It was a rare balmy evening in San Francisco. Raindrops splattered the long windows of the second-floor bar overlooking the Castro, blurring its neon signs and the headlights below. As the city’s offices emptied for the weekend, the bar filled, the DJ upped the volume, and the waiter delivered the first round of sweating margaritas. I was the only woman, and the only straight person, in the room. Chris, a friend I affectionately called my gay husband, was chatting with his buddies as I reached into my pocket, grabbed my phone, and hit Paul’s name.
I did it without forethought. The few sips of margarita probably helped me along, but in truth, that night was the perfect storm. It was early, my husband knew I was out with my gay friend, and I wasn’t due home for hours. That Friday night in July 2007, some part of me — hidden yet willful enough to pick up the phone — felt it had license to do what ever it wanted. While I went about my business, it was tracking, with silent precision, the changes in my marriage down to the day.
What are you up to? I texted.
Just on my couch watching TV.
Can I come over?
Nothing for five minutes. In that span, I vacillated between anticipating the thrill of a yes and the relief of a no.
Yes. 2140 Jackson.
The indigo characters “2140 Jackson” threw off a crystalline charge that snaked up my arm and lit my chest from inside, as if I’d been sent the combination to a bank vault, or plucked the enemy’s secret code off the wires.
Needing encouragement, I pulled Chris aside and showed him the text. He was aware of my recent crush on Paul. He also knew and liked my husband, Scott, but in his world — the microcosm of gay male life in San Francisco — couples who’d been together 17 years, like Scott and I had, didn’t necessarily read disaster into casual flings. Many of Chris’s friends indulged their attraction to others without seeming to damage their primary relationship.
He looked from the phone to me. “Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not sure at all,” I said, my eyes darting toward the door.
“Listen,” he said, holding my elbow like a football coach instructing a rookie on the sidelines. “Go slow. You can stop anytime you want.”
“All right. I need to go.”
“Text me later to let me know you’re okay.”
The sidewalk was a sea of umbrellas. I made my way to the curb and shot my hand up, prepared to wait 20 minutes for one of San Francisco’s limited number of cabs. A driver immediately flashed his headlights and pulled over.
I opened the fogged window and looked up at the starless, heavy sky. The pavement shone with moisture as we ascended Divisadero Street, the long hill that separates the eastern and western halves of the city. As the rooftops swished by, I mentally retraced my steps, taking one last chance to reconsider before I ruined my life.
I’d known Paul, five years my junior, for a few years. He’d always flirted, which had seemed harmless enough until about six months ago. I’d invited him and several others to a party hosted by the magazine where I worked, one of those five-star hotel soirees where the free booze makes everyone giddy. I’d been chatting away when Paul interrupted, lightly placing his fingertips on my forearm. “I think you might be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he’d said, eyeing me without apology. Because he’d met Scott, and because I knew him to be something of a good-natured ladies’ man, I tried not to take his compliment to heart. I was used to being called cute, sometimes pretty. No man had ever called me beautiful. I quickened to it despite myself.
And then, two months ago, as I was packing to leave Mexico after a vacation, Paul sprang to mind unexpectedly. I remembered the precise moment. I was folding my bikini into my suitcase and noting with sadness how rapidly my bikini-wearing days were coming to a close. Even so, I told myself, Paul would kill to see me in this.
Finally, there was another cab ride, just three weeks ago. Paul and I had shared a taxi after impromptu drinks with friends.
Once we were ensconced in the cab alone, all I needed to do was sit back and wait. I gave in to the hush that fell over the backseat.
I gazed out the window, feeling him watch me. The second I turned to look at him, he lunged, pinning me to the vinyl. His lips on mine. His big hand around the back of my neck. What thrilled me as much as the kiss was how he didn’t ask, how his eyes narrowed, animal-like, honing in on my mouth. It lasted only a few seconds. When the taxi stopped in front of my house I quickly pulled away and ran inside, mentally repeating, It was just a kiss.
As Divisadero’s rambling storefronts approached and then receded amid the wet sounds of the night, I glanced at the driver’s heavy brow in the rearview mirror. I should ask him to pull over.
This was a midlife crisis, a cliche. I’d get out, walk through Pacific Heights, and clear my head. I should tell him to turn back toward the Castro and my cozy flat, where my husband waited with a book and a glass of wine.
Perhaps at this early juncture you’re already picturing him, imagining some rationale for my behavior: that he was a jerk, that our marriage was sexless. Inconveniently for me, neither was true. Scott had his limits but he loved me, and I loved him.
On the other hand, you might also be thinking this particular cab ride was a simple matter of my being a slut. In fact, with the exception of one very traditional friend, I was the least experienced 43-year-old woman I knew, a first-born, overresponsible good girl who’d practiced monogamy my entire life.
By “good girl,” I don’t mean prudish. I’d slept with a few guys — four, to be exact, including Scott — and I enjoyed sex. Neither do I mean especially kind or generous. What I mean is that I was terrified of misbehaving, of causing harm to anyone. My bad deeds didn’t come easily and my good deeds were fueled by an overwhelming need for approval. I internalized instead of acting out. Until now.
As the driver turned off Divisadero and headed down Jackson, my phone buzzed with a text message.
Should I open a bottle of wine?
Without hesitating I typed Definitely. My stomach churned with anticipation. I was sailing on a strange new momentum, and the simple fact of its energy, the revelation that some kind of internal velocity was still possible, brought such a surprised joy that I easily let it carry me.
The residential streets at the edge of Pacific Heights were dark and quiet in the rain. I paid the cabbie and stood on Paul’s front porch. In the distance, a foghorn bellowed its repetitive warning out in the cold black bay. I raised my hand to the doorbell and paused. I knew that the events of my marriage didn’t grant permission for this. And yet a renegade voice cheered me on, assuring me I was past the point of needing permission, that indeed it was time to bend a few rules and see where that got us.
Lubricated by half a margarita and a cascade of adrenaline, my brain’s shadowy and bright chambers held both sides of the argument in balance.
But my body had lost all interest in Aristotelian logic. It had somehow broken from its usual confines to act on its own for the first time in — how long? I couldn’t even remember. Perhaps for the first time ever.
I watched as my finger pushed the doorbell.
Thus began my journey away from the straight and narrow.
This chronicle of that journey can be read as either a manifesto of freedom or a cautionary tale. For me, it’s a little of both. I’ll try to tell it as straight as I can and let you decide for yourself.
Excerpted from The Wild Oats Project by Robin Rinaldi, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. ©Robin Rinaldi. All rights reserved.