Who Do You Belong To?

When she dipped her heart into someone else’s relationship, Emily Lackey discovered how to define love on her own terms.

Emily Lackey | Longreads | May 2019 | 17 minutes (4,462 words)

When I was a teenager, I didn’t fall in love with boys — I fell in love with their families. In seventh grade, it was Sean’s mother, who came to our classroom every day to help the teacher with whatever needed helping. I loved way she outlined the bubble letters on our art projects and cut pieces of construction paper into perfect circles. I loved how she was always there with her short hair, driving the purple minivan whose license plate I memorized. I liked Sean, too, but I can’t remember why other than the fact that he had hair that got blonder the longer he was in the sun, and that he liked a football team other than the Patriots.

Jason was next. Jason was the best because his parents were divorced, which meant there were two families to love. His father and stepmother invited me to their cocktail parties, took me to a New Year’s Eve dinner in New York City, brought me home when it was too late for Jason to drive, and paid me for painting the side of their house. Their house was where I was introduced to life’s greatest luxuries: gas stoves, hummus, bread that wasn’t white, olives that weren’t black.

“This girl is great,” I remember Jason’s father saying every time I offered to help with dinner, every time I set the table, every time I cleared my own dishes without being asked.

I loved Jason’s mother, too. She took me shopping to find an armchair, went for walks with me around the neighborhood, sat across from me at her kitchen table after September 11th and talked about how everything was terrible. I became best friends with Jason’s brother, too, and — lest there be any doubt about my commitment to his family — when Jason started dating another girl instead of me, I started dating his brother instead of him.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that, when I met Neil at a writing residency last fall, I didn’t fall in love with him, I fell in love with his wife.

Four years before I met Neil, I fell in love with an essay his wife had written about the unrealistic expectations put on women once they become wives and mothers. I sent it to all of my friends at the time. My friends who were, back then, as childless and unmarried as I was. We read the essay and raged about the expectations put on women to behave, to follow the rules, to lose their identities in order to become first perfect wives, then perfect mothers.

By the time I met Neil, my friends had all gotten married, one right after the other, then pregnant, one right after the other.

For a while, these differences didn’t come between us, because, for a while, I was on that same path. I too had wanted those things, and when I met a man in my late 20s who was quiet and kind, I figured I had finally found it. I could picture the life I wanted so clearly: an old house on a dirt road, a kitchen table big enough for the kids to do their homework, a hammock in the shade, this kind and quiet man kissing my neck every morning before heading off to work.

Their house was where I was introduced to life’s greatest luxuries: gas stoves, hummus, bread that wasn’t white, olives that weren’t black.

But then, because these things sometimes happen — a short straw, a joker card pulled from the deck — I found out after five years that this kind and quiet man was not the kind of man I wanted to marry. He was the kind of man who kept secrets, the kind of man who had a hard time being honest, the kind of man who lied about the things he was doing when he wasn’t doing them with me.

In the middle of our breakup, I played bridesmaid to my best friend. Standing beside her as she said her vows, I felt like we were opposites. We had started in the same place — both meeting our boyfriends when we were 27 — so it didn’t seem fair that we ended up in such different places. We had both been good girlfriends. We had both followed the rules.

Standing in front of her wedding guests, I remember thinking for the first time, If being good was what got me here, then I may as well be whatever I want.

What I wanted — I knew almost immediately — was to apply to writing residencies. So I did. I applied to nine and got into four, all of them lining up perfectly without overlap, like a sign. It was meant to be: I would put my things in storage and spend the next year on the road, writing and traveling and doing — for the first time in a long time — whatever I wanted to do.

“Emily’s Heartbreak Tour of America,” my friends called it, and it kind of was. I was a 33-year-old woman, and after spending my entire adult life looking for a man to marry, I committed instead to a year of not trying to find one. It felt bold, freeing, revolutionary even, deciding at that age that any man I met would be temporary, short-term, intended only as a pit stop along the way to my next adventure.

At first my friends were on board, asking for constant updates. Our group texts were slaloms of blue bubbles that bounced happily between topics relevant to our respective lives: teething and sleep training, diaper rash and birth control that was safe to take while breastfeeding, being hungover, being unable to remember the name of the man I had slept with the night before. Kevin, I think. Or was it Keith? For the first few months, we all lived vicariously through each other’s adventures. But when I told my friends I was sleeping with Neil, the husband of the woman whose essay we had discussed in detail, something changed.


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I explained to them how Neil had been the one to bring up his wife’s essay the first night I met him. I told them that he had offered me socks to keep my feet warm, that he had found and followed me on Twitter, and that he had started direct messaging me when we were hanging out with other people, sitting across the room from each other and secretly talking shit about everyone else. I even told them how, when he invited me to his writing studio for the first time, long before anything happened, he had told me his marriage to his wife was an open one, that she had a boyfriend of her own, and that he had already told her he had been flirting with me.

