Post Road Magazine #30

The Cheating Gene

Elizabeth Flock

It happened to be the shortest day of the year, with the least daylight, and also the day before the end of the world. The Mayans had said their calendar would end tomorrow, and a new era would begin, or at least the modern world had reinterpreted it that way.

And so a friend and I had gone to a party to celebrate. The man I lived with, and loved, and should have spent my last hours on Earth with was away for work.

Most everyone at the party was in costume, my friend inside a giant box, like a robot, and I in a feathery mask. Men in graphic T-shirts tried end of days-themed pick-up lines. A girl in cowboy boots shrieked as she rode a mechanical bull. And my friend and I danced-our bodies just a little too close-as our feet stuck to a floor coated in a cheap red alcoholic juice.

After midnight, after the world did not end, my friend and I walked out into the bitter cold to see what the same old world was like. It was, of course, just the same: the dirty KFC bordered by the trendy sushi bar near the crumbling barbershop.

As we cut through an alleyway to the street, our feet crunching on day-old snow, he asked if I wanted to come to his house to have a drink. I hesitated.

"No," I said at last. "I don't think so."

But then I stopped to look at him, and he put his hand on my cheek. He lifted the mask off of my eyes. He placed it gently on my forehead. And he leaned in, and I leaned in a little, too. I don't what I was thinking, then, at that moment of deciding, at that moment of transgression. I just remember that I shut my eyes.

* * *

I don't know what my grandfather was thinking when he brought my grandmother, who was then his mistress, back to his home. Maybe it was because they'd been out drinking all night that he thought it reasonable. He even asked his wife to make them breakfast. I'm not sure if he saw the hurt on her face as she prepared the pancakes, or if he was too entranced by his new paramour. I don't know for certain because this story was passed down from my grandmother, who told the story to my father just after her husband died, from a weakness in his head or in his heart. When my father asked her what she had been thinking, she said: "Well, he told me it was okay."

That his wife didn't say a word astonishes me. My father: "Somebody else might have hit him with a pan or shot him." But what sticks in my mind the most is the outright cruelty displayed by my grandfather-who I knew before death as a gruff but kindhearted man-toward the woman he had made a promise to, for better or for worse.

My father describes it this way: you switch off some part of your brain, and then it's difficult to see your own cruelty for what it is. To me, though, it seems to be more about making compartments-with one container for one person, and a second container for the other. Because then you don't have to face your own cruelty at all. Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World that the impulse to cruelty is "almost as violent as the impulse to sexual love." For the unfaithful, those impulses seem to go hand in hand.

Hand in lover's hand. My grandfather's the toughened grip of a bartender from Trenton, New Jersey, who broke up bar fights and picked up broken glass from wooden bar floors, never minding the blood. My grandmother's the oily soft hand of a secretary, the only job available to her besides a teacher or shop assistant or nurse, all of which made finding a man to support her a financial imperative.

Hands capable of extraordinary cruelty, which Marquis de Sade would tell them was simply exercising their freedom-without the restraints of morality and the law. Their licentiousness, he'd say, was never really a choice. Nor was his betrayal of his wife. "Lust's passion will be served," he writes, "it demands, it militates, it tyrannizes."

I don't entirely believe it. It's hard for me to picture my grandfather tyrannized by anything. He never said a word if he didn't want to. Never smiled if he didn't feel like it. And though I don't doubt he was motivated by lust, I'm not sure he ever felt militated by it. But if his callousness wasn't driven only by libido, it must have come from somewhere else, too.

Perhaps his callousness came from an ancient wound, maybe from his childhood. I have often looked for something in my earliest years to blame for my own transgressions. My father tells me that the way you love as an adult is shaped by the way you were loved when you were young. I believe this, even if that explanation runs the danger of letting us off the hook. Carson McCullers, too, says that childhood is when our hearts are most malleable, and capable of great wounds. "The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes."

* * *

My grandfather's beginning was arguably cruel, if not punishing. The stuff of scandal, small town talk, and embarrassment. His mother, a severe diabetic with three children almost grown, in what seemed like a happy enough marriage, one day ran away from home. Disappeared and did not come back for years, and when she did, she returned with a slightly rounded belly, my grandfather curled up inside. There were rumors of a tall doctor from Philadelphia. No one seemed to have a name. All of it was blamed on my great-grandmother's diabetes, and mental illness caused by a refusal to take her medication.

And so her husband took her back, however unhappily, along with the rapidly forming baby that was my grandfather. In family photos, the three of them look like any other family of the time, wearing stoic expressions for the camera, giving little away. Except that my grandfather, as a little boy, looks nothing like the man who's raising him.

