Perfection

Excerpt – Chapter One: January 8-12, 2003

perfectionIt happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.

I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My workspace was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today’s project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock—in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and a half-year-old daughter Liza just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I’d wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split rail fence.

Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.

It wasn’t a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.

My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had emailed.

It wasn’t the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.

“I can’t talk now—something bad is happening.” I ended the call abruptly.

The rooms were silent as I ran up the stairs, calling for Henry. Two of our four cats skittered out of my way, their nails clawing the wooden treads. The bedroom was empty. I raced back down the stairs.

I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler. He was still breathing. His body was silhouetted against the sea blue of the painted floorboards. I imagined the outline of a police chalk drawing of the victim at a crime scene. I was overcome with the feeling that I was in the scene and watching a scene on television—an opening sequence of an episode of Six Feet Under, our favorite show that year. Usually some minor character dies in the first five minutes. He inhaled with a shallow breath; small dribbles of saliva on his curved lips, the skin on his face now sallow and ashen. He exhaled with a feeble sigh. His eyes flickered half open. I spoke to him to let him know that I was there with him, but for once in our life together he could not speak back.

A long elastic minute stretched out and snapped: Is this when people call 911? Or is Henry going to sit up and tell me to stop fussing, like he did yesterday after he passed out? This must be the same thing. He came in after taking out the garbage and fell down flat on the floor. The doctor said all the tests were normal

I called 911. I sat down on the floor next to him stroking his forehead, watching him breathe. A hissing sound as spittle pulsed between his lips.­

I wish I had a notepad and pencil. Henry would want me to take notes. The EMS guys will come. They’ll check him out. He’ll be fine. He’ll be telling people about his near death at our next dinner party. “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” is what he’ll say. Everyone will laugh and I’ll feel pathetic for having worried so much. I’m happy to feel pathetic if everything will just please, please turn out okay.

I called 911 again, just to be sure. I called Emily who lived five minutes away and was usually home at two in the afternoon. Anna was more reliable—I knew she wouldn’t freak out, no matter what happened today—but she lived twelve minutes away. Then I called Matthew, Henry’s close friend, who lived with his wife in a nearby town.

Every minute will make a difference. The EMS guys will come; they will bring oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and IV bags. All will be well. Emily will help me find a babysitter for Liza, then she will go with me to the hospital, and we’ll get there and Henry will be awake, smiling and joking as usual.

I sat back down next to him on the blue floor stroking the familiar wrinkles, the scar over one eyelid, the small mole at the crest of one cheek.

Inhale. Exhale. A blue gauze curtain passed over him. His skin turned to wax.

“Breathe!” I screamed at him. “Start breathing now!” I pounded him on the chest. He wasn’t listening to me. I placed my mouth on his and blew my breath into him; the blue briefly faded into rose like a watercolor wash. But the flush faded back to blue. He was still. The man who for fifteen years had loved me, driven me crazy, fought with me, fed me, made love with me, made a baby with me, exhaled one last breath, the air I had blown into his lungs.

I looked up, distracted by the sound of the sliding porch door, followed by a blast of cold air. The EMS guys had arrived with a gurney and gear and gently hustled me out of the kitchen. Emily followed right after them.

Frequently asked questions

Q: Do any of Henry’s character traits stand out as indicators of his infidelity?
A: Henry was a charming man with a huge amount of charisma. On the surface he was a super confident extrovert. Personally, I tend to distrust that kind of charisma now. I want to see what’s under the surface. I also see that there are men and women who are able to put different parts of their lives in separate boxes. These people are attracted to new partners and activities, only to become quickly disillusioned or bored. So when I see people who seem to change everything about their personality to suit a situation, I begin to wonder where their authentic self is.

Q: What made you decide to seek out every woman with whom Henry was unfaithful?
A: At the time I didn’t hesitate for a minute. I couldn’t imagine any other way to find out what had happened and why. Henry had become a stranger to me, I felt a strong desire to understand who he really was, and I couldn’t ask him anymore. I also wanted to understand what had gone on in these women’s minds, how they had rationalized their own choices. I felt that these women owed me an explanation for their damaging behavior.

Q: In retrospect, could you have foreseen Henry being unfaithful to you with your friend, Cathy?
A: I think all my instincts were screaming at me to notice what was going on, for one thing, how much time they spent together when neither her husband nor I was around, but I just didn’t want to look. I had so much at stake in saving our marriage, mostly our child. I think many women are in that situation. A lot of women are ashamed that they didn’t notice what was happening right under their noses, but I can understand that fear of looking too closely.

Q: What do you think you would have done if you had found out about Henry’s affair while he was still alive?
A: I am sure that Henry would have begged me for forgiveness and I would have tried to forgive him because we had our young child together. I believe, however, that his infidelity was of a chronic nature and I think we would have separated eventually.

Q: After your experience and hearing stories from other women, do men and women cheat for different reasons?
A: Affairs happen because an opportunity presents itself: someone shows that they are sexually available to you, an emotional connection with a married friend crosses the line, you meet someone at your job. Men and women begin affairs for the novelty and excitement, because they are lonely, because they are going through a time of stress, or because their existing relationship has become asexual. For men and women with addictive personalities like Henry, having affairs is like a drug.

