This is the most seriously autobiographical telling of my first marriage. There are fictional aspects to it, but this one is close to the mark. This is my first foray into cheating stories; there may be a couple more.
Not a stroke story by any means.
I can recall the moment I found out my marriage was a lie.
It was a little thing, an overheard comment; yet it crystallized everything in an instant, so many little facts spread out over fifteen years of courtship and marriage.
It was all so obvious.
Of course, that's where this telling begins. To tell it, though, I must lay out some threads, and allow them to tie themselves together.
Fifteen years prior, I was a junior in college. I was majoring in Biology, with an eye to medical school. I did some tutoring, and that's how I met Shelly. She was a sophomore, struggling with some of the more rigorous parts of cell biology. She was no dummy; in one of those serendipitous pairings, she was able to learn from me, and I was able to teach her.
During small breaks in the action, I noted aloud how pleased I was to find I had an ability to teach, that I was headed for med school and hoped to be a researcher and professor someday.
Well. I thought we were getting along before. After that day, she seemed to go out of her way to see me. She was in active acquisition mode. I was apparently her guy.
That should have been clue number one. She was less turned on by me than she was by the fact I had a lucrative career ahead of me. I learned she was from a reasonably well-to-do family; her father owned a regionally important petroleum distribution business, while her mother was a top loan officer at a large bank.
In short: it was about the money.
It didn't register with me at the time, however.
She allowed me to seduce her after a couple of months; to my satisfaction and relief, I came to believe we were very compatible, sexually. During spring break, thanks to her parents money, we moved into a small, decently appointed apartment just off campus.
She began pushing the idea of marriage; we were cohabiting, after all, and her mother wanted so badly to plan a wedding for her only daughter.
Before I knew what was happening, I had proposed. We scheduled the event for the weekend after my graduation, just over a year away.
My parents were none too thrilled with the whole arrangement; but, they kept mum and offered lukewarm support. Her parents were happy, because it meant getting a doctor for a son-in-law.
Sad to say, that's not the way things happened. The university's med school wait-listed me because there were just not enough slots to accommodate my white self. My grades were good enough, but so were too many others'.
I didn't find that out, however, until shortly after the wedding.
Shelly was furious. I reasoned with her, though, that I could pursue an MAT, typically a one-year program, while she finished her degree. That, I suggested, would make me an even more attractive candidate for med school, and probably for a professorship later on.
She was mollified, and we settled into married life.
Another year, another graduation celebration, and another wait-listing from the med school.
It was time to earn a living. I could continue to hope against hope, but it appeared med school, apart from going to some cut-rate Caribbean institution, was not in the cards; and I had to have an income of some description. I took my MAT, like a cup in my hand, and approached the local school board seeking work as a high school biology teacher.
The good news: I found three openings within reasonably short commutes from our current address. The bad news: Shelly popped her lid.
She harangued me about failure, about settling for less than I was capable of. I couldn't force the med school to accept me, I told her; she stopped bitching because I was right, but her demeanor toward me cooled immediately. She took her degree in business administration and dove into the job market, marginalizing our relationship.
Her parents were even worse. I found myself thinking up reasons not to visit them, wanting to avoid ugly confrontations over the uglier digs they used on me. They were superficially polite, but underneath they despised me. It was palpable.
Things changed again when, about three years later, Shelly gave birth to our first child, a beautiful little boy we named James, and then two years later when his little brother John made his entrance. We were a little family, and her parents seemed to treat me ever-so-slightly more agreeably.
Gift horses, mouths, you get the idea.
Shelly and I had discussed child-rearing, and I thought we were on the same sheet of music. I was raised in a strict yes-sir-no-ma'am atmosphere, not military, not abusive, but respectful of one's elders or else. Shelly quit her job and stayed at home to raise the boys, and I naively believed she was training them as we had discussed
The first time it really struck me just how much she was sabotaging me was when James was, oh, I think seven, and John five. James responded to a question I asked by saying, "Yeah."
I looked him in the eye and said, "I believe that's 'Yes, sir, ' young man."
Shelly was sitting nearby. She jumped up and hissed, "You fucking control freak! Let the child talk the way he wants to!"
It startled me, and scared the boys, such was the fury of her tirade. The boys started crying, and though I tried to comfort them, she was having none of it. She used more choice verbal morsels on me, and herded them out of the room and into their bedrooms.
When she emerged, she did not speak to me.
Finally I said, "Shelly, I don't believe I started that."
"You wouldn't, asshole," she spat.
I was silent. Something was seriously wrong. At length I continued, "I thought we were in agreement on the yes-sir-no-sir routine."
"You were in agreement, shithead. I went along to keep your pathetic ass happy," she stated flatly.
