Brett’s name flits onto my screen with an incoming email.
“Call you right back,” I say, hanging up on a friend.
Last time I talked to Brett, the Obama family lived in the White House. Last time I thought of him? Last year, as Melania took her third crack at presidential Christmas décor, and I failed to muster enough spirit to fetch our pre-lit tree from the garage.
Brett’s message came in through the contact form on my website. He invited me to meet for coffee; full respect if I decline.
Four years ago, it was me who reached out to Brett. On a dreary morning in early December 2015, I called his office to report that our spouses had been having an affair.
The receptionist had put me on hold. I held my breath, rehearsing: I don’t know if you remember me. My husband Sean used to work with Rebekah—
A soft click, then Brett’s voice on the line, “Jess.” He held that syllable of my name as if it were a preemie, just born. “I’m so sorry about Sean.”
I slumped on the sofa. Five weeks in, I was still surprised to be greeted with condolences. “Thanks, Brett.” I said. “And I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”
A heart attack claimed Sean, in the Houston airport, on November 4, 2015. I woke up that morning a stay-at-home mom whose super-achieving husband was about to become CEO of a mid-sized company. By lunchtime, I was an unemployed widow, and sole parent of a heartbroken nine-year-old.
My love story with Sean had begun in 1995. He was my biggest supporter, my closest confidante, and the co-author of a lifetime of inside jokes. When Sean died, I lost my best friend in the world. Two weeks later, when a good friend—who thought I already knew—let slip that Sean and Rebekah had been having an affair… I lost him again.
I knew I was a mess, and resisted the urge to ricochet my pain onto Brett. But I finally decided to call him once I’d cottoned on to Sam Harris: “By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make… Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of the person we lie to.” Bingo.
Years earlier, newly enchanted lovers Sean and Rebekah had set up dinner with Brett and me at Redwater Grille. I got to know Brett a little that night, and (since she didn’t attend Sean’s funeral) that evening was the last time I saw Rebekah. We sat next to each other in the leather booth. She took a bite of her salad, then held her French-manicured fingertips in front of her lips, “I fink I broke my toof.” Her cheeks were flushed pink. She looked timid and wide-eyed, like an anime character.
“Lemme see,” I said, and she lowered her hand a little. The white porcelain veneers on her two front teeth were chipped, revealing a black half-moon and craggy yellowed ridges. “It’s not that bad,” I said, patting her arm as she scooted past me toward the washroom. “You can barely notice.”
Sam Harris would not have been impressed with me that day.
I told Brett about the affair in order to show him the respect I wished I’d been given. That doesn’t mean he welcomed my call. He never took me up on my offer to provide phone records or boutique hotel receipts. I don’t know what happened next in Brett’s world. Maybe he forgave his wife.
Not me. A couple weeks after talking to Brett, I went for revenge. No public shaming. No, “You banged my husband—prepare to die.” I owed Rebekah a few medical details, and I felt I owed myself the gratification of parceling them in unpleasantries and delivering them at a wildly inconvenient time.
Christmas Eve 2015: I dropped off my son to sleep over with a cousin, walked my dogs by the river, and then settled into an armchair under a cozy blanket at home. In the late afternoon twilight, I pulled out my phone and fired off an onslaught of text messages.
I felt like a boss for eight seconds, then realized how easily she could have thwarted me: Block caller—pass the eggnog. Damn.
I re-sent the messages to Rebekah’s Skype account, instructing her to let me know she got them. No response.
I paced, stared out the window. Lights twinkled at my neighbors’ houses. Smoke plumed out from their fireplaces. I called Rebekah’s cell. Called family’s landline. Nothing. I looked at my car keys, hanging next to the garage door. If Rebekah didn’t acknowledge me by midnight, I’d be crashing down their bloody chimney.
Around the time that each of us should have been eating Santa’s cookies and going to bed, it occurred to me that Sean had once been Rebekah’s boss. I logged into Sean’s personal email account and wrote to Rebekah’s work account with the subject line, “Immediate action required: Possible HR concern.” Instant reply. She shot back, saying she’d sue for me harassment.
I deleted her empty threat. Boom, bitch.
Four years later, I’m curious how Brett’s life has unfolded. I’m keen to know how my revenge plan landed at Rebekah’s end, and I just want to ask Brett what the hell happened?
For me, shrieking, “How could you?” toward Sean’s side of our empty bed turned out to be pretty unsatisfying. The only answers I’ve ever gotten are the ones I’ve cobbled together with my Nancy Drew skills. Brett’s email invitation said, “A LOT has happened since Sean’s passing (and the events around his life which somewhat entwined us.)” He’s right—we’re entwined. I can’t wait to talk to him.
Brett’s late. He texts: Urgent call from his son’s school. I order a latte and grab the last free table—a tall two-seater, inches from other patrons.
I stand up when Brett arrives and walk to meet him near the door. Brett’s tall, broad-shouldered, and athletic. We’ve both aged in the eight years since we last saw each other, but he’s still young-looking for his early fifties, and an attractive guy. We hug and say hello. I gesture across the crowded cafe, point out the lack of privacy and say, “You wanna get outta here?”
He gives me a quizzical look. I burst out laughing, realizing what I’ve said. We end up in the sunroom of a quiet restaurant. It’s the mid-afternoon lull, and we have the place almost to ourselves. Our table is directly under a blazing patio heater. I tuck my winter parka into the corner of the booth and settle in. I order a burger and an iced tea. He gets a cranberry soda.
Brett tells me that when I called him back in 2015, he and Rebekah were 90% down the road to divorce. He hadn’t been a perfect husband. She’d been happy to lay all the blame on him. He says that his conversation with me was a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a long process, but their divorce will be finalized soon.
Brett mentions that he’s writing a book. Same here. He’s had a lot of physical pain and health problems from the stress of all this. Me too. He’s been learning mindfulness practices in order to heal. The enemy of my enemy is my new bestie. The server checks to see if we want drink refills. We do.
Many years ago, I knew a fitness fanatic who followed a zero-sugar diet, but one Saturday each month he’d go to the movies, sneak in a bag of Goodie Rings and a bag of Twizzlers, and polish off the cookies and red liquorice while watching the show.
I feel like that guy, watching Fatal Attraction, when Brett starts dishing about Rebekah.
“She’s got these kinks in the bedroom…” (om nom nom)
“She’s pretty much slept with all her bosses…” (nom nom nom)
“Our son suspected her of cheating on me. He confronted her, and she tore a strip off him so deep, she cut him right to the core.”
My text onslaught to Rebekah had ended with: “My Christmas wish? That your children find out what a worthless, selfish, life-destroying coward their mother really is.” A pang of guilt flares in my belly. I take a sip of iced tea.
I tell Brett about a three-day trauma release workshop I recently completed. “There was a dead ringer for Rebekah in that class. I could barely look at her. She looked exactly like her, but ten years younger.”
“Ten years? Coulda been her. You should see what she spends on plastic surgery.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Well, she kinda has to—a lot of people see her naked.” (Nom nom nom)
When it’s time to pick up our kids, we thank each other for the meeting. I zip up my parka. Brett says, “I hope this was half as good for you as it was for me.”
It was better. I’m giddy on a schadenfreude rush.
One morning a week, I venture into Rebekah’s neighborhood to see my physical therapist. When I get to the stop light near the hospital, I always hold my breath, worried that she’s in a nearby vehicle, scoffing at me in my fourteen-year-old minivan. After today, I’ll never be nervous about bumping into Rebekah again.
That night, my stomach hurts. Snippets from my conversation with Brett bubble up.
He told me that Rebekah’s family emigrated from Hungary. I’ve spent the last two years learning as much as I can about healing trauma. One of my teachers is Dr. Gabor Maté, who was born in Budapest. He was two months old when the Nazis invaded. His grandparents were killed in Auschwitz, his father was sent to a forced labor camp. He and his mother starved. He speaks about the long-ranging impact of those experiences on his own life, and the rippling impact on his relationships, on his children.
Dr. Maté’s story shapes an outline of what might also be true for Rebekah’s parents.
Brett said Rebekah’s father was a problem drinker. Mine too. Colorful details self-populate into my imagined picture of Rebekah’s early life.
One area of trauma research that I’ve been particularly drawn to is epigenetics. Our bodies contain molecules that prompt genes to either express or to remain dormant. That’s why some people with genetic markers for cancer will develop the disease and some won’t.
Traumatic experiences can be a stimulus for gene expression, and, beyond that, traumatic experiences code into our genetic material to help our offspring recognize threats.
When children live through trauma, they stop coding for connection and start coding for protection. This can affect the way they’re able to relate to others. I can’t know if any of this is true specifically for Rebekah, but when I attacked her, I sensed that pain point.
The first eleventy-bazilion views of Brené Brown’s TEDx talk The Power of Vulnerability—those were mostly me. Listening to Brown, I could see the people in my life filing into two camps: On one side were those who believed they were worthy of love and belonging, and on the other: the tortured, the troubled, the pain-in-the-ass people with whom having a relationship felt like driving a pot-hole riddled road. The erosive force that kept those people lonely, insecure and disconnected: shame.
When I assaulted Rebekah’s worthiness, I was trying to crush her f*cking windpipe. I wished for her children to see her as a coward because that was the most hurtful thing I could think to say. I wanted her to die of shame.
I picture the scene Brett told me about: Their teenage son confronting Rebekah about the affair. I can see her yelling, red-faced, her finger pointing into his chest. Her big blues eyes are narrow with contempt.
I imagine the boy shrinking back. His nervous system floods with chemicals that will help him build neural pathways to avoid this danger in the future. He’s coding for protection. He’s learning to doubt himself.
My wish has come true. This boy has seen his mother wearing the coward’s ugliest face: the bully. I wished for something that has hurt a child. If I’d eaten a bag of Goodie Rings and a bag of Twizzlers I could purge that feeling from my system, but I have to lie here in the gurgling awareness that the pain is being passed to another generation.
The next day I feel achy and drained. Brett follows up with a text, thanking me for meeting. I thank him back. He told Rebekah that we met for lunch, and she wasn’t pleased. He adds: “It appears she feels no remorse toward what she did to you and me.” That should piss me off, but it doesn’t. I read Brett’s text again, trying to spark some outrage. Nothing.
The way Brett’s framed it for me, expecting Rebekah’s contrition looks like a baited steel-jawed trap. I don’t feel outrage because I can see the hazard, and I’m not caught.
It dawns on me that I’ve been able to come to terms with Sean—against admittedly long odds—partly because I relinquished the requirement that he apologize. Of course I wanted Sean to be sorry, but given, y’know, the circumstances I don’t get to hear him say those words. I’ve wanted Rebekah to be sorry too, and she’s alive. She could make amends if she chose, but if Brett and I need that, we’re giving her the power to withhold it.
Brett and I did not deserve to be betrayed. We didn’t deserve to be lied to. But the most hurtful lie of an affair is the romantic whopper that nobody ever apologizes for: That two people are moved by an overwhelming chemistry—the whole world falls away . . .
Raise your hand if you fell away while your partner was sneaking around with someone else. Hey—would ya look at that. We were all still here.
The chemistry of an affair is a complex chain reaction. Bonds are broken. New bonds are formed. Highly reactive, unstable isotopes are created. When Rebekah took up with my husband, she also created a relationship with me—not as an unfortunate byproduct, but as an inevitability. To this day, she tries to ignore that fact. I started off unaware that she was a force in my life, but her impact was perceptible, long before I knew what was causing the change.
Rebekah’s instinct is to erase me from her world. That’s not so different from my attempt to snuff out her life force in a stranglehold of shame. It’s not easy to find common ground with someone who wants to banish you from existence.
At lunch that day, Brett gave me the piece that changed the equation: He was upstairs in their bedroom when Rebekah got the call that Sean had died. He heard a sound coming from the kitchen, an animal wail he didn’t recognize as Rebekah’s voice—until she started sobbing. I know the sound he means. My body emitted that same tortured cry over the loss of the same man.
That kind of pain isn’t just common ground; it’s primordial, alchemical. We couldn’t see one another, but Rebekah and I were in that pain-place together.
That’s enough for me. I want to stop contributing to the suffering. My well-being doesn’t depend on anyone’s remorse; it depends on my decision not to create more pain.
It’s not Christmas Eve, but somewhere in the cosmos right now, there’s a shooting star, a streak of light making its way through the darkness. In Rebekah’s real name, I wish upon that star:
May your children know you as worthy, generous, creative, and brave.
When I sent that hateful message to Rebekah, I thought I was taking my power back. I imagined my spite as a ballistic missile, swift and on target. Now, I see a reeling, desperate woman—all alone—waving a word-slingshot like a maniac.
I’m stronger now.
This new wish? There’s a mushroom cloud over it. Shockwaves ripple out from its epicenter. This wish is seeping into the groundwater.
May you know yourself as worthy, generous, creative, and brave.
May we all.
Boom, fellow bitch.