Q: We consider cheating the worst thing a woman or mother can do in our society. If a guy cheats, we don’t like it either, but it is more expected. Do you think it’s become more common for women to be unfaithful? If so, why do you think so?
A: Infidelity is hard to quantify, because research is based on honest answers, and infidelity is about keeping secrets. Statistics indicate that men are more likely than women to be unfaithful, but I think women’s lives have changed dramatically in such a short time that those numbers are changing. Women are much more out in the world with careers, and the internet provides tempting opportunities for affairs we didn’t have before. And it seems like women are becoming more comfortable reporting their infidelity.

Q: What are three critical signs of potential infidelity women should look out for in their partner?
A: I think that women should work first on paying attention to the details of their lives without fear or shame. If you are paying attention, you will notice and react to changes you observe in your marriage and partner’s behavior. Has your sex life changed? Is your husband spending a lot of time “late at work?” Does he talk frequently about a new co-worker or spend time with a woman friend? Has he changed some aspect of his appearance, is he spending a lot more time at the gym? From my own experience I’d say that the most important thing is to trust your instincts. Do you feel some vague sense of dishonesty in your relationship? It is important not to let your pride, fear, or shame keep you from trusting those instincts.

Q: Can a couple recover from infidelity?
A: In the end it’s less about the sex, it’s the lying that damages the trust required to sustain an intimate relationship. I know several couples that have recovered from infidelity. In these cases the cheating partner has immediately expressed remorse when confronted and both partners were motivated to renew the marriage because they had young children and because they still felt committed to each other. Rebuilding trust can take many years of work. It will be difficult to recapture the innocent time before the infidelity. Many couples can’t recover because the cheater shows no signs of changing his or her behavior or because the victim cannot overcome the anger and grief that follow the revelation of an affair.

Q: What recommendations do you offer to women who want to start over after a spouse or partner has cheated?
A: First, I think a woman should establish a good support system of friends, family, and, if possible, professional advice. With time and patience you can work on forgiveness, which is essential to moving on with your life. When you get to the place where you are ready for forgiveness, first forgive yourself. I felt so much shame in the aftermath of my husband’s infidelity, as if I had done something to deserve it. As your anger subsides, you might even be able to find some forgiveness for those who have betrayed your trust. Then you can move forward and rebuild your life. In my own case I did a kind of personal history, looking back over my marriage and prior relationships for patterns. I felt strongly that I did not want to be alone but I knew that I had to look for a different kind of partner.

Q: How can women regain their ability to trust their own instincts and a new partner?
A: It takes practice to learn new habits, but I think you have to value your intuition. I made great effort to choose a very different partner who shared core values and showed me through his actions, not just his words, that he was kind and generous. I really did count on my daughter. Having a child really sharpens your perspective because you put them first. I am lucky that my daughter is direct with her feelings, so I am learning from a master.

Q: As the mother of a young child, why did you write such an open book about sexuality and relationships?
A: I see my story as a cautionary tale. There seems to still be something quite puritanical about our view of mothers, as if we are women who no longer have real desires and disappointments. I hope that my daughter and other young women can learn something from my painful experience.

Q: Why did you decide to include Henry’s emails as part of the text?
I felt that it was important to see the emails because this shows the complete disconnect between his life with me and his alternate life. Nothing else would communicate that fully. I thought that for many women it would be important to understand this disconnect—how a man can say he misses his wife in one line and invite his mistress to dinner in the next. There would have been no better way, I think, to make Henry “present” in the story, for the reader to hear his “voice” and to have “evidence” that what I describe actually happened. It is also interesting to see the ways he lied to himself, and to others. I see the purpose of my memoir as an explanation of this kind of disconnect that happens in so many relationships. We all make these kinds of mistakes. I think we all have that capacity to behave badly, but some people are so compartmentalized that they can rationalize truly outrageous breaches of trust. This was Henry’s case and it is what creates the deepest personal tragedy. I felt that by showing him in his own words, the reader can see that character trait and finally, in the end feel his tragedy, as I do now.

Q: What do you hope women will get out of your book?
A: I hope it will provide comfort for those women who have experienced the intense shame and loss of infidelity. I hope my book can serve as a cautionary tale for younger women as they make partner choices. I hope that one day my daughter can read this book and learn something that will help her make better choices for her own life.

Q: Why did you call your book PERFECTION?
A: The title was partly ironic given the darkness of the first parts of my story. I think women are struggling with this idea of perfection, trying to have it all: perfect bodies, relationships, kids, jobs, houses. The pressure to be perfect creates a lot of misery and shame and I believe it ultimately leads women to make poor choices as they try to hide the parts of themselves or their lives they feel are less than perfect. I wanted to find a way to redefine perfection.

Q: After this experience, what does umami mean to you?
A: Umami is a Japanese word that describes “the moment of perfection.” I hope that my book can help women redefine for themselves what “perfect” means. Personally, I think of myself as very much a work in progress. I am definitely not perfect, but I try to take care of myself so that I can be a good parent and partner and enjoy something about every day.