I waited for a few minutes before I said, "Shelly, do you want a divorce? If you do, just tell me."
She looked at me sharply, and after some obvious internal struggling, said, "No. I'm sorry for what I said. I just don't approve of the way you treat these children."
The way I treated them? I was the one who played stupid games with them, reducing them to quivering bowls of laughter. I thought it best not to say so.
"I didn't realize you were so adamantly opposed to my wishes," I said.
More internal struggling; then, "I'm tired. It's been a tough day. Can we just accept my apology and move forward?" She hugged me half-assedly.
Can we accept it? Gift horses, again. "Okay," I said, returning the hug, "all is forgiven." She stiffened, and then the moment passed.
That evening, however, was the beginning of a great downward spiral in my relations with the boys. I thought of that evening as Square One.
At this point it's necessary to digress and place another thread into the weave.
I reported to Phillips High School as a biology teacher, and immediately fell in love with the whole process. I had a gift, the same one which evidenced itself with Shelly in college, of communicating with older adolescents. I got my kids interested in everything from moss to cat innards, from cells to creatures; and all with a creativity I had never known I possessed.
I was named teacher of the year my third year. Okay, I wouldn't be a doctor; but maybe I was inspiring a host of new doctors. Not as glamorous, but it could end up saving untold millions of lives later. Or so I rationalized.
In any event, it was fun! I was hanging out with kids, and that kept me young. I was having the time of my life.
One thing about me: I was never a strictly science-and-math guy. I always loved art, history, art history, music, literature; a regular Renaissance loser, that was me.
The practical upshot is that I made friends with Dave Prescott, an older man, an English teacher who taught mostly honors Senior English Lit. He was a gifted and inspiring teacher.
In one of those right-place-right-time moments, another part of my life was born.
Dave and I were having lunch together one day, a Wednesday as I recall. I'd been teaching for about four years at that point. I mentioned I liked writing, and I read prodigious numbers of books. We discussed the craft of writing for several minutes.
Eventually, Dave paused, stroked his well-manicured white beard, and said, "Ever write a book review?"
I chuckled. "I used to think so. My book reports tended to be very thorough."
He held my eyes, stroking that beard, looking faintly amused. "Ever been published?"
I paused: Where was this going? "No, not really. I mean, in the college paper, I had a couple of pieces printed..." I trailed off.
"Ever read that book review column in the Trib, Paige's Books?" he asked, not missing a beat.
"Sure!" I said. "The guy's good. Reminds me of my style. Not that I'm that good," I offered lamely.
More stroking of the beard, holding my eyes; then he looked around conspiratorially, held out a hand, and said, "Pleased to meet you."
I took the proffered hand; then processed what he meant, and said, softly, "No sheeyit."
Dave's face opened into a huge grin, and he chuckled. "No sheeyit."
I shook my head, laughing. "I would of never knowed," I said, intentionally mangling the language.
Dave laughed even harder; then said, "My office, before you head out for the day." He winked, stood, and walked away.
I met him, as he instructed, after school. He handed me a book, a new suspense novel by a first-time mystery author. "Read it," he said simply, "and give me a five hundred word review by Monday. Double-spaced, don't try to sound like Einstein, make it sound like you're just, oh, trying to get me to read it. Word-of-mouth stuff. Got it?"
I nodded and accepted the book. He clapped me on the shoulder and winked; then he left.
I followed, in a daze.
I got home and started dinner, as was my habit, then started reading the book. Shelly got in a little later, and treated me like a roommate, as was her habit.
That evening I read the book; Shelly watched Dynasty, Falcon Crest, one of those. (In retrospect, perhaps that should have been another sign she was obsessed with money.) As I read, I scratched out a few notes. It wasn't a half-bad first novel, I concluded.
The next day, during the crevices in my schedule, I roughed out a first draft of my review; that evening I typed it up and started editing. I frequently used my old typewriter, a high-school graduation gift, to type up lesson plans and the like. I knew Shelly would take little notice.
The next day I handed Dave my draft. His eyebrows raised. "Pretty quick work. You sure you actually read the book?" he asked with a grin. "I'll look 'er over this weekend," he said.
I was on pins and needles the entire weekend. Monday finally came, and Dave stopped by my desk early that morning. "My office, right after school?" I gave him a thumbs-up, and he winked encouragingly.
I got through the day somehow, and showed up at his office almost before the closing bell finished ringing.
"Couple of things," he began, holding the review, "but first, I'll relieve the suspense: I like this." He waved the papers in his hand, and continued, "First thing, the more you write, the better you'll get. This is good, and it needs a few improvements, which I've noted." He smiled encouragingly.
