Touch. By touch we are betrayed and betray others. – Wallace Stegner
Monogamy has been rather fluidly practiced over the centuries, the shape of it changing with the times and the attitudes of each generation. And let’s face facts; there was a double-standard for a very long time, a time when it was not only socially acceptable for a man to have both a wife and a mistress, if not mistresses, but was also, whether by lack of choice or indifference, tolerated by the wife. Of course, there was also a time when there were laws in place that forced men to marry for the sake of social conformity, while keeping their male lovers a well guarded secret. As a matter of fact, there are stories in this very collection that clearly bear witness to the reality that in our ever progressing times, we’re not so very far away from those years of enforced denial.
How many conflicting and complementary cogs are there in the behemoth machine we call relationships? Monogamy and infidelity, commitment and betrayal, loyalty and deception. Trust and love and sex and an emotional bond are all part or parcel to the arrangements we forge with each other when that initial attraction transforms into the instinct to connect with another human being on something more than a physical level. We willingly enter the fray and in that moment, with so much on the line, we become a locus of and susceptible to temptation. And whether we succumb or resist can be the difference maker in the bargain we’ve struck to love someone and to be loved in return.
Is monogamy a natural human state, or is it a concept which sounds lovely in poetic theory but is not practical in the reality of interpersonal relationships? Is there a thinly drawn boundary line between sexual infidelity and emotional infidelity? We all know sex and emotion are mutually exclusive propositions, so once we’ve committed ourselves to someone, can the physical line be crossed without betraying the emotional bond forged with a partner? Are their certain acts, kissing, for example, or being with someone else more than once, that, if they are subtracted from the equation are capable of warding off the consequences of infidelity? Or is cheating, cheating? Is there a difference between an excuse and a reason and, if there is, does that difference matter? These are just a few of the many things I reflected on while reading The Other Man, and the conclusion I came to is that monogamy is a personal practice and relationships are as unique as the people involved in them. There isn’t a set of one-size-fits-all rules to accommodate every relationship, but one thing I learned for sure is that everyone ought to be sure he’s on the same page of the story before a twosome becomes anything more than that.
The twenty-one men who’ve shared a brief segment of their lives in this confessional collection—whether the author was the Other Man, suffered the fallout of the Other Man, or overcame the Other Man to go on to have a fulfilling and long-lasting relationship—each have offered stories that are honest, sometimes even brutally so if my tears were any indication. There were stories that made me laugh out loud, stories that provoked examination of my own thoughts and feelings about monogamy, and throughout the entirety of this book that I absorbed in a matter of hours, I applauded the generosity of each author for sharing his memories, some that I’m certain were painful to revisit.
Husbands living a double-life, HIV and AIDS changing the landscape of sexual liberation, falling in love and falling out of love, attempted suicide, drug abuse, witnessing the wreckage of friends’ relationships, and coping with the reality of being an outsider in one’s own relationship—these images are each present in many of the stories in this collection, but there is more here too; here there is also affirmation that monogamy is not always the fulcrum of longevity, but that it’s communication and communion which are the key.
The crux of more than a few of these stories was often not a case of “the one that got away” but, rather, was a case of “the one I never truly had,” and they each resonated with me in their own telling. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, or guilty, in these glimpses of lives and loves, and sometimes losses, but the names are all that have been withheld from the reader. They are candid, sometimes poignant, and always resonant with personal truths the tellers of these tales have shared with the reader, which, in all honesty, made me feel like the “other woman” in their relationships at times.
Each author has resurrected a part of his life and shared it so openly that I couldn’t help but wonder if, at some point in the not so distant future, there will be a man out there who reads one of these essays and thinks to himself, this is me on the page, and begins to remember that time with fondness or regret.
I loved this book as much as I’m willing to admit without seeming mildly insane. I can’t recommend it highly enough, if for nothing more than it might just make you feel a little and think a lot.
As part of this feature for The Other Man, Paul Alan Fahey has generously agreed to participate in a giveaway of an E-copy of the book to one lucky winner! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment, including your email address, on this post and you’ll automatically be entered in the contest. All entries must be received by 11:59pm Pacific Time on Thursday, June 6, 2013. The winner will be chosen by Random.org and announced on June 7th.
When I finished reading The Other Man I couldn’t wait to ask Paul if I could invite all the participating authors to answer a single question that niggled at the back of my mind while reading this book: “How difficult was it to write your essay, considering the thoughts and feelings involved and the fact you were sharing them with strangers?” I’m so thrilled each of the gentlemen agreed to reply; the following are their responses.
“I wasn’t worried about revealing my past to readers. I was more nervous that I portrayed the world of Off-Off Broadway showcases harshly or unsympathetically. I also worried about portraying unsympathetically a former lover who is no longer alive to tell his side of the story. So I tried to be hard on myself, too, perhaps to compensate!”—David Pratt, author of “Way Off.”
“For my contribution not so much…although, now that I’ve been asked, I do come across in it as a little too covetous. Watching a friend, once coupled, become a single, and getting a vicarious whiff of those possibilities, probably put my nose more out of joint than I realized. He kissed handsome strangers impulsively. I cleaned litter pans dutifully.
He was still dancing at last call. We debated if Happy Hour would keep us out too late.
A brand-new boyfriend will leave the room to break wind. Your life partner proudly pre-announces his fart. Wow. Thanks for asking. I want a divorce.” —Rodney Ross, author of “And Then There Was One.”
“All writing when it’s published is shared with strangers. The readers of our essays in The Other Man are not so much strangers as new friends who are only just getting to know us. Telling our new friends what happened is what we were intending when we were writing it all down. So, it’s all good.” —Wes Hartley, author of “Three’s A Charm.”
“It was very difficult for me to write about the incident that I included in The Other Man: it touched on some extremely sensitive areas of my life, some of them stemming, I have finally realized, from my early childhood and later adolescence. As a writer, I had thought about some way to use this material, but always skirted around it. The Other Man was a way to open it up and deal with it.” —Perry Brass, author of “A Pitiless Love.”
“It was somewhat difficult, in particular because I didn’t want to hurt my present partner’s feelings. On the other hand, he already knows a great deal about my complicated past, and I’ve already published some memoir and quite a few poems about that adulterous affair, so I really had very little left to hide when I wrote “Thomas.” —Jeff Mann, author of “Thomas.”
“Publishing memoir is hard, because you are putting yourself and your loved ones out there in the world, dirty laundry and all. I have hurt many people’s feelings over the years by exposing the truth in print, and that has been tough. Writing memoir isn’t emotionally difficult at all, no matter how traumatic the memories. The challenges are all literary and technical. People struggle to believe me, but I say over and over again, at the computer keyboard I am a writer, not a therapy patient!”—Glen Retief, author of “The Rival with a Thousand Faces.”
“Writing my essay was actually quite easy, though our story has a happy ending that’s lasted 13 years. It’s one of our favorite stories, but one we only share with people we know very well. Going public with the story was fun—we figured the statute of limitations had expired on any hurt feelings.” —Jason Schneiderman, author of “The Hat Prize.”
“Writing about our earlier days was fun—then came the betrayal. Not to over-dramatize, but bringing back those memories was like stoking the embers of long-dormant emotions: shock, pain, anger, humiliation. The flames receded again, gradually and with some effort.” Allen Mack, author of “Just Wally and Me.”
“I had to take a step back and review my notes from the many extreme hours of therapy.
Such reflections of those mind-and heart-splintering sessions broke me while writing the essay. Tears were shed during the construction of numerous sentences. At moments I couldn’t believe a stainless-steel scalpel had almost severed me from the man I had truly fallen in love with. A special someone I am still with today.” —R.W. Clinger, author of “In the Brokenness of Summertime.”
“That wintry night in Chicago was fairly easy to recall, even with the passing years and the fact I was pretty inebriated through most of it. The hardest part was coming face to face with that clueless, hedonistic kid I was at the time. Some years ago, I took a stab at writing a much shorter piece about this incident, and it was subsequently published in a Canadian journal—I figured no one knew me up there. Now older, and a bit wiser, sharing who I was back then didn’t seem such a big deal. —Paul Alan Fahey, author of “Where Are You Going To?”
“It was difficult, but mainly because it was ten years ago, and I had to sift through my journals and old emails to recall specific details and what I was feeling at the time (luckily, I’m a pack rat when it comes to correspondence). Of course, I’ve changed the names (or in some cases omitted them entirely) and vagued up the details a bit, but the core experience is still there. And if I worried too much about what strangers think, I’d probably never set down a single word, fact or fiction!” —Jeffrey Ricker, author of “What If.”
“This essay was, by far, the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. No question. At the same time, it was a wonderful trip (for me) into the past and a lover I was much more compatible with—on every level. This made the experience both heart-warming and gut-wrenching, often at the same time. But this was an important essay for me to write; it was time, after all these years, to get the truth out and “free myself” from the feelings of guilt and longing that have haunted me for more than two decades.” —Chuck Willman, author of “Turbulence.”
“It was an extremely difficult piece for me to write. I have had several brushes with infidelity in my life, but I chose to write about the hardest one to see if I could scrape the marrow out of the experience and make it hurt less. It didn’t work. I wrote the piece in one day—sitting on the terrace of a friend’s penthouse apartment—writing and rewriting and rewriting until I had said everything I needed to say. Then I promptly drank a bottle of red wine by myself and cried myself to sleep. The next day hurt no less, and the story hadn’t been expunged. But at least the story was out into the world for others to comment. There is no relief in that fact, but there is a lifting of shame.”—Mark Canavera, author of “Complicity.”
“Frankly, I agonized over this essay. I’ve published several autobiographical pieces before, but this one was different. My essay in THE OTHER MAN details a part of my life that I’ve discussed with very few people. I’ve come to terms with that period and have long since forgiven myself for the mistakes I made then, but writing about it is another story. I’ve exposed things about myself in the past, but when it comes to other people I’ve usually hidden behind the mask of fiction. I’ve changed circumstances, created composite characters, moved settings around. That’s one of the great things about fiction: you get to rewrite your life. What made writing this piece so hard was the sense that I was publicly breaking a confidence with “Nathan” (the pseudonym I use in the essay for my partner in “other man” crime). For people who knew us both then, Nathan’s identity will not be hard to decipher. I haven’t spoken to him in 20 years (if you read the end of the essay, you’ll know why), and I don’t know whether he ever told his partner what was going on between us. I would hate for this essay to be the way he finds out. Even though it’s all long in the past, I suspect that reading this would hurt both of them. When all is said and done, though, the writing of this piece was somewhat healing for me. And having it part of this collection also helps: it shows me that I’m not alone, that there are many others who’ve gone through similar experiences. As with all my writing, there’s also the hope that by discussing this publicly, I might help someone else who’s going through the same thing right now. If I’d had this collection in front of me 20 years ago, I might have acted differently and saved myself a lot of grief. Maybe now I can do that for someone else.” —Lewis DeSimone, author of “Last Tango in Cambridge.”
“This is the first time I’ve really written about my partner who died a while ago. He was my soul mate, which is rare in life to find. And we had a decade and a half together. So I really have no complaints. I never knew how to write about him at all, it seemed like such a large and complex subject, and so I haven’t done so in the past. But approaching him and our relationship from this particular angle was really helpful for me and it opened all those years as a subject. I don’t know if and when I’ll write about him again, but I’m glad to have gotten something in print about him.” —Felice Picano, author of “The Child.”
“Yes, writing my story was hard. Looking at my reflection in the mirror of the past is difficult—I made some ugly, unfortunate mistakes. I have to learn from my errors and accept my humanness in all its imperfection. I have faith in others’ ability to do the same.” —Erik Orrantia, author of “Ballad Echoes.”
“Not difficult at all for me, but my partner of many years is a much more private person and was a bit squeamish about my shouting from the rooftops that I spent three years prowling the dirty book stores of North Carolina. At least it was before phone cameras and Instagram so there are no photos.” —Tom Mendicino, author of “Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Living or Dead, Is Entirely Coincidental.”
“My essay began as a series of one-page letters written for one person. Only after I realized that all I had left from that relationship—of that person—were the letters did I realize that they needed to live somewhere other than on the page. Putting the essay together was like excavating what I couldn’t—or felt I couldn’t—say out loud. Sharing the story with strangers is easier than thinking that nothing good will come from the experience other than the changes it created in my life.” —William Henderson, author of “You Without Me.”
“One of my favorite writers Paul Monette has this line, “Everyday, when I sit down to write, I try to write more honestly than the day before.” All the essayists I love and admire—from Monette to Edmund White to Anne Lamott—seem to be able to do that, without turning their pages into confessional taffy. So “Husbands” wasn’t hard to write. I started taking notes on all the experiences half-way through because I knew I wanted to explore them. I don’t write to say what I think as much to find out what I feel, and the mysteries of the piece were genuine riddles for me. The hard part is being honest without utter self-involvement. And the trick there, as another teacher of mine Adam Haslett told me, is “sometimes language can solve things.” —Austin Bunn, author of “Husbands.”
“It’s always scary committing the truth—or at least the truth the way you see it—to paper, especially when revisiting an unpleasant part of the past. But ultimately I found the experience to be cathartic. On reflection, I realized that a lot of good came from the bad.” —Rob Byrnes, author of “A Brief History of the Divorce Party.”
“I started this piece some years ago when I was actually still in the middle of another phase of the relationship/affair. Partly because it was fresh and I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings on it in the moment. But even more because writing about it helped me process the experience from the distance usually provided by character and story. I didn’t care about strangers reading it at all. The only person I’ve ever been scared about reading it was the object of my affection, the subject of my story. Now that I think about it, I also wanted documentation of it just so I could never forget that yes, this one time, there was a guy, and I was in love.” —Philip Dean Walker, author of “The Other Side Of The Game.”