"So, did you ever cheat, Annie?"
Annie bit the nail on her thumb coyly. The truth seemingly swirling in her brain as if the words would manifest themselves into the ether. She looked at John, whose painful gaze gave enough away already.
She knew the truth of course. One only admits to cheating on a significant other for one of three reasons.
Destruction. The desire to implode whatever cracked remains have held together the current partnership. In this case, there is no desire for restoration, no will for a new vessel. The goal is to make sure that the relationship shatters into many pieces; it can never be put back together either for self-preservation or to ensure the person you've hurt, who you love, will never be able to forgive and continue with their own self-respect. Sometimes this destruction is founded on love, sometimes on self-hatred, but in any event, the goal is to detonate. Annie had been in this situation before, but on the other end, when John had admitted to her on her sixteenth birthday, that he had cheated on her with a college girl. Twenty years later, the admission had lost its sting, but as all destructions do, had left some rubble. She had been in love then, as much as any child could possibly be, but because she had spilled her guts to her friends, as he knew she would, she couldn't go back. She felt baited by this. He knew she would tell, and then not be able to forgive him in public without seeming weak and stupid. He knew her well enough to know that seeming those things were worse than seeming naive. "Once a cheater, always a cheater," her mother had said and her friends and family echoed. Was that true? She wouldn't know, but he had left her no other choice and it seemed deliberate on his part. Sitting across from him all these years, his crooked smile still affable, she seemed to giggle. Was she realizing that she had forgiven him? Or was it a nervous laugh? one that signaled that it was the part she'd never actually forgiven him for. The cheating was easy to get over, the manipulation she carried in her purse like a trinket. Her friends and family all knew this. The relationship with John even at a young age had been defining for her in so many ways. It had destroyed them, but also the part of her that was still hopeful. She had confided in her friends and family that she hated him. Though, sitting across from him now, by her frequent leg crosses and sips of her martini, a casual observer wouldn't know. Of course, destruction is not the only reason one cheats.
Shame is the most common it seems. Perhaps the admission makes sure that you wouldn't do it
again, that you could somehow start anew. That is a lie that the shameful party tells themselves. The reason for telling yourself that is, as Annie later found out, that some of us are masochists who enjoy the self-inflicted pain of fixing ourselves constantly. This endless desire to correct what we perceive, and have allowed others to tell us is broken, allows us to relish in our shame. It's the reason one listens to sad songs when you're sad. We enjoy the pain of the release. We want the punishment almost perversely. The scarlet letter to sizzle our skin as absolution. And shame mixed with pain is the ultimate torture chamber. You get to hate yourself with permission of another and then spend time in penance, cracking the skin open with every whipping. Every late phone call, every white lie, it haunts the cheater until they feel they have achieved absolution. Once you have successfully repented, confessed and hate fucked, it seems you may, after all, be redeemed.
Unless, the reason you are telling another of your indiscretions is effectively a form of Invitation. The desire to commit the crime is also the reason for the crime itself. This can seem obvious, but until this moment it wasn't; at least not to Annie. She had been in this situation before and she knew where this particular door lead. Telling John that she had cheated on Kyle once before left the door open for them to have a moment in this bar; a moment that could lead to twenty moments that could lead to her hotel shower. If her intention was to give him hope, this was the way to do it. She knew that saying the line had been crossed in the past, was the most assured way that the line would be crossed again. She allowed herself to live in this moment, knowing that there was no truthful answer to his question that would end in any positive experience for her or for her best friend Laura, who was desperately in love with John and at this moment probably wondering why he hadn't called. By the way John looked at Annie, this was clearly not on his mind, as presently as it was in hers. The thought was both nauseating and pathetically boosting. Annie and Laura had become unlikely friends after the latter teased the former relentlessly in high school. She had made her feel inferior to the point that Annie lost her virginity in high school just to prove to herself - and to Laura- that she was somehow wanted. She tried not to begrudge Laura her desired forgiveness, but after years of accepting this damage, she wasn't strong enough to admit it was ingrained. Her secret hatred of Laura was the feeding hesitation to John's question; his eyes searching hers for an answer.
As Laura watched from afar she couldn't hear Annie's response. The clicking of glasses and laughter of others taking over the sound waves, snippets of conversation clouding her mind. What had she said? The vodka was betraying Laura, her vision not as keen as three or four drinks ago. Whatever it was, both John and Annie disappeared in a split second. Had they gone up to her room? Had they left the bar separately? She couldn't know. She was overcome with self-loathing and fear. She heard Annie's mother's voice at the kitchen counter "Once a cheater, always a cheater". She knew that to be true about herself, but not of Annie. Never of Annie. Had that been her mistake? Had she believed her best friend to be so innocent? She checked her texts. One from Annie - "Movie tomorrow Laur?", then one from John, "ran into your friend at the bar, headed home, work early tomorrow". She didn't know what to think, but the coincidence or manipulation seemed too much.
Maybe she was losing her mind. Maybe this was the point?
She left money on the table, too much for the tab as was her usual move. As she hailed a cab in the cold October breeze, the yellow cab lights all glowing on her olive skin, she forced herself to plaster a smile until she believed it to be genuine. She got into a cab, "22nd and 5th" she said, as the cab took off into the rushed New York night. A beep on her phone broke her pensive and far away gaze.
"You up for a nightcap?" The text was from Aiden.
She put the phone down and dried the tiny bit of moisture forming under her left eyelid. This wasn't going to get her down. She applied rouge lipstick, a stronger person looking back at herself in the mirror. At least that's what she told herself. She closed her eyes and exhaled.
A smile on her face, she texted Aiden back, just as her cab passed Laura and John, each headed in opposite directions from one another on 45th street.