Indiscretions of the Living
by Bradley Spinelli
After my wife died I started sleeping with a friend whose husband had died barely a year before. We had all been close, the two wives closest of all, and I tried to keep it from my friends and of course it became an instant scandal when I couldn’t.
What people didn’t know was that we had slept together when our spouses were alive, and that our spouses had been there and slept together, too. It all sounds so euphemistic: we had all fucked. We were all friends; we all fucked.
Nobody knew about this. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could tell anyone. Gay marriage might be legal, but only because it looks like straight marriage, an old-fashioned Puritanical pact that people understand the way they understand moms and apple pie. But in this country, grasping how a happily married person could happily fuck someone else without keeping it a secret is like understanding how hot dogs are made or how the electoral college works or why the top note of the national anthem is always off-pitch.
It was easy, with this other couple, to get together and run around, and it was nice to have people to talk to. The women shared everything. He and I weren’t super-tight guy friends, but that was okay with me—most of my male friends were coke fiends, and all of them were alcoholics. These two barely drank. With them, we were in our own quiet bubble, and we could share stories about our extracurricular activities. I had no one else I could talk to about that kind of thing.
They were more “active” than we were, they called themselves “polyamorous,” and my wife rolled her eyes. Not at them. But we all met through underground dance parties, and there was crossover with the “jazz age” scene and the burlesque world and underground sex parties, and through these Subreddit worlds we met Poly People with sprawling networks of lovers of different designations. Y’know, the woman with a girlfriend, a boyfriend, and a slave, while her husband stands by grinning. We didn’t judge—we really didn’t—we just knew that we could never keep up with the litany of rules such arrangements depended on. My wife and I weren’t “swingers,” and we weren’t in an “open relationship.” Mostly we just hated labels. We wanted to live together, work it out as we went along. We didn’t want to deny each other pleasure.
Maybe my friends expected me to sleep around after my wife died, to fall back into bachelor habits and revel in my grief, to be blandly middle aged and target younger women. I could’ve pulled thirty-somethings out of bars, even if I didn’t have the patience for anything younger. She was a little older than me, just past fifty and still glamorous and willowy and wonderfully sexy, perhaps more so as a widow, if you can wrap your mind around that. Not as a kink, but she was always an upbeat, positive person, and watching her husband slowly die of cancer over a period of years hadn’t taken anything away from her as much as it had added something, a leavening to her lightness, a tint of darkness, that made her even more desirable.
It was easy, at first, the hot sex and dirty talk about things we had done as a group, with an open willingness to recreate the favorites our spouses had done, and the things they hadn’t, with crying and laughing in between. Her grief had hardened by then into something tempered and scarred by the sympathy of others, and mine was still wet cement. And while she was still surrounded by family and chosen family, as soon as one of my friends saw me dancing with her at an event—with a hand inside her dress—my friends stopped coming around. It was nostalgic; I could almost feel people talking about me, feel the news travel through the grapevine, buzzing through the wifi airwaves—nothing direct, just a sudden silence of social media, email, texts. Nobody calls anybody anymore anyway.
You’d think you’d get a pass after the death of a spouse. Every married couple I knew had at least one person who had cheated, but they kept their secrets and felt appropriately guilty. When you get busted fucking your dead wife’s friend—or your dead friend’s widow, however you want to put it—you can’t quite say, “It’s cool, my wife let me fuck her when she was alive,” or even, “no big, he fucked my wife, too”—there’s no way out of that. There’s no way to communicate how horrible it is that they’re both gone. Everyone’s going to think you’re weird and broken.
She and I stepped it up and went to sex parties, which my wife had never really been into. We would fool around with other couples or a single woman, and one night, I lost her. She slipped away with a young girl and I went from room to room, looking for her, looking like a creep. Finally, I went home, ate cold pizza. Later, she apologized, said that she’d run into some friends. She’d been going to parties without me. It made sense; a single woman willing to have sex with a couple is called a “unicorn”—rare and much-pursued. Besides, by then, she needed to sleep with someone who wouldn’t remind her of her dead husband. Maybe I helped her get over it and move back into the world.
When my wife was still alive I started seeing a woman I had met through work. She was very small and looked French, though she wasn’t, with short hair that was always a mess, an absent-minded professor quality, but with stylish shoes. She left the job, but we stayed in touch through LinkedIn and I used “networking” as an excuse to meet for a drink. Her tiny curves were irresistible, yet out-matched by her intellect—she was crazy smart, super-educated and analytical, and yet very warm, a Buddhist. She talked about the structure of work and society, and asked me, “What is illusory?” I had no answer. Walking her to the subway, I said something about the exhaustion of doing the right thing, and she quipped, “what’s the fun in that?” her face contorting in a laugh. I veered over the line and kissed her on the street. It was thrilling. I didn’t know if she’d slap me and when she didn’t, the city fell away.
It’s so weak for middle-aged people to drop, “I felt like a teenager,” but it was close. Not the fear of being caught by an adult but the sheer thrill of it, of newness and opportunity and raging hormones. She was married, and her marriage wasn’t built for wiggle room. It was her second marriage—she was older than me; her first marriage had been straight-up “open” and lasted almost twenty years while she explored, conducting long-term affairs. And I was ironically aching to fuck her now that she had given up that freedom for a monogamous commitment to one man.
While my wife was out of town for a girls’ weekend, we slept together on the couch, since the bed would seem like a betrayal. It was one of the biggest fights my wife and I ever had. Not because I fucked her, but because she was married. Our thing was always about mitigating commitment and risk. You don’t not fuck other people because sex is colonization; you don’t fuck other people because it’s dangerous. You can fall in love that way. Or someone might fall in love with you, so you protect against that. And against the spouses of others. From my wife’s point of view, I had opened us up to the scrutiny and wrath of an innocent married man, and we could be dragged into a divorce trial or much, much worse. I knew she was right.
