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I Was the Other Woman. I Waited for the Man I Loved — in Vain.

This is what it taught me.

By Charlie NicholsonPublished 3 years ago 9 min read
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Photo by Eunice Stahl on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my balcony in East London tearing pages out of a stack of notebooks, feeding them into a fire in a little iron brazier I had found on Amazon (always has exactly what you have never needed before) and watching the flames lick my words.

I live fairly minimally, but the one thing I come close to hoarding is notebooks. In them I’ve written ideas, dreams, streams-of-consciousness; research or interview notes from work; scribbled phone numbers, addresses or recommendations of things to watch, read, listen to or taste. Packed with rich seams of half-ideas and semi-thoughts, potential treasure. These particular notebooks dated from between 2015 and 2017 — two-and-a-half years during which I put my life on hold waiting for the man I loved to be with me. For the man who loved me to leave his wife so that he could be with me. To leave the mother of his children.

As the intention to write this article formed, I began excavating, digging through them for reminders of what I was thinking and feeling back then. Page after page after page, seven large notebooks, the scrawl leaning hard over to the right, more so the more distressed I seemed to be, the pen leaving not just black and blue but also gullies carved into the paper. I read myself arguing and counter-arguing with myself, line after line.

Pleading one page…

“How blissful to go away, explore somewhere new together, with my best friend, my lover. I want to so much. Can I allow myself that?”

Raging on another…

“I’m f****d up and immoral.”

Defiant one day…

“I will meet someone else. Don’t think I won’t be gone one day.”

Desperate the next…

“He said he loved seeing the world through my eyes, that I make him better. We just fit.”

Like a Wimbledon final made of ink. One of those tie breakers that just goes on and on and on.

And you know what? It started screwing me right back up again. Panic poured concrete into my chest and I felt suddenly weighted back into the emotionally tattered body-mind of those years. The scar tissue started warping, cracking and rupturing. Shards of worthlessness, like remnants of scattered shot, dislodged and nosed out of hiding places made of muscle and myelin to the surface of me, as though drawn out by a magnet. That’s why I couldn’t just bin the notebooks. The energy of those words had to be broken. It had to be fire.

I was 33 when I got divorced, the end precipitated by my revealing to my husband that I’d had an affair. The days and weeks immediately following my revelation, and our separation, remain fogged, the legacy of pain and shame. There is one thing, though, that I remember very, very clearly. One of my ex’s oldest friends — who’d known him since they were at university together — asked to meet me for a drink. Not to tear me apart. But to offer me — in kindness, woman-to-woman — these words: “Please don’t put your life on hold waiting for this other man. I did that, and I’ve lived to regret it.” She had once had an affair. Like me, she had been in love. Like me, she hoped he would leave his wife, mother of his child. Five years she waited. Hoping but never asking, pleading or demanding. Never wanting to be that person. Wanting him to leave because he chose her, of his own volition. But he kept not choosing, and she remained in limbo, gradually sliding towards depression. She was 36 by the time she ended it — by getting on a plane and putting half the world between them.

I thought: That’s not going to happen to me. I won’t have to wait long.

Because when we were alone together, my lover and I, it was as though the rest of the world didn’t exist. We constructed our own world. In one of my notebooks I described it as “a recurring dream. I’m happy when the familiar threads of the dream wrap around me. We’re there but we’re not there; in a strange half-place, rather like those secret pockets that are sewn into coats. Things part around us, moving onward, unseeing, as we steal some stillness together. And then I wake up.” And we would pay the room bill and chew through a silent breakfast pregnant with questions I didn’t ask. Would you? When? How long? I longed to ask, but I was too afraid of getting an answer I didn’t want to hear, too afraid of rejection. And then he would walk out of our dream and go back to the reality he’d built with someone else; the one that was validated by a marriage certificate, a mortgage and two birth certificates.

Wilfully letting someone you love out of your life — however imagined that life, however much you’re not entitled to be with them — is hard. Doing it over and over and over again is Promethean. After every encounter, I gathered up the tangled hot mess of my love and stitched myself back up; only to be torn back open the next time.

I couldn’t bear to walk away, though. Because I couldn’t bear to believe that he might never leave.

I turned 34.

It was exhilarating until it wasn’t. Those spaces where we met became ugly nothing spaces, to me. We might very well have booked the highest thread count, four-postered, claw-toed-bath boutique hotel room in town, but in the end, when we were gathering our clothes from the floor, it was ugly, because it was leaden with the lie. It was a cell. I wasn’t loving freely in it. Within a few hours the cleaners would turn it over and there’d be no trace of what we’d created within its walls. Poof. Gone. No evidence. No legitimacy. No status. No partner standing proudly by my side for all to see. I was a shadow in his life, he in mine; both sad little lines on each other’s credit card bills.

Around this time, biology caught up with me. One day, walking along a street, out of thin air it felt as though someone had drop-kicked a cannon ball into the space beneath my navel. A space that, all at once, felt as cavernous as a cave deep underground that you could drop several Notre Dame cathedrals into with headroom to spare. And as cold and devoid. It’s real and embodied, that pain; it’s physiological.

It also hacks your psychology. I could not move through a street, a shop, my commute — could not look at a computer screen, TV screen or phone screen — without being poked in the eyes by ads. Ads for fertility clinics, pre-pregnancy vitamins, post-pregnancy vitamins, baby Calpol, more fertility clinics, milk formulas… The world suddenly seemed wallpapered by them. I knew, logically, that those ads had always been there, in whatever numbers they added up to; they hadn’t suddenly bred. But that wasn’t how it felt. They leaned out of every surface, underground, over ground, newspapers and magazines, personalised ad bars on my laptop (the most invasive of all), like a bluster of busy-body aunts bearing down on me, patting my belly and furrowing worried brows; tapping their wristwatches and shaking their heads. I was becoming that thing that our society doesn’t know what to do with; a woman in her mid-thirties who is not a mother. Being wagged about by the hormone-bathed and hungrily un-filled viscera in your pelvis, as a woman, is not a state you want to be in when the person you equally hungrily love is busy rearing kids with someone else. (It would be about another three years before I was able to wrestle my brain back from my ovaries — that’s another story).

Meanwhile, my 35th birthday came around.

He said that things had become very difficult at home. His unhappiness had become too palpable, much as he tried to manage it. A breadcrumb? But then he also said: “I’m staring down the barrel of a life without the woman I love or hurting my children, who are utterly innocent. It’s an impossible choice.”

And there it hung between us, sadly, damply, truthfully.

So. It was down to me to do something. Or to do nothing. To perhaps just wait and see…

The problem is that while you’re waiting, hoping you’ll suddenly become ‘good enough’ to be chosen - all the while appalled with yourself because it would be at the expense of children’s happiness - life, other loves, your self-worth, your fertility, if indeed parenthood is something you might want one day, are sliding past you. Your substance — what makes you you — leaches out and leaves behind a ghost. Neither one thing nor another. Trapped between realities.

I worked and worked and worked so that I never had time to think too hard about it, and so that I at least had a sense of momentum in one part of my life.

And then suddenly I was 36.

I was exhausted. I took a few weeks off and made myself travel. Looking back at everything from several continents away, something shifted. Lifted by an A380 out of what had become my day-to-day reality, I was re-acquainted with this wonderful feeling: freedom. And those words gifted to me that evening in that bar a couple of years previously became loud: “Don’t put your life on hold waiting for him.”

On my return, reanimated by the reminder that there are so many other worlds, other people, other lives to be lived out there, I pushed for a definitive conversation — timeline, specifics. There was a final, painful phone call. On the end of the line I heard him retreating from the choice. He was worrying that he couldn’t make me happy. I took a breath. I said, “I love you.” I pressed ‘End’.

Actually, it was a beginning.

Almost exactly three years later, looking sidelong at a blank Word document and wondering if I could write this, I asked the friend from the bar — for we’ve remained friends — if I could Zoom-interview her. She’d spent five years of her thirties as ‘the other woman’, waiting. Five years. How did she justify it to herself? How did she coerce herself into just… carrying on? Had she told herself the same stories I did? I wanted to know if there was a pattern, a formula, a script, in a sense, that we had both learned by heart. The overlaps were striking. These were some of the lines we’d sold ourselves:

“This is different, special. I’ll never have a connection like this with anyone else; never meet anyone who understands me the way this person does.”

(Not true. As soon as we were willing to be open and vulnerable to new people, we found other heart-dancing connections. But we had to take the blinkers off first, face the world again, which meant hitting ‘end’).

“Don’t keep worrying about the future. Be more in-the-moment with this. You don’t know what could happen. Any time now, things could change…”

(This can be a healthy mindset in almost any other context. But not in this one. Because what it amounted to was both of us just…stalling….)

“I can control this, take what I need from it. Have this in my life until I meet someone else.”

(Not while we were in love, we couldn’t. We needed to get out of love first. Again, those blinkers…)

“Maybe we just have to be unconventional. Who’s to say how people should live their lives? Who’s to define what relationships should look like?”

(Much as we both tried to tread on the thought, we knew we were not in relationships. No legitimacy, remember? Tucked away. Invisible. Ghosts).

Are you ‘the other woman’? Do you recognise any of those lines?

If so, maybe — when lockdown lifts — travel a bit, if you can. Step outside the bubble and get some perspective. Or if you can’t travel, maybe use one of those hotel bills on a friend instead, and turn your phone off, lift your eyes and look around you. Maybe be brave and ask your lover those questions you’ve been afraid to ask. Write them down as prompts in case your feelings make you fall over your words. Slip the piece of paper across the table if your jaw muscles and larynx fail you, as they so often did me. If the answers are not what you want to hear, maybe cross the ‘r’ off of rejection. You have the agency here. You are not stuck. Eject yourself into the first day of whatever’s next. It will be almost unbearable, for a while. Almost. And then it won’t be.

**I’d like to thank my friend for letting me share her story here too. And for taking me for that drink.

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About the Creator

Charlie Nicholson

Yoga teacher. Trauma sensitive yoga teacher. Freelance writer & copywriter. Freelance documentary development executive. Passenger of plant medicines. Follow me on IG: @charlienicyoga & find out more at charlienicholsonyoga.com

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