Chapter Four: Sneaking in Dudes
I had a right to my own life, but didn't act like it.
The total time my ex and I were under the same roof as official exes, before we finally sold the house and went our separate ways, was like one month shy of two years.
As I mentioned before, it started off very poorly. There were a lot of furious fights, during which I finally unleashed all the rage I’d been carrying around, not just as a result of his cheating, but all the other bullshit that had crusted over between us that I was afraid to confront before. (Reminder: he was a yeller, which used to turn me into a gerbil.) I stayed in my room, talked to Freddy a lot and escaped when I could.
People often talk about what discovering infidelity in your relationship does to your heart; not as many of them talk about what it does to your head. Whether or not the mental breakdown happens simply as collateral damage from the massacre taking place a few chakras below, when you discover that you are being left for a secret girlfriend, that knowledge unscrews the top of your skull, locates the tender grey matter below, and takes a cheese grater to it.
It made me dingy. I forgot all kinds of stuff, including eating, so I lost 20 pounds. (Arguably I needed to.) It made me anxious: On TV, I only watched things I knew the ending to, lest the unknown give me the shakes.
The savaging of my executive functioning made me fixate on abstract things far away, like Le Perche, and tantalizingly out of reach humans, like the last dude I had been involved with before the ex I was presently stuck with, let’s call him Louis. It also shot my better judgement to shit.
Of course I wrote to Louis after seven years of nothing “just to say hi.” We exchanged emails to catch up and then met for a drink at a bar close to my house, but one I never went to with my ex. I was skulking around my own neighborhood, and I could never figure out why. (Perhaps the tendency of most women to internalize responsibility for situations they didn’t cause?) Louis and I had broken up for good reason—back then he was perennially depressed and not doing much about it, living between two cities due to a complicated custody situation, and I was trying to fix him. But he was always honest with me, and sweet, and intelligent, and he never held back. Not a yeller. Not an asshole.
I was slightly falling out of my overstretched Repettos, my heart pounding so loud I could audibly hear it, as I shuffle-walked up to the café around the corner to meet him. (Why did I decide to wear those shoes when it was already sandal weather? No pedicure.) There he was, just off work in a suit, looking the same as he had before, which is to say quite stunning: dark-haired, with an aquiline nose, and clear, pale blue-green eyes, with the ropy body of a runner. Not an additional ounce on him over the years, from what I could see. Did I look older? Seven years is a lot when you hit 50. I knew I did, but did he know I knew I did?
Nervousness aside, it was a pleasant catch-up. I didn’t say a thing about my present ordeal. He told me he had moved to an eastern Paris suburb to be nearer to the mother of his kids, and was moving up in his world of fancy high end real estate investment. If my eyes were popping out of my head, his appeared to do the same but we said goodnight like normal adults. I felt like shit for hiding my situation from him, and secretly wanted another reason to be in touch, so I wrote to him a few days later to confess my plight. That kicked off a correspondence that for the next few weeks I became entirely too invested in. (You know the kind: you measure how much time you give before responding, you try not to write tons more than he does. It was strange being back to a place where I cared about pacing. Ultimately, I didn’t like it.)
Some time went by before we saw each other again. By this time the summer heat was blazing enough for me to wear a spaghetti-strap block-printed Indian cotton dress that better resembled a nightgown to the dive bar on the square around the corner from my house. We made more small talk and then I asked if he was hungry. My ex was out for the night, and Louis had never really seen this famous house that had become the albatross I talked so much about. He said why not, and followed me for the few blocks of the walk back, under the bursting lilacs and wisteria that characterized my hopefully-almost-former neighborhood. He always liked my cooking.
It was when he offloaded the crash helmet to his scooter in the front hall that I knew I was sneaking around. (And I still don’t really know why. I was not in a couple anymore.) He didn’t ask for a tour, either, so he probably picked up on the musk of something illicit. One floor up, he sat down politely at the teak midcentury table my ex had recently refinished so the kids’ juice glasses would stop leaving rings. I grilled some perfunctory vegetables, we gritted out more nervous small talk, I did the dishes and walked him back downstairs, all in a blur. And then as he was getting ready to say goodnight, we pounced. Back onto the coatrack went the helmet. Somehow we flew the two flights up to my room and went at it like the not-literally starving people we were. There was far less tenderness than there once was, but then again now we were no longer in love. The mechanics were all there, though.
