In a sense, I was living in a made-up world and in a relationship that never really existed.
It was my first week in college when I saw him walk into the cafeteria. A mix of Ralph Macchio and Andy Garcia, he was tall, dark and handsome --just my type. Better yet, he arrived complete with a leather jacket and overly-macho attitude that made this California girl experience that weak-in-the-knees moment one only gets when too young to know better. My eyes followed him as he explored his dinner options while enthusiastically sharing my excitement with my new girlfriends as they teased me for acting very much like the giddy schoolgirl I was. Finally, after my new roommate dared me to go for it, I pretended to need something from the milk station where he stood, making a cup of coffee. I looked over and smiled and quickly walked to my table all the while hoping he was watching.
According to the eight eyes at my table, he was.
I sat down and pretended not to notice as he made his way over to where my friends whispered taunts under their breath. When he approached the table, he boldly introduced himself, making sure to get my name first. He explained that he had just graduated college and was here to attend law school. He was an older twenty-two and maintained a confidence about him that I loved then, but now see as a massive red flag. I hung on his every word, all of which dripped with a thick New York City accent. He asked me if I would like to go out with his friend that night and I said yes without question, volunteering my not-so-impressed roommate as a chaperone-slash-date for his.
That night, the four of us bonded over vodka cranberries and Britney Spears. As my roommate learned the many ways in which alcohol can sneak up on you, my new crush confessed that he had seen me a few days earlier but didn’t approach me because he wasn’t sure how to break the ice. He thanked me for my smile which he claimed, gave him an “in”. I had no idea what that meant back then but I was excited just the same. At the end of the night, I took my very sweet, very sick roommate home and he explained that he wanted to see me again, first thing in the morning. By the end of that semester, he was telling me he loved me and asking me to meet his parents.
To say that I was “madly in love” with him would be an understatement.
I took his neverending confessions of feeling the same way to mean that we were, in fact, “meant to be” as he often stated. Sure, we had our young dramatic fights and make-up sessions but with each one, it seemed we only became more attached to one another. It was young love at its most passionate. We spent nearly every day together, studying for tests, talking about torts, heading out to Adams Morgan where we danced until the desperate need for pizza was so overwhelming that we stumbled out of the clubs.
When it came time to study abroad in Italy, I opted to stay with him in Washington, D.C. because the idea of being apart for eight months seemed downright hellish. I spent weekends with his family and took trips with his friends. He wasn’t always a perfect boyfriend, but who was? I trusted him implicitly and loved him wholeheartedly which made everything else seem workable.
By the time I graduated, we had our life planned out. I moved in with him for eight months while looking for a place in New York where I intended to fight like hell to make it as a full-time writer. He would work in DC for one year to gain experience before taking the New York bar and joining me in the city. Until that happened, we would take turns flying to see one another each weekend.It was a perfect plan. He helped me move into my loft in DUMBO and I brought him presents from the city he loved.
One weekend he came up and told me he wanted to marry me.
There was no ring, it was just an expression of love and a future plan, and I told him that, when and if he asked, the answer would, of course, be yes. He left that Sunday evening with plans to see me the following Friday. I decided I couldn’t wait that long and decided to surprise him that Wednesday.
“Hi Baby! Guess what? I am heading to the airport to see you early!” I exclaimed.
“No!” he blurted out.
It was an emphatic and desperate no. The kind of “no” someone yells when the door is being opened on a dark secret and there’s no way to stop a terrible revelation. Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for and I wanted to know why, right then and there.
Though he tried to tell me it was because of work, I knew that that kind of “no” had nothing to do with depositions and so I flew down anyway and planned to host my own.
Five hours later, I walked through his door and was met with flowers, open arms and an apology. He loved me. He was sorry. He was overwhelmed with his first law job and having me so far away.
He was full of shit and I knew it.
