Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jan 4, 2006
I told my husband I was a virgin when we married but I wasn’t. Now the guy I did it with is going to tell.
A secret from my youth is about to be exposed. When this happens, my life will implode. I can see the pain bearing down on me like a speeding train. I am stuck to the track and there is nothing I can do but wait for it to mow me down.
When my husband, “Mark,” and I were dating, I had a brief affair with his roommate. “Doug” and I had sex seven times over a period of three weeks. Then, it was over. We continued to be friendly with each other for a few months until Doug moved out to take a job in another state. He was replaced in the apartment by the man who eventually became my brother-in-law.
Mark and I got married 18 months after my indiscretion with Doug. We are happy. I cherish my husband more than anyone or anything in my life. There is nothing — no job, no person — that I would not give up for him. Mark is beautiful, smart, kind and caring. My marriage is the best thing I have ever had in my life. Now, it is about to be ripped away from me.
You see, I got a call from Doug two weeks ago. He informed me that he is planning a visit back to our town in a few months, and when he comes he is going to tell Mark about our affair. Why? Because he has become a born-again Christian and he believes that he will go to hell if he dies without confessing his sin.
Of course, his sin is my sin except for the fact that my sin is much greater.
Mark believes that I was a virgin on our wedding night. I wasn’t, obviously. Even worse is the fact that Doug was actually the first man I had sex with. This will kill Mark because he was a virgin when we got married. It means a lot to him to think that we are the only people on earth who know each other in this most intimate of ways. He loves the fact that, as I have actively led him to believe, no other man knows what my body feels like. He cherishes the notion that I don’t have sexual memories of any other man. And, before the feminists start sharpening their knives, let me just say that I love knowing the same thing about him. So, any member of the sisterhood who thinks that my husband is a Neanderthal can go fuck herself.
Nobody reading this can imagine my desperation. I have pleaded with Doug not to expose me as the fraud that I am. I have made every appeal that I can think of, to no avail. It is like beating my fists against a steel beam. Doug is absolutely convinced that keeping this secret will keep him from going to heaven. Against the threat of damnation, my words are worse than useless. I have caught myself hoping that Doug is struck down by lightning or a speeding bus before he is able to make his face-to-face revelation to the man we betrayed. I would pray for his death, but it seems ludicrous to ask God to kill somebody so that I can continue living a lie. I have to accept the fact that my husband is about to find out that I had sex with his best friend, even as I made him believe I was saving myself for him.
So, here I sit like a condemned prisoner awaiting my doom. I cannot bring myself even to contemplate what Mark is going to feel, say and do when he learns what I have done.
Should I start planning ways to rebuild my life after Mark divorces me? Would that be premature?
Sometimes I think I should just tell him myself. “Honey, I gave my virginity to Doug when you were out of the apartment one day 12 years ago. We fucked each other on the sly for several weeks, but you’re the only man I have been with since. Don’t be mad.” But who am I kidding? I don’t have the courage to do it. I have completely lost control of my life and I have no one to blame but myself.
What on earth am I going to do?
Falling From the Sky, Watching the Ground Rush Toward Me
You say you don’t have the courage to tell him yourself. Perhaps courage is not what you need. Perhaps what you need is to face necessity.
Telling him isn’t courageous, it’s just necessary. It’s a necessary response to circumstances — like leaping from a burning building. You just leap.
What exactly do you tell your husband, and how? You sit down somewhere quiet and private and tell him that you have been keeping a secret from him and it has come time to reveal it. You tell him that long ago you made a mistake and that in trying to lessen the consequences of that mistake you have only made them greater. You tell him that with the best of intentions — wanting to save him from hurt — you have hidden this from him, and now you are telling him so he doesn’t hear it from someone else.
And then you tell him the secret that you have been keeping. You tell him in neutral descriptive words free of implied catastrophe and threat. You don’t use words like “divorce.” You don’t say “fucked each other on the sly.” You find words that convey the facts of the situation without exciting the passions. You tell him you did this and you know it was wrong. You ask for his forgiveness and tell him you will do whatever it takes to make it right.
And then after that conversation with your husband you call this person and tell him that it won’t be necessary for him to visit bearing torture irons under robes of Christian virtue. You tell him that if he likes he can visit but that he should not expect to be greeted like a liberator, that you can’t say what your husband might do should he show up bearing news of your supposed dishonor.
In this way you reclaim some of the advantage of the aggressor. And make no mistake about it, whatever this person may claim, his mission is not one of mercy but of aggression.
I am no expert on Christianity’s various sects and what they may require of their believers. But I do know firsthand the practical benefits and the important limitations of making personal amends to those one has harmed. On this point the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are instructive. One is advised to make personal amends to those one has harmed “unless to do so would injure them or others.” In other words, at least for those who sincerely want to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, the point is clear: One does not clean up one’s past sins at the expense of others.
I suppose certain religious practices differ. The 12 Steps, after all, is not a religious rulebook, but a practical guide to living. But in my opinion one who disrupts the lives of others in the pursuit of private spiritual redemption has no right to do so, no responsibility to do so. He is more like a terrorist than a healer of wounds. Besides, isn’t confession of sins something that happens between the sinner and a representative of the church?
Be that as it may, you can’t stop him from coming. Nor, after you defuse the situation by telling your husband what it’s all about, does it really matter whether he comes or not.
What matters now is how you change your thinking. You and your husband have apparently believed that if you never experienced the touch of other bodies that you would be protected from all the doubt and insecurity of adult love. It is a beautiful idea that you and he have shared, but it is not an unassailable fortress on which to build a marriage. In fact it is more like a torture machine. And now you have to take apart your torture machine — this machine you built in good conscience, thinking it would protect you.
It seemed like the sensible thing, I’m sure, to build this machine; it does other things too: One feels a tantalizing tingle when one passes close by it, almost a sexual thing (mingling damnation with ecstasy in its hellish mortar and pestle). This machine of torture promised purity, and purity seemed valuable above all things. But purity is just a story we tell ourselves, a retreat from our bodies and their predilection for betrayal.
So you dismantle the torture machine. And you replace it with an ethics that comes from planet Earth. You do what has to be done. You tell the truth.
After all that cleansing of superstition, if there is any room left for hazy speculation, it is only this: In the end, this man may turn out to be the unexpected angel of acrid necessity.