She and I continued to see each other for casual drinks, spirited conversation, and intense sex. We went to speak-easy bars and I rented mid-range hotel rooms. We slipped into the mainstream of adulterous Americans—we just fucking lied to our spouses like normal people. It was a freedom all its own, we didn’t constantly have to have “the talk.” I told my wife only that I met her for drinks, and I came home so riled up that we’d get into it, so from her viewpoint it was a relationship that fed her sex life. My lover told her husband she was still taking pottery classes—a class that she dropped for me.
Her sex life, too, had taken an uptick, and when her husband took a job in Boston she went with him. She said that maybe she wouldn’t have, if the offer had come in a year before. Maybe they would have carried on a long-distance marriage. She had become accustomed to a space between them. “Now,” she said, “I want to go.” She smiled, and I did, too.
When your wife dies, you regret a lot of shit. A lot of stupid shit that you can’t take back, petty arguments and wasted time. But also a lot of real shit that you probably wouldn’t take back if you could.
I don’t regret the time I spent away from her, wrapped around another naked woman in a midtown hotel. I don’t regret the money I spent. I don’t regret that I lied. I regret that I didn’t tell her how it was. Maybe I could have expressed that. How it was with her, how intense and yet casual. How her piercing queries made me grapple with the question of meaning, to focus less on the spiraling existential arguments of my marriage, and to enjoy the gentle passing of our lives together. How, when we were alone in a darkening hotel room, sated and cooling in the evaporation of each others’ sweat, I would kiss her shoulder and feel as close to her as I’d ever felt to another human being. How it reminded me to be present with my wife, how not to disengage. It was a gift we were left with, even after she moved away.
After my wife died, the woman I dated for the longest was someone else we had known together. She was younger, maybe fifteen years younger than me. We all met at a downtown event for a musician we knew, and we both took a shine to her—she was cute, smart, and best of all, funny. We met her out for drinks once a month or so, and our time together was full of laughter and jokes and dumb stories. She did something in media that neither of us understood. She only vaguely remembered life without the internet. Some married people are always telling single people to get married, but my wife and I had married late, we’d both enjoyed our single lives, and for us, hanging out with a single millennial was to relive the anxiety and endless possibility of single-ness. We didn’t offer advice, mostly we just teased stories out of her.
I became attracted to her and, since we were already friends, I asked my wife if I could proposition her. I was convinced I could do it in a respectful manner, that we’d all still be friends either way. I was halfway right. My wife agreed, I met the girl for drinks and explained our situation, asked if she’d be interested in sleeping with me, she admitted she’d already thought about it, and, later, my wife joined us and I left them alone to talk. It was a go.
A week later, via email, it was a no-go. She’d had second thoughts—or, I suspected, had talked to a friend and been scared off. The funny thing is that she never saw my wife again. She and I kept seeing each other for drinks and laughter, but my wife never joined us. She had put the girl into my compartment, even though she passed. And eventually I stopped flirting with her.
She came off as care-free, obsessed with cookies and other desserts, not a heavy drinker. She was quick with memes and links via email—half our relationship was conducted while we were both at work—and quicker with quips and sarcasm in person. She was blonde, but not a natural blonde; cute and sexy, but with bad posture that suggested she had never been called beautiful. She was lonely, but chose to be alone.
My wife and I talked about her. We read news stories about how millennials didn’t really “hook up” all that much, compared to Gen X, and after listening to her stories, I realized it was probably true. This woman was thirty and had been through two lovers in the span of a year—one sexual encounter each. It was a little sad, really. I started to suspect she would be bad in bed.
After my wife died, I didn’t see her for awhile. Then I emailed her about some new cookie in the news, and the conversation resumed with a lot of jokes about pooping, videos of monkeys smelling their fingers, that kind of thing. It did kind of help. Fart jokes don’t get old, only our farts get old. We fell into an easy rhythm, and it helped that she had known my wife and loved her, yet hadn’t seen her recently, didn’t feel the loss.
I started bringing her around and people warmed to her. There was some blowback about the age difference, but I wasn’t yet “old” and she was no longer “young,” so it didn’t seem that inappropriate. She didn’t come off as an annoying millennial, and my friends accepted her. Everyone assumed we were fucking and never asked.
One night, we were both half-drunk and came in to her place—a hyper-gentrified renovation on the Lower East Side—with warm cookies from Insomnia, laughing about something, and I licked a crumb from the side of her mouth and then we were on the kitchen floor, mauling each other. It was more funny than hot. She got very serious when we got to the bedroom, and didn’t say a word during or after. It wasn’t very good. Not because she seemed inexperienced—though she clearly was—but because she seemed so self-conscious about her inexperience, so careful about everything. We weren’t a match. Maybe that’s the most generous thing I can say, and the saddest. We weren’t a match.
She went to the bathroom and got back in bed, her breathing quickly falling regular and deep. I went to the bathroom and ran the water in the sink and cried. Just sat there on the can in my boxers, listening to the water run, crying. It was bullshit. It was all such utter bullshit.
In the morning it was like it hadn’t happened. We cracked jokes and went to breakfast. We kept seeing each other like it hadn’t happened. And then I just stopped texting her. She was one of those, anyway—like so many other friends and acquaintances and lovers in this city, they only respond after you first reach out to them. So when I stopped, she stopped. If she noticed, I couldn’t say. I had moved back into the world.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels The Painted Gun (Akashic 2017), nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America 2018 Shamus award for Best PI Paperback Original, and Killing Williamsburg, excerpted in Sensitive Skin, Ampersand Review, and The Unbearables’ 2017 anthology. He contributed to New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery.