Last week someone I went to school with started texting me because he got my number from somewhere and was bored. Bored of his job, bored of his marriage, bored of being fat, bored of his wife, bored of being asked about the accusations that had led to the loss of his previous job – bored of pretty much everything in the life he’d chosen to live. He asked how I was and said why didn’t we pretend he was having an affair with me because it would be so much fun. The brief was pretty straightforward: tell him what I wanted to do to him then get all “oh yes big boy” at what he wanted to do to me. I carried on working and let him ramble on, working himself up into a right state with this really quite complex scenario, most of which seemed to involve me standing on a railway platform waiting for him, dressed in a fur coat and no knickers. I don’t wear fur, but I let it pass because he seemed to be enjoying himself. Then he phoned and said he was going to get a ticket and catch the train up, his wife would never know, and he could get the last train back and say he’d been working late. It would be perfect, he said, he hadn’t seen me for years, but he still fantasised about the time we got off with each other at school. He either thought I was someone else entirely or just remembered it differently. I vaguely remember there being a lot of saliva and him dislodging the wire on my bra, trying to shove his hand in it, not out of passion but because it seemed to be the most accessible bit of me. Such finesse. Anyway, almost twenty years later and, lucky me, I get to make his fantasy come true. Then I said what if I didn’t want him to come just for the afternoon, what if I wanted him to stay longer. He would go back to his wife and I’d have no say in when I might see him again. I might start to like him or, even, fall in love with him and what would I get in return for my sexual and emotional involvement with him. Standing around waiting for him on a freezing Edinburgh railway platform with no knickers on would hardly quell my feelings of adoration or soothe the ache of longing for the relationship I knew we could never have. He’d have me on tap and I’d have more dislodged bra wires and the occasional naughty text. Thrilling. He suddenly had a concert his kids were playing at and, oh shit, he wouldn’t be able to come after all. I haven’t heard much from him since.
I had no intention of having any sort of anything with him and was about to tell him it was stupid and not to get the train because I didn’t want to see him, but I thought I’d give him a glimpse into how things might turn out for me if he did. It had, apparently, never occurred to him that I might want something other than the occasional shag when he could get away or that I didn’t want to be his bit on the side to ease the boredom of domesticity.
I’ve had two relationships with married men and, while I don’t regret either of them – they were both lovely men – I wouldn’t have another. The fact that the man is married adds nothing to the relationship: he may get a frisson from the danger of getting caught or being naughty, but for the woman, it brings no perks. Now that we’re all modern and equal in our right and responsibility to earn our own income, a man no longer has any financial responsibility towards his mistress so the single perk there might have been – being a kept woman – has been done away with.
The perception of the mistress has veered between veneration and disgust, depending on social mores. There’s been a fairly recent trend for laying some blame on the man, but they usually wriggle out of it with statements issued by publicists about sex addiction, as though pathologising it made it all right. “You’re addicted to sex? Don’t worry – we have the perfect rehab programme to help you overcome that. The focus is on learning to love yourself – not just your penis.” The wife is pitied, quite rightly, because she’s got a cheating bastard for a husband. The mistress receives very different treatment. She is tabloid fodder, at once villified and exploited as a source of sex secrets – his penchant for stuffing an orange in his mouth and a pair of tights over his head or a one-time “romp” in a hot tub with a bottle of flat champagne and some soap suds, for example. Then she’s forgotten – or she cashes in on her fleeting fame, sobs on talk shows and designs a range of handbags like Monica Lewinsky.
Thing is, the mistress has done nothing wrong. She signed no contracts; didn’t stand in front of an officiate and promise no other to take. She’s just a woman having a relationship with a man like any other. I’ve heard women say they like the challenge of bedding a married man, but they give the mistress – the woman who’s trying to have a relationship rather than a one night stand – a bad name. Being the other woman is a shit deal. For all the promises to the contrary, you’re the least important person in his life. Yes, he might love you and he might promise you the moon and the stars, but one thing he won’t promise you is that he’ll leave his wife. Married men seldom do. They have the ease of a wife at home and you on call for sex and whatever else you might give him.
There are articles in their thousands about women having it all, wanting it all, trying to have it all, feeling guilty because they think spending time thinking about having it all makes them a bad mother. Aside from the occasional feature-length article about a stay-at-home dad, no one seems to be suggesting that being a working father makes a man a bad parent. Men aren’t being bombarded with criticism of their life choices or having the fact that, selfsh cows, they would rather go to work than spend all day at home with their children. The affair is the male equivalent. Even if the wife’s a shrew and the mistress the heartless bitch they’re generally assumed to be, the man is having it all and getting away with it. Unless, of course, the mistress starts asking for more.
We’re not talking the pitiful combustion that was Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, here. Being of generally sound mind and vegetarian, I would no more boil a rabbit than I would eat one. No, it’s more likely to be outrageous things like seeing more of him or having phone calls returned a week after they were made rather than a month or just not at all. Some of the happiest times in my life were spent with married men, but these moments are so fleeting, like a string of fabulous flings – intense, vital, all-absorbing, but a little while after you can’t quite remember why. Being the other woman is all about hope. It’s entirely misplaced and a waste of energy, time, passion, and feeling. You have to lose that hope to move on. It’s disappointing, but it’s necessary that you do. You’re wasting your life, hoping for a glance here, a little love there. If you were with someone who treated you like a married man will, you’d ditch him. For all he might enjoy and care about you, he’ll never love you. Not in any way that means anything. You’re both an indulgence and an inconvenience and you have to be prepared to be treated as such. He won’t leave her and, even if he does, you have to wonder about the priorities of a man who would be so self-indulgent he’d disregard the happiness of both women in his life. To paraphrase Martha Wainwright, you know he’s married, but you’ve got feelings, too.