“How do you know he’s telling the truth?” one of my friends asked.

Of course there was no way for me to know for sure that Neil was telling the truth, short of calling his wife and asking her myself. But didn’t we all have to take our partner’s word to some degree? That they’ve been tested. That they’ll pull out. That they won’t hurt us. That their phones are locked for security purposes. That, when they’re out picking up groceries, they’re not calling a woman they slept with two weeks ago and deleting her phone number before they get home.

“I guess I don’t know for sure,” I wrote and waited for them to respond.

A few minutes later, one of my friends finally wrote, “I can totally see why it’s hot to be in your position.” And then, in all caps, “I WOULD NOT WANT TO BE THE WIFE THOUGH.”

“If I were the wife,” another one wrote, “I’d rip his fucking balls off.”

Months later, my friends would tell me that they were worried when I told them I was sleeping with a married man. When it happened, though, it was hard for me to see anything in their texts other than the way the tone changed, the way the enthusiastic back and forth we had maintained for years had come to a standstill.

I couldn’t comprehend how this was different from the things we had done before. These were the friends that I had been single with, all of us tethered to one another for everything that we did: eating meals and drinking beers and dating men and running to the bar in the middle of those Vermont winters wearing nothing but torn jeans and tank tops. Back then, we didn’t care about the marital status of the men we slept with, because, back then, the only people we were loyal to were each other. We created our own form of family, and we had clung tight to that for the past decade. But that night, sitting in my studio trying to think of how to respond, I pictured the new families they had formed — ones with husbands and children and homes in the suburbs. They were wives and mothers now, and I was not. I felt far away from them then, left out and alone, a balloon that had slipped free from the bunch.

A few months later, when I was on my way to another residency, I found out for sure that Neil’s wife knew about me. Neil and I had decided to meet for a drink on my way through Madison, and I was only a few blocks from the bar where we had agreed to meet when he texted me, “Mind if my wife joins us?”

During our time in residency, Neil had told me about what it was like to be in an open marriage, how many of the men his wife met on dating apps were more than happy to sleep with a married woman, while most of the women he talked to were too suspicious of his situation to ever meet. The one woman he had been with since they opened their marriage, Neil said, was weirdly possessive. She had acted as if his wife were her competition. She had incorrectly assumed that he had been the one to open their marriage, and she had incorrectly assumed that his wife must not be giving him what he needed if what he needed was other women.

“It’s not a setup,” Neil texted when I didn’t respond. “I swear. She just wants to make sure you’re not trying to steal her health insurance.”

At the next stoplight, I texted my friend.

“What the fuck?” she wrote. “What even is your life right now?”

For a second I thought about turning around. What was my life right now? But then I thought about all I had done in the past few months that I had never imagined myself doing: traveling around the country, living without a home, writing a book, being alone for long stretches of time. I had thought that so much of this trip would be terrifying, but none of it was. If anything, being on my own made me feel alive again — wild, even — and I was starting to realize how many of my life choices had been made for the wrong reasons. I had done things because they were easy or obvious or the next logical thing, but what I grew to recognize was how infrequently I had stopped along the way to ask myself, Why do I want this? Or, more importantly, Why do I not want this? If I had, I would have seen how many of my decisions were made because I was afraid. Afraid of being uncomfortable. Afraid of being unsure. Afraid — even worse — of being alone.

That night I didn’t respond to my friend. I responded to Neil. I agreed to meet his wife, because, when I really asked myself why I didn’t want to meet her — it was weird, it might be uncomfortable, she might not be nice to me — all of my answers sounded hollow.

‘What the fuck?’ she wrote. ‘What even is your life right now?’

I met Neil at a dive bar down the street from his house, and we sat on the same side of the booth to wait for his wife. She and her boyfriend were both coming, he said. They’d stop by on their way back from dinner.

When Alexis arrived, she slid into the booth across from me, took a sip from Neil’s beer, and exhaled loudly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m a little drunk. I was really nervous to meet you.”

Her honesty endeared me to her instantly. From there, the conversation was easy. It wasn’t awkward at all. We were writers, and we bonded in the way that people who have these things in common do. It reminded me of what a friend said when she was the first among us to have children. She had made new friends — a group of young women in her area who all had children — but she had assured us that we were still her favorites. It’s just nice to have people who know what you’re going through, she said, and we had all pretended like we understood.

That night, the four of us didn’t talk for long, but we talked about a lot: writing residencies and freelance jobs, slush piles and waiting to hear back from editors, writing contests and how long it takes for a piece to be published. Alexis was amazing. She was vulnerable and brilliant and quick-witted and kind, and I could see why Neil loved her. After only a few minutes of talking, she confessed to me that her day had been terrible. Her assistant, she said, who was also her best friend, had accessed her email and found a message Alexis had sent to another friend saying that her assistant/best friend sometimes didn’t have her shit together.

