Written By Anne Mulrooney
*trigger warning: self-harm
He probably means it.
The first time he cheated, he didn’t wait for me to find out; he told me the next day. That’s where my story breaks from most girls. I never had to find out.
He told me he met her in the college lounge. He’d said he’d never seen her before. They were both taking evening classes. His lab was on the floor above while hers was just a few doors down. She had said she liked his Nike backpack, that her brother had bought one just like that for a camping trip. He had asked what she was studying, and she told him she had a sociology project due at the end of the week.
What was it on, he asked? “Self-harm,” she said. “I’m really open about it.”
She smiled and rolled up her sleeves to show him the scars all the way up her forearm. He didn’t know what to say. There was a pause, and then he rolled his own sleeve and showed her his own deep cuts.
That was the part of the story that killed me. I’ve never cut. And as sick as it sounds, when I heard that that’s what he had in common with her, he made me wish I had.
So I could understand.
There had always been an un-crossable bridge in conversation whenever his cutting had got brought up. That’s what she had on me, I knew. She was the one who could understand. She knew what it was like.
They had talked about the times they used to hurt themselves, and why they both believed therapists never helped. They talked about the different kinds of music that got them through long nights. He liked rap because it gave him a beat to live by; she liked electro because it took her out of her head and into her body.
Then they talked about sex. They talked about how many times they’d had it, how it helped them cope with the seizures of darkness. It was mechanical for them. Life was suffering, they agreed. We need an escape. All anyone can do is survive.
I didn’t get details on how exactly it happened, and I didn’t ask. All I was told was that it happened in the restroom in the commons. In the wheelchair stall. It took less than ten minutes, he said, because he was nervous. After they finished, they agreed never to speak to each other again. He was home before midnight and smelled like cigarettes, his gray hoodie wrinkled and loose.
He told me all this in his truck the next day. There were bags under his eyes and his face was ragged and hollow. The confession, I remember thinking, was flat and damp, as if the words were being crushed under the weight of a cold, wet log. I told him I couldn’t believe what he had done – but in my heart, I knew he was telling the truth. I knew that he was troubled.
I was wishing I’d wake up when he transitioned from confession to entreaty. He was so sorry, he said. He also didn’t want to believe what he had done. He pleaded with me to forgive him, to stay.
I stayed. But then he cheated again, five times in three months, every time with a different girl. The conversations he had with each of them varied, however the basic thread stayed the same: He met them, confessed something vulnerable, established a shared view on life and then sex just happened. He told me about each one of them, never more than a day after.
After I’d screamed and wept, left, then grieved and healed, I decided to re-enter the memory of that first confession. That night would last forever for me.
I’m there again. I’m sitting, digging my nails into my knees. The horror is intoxicating. I feel drunk.
He always told me the truth. At the end of his confession, he said, “If you just give me time, I’m going to come up with the money and buy you a ring. If I don’t marry you, who will I marry? I could spend the rest of my life with you. I’ll never stop loving you.”
Those sentences burnt. I’ve spent the following months trying to fit them next to what he did, trying to fathom it all. It can’t be the case that he loves me, wants to spend his life with me, but also cheats on me. Something is false. He doesn’t love me. He wants to end things but he’s too cowardly to break up with me. His cheating is an addiction, out of his control. I’m sick with hurt and ready to break a window. Everything is grief, everything is anger.
I’m seeing myself alone in a car with a boy and my heart breaking before my eyes. I see it all again, I hear it all again, and I’m living it all again.
And now, I believe him.
I couldn’t when I was first there in the car with him. There was too much hurt and too much love. But over a year later, I understand how to do two things.
When people say they love you, you should believe them.
They mean it. It’s easy to fall in love – falling is passive and love is amazing, so the thing is usually a no-brainer. I know he loved me; cheating didn’t change that, nor did it prove he never did. We still ate our cheese sticks at midnight, memorized rap lyrics on long drives, taught ourselves how to make the soup they make at hibachi restaurants. We were in love and we remained that way. It just hurt.
The second thing I understand is this. When people say they could spend the rest of their lives with you, you should believe them. They’re not lying.
But the thing is, they’re not setting the bar very high. Of course they could spend the rest of their lives with you. Spending your life with someone isn’t some miraculous feat performed by only Olympic-level relationship-athletes. People spend their whole lives married to people they can’t even sit on the couch with, let alone sleep in bed. People get engaged and married every day, and as the years go on, bitterness and resentment grow weedy and thorny without divorce. Life goes on. Cheating becomes commonplace, misery becomes normality, and slowly, hurt becomes indifference. Miserable marriages begin in fireworks, but they transform into unremarkable, bland, common societal phenomenon. We all know that one old couple; each spouse absolutely hates the other.
How do you think couples like that happen?
The question wasn’t, does he really want to spend the rest of his life with me if he hurts me? The question is, what kind of life will we have if he goes on hurting me?
So I left.