I wanted so badly to forgive him, for things to go back to the way they had been, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him writing those messages, having sex with a man whose name he probably didn’t know, and lying to me about it.
It’s 2:30am and I’m cruising Craigslist’s Casual Encounters.
I know I shouldn’t, I know it’s destructive, but I can’t help myself. I select m4m and scan through the ages, looking for his (33). I rule out any that are excessively crude and/or have egregious typos—he’s a pastor’s son and methodical about grammar and punctuation even in his text messages. My eyes land on one with potential:
Discreet bi guy looking for some fun tonight. 7.5c, 5’10”, 180 lbs. Can host. Send pic if interested.
I try to will myself to close the tab, but instead I click “reply,” then type: Jason? Is this you?
To be fair, Jason was somewhat upfront about his bisexuality—he didn’t lie about it, but he also didn’t exactly disclose it right away, either. One night, about two months into our relationship, we were sharing stories of past lovers. He had some wild tales from his years touring the country in a boy band in his early 20s. He told me about a threesome with a bandmate and the bandmate’s girlfriend.
“Is that the only time you’ve had sex with a guy?”
Jason paused, looking a little sheepish.
“No…?” He said it like a question, clearly concerned about my reaction.
“Oh, are you bi?” I asked as casually as I could manage.
He slowly nodded and then explained that he had never dated or been in love with a man, but had had a few male hook-ups over the years. I read “Savage Love” regularly, so I was familiar with the concept of bisexual but “hetero-romantic,” to use Dan Savage’s term.
Though I’d never dated anyone bi before, I was relatively unfazed. I knew better than to believe the nonsense about bisexuality being a “rest stop on the highway to homo.” Everything about the relationship so far was incredible, and we were compatible in all the important ways: emotionally, sexually, culinarily. So he was attracted to men as well as women—no big deal. What mattered was that we both were looking for something serious, something lasting. And we were in love.
This conversation took place in the honeymoon of our relationship and felt like one of those bedrock talks that seals the foundation of intimacy. We were being truthful with each other, letting ourselves be seen. Jason said I was everything he had been looking for, that I was the love of his life. Things progressed quickly; pretty soon he introduced me to his daughter and we were discussing a timeline for moving in together.
Then I found out he was using Craigslist to meet up with men for sex.
I discovered his indiscretions in the typical 21st-century way: e-mail. It wasn’t a case of suspicious snooping; I was doing laundry at his place, trying to check my e-mail on his computer and his account automatically opened. But instead of his normal Gmail inbox popping up, an account linked to Craigslist opened and I saw dozens of exchanges between him and men he had been chatting with online. Dates, times, locations, measurements. Nothing flirty about these communiques—it was all business, when and where and oh, by the way, here’s a picture of my penis.
It would be futile to try to recount the various emotions I experienced in the moments following the realization that the man I was head over heels in love with and thought I might want to marry was apparently sleeping with all the gay and bi men in a 10-mile radius. For about a half an hour, I was literally keening—doubled over, wailing incoherently, in a sort of pre-language state of dumbness.
When I regained my ability to speak, I tried calling him—no answer. I texted him something along the lines of “I know you’re having sex with men on Craigslist, how could you, call me as soon as you get this.” I wanted him to deny it, for there to be some other explanation. I stared at my phone, praying for it to ring. After about 10 minutes, he texted back: “Oh Jesus, I’m so sorry. Clearly I have issues.”
Once I stopped crying and hyperventilating, a little voice in my head whispered, You knew this was coming. Karma’s a bitch. I too had cheated—not on Jason, but on another man I had once thought to be “the one.” It was something I still felt terrible about, a truth I struggled to reconcile with the good, decent, honest person I imagined myself to be. And in the seven years since I cheated (and also been found out thanks to email), I had never figured out how to forgive myself.