I don't know more of the story because even my grandfather didn't know the truth about his beginnings until later, around age seven. It was then that he discovered a hidden letter in an attic trunk, and suddenly understood the whispers that had always surrounded him. I don't know more because he kept it a secret from my grandmother throughout their entire marriage, and she to this day does not believe it. My father also learned it third-hand from a sibling of his. The details get fuzzier with each retelling. And the image of the mysterious Philadelphia man who is my real great-grandfather is hardly an image at all.

"It would explain a lot of things about my dad, not revealing himself very much," my father says. The use of "would," a signifier of uncertainty: is the story real, or family myth? We do not know for certain.

But perhaps the story's veracity does not matter, because it feels like a story that's been passed down through the generations for a reason. Because it feels true. The very crux of the story-that an altered state of mind could drive a mostly happily married woman to run away and cheat-gets at something I've already heard many times about infidelity. Something they all have in common: the lovers' high. The craziness of falling in love. The madness associated with a secret suppliant.

Cheaters anonymous forums are rife with the feeling: "I feel so high right now. The OM [other man] and I are in a good place… It's amazing how that feeling can just lift you up and make you feel like you can do anything… No wonder we do such crazy things, looking for that high, huh? I am going to ride it for the moment!"

I cycle through the gossipy stories I've heard at family parties through the years, and suddenly find a similar common thread. My doctor uncle experiences a midlife crisis, and cheats on his wife with a young nurse. My aunt says that she wants an open marriage after all these years, and takes a lover. Someone's cousin has some sort of a mental breakdown after his third child in the suburbs, and sleeps with his secretary, in his wife's bed.

My great-grandmother didn't have to be truly mentally ill to cheat. She just had to experience an altered state of mind, which a lover can create. The Handbook of the Clinical Treatment of Infidelity, writes of this in cautionary, but recognizable, terms: "Falling in love is a measurable biological state, akin to a manic episode or a bout of temporary insanity. It is overwhelming, like a neurochemical tidal wave, disorienting lives in ways that were not anticipated and cannot be understood. Whether people enter affairs blindly or calculatedly, the neurochemistry of 'being in love' is extraordinarily difficult to escape."

But somehow this isn't satisfactory to me. In the laboratory of love, there must be another characteristic that causes infidelity, and the lovers' high. There must be a precondition that signals this madness is coming. There is one characteristic that seemingly everyone concerned with the subject today-psychologists, marriage counselors, self-help experts, cheaters and the cheated on alike-agree drives infidelity. I've avoided it, because I fear what it says about my father, and about me.

* * *

In psychoanalysis, ego is that part of the psyche that controls and determines our behaviors. In the dictionary, one definition of the word is an "exaggerated sense of self-importance." After a betrayal, it's the thing those who have been cheated on can hang onto: He was self-interested, egoistic and vain. She put herself first.

When you're on television, a lot depends on your ego. Convey confidence. Sound sure. Look sharp. My father lived it, breathed it, became the face that reported bravely from fires and floods, riots and revolutions. It's no coincidence that the women he chose over both my mom and his second wife were women who worked in his office and admired him for his craft. They often told him he was really good at what he does. I told myself I would never fall into such a common trap-that I would live differently, better.

Rewind. Years earlier, a scratchy VHS tape shows my father out of work early-a rarity. He walks up to a nondescript brick building, with a thick-lettered entrance sign. He strides briskly through the building's halls, in a smart-looking suit, tie, and shoes that click. The camera zooms in close as he enters a whitewashed hospital room. There, at the center of the tubes and drips and machines, is my mother, quietly holding a newborn. A Stevie Wonder tune starts up: "Isn't she lovely… Isn't she wonderful." My mother looks remarkably calm. The only bodily sign of pregnancy is a flush in her cheeks, and a slight disarrangement of her hair. Pan to my father, who grins. His braces show, revealing his youth and pride. He motions to hold me, not quite able to voice the words, and she passes me over to him, gently. As he takes me in his arms for the first time, if you watch the screen closely, you will see my mother correct him. This is the right way to hold a baby's head up. His face darkens, if only for a moment.

Twenty-seven years later, that moment is still crisp. "Your mom, she was like an expert from day one," he says, slowly. "I felt...inadequate. There was no way I could share that."

He shared it with her anyhow, right up until my first birthday, which is when he slept with a woman from his office, and the same age my sister was when he slept with a second woman from his office. Two babies, each of them about to have a first birthday, and the impulse for him to run away. It was hard not to think he was running away from both of us.

