and I tried to talk. I held a giant glass of red wine with both hands and sank down into the banquette. My dress spread around me and I was Alice, shrinking in Wonderland. A pile of cream silk and navy dots. My feet didn’t touch the floor.
We kept making plans to talk. I went to see him wearing a gray cotton dress that was supposed to be Grecian-looking, I think. It was from Zara, and I can’t believe it lasted as many years as it did. The dress dipped past my sternum and I didn’t wear anything underneath, and I knew that it would fall off my shoulder a little without trying. In one motion he went from his rolling chair to crouched in front of me, one hand under the fabric. His fingers were together and they didn’t move, my left breast a miniature baseball in a glove. He cupped my breast and talked about what we wanted to do to each other, if we could do anything to each other. I sat in his office for two hours and got so wet that I stained part of the dress in cloudy concentric circles. I walked the mile home with my fist around the hem. We never slept together.
My last affair was this year. It happened in the spring and in vintage. I had a black wool dress with long sleeves and a high, jeweled collar. It was open in the back and I think one of my tattoos could be seen. It fit in the hips but was too big in the waist, so the back of it bowed out to the sides just a little. It was short, but the long sleeves evened it out, gave it proportion. It was itchy. The man and I made plans in Manhattan, took separate cabs, met in Brooklyn. We were already drunk, so we split one beer and then he came up to my apartment to talk, as if asking someone up to your apartment to talk has ever not been a lie. I was too drunk and tired to stay in the vintage. I made him stand with his face in the corner as I took off the dress and put on pajamas that had been worn thin. My breasts looked like fleshy nothings in an old tank top. I was exhausted and didn’t care. Knew he didn’t care either. Knew it meant that this affair was different. I thought for a little while that he might choose me, and if that was going to happen, I wanted him to see me in old clothes, with a face scrubbed clean. If he chose me, I wanted to make sure that he had seen every layer, the unpretty and the unpolished and the unsure.
He did not choose me. He chose her. He is still choosing her at the time I write this.
There is nothing like the power balance in an affair. It is something that can’t be transcended and, I believe, one of those things that can’t ever be fully understood by those who’ve never experienced it. It is a moment shared by two people, regardless of whatever other particles of matter exist between them, in which trust must be assumed in the absolute. He promises to try not to hurt you, and you promise to erase identifying characteristics in the essay you will one day write. I like the emotional nakedness it leads to, I crave it. There are always so many confessions. They’ve told me about their fetishes, their fears, the breakdown they once had in a Los Angeles hotel room. In turn, I’ve told them about the things that haunt me. My fear that I’ll never be more than a poor girl playing dress-up, that I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder. I’ve told them about dark things, like my miscarriage at seventeen, and darker still, how it was the saddest thing in my life, how I feel I’ve never really been allowed to grieve for it.
I have held the heads of three men as they cried into my lap. It feels like church, and also like birth. I am there because of something beating deep in my chest for them, whether it’s love or just recognizing my broken counterpoint in another being. They are there to feel seen, to feel heat, to be imperfect and allowed to be imperfect. At the rawest place I can find, I want to tell them they are beautiful, that they are not broken or evil or damned, because I need that for myself. I think this is why so many people find religion in prison. I don’t know if there is a term for this in psychology—transference or projection, maybe, or maybe it’s just vicariousness and wishful thinking. It’s turning all the convicts into Buddhas.
People confess things to me. Friends and bosses and strangers at bars. They confess things to me and say, “I bet people confess things to you all the time.” Some of these people have been men, and I think they confuse long hair and cheekbones and honesty with love. Most of these men I say goodbye to without touching, leaving them at the end of the bar or in Metro North cars. But other times I fall prey to it, confusing love with forgiveness, with my own salvation. This is when I wear my best dresses, my best skirts, the nicest and most lovely things I own. I will fix them, I think, by being a beautiful and forgettable listener. By being what I think they need, which is not me, or rather, it is the part of me that asks for nothing, that shows up at their office in a fitted, classic trenchcoat and tells them they are not evil or horrible for wanting a new career, a different city, a month alone in the desert. I tell them they are fine. When I say that, I see myself at thirteen, seventeen, last fall, and tell the same thing to those versions of me. It’s retroactive comfort, redemption. I want to hold the girl I once was like I hold these men. I wish someone had held that girl.
There’s a Pasolini film from the ’70s called Teorema that I’ve seen once, without subtitles. A mysterious, beautiful man arrives at the house of a rich Italian family. He sleeps with everyone: mother, father, son, daughter, housekeeper. He gives them each what they need, and in each moment with him, they feel something, feel alive. The mysterious man then leaves, and the family is destroyed, fractured. Somewhere along the way, I think I accidentally became that man. A beautiful nothing, not a homewrecker but a brief interlude, though I’ve never left anyone happier than when I found them.