With my gut on fire, I casually looked around what I was sure was a crime scene and searched for clues. Not wanting to tip him off, I pretended to believe his explanations and even apologized for not trusting him (a lie that still makes my stomach turn). I made dinner and we decided to get ready for bed. I knew there was something to be found but finding it with him there would be a challenge. As he was showering, I came up with a plan. I would “catch” him cheating. After a few minutes of brainstorming, I opened my suitcase and pulled out a new earring and quickly tossed it under his pillow. My heart was racing and I pretended to read a magazine to avoid giving clues as to my true feelings which were a frantic combination of panic and pissed. As we crawled into bed, I laid there waiting to make my move. Finally, as he made his, I went for it. I slipped my hand under his pillow and “found” the earring. I knew the night would end with either me looking psychotic or getting my heart crushed, but something inside me was telling me to take the chance.
“What is that?” I asked gently.
“What is what, babe?” he asked.
I pulled the earring out. “What is this?!” I yelled in fake shock.
The look of horror on his face was all I needed to know to know that there had been another woman.
We played the “just-tell-me-and-I-won’t-be-mad” game for about an hour when he confessed he had cheated twice at the beginning of our relationship. I was crushed. Two women. Two. Ugh. I cried and sobbed and screamed. That’s when it hit me, an easy confession of two meant there had to be others. “What about the earring?” I asked. He swore he had no idea how it got there. I walked over to his answering machine with the intentions of finding out why flying down was such a problem. When he realized what I was about to do he jumped up to stop me.
“You’re invading my privacy!” he yelled.
“Your what? Don’t you dare!” I screamed, and I hit play.
His friend’s voice boomed throughout the room. “Hey man, good luck tonight, I hope you get lucky again.”
“Again?” I asked.
Two became three.
He looked down at the floor and started to cry.
Three became four.
By now, I knew they were just going to seep out slowly, and pushed.
Four became seven.
By this time my insides were twisting around so quickly and tightly that I was sure they might burst out of me at any given moment.I remember feeling acutely aware of just how badly I would have liked a mother or father to call at that moment and feeling so totally alone in what truly felt like a scene from a horrible movie. It didn’t help that he had been the closest person to me for the previous four years and I was far too naive to fully understand the magnitude of this situation beyond the pain that it caused me. I wasn’t aware enough think about the word "sociopath" or "sex addict" but I was quickly becoming very worried about possible exposure to a long list of STDs.
For all of this to reveal itself in the span of a few hours was overwhelming to say the least.
My heart was racing and I wanted to leave but the truth is that I had nowhere to go. All of my friends had moved after graduation and there were no flights home until morning. I had no parents to call for money for a hotel and he refused to help me leave his place because he was sure that, somehow, someway, he could undo all of this and make things better. And so I sat there, attempting to sleep on his couch but crying a never-ending stream of tears instead. Finally, I called my best friend in an hysterical fit. So upset by the confession, she began to cry with me and told me she would be there by morning. Thank God Delta offered student fares back then because she was able to get there by 9:00AM the next morning. She walked through the door and told him not to say a word. She comforted me and finally looked at him and said, “Do you see what you’re doing by stringing this out? Just tell her the truth and let’s get it over with.”
Seven became ten.
I looked at her. “I am going to lose my mind,” I said and I was pretty sure I might. She suggested I come home with her but by this time I was so obsessed with finding out the truth that I asked her to stay. She obliged and the next morning, he went to work and we began to brainstorm as to ways to get the full story. It all came to a head when I received a call from his best friend, Dave. Dave was dating my good friend, Melanie, and my boyfriend and him spent plenty of “boys nights out” together. He was always kind to me and referring to himself as my “big brother." I liked him and trusted him.
“I know what’s going on,” he said. “I'm glad you know the truth.”
I asked him if he knew. There was a long silence. “Yes, and I'm so sorry.”
A second betrayal.
He asked me how many I knew about. I told him there were ten. “There were many more, he’s lying to you.”
How it could keep hurting more and more with each confession, I don't know, but it did. Every time the number rose, I felt the sharp pain of deception thrust itself further into my gut while my grip on reality seemed to loosen that much more. That’s when I started to really fall apart. I was with this guy for four years and had zero clue that he was cheating. Was I that much of an idiot or was he just that good? The truth is that it was both. My trust in him had blinded me to clues that would have exposed the truth much sooner. The smiles from the women in the halls of his law school. The flirting at the bar. The “boys trips” to the beach. All of it made me feel stupid, naive and foolish.
