What does it mean to have a fling with someone?

  • Oh yes.

    This is long, so the TL;DR version: I got divorced over an emotional affair with a co-worker. Now you can skip the rest of the saga.

    Everyone else still here? Okay. Get some popcorn.

    My wife racked up over $15K in credit card cash advances thanks to a gambling problem stemming partly from depression. At the time I made about $45K a year, as did she. We had a mortgage on a house we’d only bought a few years ago plus her car payments and didn’t have a lot of spending money after all the bills were paid.

    $15K was pretty big debt for us, and the interest on the cash advances was about 28% annually. I didn’t scream or yell; I encouraged her to get counseling, rolled up my sleeves, moved some money around (basically transferring high interest debt to lower interest cards, got a loan to pay off others) and set off working overtime or part-time jobs to dig us out of the hole.

    I was tired a lot. I wanted us to have a chance at a future. We weren’t getting any younger, didn’t have a lot of savings. Whenever I got home and was ready to just pass out, I thought to myself: it’s worth it.

    About to a year into working what felt like ALL THE TIME I started a new part time job in a small retail office. One of the women in this small office seemed to take a shine to me. She too was married, for over 15 years, with two kids and a disabled relative that required a lot of care. We came from completely different backgrounds (I’m black, American, soft-spoken; she’s a Vietnamese immigrant and a bit of a firecracker) but had similar political leanings.

    We’d chat about politics, her kids, her Vietnamese heritage, just random stuff. I thought she’d find it nice to hear something in her home country’s language, so a few weeks after I met her I Googled a simple phrase, and one day when I left the office I waved and said “Tạm biệt”. (goodbye)

    She loved that I’d made the effort, even if my pronunciation was atrocious. Emboldened, I became a little flirty. A few days later, it was “Tạm biệt, xinh đẹp” (goodbye, beautiful)

    She insisted that I learn some more Vietnamese. It became a game. She’d write down a phrase, I’d look it up and fashion some kind of reply. Using Google to translate meant my answers would always amuse her to no end.

    I knew trouble was coming when she confided in me one day that she had a “friend” who was attracted to someone. I played dumb; I didn’t think this was safe ground to tread. Her friend, I said, should talk to their temple priest, get some guidance, otherwise avoid temptation.

    I don’t remember exactly what day exactly she handed me a note to translate; I just remember unfolding it to read “Em yêu anh”. (She loves him; in that context, I love you).

    I do remember looking at it and thinking that I have no idea what to do about this.

    What I should have done was hand it back to her and say “No. We’re both married and I can’t work here anymore.”

    I didn’t.

    We talked about it instead.

    She told me never felt like this before. Her husband, she said, was always calm, reasonable, but never made her feel like she was important, was never emotionally available.

    I told her it was infatuation she felt, not love. But I was flattered.

    I asked her if she’d talk to her husband about feeling attracted to someone at work. Bringing it into the light takes away the mystique and the opportunity for mischief. Then its just two co-workers who think the other is attractive. Happens everywhere, everyday, without incident.

    She said she wouldn’t want to risk him demanding she stop working.

    I encouraged her to do so anyway, but never took my own advice. Telling my wife would be like lobbing a rock into a hornets’ nest. I knew she’d want me to quit, and I resented the thought. We needed the money because of her gambling, I rationalized it to myself. I liked the job, and it was close to home.

    I can handle this, I decided. Inaccurately.

    We agreed that two people who are attracted to each other can still work together without crossing a line. I’d tell her when I needed to establish distance; she was very pretty, and sometimes I’d be, ahem, overwhelmed. She’d she’d back off for a while, but within days we’d be chuckling together again at the reception desk.

    She brought in her vacation photos; I complimented her on her smile and encouraged her to learn how to swim (she couldn’t).

    She showed me her high school yearbook; I brought in some old photos of me growing up.

    She talked about her favorite artists, and I started playing her songs on the office radio.

    One day she had to leave the office early to care for her disabled relative, who needed to be hospitalized. She was very upset. When she came back I told her I was sorry about what she was going through, and I gave her a hug.

    She turned her face up and kissed me.

    I kissed her back.

    It turned into a long, passionate kiss.

    I picked her up like they do in the movies and spun her around.

    I felt… Desired. Wanted. Strong, like Superman and Prince Fucking Charming wrapped up in one.

    Goddamn romance movies.

    We started a full blown emotional affair that day. She started spending even more time at the front, except for when I’d be at her desk at her cubicle. We’d time our visits to the office fax machine so we could brush lips briefly, and once had a full-on make-out session in her cubicle when by some miracle we were the only ones in the office. We’d giggle together like a couple of teenagers when someone would almost catch us smooching.

    The Vietnamese “lessons” continued. There were days when I spent more time composing a romantic and poorly-phrased love note than I actually spent working.

    We even contemplated a hook-up, then discarded the idea. It was dangerous; it was a line that we couldn’t cross and ever come back from.

    We chose not to have sex. It was the only smart move either of us did.

    Fast forward a few weeks. My wife approached me with a confession, another gambling relapse; while I was working a second job to pay off the credit cards, she’d racked up close to $10,000 more in credit card debt. She asked me to take control of all of our finances.

    I said I’d think about it. I’d asked her to go to counseling on several occasions, and she never did; taking over her finances meant squat if she could just apply for more credit cards. I could see myself doing nothing else but working for the rest of my life to pay off credit card debt, year after year. Going to work at my part-time job was now the only thing that made me feel good.

    I seriously contemplated whether or not it was time to walk away, get a divorce. I loved my wife, but she needed to stop gambling and wouldn’t get counseling.

    Two days later I got home from that part-time job and lay down for a nap. When I woke up I went to talk to my wife, and found a note on the dining room table. It was in Vietnamese, but under each line was my laborious translation of every sappy, breathless word my co-worker had penned.

    I’d forgotten to get rid of one of her love letters. My wife found it in my pants pocket. How stupidly, ridiculously cliched.

    I always thought saying an event made you feel “like you’d been punched in the stomach” was just a teeny bit melodramatic. I can say now, when I doubled over, dizzy and nauseous, that exactly what it fucking feels like.

    I’m guessing that’s probably how my wife felt when she found it.

    I confessed.

    She told me she wanted a divorce.

    Tired from working multiple jobs for over a year, filling in one financial hole after another only to find she’d dug more, and tired of being told (not for the first time) that we should split up, I agreed.

    We filed the paperwork within a week, and less than a month later received the judge’s decree in the mail.

    We were done.

    Oh, there was other fallout. My wife showed up at my part-time job to confront my co-worker; apparently that was fun. She did all the stuff one might expect, in the weeks before the divorce came through; threatened to destroy my co-worker’s family, wanted to expose her to her kids, obliquely hinted that with money she’d go away, stalked my co-worker’s house until she met with her husband. My co-worker forwarded some of my wife’s e-mails to me. They were disturbing.

    My co-worker is still with her husband. She worried that if she left him that there would be no family to come home to, that there would be dark and unforgivable consequences, and she has her disabled relative to care for. They are, last I had heard, trying to work things out. I wish them well.

    I moved out.

    My wife stayed in the house. I hope she can keep it. She still goes gambling, from what I hear, although how much I can’t say for sure. Maybe she’s got it under control.

    I miss my wife. She was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, even though she was the worst thing to happen to me too.

    I’m still infatuated with a married woman, and sometimes fantasize about her leaving her husband and finding me. I have moments when I curse myself for passing up the chance to be with her, if only for one time.

    Yes, I’m fucked up.

    I’m renting a basement bedroom from a family in a nearby town, slowly paying off half of a debt I never accumulated. I struggle with depression, anxiety and occasionally wonder how to best kill myself. I’ve done some research; my life insurance policy probably would still pay even with suicide, and my ex-wife would be able to pay off her house.

    Some days it feels like the most productive use of my life would be ending it.

    The trouble with flings that end horribly is that there’s no clearly defined ending; they just keep on ending, hour after hour, day after day. Horribly.

    For all involved.

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