During the typical break in the action that occurs when a lady goes on a messy search for the prophylactic she hasn’t needed in years—it has to be in a drawer somewhere, dammit—my ears pricked up like a zebra. The key turned in the front door lock.
He was supposed to be out for the night, or so I discerned from the minimalist grunting between us that passed for conversation. I guess I read him wrong.
I owed my ex nothing, I had every right to an amorous life of my own. Wouldn’t it be just desserts if he were to catch me in flagrante delicto with someone he’d never heard of, and who was objectively better looking than him? But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t fling it back just for the sake of it. It would also be really fucked up to do that to Louis, who did not ask to be a guest star in a very dated episode of “Three’s Company.”
I turned back to him and whisper-yelled, “I THOUGHT HE WAS OUT FOR THE NIGHT.”
Louis’s eyes got wide and we got dressed as fast as we could. Before we opened my bedroom door, we stood next to it unmoving as I heard my ex’s feet mount the stairs. Don’t breathe yet. The floor of the landing creaked, then the door to his room creaked open, then he lumbered in, turned on the light and shut the door.
OK now we can breathe.
Louis held his businessman shoes in his hand and we tiptoed across the creaky landing past my ex’s door and down to the front door, where I started whisper-laughing like someone edging into a nervous breakdown trying to make it seem normal. Louis put on his helmet, hugged me goodbye, and after a few embarrassed apology back-and-forth emails I never saw him again.
It's fine. He did his job. I snuck back upstairs to my room and whisper-laughed myself to sleep. No, wait, I took a Xanax, because there was no way I was coming down from that comedy of errors without help.
So I guess there was one chakra along the chain that hadn’t been blown to bits after all. As strangely as I felt in my own skin, pointy where once I was round, vaporous where once I was solid, I sighed and told myself it was time to hit the apps. The pandemic had not yet arrived, so people were still feeling free to get close to perfect strangers and swap spit. And I always did well with the relational equivalent of ordering in dinner. It’s how I met Louis, and my ex, and pretty much everyone else I was ever involved with since I moved to Paris in 2006.
There were a few dumb exchanges that never materialized, and then I met Franck. Like Louis, he was everything my ex was not, but in an even better way for my needs at the time, which were basically intellectual and sexual distraction while the rest of me caught up from the shock.
He was tall, cute as hell, bald and had a problem with it (I didn’t), furiously intelligent, with banter so blazing it was practically manic, eccentric, beautifully well-read, comedically proud to be French, and a total perv. The texting was 100 miles an hour from the beginning. I don’t think my ex was paying much attention to anything I was doing at that point, but it felt like revenge to grab my phone and leave the room with a big smile on my face and no explanation. I started sunbathing in front of God and everyone and there were quite a few nights where in place of my key turning in the lock, there was just silence.
Franck called himself an anarchiste de droite, which basically means quirky intellectual right wing troll. We argued about politics all the time—to him I was a bien pensant de gauche (de merde), or well-meaning shithead leftist—but he was in love with my brain and insanely jealous of my ex, for whom he was sure I still held a torch. That, more than anything he said, made me cackle loudest. (Franck was really funny.)
Like most jealousy, his was disconnected to reality. He had a poky electric car with very low battery autonomy that we’d use to go out on weekends to, what else?, look at houses in Le Perche. He was a cyclist and knew it out there, and loved the idea of me getting a big house where he could one day come play lord of the manor. I yelled at him to get a gas car so we wouldn’t have to stop over in weird roadside villages for an emergency charge that took an hour, or drive 15 km below the speed limit and not listen to music in order to save power. But we were having fun, and as I was finally getting some proper attention, I was occasionally even nice to my ex.
I realize I still haven’t given you Jean-Pierre’s diagnosis of why the house wasn’t selling, but I figured this detour might be worth it. We’ll get around to it soon. Hope to see you next week.