"So you're saying you bled on my book report," I deadpanned, and he chuckled.
"Yeah, can't seem to break that habit. Not just yet," he added enigmatically.
"Okay, so you said there were a couple of things," I prodded.
"Yep," he replied. "Your work might need some tightening, but this," again waving the papers, "was pretty damned good for as quick as you produced it. Fast and good are hot properties in the newspaper business, believe me," he said.
I blushed, and he continued, "I'd like for you to make these corrections, and generally tighten things up. Then, I'd like your permission to show this to my editor at the Trib."
"I'm ... speechless," I finally got out.
Dave grinned again, and then got serious. "My wife Mary died a couple of years before you started teaching here," he said. "I was about four years older, and we'd decided she'd take early retirement at sixty-two, and of course I'd be sixty-six. Our boy lives in Tampa, somewhere in that part of Florida, and he'd been bugging us to move down there."
He was silent for a moment, then continued. "Anyway, I've been doing this job way past long enough to retire, and my column at the Trib was ... I don't know, maybe sort of holding me back."
I began to digest what he was saying. It must have shown on my face; he said, "I took the column over about twelve years ago, from another old-timer, and if you'd like the responsibility, I think I'd feel comfortable with you picking it up."
"And you'd retire now, and head for Tampa," I observed.
"I just turned sixty-two myself," Dave said quietly, "and I want to see my grandkids while I'm still reasonably young. I can hang it up at the end of this school year and go with a clear conscience."
We were silent for a moment; then I said, "I'd be delighted to help you out on both counts. Delighted and honored," I added. I extended my hand, which he accepted with a firm clasp.
And with that, it was done.
I began to write reviews, first a couple per month, then more as Dave transitioned me in. By the time graduation rolled around, I was writing ten reviews per month, and sometimes more.
It was not lucrative, but it was definitely a source of income. I used the teachers' credit union, and put all the money I made from writing into a special savings account. James had already arrived on the scene, and I harbored vague notions of using the money to fund his education.
Oddly enough -- or maybe not so much -- I was able to keep all this from Shelly. She wasn't much of a reader; and she never really knew how much I made, as her father had always insisted she file her yearly tax returns as married-filing-separately. Just his way of controlling his little girl, and keeping me out of his precious loop.
Now that all the threads are in place, it's time to spin my tale.
It was about four years after Square One. James was by now around eleven, John nine. James had learned he could treat me disrespectfully and get away with it, and he was getting worse. John had always had a sweeter disposition; but he adored his older brother, and the telltale signs were there for the reading.
One Saturday afternoon in May, seasonably pleasant open-window weather in the air, I was in my study working on a draft of another book review. I had by this point migrated to one of the new Macintosh computers. (As I recall, the selling point was that Apple had just introduced a color monitor and a hard drive.) It was expensive for the day, and Shelly had opposed me on it (as with everything else); but my newly-minted needs as head of the science department allowed me to prevail.
The best part, from my point of view, was the keyboard. So much quieter than that noisy, clattery, beloved old Smith Corona!
Thus it was that I was typing away, when I heard the boys outside my window, with a couple of their friends. They were talking about the sorts of things pre-pubescents will discuss, meaning sports and girls. I tried not to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help hearing talk about this 'hot girl' and that 'skank.' I shook my head and quietly giggled.
Then the talk turned to sports, and my world turned upside down.
James said, in relation to what I don't remember, "Yeah, Dad's okay, but he don't know jack shit about sports."
One of his friends said, "Kind of a pussy, huh?"
"Makes me wonder if we're really his kids," James replied, and there was laughter, which faded as the group moved away from the window and on to some other important location.
There it was. Maybe they weren't my kids.
Suddenly, everything came into focus: Shelly's contempt, her disagreement with me on raising "our" sons, my in-laws' bare solicitousness, other little red flags over the past decade or so. It all made sense.
Shelly had conceived by another man, and I was raising his children.
And no one wanted to rock that little boat.
I argued with myself for a good half-hour, my review forgotten in the fog of pain. Then it occurred to me: I had a sizable nest egg, generated by my writing. I could afford to dip into it, hire a PI, and put this suspicion to rest.
I got back to work on my review, and went through three revisions in the next two hours. I noticed, on proofing the final version, my writing style had become a tad bit sharper, more cruel; I had not liked this book, and I had been distinctly unkind.
Okay, I revised that one again. No sense taking my personal problems out on a poor author.
Monday morning, I stole a moment to speak to a French teacher I knew, Lynnette DuPree, who had gone through a divorce a couple of years earlier. She and I had gotten to know one another through the years, not intimately but well enough. I knew she had caught her husband cheating, and I knew she had used the services of an investigator; but I had never pried.