“So then she sends me this,” Alexis said, holding her phone out for me to see.

I looked at the text message. I had to scroll down twice to read the whole thing. It signaled, among other things, a clear end to their personal and professional relationship.

“That seems extreme,” I said when I was done. “What you said wasn’t even that bad.”

Neil’s wife folded her upper body in half and brought her mouth to her beer. “I feel terrible about it,” she said. “I do.”

I reassured her. “This says more about her than it does about you,” I said. “If she hadn’t overreacted about this, it would have been something else.”

Alexis looked at Neil with a look that I recognized. It was the way Jason’s father used to look at him every time I stood among their affluent friends and held my own in a conversation about Steinbeck or Sondheim. This girl is great, it seemed to say, and then Alexis reached her hand out and put it on mine. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re so sweet.”

“I really like her,” Alexis texted Neil later that night when Neil and I were in his bed and Alexis and her boyfriend were somewhere else in the city.

“My wife really likes you,” Neil said setting his phone back down.

“What did she say exactly?” I said. “Let me see the texts.” Neil held out his phone, and I read all of the gray bubbles, a neat column of praise and approval. “Ask her if she wants to meet me in the city tomorrow for lunch,” the last text from Alexis said.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Neil said, putting his phone down without replying. “I know it’s kind of awkward.” But it didn’t feel awkward anymore. What was lunch with Neil’s wife when I had already had a drink with her and her boyfriend?

“No, I want to,” I said. I felt like a satellite that had been launched into space. Way out here, free from the persuasive power gravity and friction, I felt like I could go on forever. “Give her my number,” I said.

The next day Alexis and I met for lunch, and, by the end of it, she had invited me to her 40th birthday party a month later, had offered to put me in touch with her editor, had told me that, when I was ready to look for an agent, I should give her a call.

I started a text to my friends, Is it weird that I like Neil’s wife more than I like Neil?, but I didn’t hit send.

A few weeks later I drove back to Madison for Alexis’s birthday, eager to leave my Nebraska residency where I was going entire days holed up alone. When I arrived, Neil put my things in the guest bedroom and introduced me to his kids as “Dad’s residency friend.” Not long after I arrived, Alexis and I left Neil with the kids and drove to Whole Foods to pick up food for dinner: homemade pasta, crushed tomatoes, kalamata olives to snack on, champagne to sip. When we got home, Alexis said her boyfriend would be joining us for dinner. He would come over after the kids went to bed, sometime around eight.

But at eight o’clock, Neil and Alexis’s daughter was still jumping on the mini trampoline in the living room, their son was still watching the cartoons he had been told to turn off three times, and dinner had still not been made.

Alexis was in the kitchen, alternating between washing the dishes that she needed to make dinner, putting together a separate meal that the kids would approve of, and stopping every time someone said “Mom” or “Mommy” or “Alexis” or “Mama.”

“Yes, sweetie,” she answered each time, her voice soft and sweet, as if she had nothing else to do other than be there for them. On our trip to Whole Foods, she had looked glamorous, even in the fluorescent lighting, her long camel coat tied tightly around her waist, her hair vibrant and wild. But now — after a few hours of attending to everyone else’s needs — Alexis looked like a woman on the verge of a meltdown.

At one point she ran her hands through her hair. “Neil,” she said, “Can you take over here? I need to lie down.”

After she went upstairs, Neil and I launched into a comfortable rhythm. He put a pot of water on the stove to boil and simmered garlic in a pan to start the sauce. I opened the champagne and intercepted his daughter who kept asking him what the next letter was in a word she was trying to spell. She was writing a letter to NASA, she said, showing me the piece of plain white paper covered in crayon letters.

“I can help,” I said, and together we looked up the address for NASA and walked through the steps of addressing an envelope. A few minutes later, when Neil said, “Shit, I forgot to walk the dog,” I said, “I got it,” and took him around the block.

An hour later, after the kids were asleep and the dinner was made and Alexis’s boyfriend had arrived, Alexis came down the stairs looking radiant. She had put on lipstick and a and short skirt, but the change was evident in more than just what she wore. I had seen women look like that before. She looked vibrant and alive, like a girlfriend of the quarterback on the sidelines of a high school football game.

What was lunch with Neil’s wife when I had already had a drink with her and her boyfriend?

I wondered then if there was some validity to this life that Alexis and Neil were living. Desire is a biological necessity, and losing that seemed inevitable within a lifetime commitment. Maybe this is the way we are supposed to be living: all of us together, supporting each other and loving each other and stepping in when we are close to losing our minds and needing reinforcement.

The next night, the night of Alexis’s birthday party, I felt even more comfortable lending a hand. I stuffed figs with parmesan cheese and wrapped miniature hot dogs in flaking pastry dough. When the guests started to arrive — a who’s who of the Madison literary scene — Alexis and Neil introduced me to everyone: agents, editors, booksellers, and a book reviewer for the New York Times. By the end of the night, a bookseller told me I had to come to their writers’ breakfast the next morning, I just had to.

At some point in the evening, I realized Neil was nowhere to be found, and I went looking for him. I found him in his bedroom, his arm trapped under his sleeping daughter’s body. She had woken up in the middle of the party and couldn’t go back to sleep.

I sat on the edge of the bed and whispered to him about how amazing the night was going, how much I felt like I fit in here.

“You could stay,” he whispered so as not to wake his daughter.

“Yeah right,” I said, waving his offer away.

“No, I mean it,” he said. “Alexis loves you. The kids love you. You can stay if you want.”

I was too drunk to take him seriously, but not too drunk to notice that he hadn’t said that he loved me. He had always been careful not to say that.

The next day, Alexis and I were curled up with her daughter on the couch watching Adventures in Babysitting when she also mentioned me staying with them, too.

“You’re amazing,” she said. “Can you stay forever?”

Could I? I asked myself. Early the next morning, Neil and I woke up before the kids and had sex for the last time before I left. I pretended in the gray light of that morning that this life was mine. I tried it on, seeing what it felt like: what if their kids were mine, their bed was mine, this man who was married to someone else was mine? Could this be where I belonged? It was everything I thought I wanted — a literary life, a kind husband, two cute kids, and a built-in network of smart women — but did what I want actually look like this?

When I was a child, I spent the summers at my father’s house. At the end of every visit, I would feel scared. I didn’t have words for it then — I still don’t — but whatever it was would settle at the bottom of my spine when faced with leaving my father’s home. His was a two-story house in the suburbs, where there was comfort and laughter and always people around. Returning to my mother’s — a cramped single-story home, where my stepfather was always angry and everything was off limits — meant returning to a life spent mostly alone. Thinking about leaving Neil and his family, I felt it again, that fear sinking down into the deepest part of me. Soon this would be over and soon I would have to go home and soon I would be alone.

I tried to picture what it would look like, the five of us forming our own alternative kind of family, and it didn’t seem that terrible. But then I asked myself, Why would I want this? and the answers were the same as they had always been: It would be easy, it would be convenient, it was all right here ready for me. The question Why do I not want this? was harder to answer. It wasn’t the responsibility that I was afraid of. It wasn’t the fear that, a few weeks in, I would end up like Alexis, running my hands through my hair and saying, “Can you take over here? I need a fucking break.”

No, the thing that I was afraid of was how much Neil loved his wife. I could see it in the way he moved around her, trying his best to anticipate her needs. I could see it in the way he seemed to like me even more after Alexis approved of me. That first night after Alexis and I met, Neil had clung to me tighter than he ever had before, had buried his face in my hair and told me how amazing I was, how grateful he was to have me in his life. What scared me the most was how fused to each other Neil and Alexis were, as if all of the forces of their history together — heat and pressure and time — had turned them into one. What scared me was that, if I stayed here with them, I might never have that for myself. And even though years of relationships had taught me that any life spent with anyone other than myself was tenuous, imperfect, unpredictable, and hard, I still wanted that. I wanted to love someone in spite of that. I wanted to love someone aware of that. I wanted to love someone because of that.

When I left in the morning, it was Alexis who saw me off, and we sat in the front room and talked before I headed out.

“I can’t believe you have four more months of residencies,” she said. The night before she had confessed to me that the real reason she loved going to residencies was because they were the only place she could pretend to be herself again. She went so she could feel the feeling of belonging only to herself.

“Take me with you,” she half-joked, and we both laughed.

When my Heartbreak Tour of America was over a few months later, I stopped on the way back to Massachusetts to visit friends in New Jersey. One of them was throwing a BBQ in her backyard and, after a little while, I found myself in a circle of all married women, most of whom I didn’t know. One of the women asked each of us our names.

“I’m so-and-so,” the married women all said in turn, “and that’s my husband, so-and-so, and those are my kids, so-and-so and so-and-so.”

When the woman turned to me, I said, “I’m Emily,” and she shook my hand and waited.

“And,” she said, “who do you belong to?”

All of the other women were appalled. For the rest of the night they talked about how they couldn’t believe what that woman said. They told stories about her troubled marriage. They talked about how terrible her kids were. They did anything they could to make me feel better, it seemed, about being alone. But I didn’t feel bad about it.

“No one,” I said to the woman when she asked. “I belong to myself.”

* * *

Emily Lackey‘s stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and Post Road among others. She lives and writes in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Katie Kosma
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross