When we got back to the apartment, I was still buzzing with the beat of Shakira, the novelty of dancing late into the night at a Spanish club. But David turned to me, and he said, “I saw how you danced with all those guys.”
“What? I danced with my students. And my boss. You’re being ridiculous.”
“Am I?” he asked. He stood in our narrow hallway.
“Yes,” I said, wondering at first if he was joking, but knowing, even then, that he wasn’t. I pulled off my earrings and washed my face in the small sink of our tiny bathroom. He stood at the bathroom door and said the thing we were both waiting for him to say: “You cheated before. How do I know you won’t do it again? Do you know you won’t do it again?”
I didn’t know, but I could see that there was no way I could escape this, his lack of trust and the belief that once a cheater, always a cheater. I wiped my face with a hand towel and said, “I don’t know. But there’s nothing I can say or do that’s going to be the right thing to say if you don’t trust me.”
I had been offered a job teaching Spanish poetry, film, and wine (a dream job, I know) for a semester in Salamanca, and I invited David to come with me. This seemed like an easy way to try living together, since being elsewhere was all we had ever known as a couple—meeting secretly in Mexico and London and Las Vegas until my divorce was final. I wanted to make it work. Hadn’t I broken up a marriage to be with him?
That night, I danced to “Hips Don’t Lie” in a small, underground club in Salamanca with my students and the director of the school where I taught, and I felt truly happy. I was living the life I had imagined for myself—I had both responsibility and freedom. I’d been chasing happiness, had wanted nothing more than to travel the world. I’d figured out a way to incorporate travel—being elsewhere—into my real life.
I’d managed to convince David he had nothing to worry about, in terms of my infidelity, but still, I felt tentative and insecure around him. One night after class, David and I sat in the café below our tiny Salamanca apartment, and I put down my journal and asked him what he loved about me.
Before we go any further, I know how pathetic this sounds.
He looked up from his novel and said, “I love how smart you are.”
The candle between us struggled to stay aflame, and I smiled at him. I took a sip of Rioja and felt a renewed sense of our relationship. “What else?” I asked, greedy for his attention.
“I love that you’re adventurous.”
“I love that about you, too,” I said. “And spontaneous.”
David went back to his book, and I went back to writing in my journal. I ordered Spanish tortilla and olives. The bartender dished out small plates from the trays in front of him and handed them to me. “Gracias,” I said, trying to get the Castilian lisp right. I had been eating and drinking like this nearly every evening, and had gained weight, a lot of weight, but I didn’t care or at least I told myself that because I wanted to experience all of it, including the Spanish food and wine.
“Do you want some?” I asked David, holding up the plate of tortilla, and he shook his head. Then I asked him, “Do you love that I’m a writer?” I had published a handful of poems in small literary journals and had started a memoir that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, though it was hard to claim that identity—being a writer seemed much more to me than someone who writes.
“No, I don’t love you for being a writer,” David said, not looking up from his book.
“What? What do you mean?” I took another swallow of wine.
“It takes you away from me, so no, it’s not one of the things I love about you.” He looked up at me briefly and then back down at his book.
“But it’s me. You can’t separate it.” I was surprised at how indignant I sounded, but it was one of those things you learn about yourself only when confronted.
“You asked,” David said.
I had had issues with my ex-husband, lots of them, but he had accepted this part of me, celebrated it even. The candle burned down to the lip of the wine bottle that held it and went out.
Over the next few days, I tried to reason through what David had said. It was true; writing did take me away from him. I wanted to be adored, and didn’t that mean I should also adore him? But I was often lost in my own world when he wanted my attention. When I called my mother and told her about this conversation, she stayed quiet until I asked her, “Do you think it’s a big deal?”
“You tell me,” Mother said.
“I’m not sure,” I said, walking circles around our small apartment. I looked out our tiny window, where I could see a small rectangle of the sand-colored cathedral, its spires jutting into a white sky.
“I think,” she said and paused, “you already know.”
I’d cheated on my husband with David in Mexico, and now I couldn’t stop myself from trying to make meaning out of a mistake. I had the guilt-fueled notion that my actions would be justified if I committed to a relationship with my new lover. But guilt is a terrible motivation, and in the words of a dear friend, a waste of an emotion. And David, who had once been playful, spontaneous, and adoring had become judgmental, sullen, and mistrustful. I had become desperate, trying to make things better between us.
One evening, I came home from school and planned a sexy evening with David. I lit candles, put on music, and when I heard David in the hallway, fumbling with his keys to our apartment, I ran to the door, opened it, and said, “You’re home!” I was wearing the sexiest lingerie I had brought with me to Spain—a shabby black bra and lacy thong underwear.
He pushed past me as he said, “I’m meeting Ravi at six to play guitar.” He didn’t look at me. I followed him into our small bedroom, where we had put the double mattress from the living room sofa bed onto the floor of the bedroom because the apartment had come with a twin bed. Above the mattress, black mold spread across the slanted walls of the attic apartment. I kept cleaning it off, but still it grew—this was a metaphor for something, I was sure, but I couldn’t say what.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said, trying to make it obvious that I wasn’t merely in the middle of dressing, that this is what I had chosen to wear for his homecoming.
He looked at me for a minute, his face still a blank.
“I was hoping we could … you know …” I sat on the mattress. The walls seemed to collapse into the room, yellow but not cheerful. Splotches of black mold shined in the light of my mood candles.
David’s face finally showed a flicker of recognition, which made my face flush with humiliation. “But you’re busy. So never mind,” I said and got up. I put my robe on, went into the bathroom, and shut the door. I untied my robe and looked into the mirror. I blamed my body. After a steady diet of Spanish tortilla, jamon, and Rioja, the clothes I had brought with me were too tight. I had to go shopping, but none of the clothes at the fashionable Zara fit me either. I ended up buying a pair of corduroys and an oversized sweater at H&M, and this outfit became my new uniform. I had told myself it was fine, just part of the experience of living in Spain. Now, I stood in the fluorescent lights of the bathroom, and I hated myself.
Why hadn’t I been like those skinny Spanish ladies who shopped during lunchtime and siesta instead of eating and sleeping?
David left for his guitar date, and I got dressed and went downstairs to the café where I ate more Manchego, drank more red wine. I couldn’t help but see the irony: the word adultery implies hot sex, but the sex, which had never been better than mediocre, dwindled to nothing. It felt like my punishment. I no longer wanted the life I had created—a life for which I had broken up a marriage and moved to another continent. What if I wasn’t having a fabulous love affair after all? What if I had just fucked up?
But I don’t give up easily, which is to say I don’t give up when all evidence suggests that I should. I was even more determined to make it work. I filled our weekends with romantic getaways—vacations from our vacation. I wanted to recapture what we felt for each other in Mexico, and every once in a while, there were glimpses—hiking to the top of the cross in San Sebastian, eating fresh fish in Santiago de Compostela, watching the wooden barrels of port float down the Douro River, clapping to the flamenco dancers in the caves of Seville, walking through the courtyards of the Alhambra in the rain.
But it was never enough. Or rather, it was enough, but it couldn’t fix our relationship.
I thought I had been courageous, leaving my husband and setting off across the world. But if I had really been brave, I would have gone alone. Instead of creating the life I yearned for, I used this relationship as a stand-in for what I really wanted, which was the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. If I had stopped to think about it, maybe I would have seen that. Instead, I kept going—another gelato, another glass of port, another weekend excursion—always moving.
I finished the semester in December, and David and I flew to Italy for the holidays. Any relationship seen through an Italian lens seems hopelessly romantic, or at least the way it all sounded—Italy for the holidays!—made me believe that I really was living my best life.
And that’s how we decided that David would move back to Lake Tahoe with me in January. Looking out from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, he said, “I have a year sabbatical, and we have to go for it. I’ll go back to graduate school in Reno, and we can see how we do in the real world.”
When I said, “This is the real world,” David shook his head like I couldn’t possibly know what I was saying.
And the “real world” experiment didn’t take long—twenty days to be exact.
I came home from skiing to find that David’s car, the one that had arrived days earlier on a car-carrier trailer from Illinois, had been packed up. “If you hadn’t gone skiing today, I wouldn’t be leaving,” he said. “I decided that if you went skiing today, that was it.” It had snowed more than a foot the night before—a powder day. When it comes to skiing fresh snow, I can be a very selfish woman indeed, something avid skiers understand. And David knew enough about me to know this: he had devised a test for me that I would fail.
And it was never about the skiing. David believed I would cheat on him. He didn’t know this, or maybe he did, but it’s only so long before you become what someone already believes you are. It’s easy to be untrustworthy when you are not trusted. I cheated, and then I cheated again: the first time was on husband with David; then again on David with my ex-husband—a palindrome of desire and shame.
One night, a week before David left, I called him and told him I drank wine with my writing group, that I couldn’t drive home, and I was staying with a friend. David offered to come get me, and I said no; it was snowing, and I was fine where I was. The wine part was probably true—a way to quiet my inner voice, which was telling me I had made a mistake. Why had I agreed to David coming home with me? I wanted to assign meaning to the affair, to believe I had broken up my marriage for good reason.