I very briefly outlined the problem, that I suspected my wife was cheating -- that got a grimace -- and asked which agency she had used to catch her ex. She told me the name of the man who had handled her case; and then, looking around to ensure no one was looking, she kissed me on the cheek and whispered, "I hope you're wrong."
I toyed with the idea for a couple more days; then, after school one afternoon, I called Mitchell Porter. I introduced myself, and told him Lynnette had referred me. We set up a meeting for Friday at four.
Without belaboring the meeting, it went well. He seemed competent, and he had certainly fulfilled Lynette's needs; but he looked uninspiring. I mentioned it, and he laughed. "Makes me inconspicuous," he replied.
I laid out my problems and suspicions. He asked a few pointed questions, and made some suggestions. We discussed the business end; I had enough to cover way more than he was asking.
We shook hands; and just like with Dave Prescott, years before, it was done.
I agreed to give him a week to get the lay of the land. Surveillance, he told me, was vital to establishing what measures to take, and what instruments to use.
The following Friday, we met again. He laid out a preliminary view of things.
"It doesn't look good, Jeff," he told me. "She's definitely bumping and grinding with some older fellow, name of Frank Lawrence." The name meant nothing to me, so he continued, "He's a loan officer at the bank where your mother-in-law works."
My eyes widened. "How did you... ?"
"Trade secrets, my friend," he grinned; then he got serious again. "It appears they're using your bedroom, well, if I had to guess, Mondays and Wednesdays. At least, that's what they did this week. Wednesday, they met at this condo near downtown for a ... shall we say, long lunch."
I could say nothing; I was on the verge of tears. She didn't love me, I knew that and had for years; but the death knell of my family was sounding, and it hurt far more than I had expected.
Mitchell let me absorb things for a minute, and then continued. "I followed them to a deli after Wednesday's meeting, and collected their drink cups. That gives me DNA components on them, so if you can get me samples from your kids..." He trailed off.
I nodded. "I can do that. I can have them to you whenever you say."
"If I have them tomorrow, we can have the results early next week," he replied.
I nodded again. "I can be here before lunch... ?"
He said, "Sounds like a plan."
That evening, I regarded Shelly and the boys with newfound coldness. I was prejudging my sons, but my heart already knew the truth. I didn't even try to engage them in simple conversation.
Shelly may have suspected something. After the boys were in bed, she acted unusually solicitous. "Are you okay?" she asked.
I was silent for a moment. I put together an answer which, while technically true, would lead her to conclude a lie. "You remember my friend Dave Prescott? He used to teach English Lit."
She nodded and waited.
After a moment, I said, "It's never easy hearing about death."
She looked genuinely sad for a moment. "I'm so sorry, Jeff. I know he was a good friend. I wish I'd known him better."
It was the most tenderness she'd shown me in ages, and it was based on two true-but-unrelated statements. Stupid bitch, I thought; and that was the least of it. I was almost shocked at the vituperation I bit back.
The next morning, I awoke early after a shitty night's sleep. I cooked breakfast, and the aromas brought everyone to the table in short order.
After the meal, I offered to clean up. Shelly was a little surprised; then, apparently remembering the 'grief' I was feeling, said, "I appreciate it. I'll take the boys to soccer."
As soon as she left the room, I bagged the boys' juice glasses and labelled them, hiding them under the sink. I loaded the dishwasher and started it; as I was washing off the counters, Shelly and the boys headed out the door.
"Bye, guys," I said, more cheerfully than I felt. "Score one for me!"
James said, "Yeah, like you'd know," just loudly enough for me to catch it. What a little shit. I found myself hoping he was not my spawn.
I shook my head, and waited for the car to leave. I waited ten more minutes, then headed for Mitchell's office.
He was there, waiting. "I somehow didn't think you'd wait until anywhere near lunch," he said softly, as I walked into his office.
I held up the two bags. "Please tell me these are not my kids," I said.
He looked pityingly at me; then said, "It's set in chromosomal concrete by now, buddy."
I laughed hollowly. We shook hands; and as I turned to go, he said, "Jeff? Take this." He proffered a business card. On it was the name Stan Fielding, a divorce attorney.
"You guys work on commission?" I quipped. I paused, and said, "I'm sorry, that was rude. I'm just ... going through..."
He stopped me. "I see this stuff a lot. No, I don't work on commission. Neither does Stan. Well, I guess I don't know about Stan, but I've never had complaints. He's a right guy. He'll fight for you. He's dirty and ethical."
I looked at Mitchell; he grinned and said, "Sounds impossible, but it's true, far as I know."
I chuckled and left.