Even though we're in love, Jess will always be "the cheater," and I will always be "the other man."
One of the questions that any couple is likely to hear at some point in their relationship is, "So, how did the two of you meet?"
It's an innocent question that shouldn't be too hard to answer. In fact, the "how we met" story is often included on the wedding websites of engaged couples, serving as a reminder that the nervous passenger seated next to you on the airplane, the doctor treating you for that broken wrist, or even the lab partner helping you dissect your homework could be the person that you end up marrying.
These "how we met” stories reassure us that the beginning of our own happily ever after might be right around the corner. However, even though the question is relatively innocent, the "we had an extramarital affair" response can actually be quite offensive.
The narrative of cheating and adultery is often marred by mistakes and regret. The cast of characters is always the same with the adulterer, the cuckold, and the home-wrecker playing the lead roles.
And sure, there are a handful of linguistic deviations — cheater, two-timer, philanderer, mistress, paramour — but for the most part, the language of the love triangle is very limited.
I know this because I met my wife, Jess, when she was already married to another man — which is the primary reason I'm afraid of answering the "how did you meet?" question.
I worry my answer will immediately trigger a movie montage of extramarital treachery. I hope that when people hear that I fell in love with a married woman, I don't immediately get typecast as home-wrecker.
My extramarital affair, at least when you look beneath the surface, was just as much a love story as anything else. Think You've Got Mail meets Midnight in Paris meets Dirty Dancing, except with more advanced technology and less Paris. (But you better believe there was dancing.)
In fact, I officially knew there was something real between Jess and I the first time we danced in a dingy dive bar not far from campus. Our story is not one of love at first sight, but one of slowly coming into focus. By this, I mean that it took time to truly see one another.
We were both first-year graduate students in a new city. We were in the same Feminist Theory class, and it was through the lens of all those critical discussions about gender performativity and desire that Jess and I were able to begin to speak openly and honestly about who we were and what we wanted.
At first, our conversations were rooted solely in theory. We texted and G-chatted about things like masculinity, relationships and sexuality, all under the guise that we were only helping each other with our homework. But eventually, our discussions veered toward reality.
Jess told me she was unhappy in her marriage. I invited her out for drinks and offered to cook her dinner. Our relationship unfolded slowly in secrecy until the night of that first dance in a smoke-filled dive bar when Jess grabbed me by the hand and pulled me toward the music.
Up until that point, the thought of us being together had seemed like little more than a fantasy, but there was real possibility inside of that first dance in how our bodies moved together.
It sounds cliché, but aren't all love stories cliché at their core?
It's important to note here the difference between a beginning and a core, between how people met and what drew them together. The very fact that I met Jess when she was married will always mean that our beginning is bound up in an extramarital affair.
It will always mean that the start of our relationship is bound up in a messy separation, one in which Jess spent six months and thousands of dollars to finally get her husband to agree to a divorce.
It will always mean that our story is inescapably linked to concepts of adultery and infidelity and lust and desire. It will always mean that, on the surface, Jess is a cheater and I am the other man.
But if you look deeper, our story is both all the more complex and all the more ordinary at its core.
Think Meg Ryan meets Tom Hanks meets Jennifer Grey meets Patrick Swayze, except before any of them were famous. Think long and lazy mornings in bed meets terribly cheesy pet names meets even cheesier sexting.
Just think two people who simply happened to fall in love and haven't stopped falling for the last four years.