Eric, the boyfriend I betrayed, hadn’t either—he said he knew he wouldn’t be able to get past it and that the relationship was over. I had begged for a second chance; we had been dating for more than two years and were living together. Surely there was some way I could make amends for this stupid, shitty thing I had done for reasons I didn’t even understand. Nope. He wanted me out of the apartment. I had blown the most significant relationship of my adult life for a one-night-stand with a photographer who had invited me over to his place to watch Wet Hot American Summer. Clearly I had issues.
This is why when I found out about Jason’s secret online activities, it felt like being dealt some sort of cosmic justice; the cheating chickens had finally come home to roost. As a writer, I couldn’t help but admire the narrative tidiness, how perfectly my punishment fit my crime. There had to be a lesson for me to learn here, and after a few days, I decided that lesson was to try to forgive Jason, to give him the chance I had not been given by Eric. It would take a saintly amount of goodwill, but I was determined to redeem myself via his redemption.
Initially, Jason was repentant—apparently this behavior (casual sex with men arranged over the Internet) was not new, though I was the first girlfriend to catch him at it. He also swore that it was mostly the messaging part that turned him on, and that since meeting me, he had only followed through (a.k.a. actually slept with someone else) once. I asked if he wanted an open relationship and he said no—he wanted to be monogamous with me, and would do anything to “make things right.” Go to therapy, or couples counseling, or both, stop drinking, give me all his online passwords—he vowed to do whatever was necessary to regain my trust.
We’re going to survive this, I thought. I Googled things like “forgiveness after cheating” and “how to heal a relationship after cheating” and read dozens of articles offering advice and anecdotes from those who had stood by their unfaithful lovers and spouses. I pictured Jason and I years down the road remembering this difficult period in our relationship, reflecting on how it tested us, but ultimately made us stronger as a couple.
But as the weeks passed, and we kept fighting and crying and storming out of each other’s apartments, it became clear that nothing could save us. I wanted so badly to forgive him, for things to go back to the way they had been, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him writing those messages, having sex with a man whose name he probably didn’t know, and lying to me about it. I also couldn’t resist checking Craigslist to try to figure out if he was still posting. The fact that he had cheated with a man sometimes seemed like the worst part of it, and sometimes seemed irrelevant.
I felt devalued and humiliated and no amount of effort on his part was going to change that, which he must have figured out because he gave up pretty quickly. He started saying he didn’t deserve another chance, which enraged me because I was hellbent on giving him one. It was like he was a homeless man rejecting my dollar. His refusal of my forgiveness defied all logic; it made me even more hurt and angry than his cheating.
As this all played out slowly and dreadfully, I found myself thinking more about my past infidelity. Maybe if I could figure out why I had strayed, I would be able to make sense of Jason’s behavior. Eric had treated me like a goddess. He was so devoted that it made me borderline uncomfortable. Once he spent an entire weekend creating playlists for my iPod after it had crashed and deleted all my music. He thought more of me than I thought of myself, and this, I realized, was the essential problem. His love made me feel like a fraud. I thought that eventually he would see how broken I was and leave me. So I think I cheated to hasten this epiphany and to prove, in one brutal maneuver, that I was not worthy. I literally couldn’t accept his love, couldn’t handle it. Cheating was my exit strategy: cruel and cowardly, but effective.
Maybe Jason also felt like he was drowning in undeserved affection. Or maybe monogamous relationships with women are just not something he’s capable of and he needs to come to terms with that. Whatever his reasons, facing my past helped me see that what happened between us probably had more to do with him than me. And that did lessen the anguish, somewhat.
Still, late at night, when I’m in bed with my laptop, I sometimes find myself on Craigslist, skimming through the m4m posts. I’m not sure what I’m looking for: Answers? Closure? I literally might just be looking for Jason, for a trace of him, some sign that he’s still out there, because frankly, I miss him.
Eric treated me too well, and Jason not nearly well enough—here’s hoping that in my next relationship I can find some middle ground, a person who loves me in a way I can feel good about and reciprocate.
*all names have been changed
Katie Vagnino is a writer, educator and poet currently based in Eau Claire, WI. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and has taught composition and creative writing at a number of schools/institutions including Roosevelt University, the Newberry Library and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit katievagnino.com.