Names have been changed because even a former mistress needs to keep secrets.
The first time Nick tried to kiss me, I resisted. He was dropping me off at home after we’d stayed at work late, drinking there because no one was left in the restaurant and we couldn’t risk being seen together out at the bars, couldn’t let anyone know that sometimes, when we were alone, we would tell each other secrets and stare at every part we ached to touch. I couldn’t erase the way he looked at me, searing hot blue beneath a predator’s brow, burning like frost bite, like fire. When he asked me to stay and drink with him that night, it felt delicious and forbidden, a slow unfolding of a situation I had been bred to understand.
We reached my house and I opened the car door, then turned to him. He’d taken off his wedding ring. He leaned forward to hug me, his lips tipped towards my mouth, but I threw my face in his way and his clumsy wet kiss landed on my cheek. I feigned drunken stupor and tumbled from his passenger seat, laughing. I didn’t want to give in that easily, knew I had to take it slow because he’d only been married a little while and even before then had always been faithful. I was his first mistress; he’d never done this before. But I had.
My first time, I was in eighth grade. Joey Stevens knelt before me, pants around his ankles, his mother at work. His girlfriend, Nikki, was my best friend. I’d never had sex before. I didn’t know how it worked. He told me to put it in, but I didn’t know what he meant. He dragged me forward on the couch and fucked me so fast I wasn’t sure it really happened, then he pulled out and came on his shorts. Wiped it off. Told me to hurry up and leave, his mom might be home soon.
Two weeks later, Nikki got pregnant. She was fourteen. We were all fourteen. We had no idea what we were doing, but we thought we did. Nikki knew I liked Joey, got close to me because I was already friends with him. I felt no guilt because Joey had been mine first, she had betrayed me, she was the enemy.
He told me that I was his escape; I was the only one he could trust. Even after Nikki got pregnant, Joey and I had sex a few more times, in the woods, in the creaking shells of abandoned houses near the beach. Afterwards he always talked, talked for hours, telling me all the things he couldn’t tell Nikki. I was grateful for that furtive part of him, the access to secrets that Nikki didn’t possess. “You’re my best friend,” he’d tell me. “I can tell you anything. Plus you’re so much better in bed than she is.”
I told myself that I’d rather have this honesty than be the girlfriend who got lied to, told myself it was enough. Eventually, though, she made him choose. Joey came up to me one day after class and told me he couldn’t see me anymore. “I’m sorry, but she needs me,” he said. “I have to be there for her now.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I told him, voice thick, eyelids trembling. “You love her more.” It wasn’t about love, exactly, but I don’t know that yet.
“Don’t get me wrong, Cyn, you’re great,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder, staring into my face. I gathered the nerve to look back at him, and he smiled. “I mean, we’ve had a lot of fun. And you’re totally better than Nikki, neck down.”
This phrase would haunt me for the rest of my dating life. I began to believe that the best I had to offer was sex and secrecy.
My mother knew exactly what she had to offer. I’d grown up watching her flirt with married men at work, at a small bus yard in a small town way out on the eastern end of Long Island. School bus moms often arrive with their children bundled and blinking in the chilly morning air; it’s easier to take their kids with them each day than to find a sitter willing to work from six to eight in the morning. I helped my mother tug my sister Tracy along; she was seven years younger than me, was actually my half-sister. Neither of our dads were around. It was usually just the three of us, and sometimes a man would show up in our lives, but never to stay.
We’d all get to the bus yard as the sun was coming up, bright red but still cool, damp gravel crunching underfoot, hands warmed by 7-Eleven coffee. Mom would set her cup down to go smoke one last cigarette before the route and I’d climb into the driver’s seat and play with the handle that opened and closed the doors, watching and waiting for her to return.