My father, trying to talk about a past damage to his ego, speaks about it almost clinically now, as something separate from himself. "Here you go in a marriage where you're focused on each other to some degree," he says. "And then the wife's focus shifts. She's been carrying this child for nine months. Her whole focus is going to be on this thing that she created and carried."

My mother tried to shift her focus back after she found out about the affair, and after he said he was leaving. When he arrived at their apartment on the agreed upon day to pack up his stuff and move out, she was gone but had left a simple note among the boxes: "Don't leave." Beneath it sat a container of brownie mix, Duncan Hines in the red box, their favorite, which he had often made for her. Or they had made it together, at the beginning of their new life together.

It was a perfect gesture, one that made me cry that kind of choking cry when I heard it for the first time. But it was also hopeless. How could she, the wholly knowable wife and mother, who did all things right, compete against the infinite possibilities of the unknown?

Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote, as if speaking directly to her partner: "I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year." How graciously she accepted his infidelity, understanding that he might want or need something more. She goes on to say that perhaps he has just known and loved her for too long, and that maybe someday they'll rejoin. I know my mother held out hope. But my father was already onto other seasons.

* * *

And I understand, now, why my father did it. Or at least I feel closer to understanding. Because last winter, after eight seasons of a mostly happy union with a good man, I let someone else kiss me in the cold.

"No," I had said. "I don't think so." But then I had shut my eyes and he had kissed me. And as he did-him enthusiastically, me liking it, and even momentarily liking myself for doing it-I didn't try to stop him.

There was the thrill of attraction, and of doing something I shouldn't, earning a secret scarlet letter no one knew about. There was the thrill of another person, and how different kissing him felt, even if his kiss was too eager. I refuse to believe I felt the thrill of hurting someone, but maybe that was there too.

What are all the tiny calculations that go into a mistake? My father, in the simplest of metaphors, tells me that in infidelity, you don't just veer off the road. "You think about getting off the road first. You consider not doing it. You signal, maybe. And then, after awhile, well, you get on the off ramp."

In my case, I don't remember having considered getting off the road, at least not longer than the length of that party. But that was long enough.

Or maybe I had. I thought back to arguments we'd had at home, nights when our backs were turned to one another, as the humidifier sputtered in the dark. Mornings when, still upset from the night before, I broke the eggs for breakfast recklessly, and yolk splattered onto my skirt.

I went home then, hailed a cab. My friend held my hand as the headlights approached, and I wanted both to keep holding it and to slap it away. I sank into the back seat, and pressed my cheek against the windowpane. The mask had gone missing, my hair was disheveled, and I began to feel upset. I took shallow breaths: it's okay. It'll be okay.

When I got home I realized I didn't have my keys. I didn't have my keys and there was no one else home: my roommates were away, and the man I lived with was away. I banged on the door anyway. I tried to jimmy the lock. I slid my credit card, hard, through the slit of the door. Up and down, up and down. I hopped over our back fence, scraping my thigh, in the hopes the back door would be unlocked. It wasn't. I tried to shove open the locked windows to the kitchen, and then the windows to the living room. I could have gone to a friend's house. Or I could have called the man who had just kissed me. But all I wanted was to be home.

There is something about the moment you break a promise. A feeling that you've crossed a threshold. I felt older, wiser, worse, better. I simultaneously felt an electric pleasure pass through me and a deadening of one part of my brain. My lips felt raw, from the cold or the kiss I wasn't sure. And my body felt a new energy, so long as I didn't think too hard about the details. All I wanted, now, was to be in my house, so I could enjoy this before it was all gone. Or so I could cry.

So, standing on my front stairs, facing a window several feet away, I reared my leg back and kicked the glass. Nothing happened. I kicked again, harder. Nothing. I did it a third time, with all the energy I could summon, and a cruel sound followed, like that of a breaking bone. I expected sirens to appear from around the corner, or neighbors to emerge in their dressing gowns. Neither came. After a long second, the window toppled through its wooden window frame onto our living room floor. Miraculously, it didn't shatter.

And that was it. I was inside, heaving a little on the floor from the effort of it as cold air drafted into our living room. The world hadn't ended. It was the next day, and the sun would come up soon. People would go about their morning routines. The sky was already a pinkish gray. And my house looked just exactly as I had left it. But the world was different for me because I had acted on that gene, passed down from my great grandmother to my grandfather to my father to me. Or I had done it all by myself.

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