But I didn’t stay at my friend’s house that night. I walked the two blocks from her house to the house I had once shared with my ex, the one I owned and still paid half the mortgage on. The streetlamps glowed through the falling snow, the ice on the road shined like glass. The cold air’s grip felt elastic.
My ex had heard I was back in town, so when I showed up at the door, he didn’t seem surprised. I walked across the hardwood floors I had loved, and he asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no. I don’t remember if anything else was said. I do remember walking into the bedroom we had shared: a way to even the score, making sure everyone lost. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did it just the same. And now, it’s just another point on the plot of my life, one that I get to assign meaning to: I wanted to stop pretending to make it work with David. And that did it.
I never told David about spending the night with my ex, but I imagine he suspected it. And with the power of hindsight, I can see that David would have left anyway. That snowy afternoon when David said, “I love you, but I have to leave,” I nodded. It was inevitable but not surprising—a boring end to a narrative that we had both believed held so much promise. He kissed me on the forehead, and I just kept nodding as he spoke. I had that feeling of being outside my body, watching him talk at me, our breath foggy in the winter air. My inner voice saying, “Thank you for leaving.”
My now-voice says, What the fuck was up with that condescending forehead kiss? And I wish I had been the one brave enough to come out and ask him to leave. Instead, I said, “What about Tiffany’s wedding next week? I RSVPed for two.”
“You’re joking,” he said, though he could see I wasn’t, so he shook his head, saying, “You’ll just have to go alone.”
“I can’t just go alone when I’ve said there will be two of us. The wedding is next week. On Valentine’s Day. And it’s a formal wedding. Fancy. Everything’s set.”
“A wedding? I’m leaving, and you’re bringing up a fucking wedding?”
I knew he was angry. He never said the word fucking, and he didn’t like it when I used it, which was often.
“Sorry,” I said, even though I was already trying to figure out who to bring in his place. And that’s what I was thinking about as he drove off. Not that I had failed at another relationship. Not that my lover was leaving three weeks into our co-habitation. Not that I would likely never see him again—and still haven’t—but that going to Tiffany’s wedding alone would screw up her seating arrangements.
Throughout the affair, I had learned to compartmentalize things in order to distract myself from thinking about the hard things—I was divorced, had lost my house, my furniture, and many of our mutual friends. The only things I had left were the teaching job I had outgrown, the dog I shared with my ex, and the car I would total on an icy road within a week. I was going into debt renting an over-priced condo that was decorated Miami Vice-style, with white carpets and gold framed mirrors on every wall, including the stairwell.
I went back inside and called my friend Andy to invite him to the wedding. I left a message saying, “Find something fabulous to wear. This wedding is going to be fancy as fuck.”
I have never been good at letting go of things, but this relationship was a thing I had wanted gone so badly that I took down the pictures of David and put them into a box. I sat on my borrowed couch, and I felt dazed and relieved—what should have been no more than a week-long fling in Mexico was finally, mercifully, over.
What I needed had been my freedom, an untethered life of wandering the world. I needed these things without having to apologize for needing them. I could now see that it was never about David; rather, I had fallen in love with the world—first Mexico and then Spain—I was in love with the soaring cathedrals, the olive trees, and the tapas bars. I was in love with the Plaza Mayor and strong coffee served in tiny china cups on white saucers. I loved the young women navigating the cobblestone streets in their high heels, and I loved the old men playing chess in the park.
When I think of the affair now, it’s in that nostalgic way, where the story’s foreground is full of sensory detail but the character has gone hazy, disappearing into the landscape. I can’t remember the smell of his body, only the musty Alhambra or baguettes at a Paris cafe. I can’t remember the sound of his voice, only the birdsong of an early morning in Cuernavaca, the beating heels of a Flamenco dancer in Seville, the seals barking in San Sebastian, the chiming of Big Ben with each new hour. I can’t remember the taste of his mouth, only the barky depth of a Guinness in a dark Dublin bar, a red wine in the caves of Burgundy, strawberry gelato in Florence. I don’t remember our fumbling lovemaking, only the way the damp fog of a Normandy Beach curled over the war-torn barracks, the winking lights of Monaco at midnight, and the shudder of walking among the olives trees, trying to find the place where the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca had been shot.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection BAD TOURIST: MISADVENTURES IN LOVE AND TRAVEL (University of Nebraska Press, October 2020) & the memoir ALMOST SOMEWHERE: TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four full-length collections of poetry. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays & included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, & elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno & teaches for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University. She lives with her husband & dog in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Runner-Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize