HIGH INFIDELITY Author Sandra Tsing Loh recounts the extramarital tryst that transformed her life – for the better.
My spectacular midlife crisis began when I was 46, under relatively innocent circumstances. For a friend’s birthday, a group of us drove from LA to Burning Man, the week-long arts festival in the Nevada desert. My production partner of 10 years, a married dad I’ll call Mr. Y joined as our chauffeur. His company wasn’t unusual; he and I were best friends and often shared long days while our spouses were out of town. Our relationship was purely platonic; the lack of sexual tension made for comfortable companionship.
And yet strange things happen in the desert. The simmering heat, free-flowing beer, and surreal environment sparked surprising admissions from some I’d considered happily married. A 49-year-old girlfriend was pursued by a 28-year-old in semi-medieval garb and a utilikilt, and we exchanged tearful stories about minivans, car seats, and small children. Since when did it become OK for us to spend our evenings eating Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, washed down with chardonnay? The responsible, working-mum facades we had built felt flimsy and remote.
As we watched the 100-foot Burning Man effigy collapse in flames, I suddenly had my own realisation about Mr. Y: that I loved him and wanted to be with him for the rest of my life. When I blurted out my feelings, he admitted he felt the same way, adding, “I figured we would end up together, but it would be decades in the future, when our kids had moved on and our spouses had gotten sick of us.” I was shocked. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have an affair.
I had been living with my husband for 20 years. We had a wonderful house and two daughters, ages six and eight at the time. We also had fulfilling careers; he was a musician, and I was a writer and performer. His work involved lots of travel, leaving me alone for weeks on end. At first I’d felt abandoned when he was gone, but over the years I’d gained enough emotional distance to make his absences tolerable, which we both considered a good development. My single-parenting style often amounted to putting my children in front of the TV with stale Halloween lollies as I sat in bed writing on my laptop, and e-mails between my husband and me were gradually reduced to home repair updates and packing lists.
We returned to our normal lives, but our affair continued in secrecy. After months of sneaking around, however, the intensity of our feelings, coupled with the horror and guilt we felt, made coming clean seem like the best path. We thought if we were calm and loving, the news could be broken gently. Our careful plans were shattered, though, when the cat was let out of the bag too early. The revelation exploded our households and devastated our children.
It was too much for Mr .Y to bear, so he severed ties with me and attempted to reconcile with his wife. Meanwhile, I sequestered myself in a shack filled with wine, tears, and Ambien. I wrote an article that questioned the institution of marriage. That led to an ill-fated TV appearance during which I was asked, on air, about my affair. I stammered through an oblique answer and left feeling disgraced and guilty.
Yet with that scarlet “A” emblazoned on my forehead, a whole world opened up. Strangers would confess things to me. A woman I met on a plane revealed that her successful husband was unbearably mean and cold in private. In fact, she’d had a 48-hour affair at a sales conference several months prior and still fantasised about it every day. She felt trapped, though, because her children were preschool age, and their abundant lifestyle was largely thanks to her husband.
I came to a new understanding of all this mess and heartbreak that, behind the masks we create for ourselves, so many of us silently endure. Including my girlfriends. They came to my shame-filled hut with food, bedding, love, and a total lack of judgement. As often as there was pity, though, there was also curiosity. Many in long-term marriages wonder what divorce is like, regardless of whether we want to act on it. I was able to state that, at least for me, it wasn’t a magic fix.
The unexpected boon of this full-on soul-and-body “peel” is that I emerged completely renewed. When I turned 50, I felt like my odometer had flipped back to the zeros. My birthday party that year was a riot of Veuve Clicquot and conga lines. Leading the pack were my daughters, to whom I have become a far more joyous and present mother.
The cherry on top of my happier life was that Mr. Y had once again become part of it. After months of trying to mend his marriage, he met me for lunch. We were wiser – not to mention emotionally exhausted – so it was hardly a passionate reunion. But it was the beginning of a joint acknowledgement that our feelings for each other were still intact. We eventually got back together, but not as cataclysmically; instead, we put time and thought into getting it right the second time.
Mr. Y and I now live together happily. When we look back at all the grief, it feels like a bad dream. But I wouldn’t erase a single one of those difficult moments, any more than I would take back the great moments of my marriage. Even at the very rock bottom of it all, when Mr. Y was out of my life, I never wished the events of Burning Man could be wiped from the past. Except, perhaps, that utilikilt.