After searching through his apartment and performing intense investigations, he had nowhere to hide. He sat down and walked me through four years of constant cheating. The number finally stopped going up at twenty-two.
Looking back at the highlights of his confession, it’s shocking that I even bothered to listen to the whole thing but I was young and in love, naive and totally unaware of the fact that some things in life cannot be explained away. He had received oral sex from one of my "friends", hooked up with a woman in the bushes while we were both on Spring Break in Cancun and brought another girl I knew back to his place for a threesome that he bowed out of last minute. My clothes and jewelry that went missing at his apartment? Taken by other women. Those mornings we missed brunch because he overslept? That was true, only there were other women in the bed sleeping with him while Dave cheated on my girlfriend in the living room.
There was a sense that I was living in a made-up world and in a relationship that never really existed.
Worse, that I was made a fool. The cards, letters, words, gifts, trips, moments ... the birthdays, toasts, promises, secrets shared, they all existed in some sort of parallel universe but in reality, I was just a fool that dozens of people looked at with pity and others with the thrill of getting one over on me. To feel so safe in one moment and then feel the shove into a world with no boundaries, empathy or respect is a life-changing experience. It felt deeply personal at the time (and for many years after) but I now know that this wasn't about me at all. I wasn't even in the equation. Though he apologized and tried his best to make up for the wrongdoing, even going so far as to take the bar in another city, I knew that I could never trust him again. Believe it or not, I tried to but quickly realized that I cannot get past and move on from any cheating, let alone that kind of massive betrayal. I ended the relationship and moved on with my life, albeit with much more caution than I had prior to knowing him, if I knew him at all.
Over the years, I have chosen to forgive him.
Though I have received many scowls, scoffs and looks of confusion for doing so, I have even remained somewhat friendly with him. He now has a lovely wife (with whom I am also friendly) who knows all about our sordid history as he confessed it to her before getting serious as he would have some terrible crime. They seem very happy together, which makes me glad.
Looking back, it was a truly painful experience that understandably left me with some serious trust issues in the years that followed. But time is a wonderful thing. It not only helps to heal but also brings about understanding. I will never know why or how he could do the things he did (I'm not certain even he knows that) and really, even if I did have the "why" answered, what good would that do me? A reason rarely, if ever, numbs the pain of betrayal. He has spent over a decade apologizing though we have both moved on, and in the end, he has to live with the choices he has and will make in his life and I wish him well in it, and know that he wishes me well in mine. He is even planning to read this post, which might shed some more light on the ways in which his flippant actions left a dark mark on my life's timeline. There's a lesson in that for all of us to understand that what we do impacts those around us, even if they never see it.
Still, good has come from the experience. I have learned and continue to learn so much about myself: what I deserve, what I need, what I want and what I will tolerate. I have also learned people will follow their own moral codes regardless of how kind, considerate, fragile, vulnerable or strong you are. They will lie if they are liars and they will cheat if they want to cheat. We must always match an open heart with open eyes, forgiveness with self-respect and love with logic. I cannot say that I'm happy I was cheated on. That, of course is ridiculous. But I am grateful to have extracted the lessons from it. Through the experience, I found out something about myself that I am deeply proud of: That as much as I want to love and be loved, I would rather be alone than with someone I cannot fully trust or respect and who doesn't respect me.
He cheated on me, yes, but I will not cheat myself.
Brenda Della Casa is the Author of Cinderella Was a Liar, The Managing Editor of Preston Bailey, A Huffington Post Blogger and the Founder of BDC Life In Style. She is usually found in the gym hitting the speed bag to Eminem, having a wine-down with friends or writing with her beloved Chihuahua, Tony Che Montana, by her side. Facebook: BrendaDellaCasa Twitter: @BrendaDellaCasa Instagram: BrendaDellaCasa