My husband’s liaison with his lover is the dropped stitch in the otherwise orderly pattern of my Fair Isle sweater. Ariana is the snag in my brand new cranberry cashmere turtleneck. One loose thread can be dangerous to the whole. Should I pull it? Should I risk unraveling all of the knitting and planning and counted stitches? Should I worry the sore spot after years of carefully following directions, finding the perfect wool, best fit, the right feel? Should I tug on it?
Every year I send my husband’s mistress a Christmas card wishing her family a peaceful and healthy New Year. Sometimes I include pictures of my children. Sometimes a clip of our entire family. Maybe she is my husband’s ex-mistress. I don’t really know.
Psychologists would have a field day with this idiosyncrasy. Undoubtedly, it indicates some emotional instability or mental disorder. Maybe I need validation, or I crave attention. Is it a cry for consideration or simply a rationale for spitefulness under the guise of kind greetings? Am I passive-aggressive or narcissistic or bipolar or simply depressed?
Knitting a sweater is like weaving a family together. Each mishap shows in the fabric of the whole. A cross word, a missed stitch may embody the outcome. My husband’s plain brown sweater, dark as the soil of a well tilled garden, hand woven with love, worn at the birth of our son, has pulls and knots that do not impede its value as his favorite sweater. Perhaps that cross word, that unfair assessment, that screaming match may not exemplify a wonderful, yet flawed, family.
Whenever Ariana appears at one of the local amateur art exhibits that include her paintings, I do my best to attend. If she approaches me, I am silent yet savor the few seconds of our encounter. She is the first to break off eye contact, usually fleeing without a backward glance. Clearly, she is annoyed with me. Obviously, I need an answer to a question. I want to know why.
Their affair began like so many do these days…at work. A long look across the conference room, longer and longer Starbucks soy cappuccino breaks, two-hour vegetarian pizza and pomegranate juice lunches and, voila, it is a love story made in antioxidant heaven. A late night rapprochement at the Marriott Courtyard replaces the meeting at the convention center. Then off-site company gatherings at the Hyatt Hotel last until morning. Finally, business trips require condoms as well as computers. An all too commonplace situation–two people, both married with children, both fifty-year-old unaccomplished scientists—find their soul mate in one another in middle age.
Knowing this other woman is impossible. Not knowing her is equally implausible. She has lain in bed with my husband. Their relationship encompasses the realm of my marriage. Our marriage, our memories, our dreams are polluted by secrets and sex shared with someone who squeezes the sour from the sweet, alters our saucy spirit into a bland monotony. It is like losing the pattern to a sweater almost complete. Somehow, the arms do not match the body because the instructions have
disappeared along with the memory of how to sew them together properly.
Her presence taints the reminiscences of long ago and not so long ago. Trips with our little ones, like when our 3-year-old needed to go…badly… and disdained my helpful suggestion with her sad little response, “But I can’t poop in a napkin, Mama.” That is part of our family lore now, like a Lewinsky job in a 1969 Chevy with no floorboards at 80 miles an hour on I-5 in California. Memories both profane and mundane. Christmases past that brought a kitten, the year Santa snuck Sparky the puppy down the chimney, my daughter’s smiling face with every princess in Disneyland in her treasured autograph book, my son’s terror of the “real” life-size Brachiosaurus at the Science Museum, reading the Bible every evening became funnier than (and known evermore as) “Seinfeld reads the Bible.” How could those playful interludes be true when she lurks around the corner, making me lose count of the stitches (purl one, knit two?) in the pattern of the sweater I am knitting?
Everyday laughter was the background music of family life. All of the fantasies and aspirations that brought delight and courage to the long winter nights and lean financial times of our early days together vanished overnight. The promise to explore Paris together, climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, backpack through the Pyrenees: our closet confidences now lay spread-eagle on a cheap motel mattress like so much swag.
Metal knitting needles, clacking against one another are the soothing, rhythmic melody of my family’s quotidian existence. This random strand of wool will always be there, just left hanging, always vulnerable to hitch on a passing obstacle. Can we tolerate the dangling yarn that first catches the eye, like the Playboy Channel? After that first peek, who can resist another quick look?
How easily the two slid together and maintained a secret existence in cyberspace. Hidden from view, emails to blackberries and text messages to cell phones, ichats on computers instead of writing business memos. Clandestine, until discovered, and then page after sickening page of minutiae. That’s what a flash drive is for—finding the truth of what your spouse is really doing on that damn computer all the time. Chip readers are awfully handy as well. The information gleaned from my husband’s business computer and work cell phone reads like Sex in the City. Comparing my husband’s semen to creamy Alfredo sauce on the penne she had for supper, the bite on the leg after coming, size comparisons between my husband’s penis and others. The darling abbreviations, the I.O.U.s for sexual favors, the fawning flattery for another woman that obliterates my existence, my love.
Perversely, sometimes it is not the beautiful we seek, but the imperfect. We are drawn to the personal mistakes, private peccadilloes, and illicit sexual acts. The preacher’s fall from grace headlines the news. Why would I seek a connection with my husband’s mistress?
When her mother was dying in a faraway country, she visited for a couple days and then left for a vacation on the Mexican Riviera. “I have to escape.” The unpleasantness of kidney failure and doctor’s appointments and long waits in hospitals threatened her belief that positive thinking made all and only good things happen. Her mother died within weeks of her departure. She maneuvered her company into a business trip that she combined with a week at a spa because she believes that is her due. Self satisfied, smug, self-confident…but aren’t I just as self-righteous?
For all my moral declarations that justify a full life: the importance of fine times, lovely memories, steadfast family, loyal friends, responsible parenting, proper behavior…how quickly those values disappeared. As insidiously as Alzheimer’s disease steals the enjoyable moments, infidelity robs those excellent adventures, which vanish from my memory as quickly as milk curdles in the sun. Invidiously, suddenly that sweater is neither cashmere nor Fair Isle, but a budget, ready- to- wear polyester cardigan from the Jaclyn Smith collection at K-Mart.
Like the train wreck that sends the engines off the rails and the freight cars into a ditch, a meeting with this other woman would prove brutal. Perhaps no blows exchanged, no shouting matches, no obscenities screeched, perhaps. Tell me. How will I ever mend my heart? How will I love again? An ordained collision with a denouement as dramatic as that imaginary train’s tragedy is inescapable.
A seemingly small snag in a sweater, a slight malfunction in an engine’s gear, an attraction to another woman. Is the hole too gaping to darn, the train running too fast to round the curve, the knowledge of infidelity too abiding? Will the pulled thread be patched, the gear repaired, attention returned to a loyal wife? Or will the sweater unravel, the train derail, and the wife pull the trigger?
Jane Lawson cowrote the book The First Air Campaign, published by Da Capo/Perseus Press in hardcover in 1996 and in paperback in 2002. Also, her essay, “New England Blue,” has been featured on the Yankee Magazine website.
© 2010, Jane Lawson