Most days, she took her cigarette over to the area where the mechanics were working. She liked to flirt with a man named Bob, a man she was secretly dating. Bob’s wife, a dispatcher at the yard, came to work at noon, so Mom would only flirt with Bob in the early morning shadows. We always had to avoid walking past the bus yard women, sipping from cardboard cups next to the dispatcher’s window in the garage. We’d take the long way over iced stone driveways rather than walk through that gaggle of gossip, the accusing eyes and sharp smiles. The women knew they couldn’t trust my mother, and they gave me the same glares, glares which were probably pity but which I interpreted as judging and hateful, felt that the women were projecting my mother’s sins onto me. These women didn’t trust either one of us. We didn’t trust them either.
Bob wasn’t the first. Years before there had been another mechanic, from a different bus yard, a warm, broad-shouldered bearded guy named Steve. I was about ten at the time, but I was Mom’s only confidant when it came to Steve, and later, the others. She would spill her deluge of secrets, giddy and conspiring, out of her desperate need to share with someone who wouldn’t judge her, someone who would be on her side when the women at work began to suspect, then turn against her.
By the time I had sex with Joey Stevens, I had already learned a number of recited and implied rules from my mother. She’d recount the details of her affairs while she put on her make-up in the morning, the only time of day when I had her undivided attention – or, rather, when she had mine. She didn’t wear much make-up, just a few neutral tones from CoverGirl’s Country Woods palette, dabs of which I would steal while she made coffee. With her baggy jeans and thrift store sweatshirts, she wasn’t often girly, so it was one of the few times I got to experience a mother-like thing that I’d later read about in memoirs and novels, sitting on the tub edge watching her swipe dark shadow in her creases, tap lighter shades on her brow-bone, taking a few careful minutes out of her frenzied morning to make sure that, when she saw Steve or Bob or some other mechanic, she would look pretty, enticing.
My mother was Steve’s first and, as far as we knew, his only affair. They were together for a few years. Steve was handsome, unlike most of the men my mother usually brought home. He looked like a man who I’d want to have as a father: large and friendly with cool long hair and big, calloused hands. What I liked most, though, was that he made my cynical, sarcastic mother twinkle somehow. The night he told her he loved her, she couldn’t stop talking about it, about him, about the things he said. With the other guys she usually only talked about sexual details, even while I was young: favorite positions, whether or not she came, how hard, how long, how many times. With Steve, I got to see her act like a schoolgirl. Almost innocent.
Eventually, his wife found out, and he and Mom had to break things off. She transferred to another bus yard and met Bob, older, intelligent, soft spoken. She still drove past Steve’s house sometimes, would call him and hang up when his wife answered. My mother would call me over the next few years and tell me, “I just ran into Steve at the 7-Eleven by his house, you know, I have to stop there sometimes because the ATM at the one by our place doesn’t always work and besides, his place is on my way home from the bar, and anyway he looks really great, he’s still doing well, he’s healthy...” Mom worried about Steve; he had bad headaches, and she couldn’t call him to check up on him, couldn’t arrange to meet with him, couldn’t run into him at work. She was cut out of his life completely. Well, almost completely. There was always 7-Eleven.
Steve got brain cancer a few years later. Mom freaked out. She couldn’t call him, couldn’t know how he was progressing, whether he was getting better or worse, couldn’t get any information except what she heard at the bus yard water cooler. The man she’d loved and known intimately for years was reduced to common gossip. A decade later, long after the bus yard and Bob and halfway into a new marriage, she got a phone call from Steve’s wife, Joan. Steve had died. Mom couldn’t go to the funeral, of course; a mistress has no place at the husband’s funeral, even my mother knows that. So this phone call was in no way an invitation, but a surprising courtesy, a courtesy that my mother didn’t deserve. I heard parts of their conversation and could feel Joan’s pain, her loss, her desperation to connect with the one other person who had felt for Steve the same way that she had. I’m not sure if Joan’s calm attitude arose from age and wisdom or pain and isolation, though I’m guessing it was the latter. I watched my mother’s face deconstruct, watched her hands wring her lighter in white-knuckled grief, unable to talk even to me, wanting only the comfort of another woman who had loved the same man.
After Joey, I was determined to never again be the other woman, and I avoided relationships through high school. But when I was twenty-two, I met a man named Brad in an amber-lit bar on Long Island. We were both heartbroken, but we made each other laugh. At first there was no shadow, no pretense, though that would all change in a few months when I ran from the east coast to Arkansas and Brad got a girlfriend named Mackenzie. Each time I went home to Long Island for Christmases and summers we would make out in the back of his Impala—a dark parking lot, an empty beach—and we made out for hours, sometimes with clothes, mostly without. We would grind and rub and kiss and moan like teenagers.
Brad became the person I went to first whenever my heart was broken and I needed comfort. He was never jealous, and always knew what I needed to hear: that I was smart, young, pretty, successful; all the things a father would say if I’d had one to run to when some boy hurt me, things no other man had ever said. Lacking that, though, I ran to Brad, the only man whose long-distance shoulder was always there for me to cry on. Well, not always. Only Monday through Friday, nine to five, when he was at work—away from Mackenzie’s watchful eye.
My mother’s dad was incapable of loving her, she often told me. I never knew him. He was a strict, stoic astronomy teacher, Austrian and German, distant and cold and devoutly Catholic. He was never affectionate towards her, only her sister Marian, who was his favorite. Mom learned to pilfer that attention, steal it in quiet, slow increments. When that stopped working, she acted out; negative attention was better than none. Eventually she went too far and got pregnant and he kicked her out and spoke only to Marian, who was still his favorite.
He died when Mom was sixteen. They hadn’t spoken in months. In the movie of my mother’s life, there would be a letter that he wrote before he died, or a speech he delivered to a nurse before his death. But neither of these exist. There is only my mother a decade later, listening to the radio in her shabby VW van, chain smoking cigarettes with tears streaming down her face, left with the absence of the man whose love she could never claim unless she stole it from her sister.
My mother was too broken and unaware to stitch herself together, let alone mend my torn seams and loose threads. I had my sister Tracy’s father, Joe, to turn to, but it was always borrowed time, shared time, because Tracy would glare and pout and wail whenever anybody else had Joe’s attention. My childhood flashes of father-time are limited: watching movies with him and Tracy, them cuddled on the couch, me on the living room floor; her sneer when they would leave me behind to go fishing, when he took her to baseball games and I stayed home with a book; me creeping into the basement to help him fold laundry, his quiet time, and I didn’t want to disturb him by talking so we would sit silent in the damp basement, dryer humming and hot, the sun trickling through wet lint that caught in our lungs. Mostly, though, my memories are of watching Mom and Joe fight, then watching him bolt, tires shooting gravel bullets, Tracy crying at the window, watching her father leave again, and again, and again. No wonder she didn’t want to share him. She barely got enough of him when he was around.
Like my mother, I’ve been stealing love from another woman my whole life.
After a couple of years in Arkansas, I went to live with my mother, who’d just bought a summer home in Myrtle Beach that I could stay in year-round. I started waiting tables at a restaurant surrounded by swamps, suffocated by heavy hot air that tasted wet and salty and smelled like rotting grass. Nick was a manager at the restaurant. He was twenty-six, just a couple of years older than me, and had just moved to Myrtle Beach like so many other Northeast men, after honeymooning there and falling for the warm beach, the breezy palms, the cheap rent. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, despite the ring that sat heavily on his left hand. Maybe even because of that ring. Maybe it was easier to be the mistress, no expectations, all fun and fling and ease.
We started flirting at work, shamelessly when no one was watching, cautiously when they were. He never talked about his wife. She was invisible to me, a ghost, and so it was easy to pretend she didn’t exist. It was easy for me to ignore the very idea of her. When I did think of her, she was the woman who judged my mother at the water-cooler, she was my wailing sister reclaiming her father, she was the monster, not me. This was her fault, not mine. It’s easy to make yourself the hero of your own story.
At first, when Nick would go home to his wife at night, it didn’t bother me. But then he began choosing her over me. She’s tired tonight—she wants me home and I’m sorry, we made these plans a week ago and I’ve gotta open in the morning, I can’t. I would lay awake and daydream about her finding out, about him trying to have sex with her but not being able to get it up, about him confessing that he just doesn’t love her anymore, or, my personal favorite, her leaving him for another man. Nice and clean that way.
One morning he woke up to find his wife, Stacy, clutching his cell phone, crying. “Who the Hell is ‘Cyn’?” she demanded.
He showed up at my place pale and shaking. He’d told her I was just some girl who’d come into the bar at work. There weren’t enough text messages to prove that it was something more; he’d convinced her that it was all flirtatious banter. “She wants to call you,” he said to me. I told him I could talk to her, I could handle it. Then he told me we were over, gave me a trembling kiss good-bye then left to go be with her. I sat quiet on the couch thinking how strange it is that the man you love might be the love of someone else’s life, someone you’ve never met.
I thought that if Nick’s wife and I were to meet we’d probably get along, be similar. If he loved the both of us, how different could we be? I’d had conversations with her in my head, mature conversations in which she said she understood how I’d fallen in love with him—after all, she’d fallen for him too. How could she blame another woman for seeing in Nick what she’d seen? I heard the long talks Mom would have with Steve’s wife, Joan.
When Stacy called, she told me I was a whore. I knew Nick was quivering next to her while she yelled at me. “I don’t care who the fuck you think you are. Nick is my husband. You need to stay away from him. I love him. He’s my husband. You’re just some stupid skank and you have no business trying to steal my man.”
I hated her thick Jersey accent, her nasal tone, her crude slang. I’d pictured her as someone I could be friends with, someone nice and easily hurt, someone I could see Nick loving the way he loved me. But now I was glad to find that she was strong enough for me to hate, and I was glad to find that I hated her instantly, powerfully. I was ashamed of Nick for marrying a woman like that. I thought he’d have better taste.
I muttered something that sounded like an apology. I’m not sure what I said. I let her call me a slut and a home-wrecker, absorbed the abuse knowing it would help her feel better. I owed her that much.
Months later I found out that Nick was leaving Stacy for another woman. He’d been sleeping with this third woman and me at the same time, lying to all of us—his mistress, his other mistress, and his wife. The other mistress wrote to me, asked me if anything ever happened between me and him because there had always been rumors and she knew the way rumors worked, knew that usually they were true. I’d been trained to keep quiet, to be loyal, to not succumb to being one of those petty women, those bad mistresses who threaten their men, blackmail them, spill all their secrets just because it ended, when being a mistress entails knowing it has to end, eventually. Being a mistress means keeping his secrets.
A year or so after Nick left me, I received a text from Brad: Just to let you know, so you don’t have to hear about it on Facebook. Mackenzie and I are engaged.
It was a message I’d been expecting for six years, but the news was still a deep, guttural blow. I pocketed my phone, told a friend of mine to cover my section at the restaurant, and walked across the street for a shot of Patron. The bartender knew me, knew my drink; it was poured by the time I hit the counter. I shot it, bit hard into a lime, walked slow into the bathroom, and burst into tears.
There in the bathroom I thought about the last time I’d seen him, only a year before but so recent in my mind that I could feel that warm voice and slow smile, could see him as he sauntered up the drive, hugged me, said, “You still smell the same.” He said this to me every time I saw him. This time, he buried his hands in my hair, lifted it off my neck, and kissed my collarbone, my shoulder. I smiled at him and asked if he wanted to go for a walk, because I was staying with a friend, and I couldn’t invite him inside. I didn’t ask about Mackenzie, and he didn’t talk about her. We walked down to the beach. He told me how good I looked; I told him the same. We talked about the water, the seagulls, the sand, and then he was kissing me, circling my body with his arms, picking me up and laying me on the gritty pebbles, sea foam pressing through my dress.