The Guilty Ones

“I go to her house after work every Tuesday and Thursday, then I come home.”

He is unemotional as he conveys to me the news of his affair, his body relaxed as he stands in front of me, his wife, and I try not to scream in agony as the pain of his betrayal tears my heart to shreds.

“For how long?” I force myself to speak.

“Since February,” he replies, nonchalant, emotionally dead.

Since February. Every Tuesday and Thursday after work since February. I try to piece this together but it just doesn’t make sense. He was sick. He was really sick. I took care of him. How could he? How could he? I remember all the tears I cried in fear that cancer would end my marriage before its time when all this time I should have been worried about the woman across the street? My mind races as I try to put this together and make sense of the nonsense. He was supposed to love me; I cared for him, I sat by his bedside, worried over his body, worried over his fate. What was he thinking?

I can’t look at him but I scream. “I’m taking the kids, how dare you! I loved you!”

I am frantic as I search for the boys and randomly grab items I think I’ll need when I go—where? It doesn’t matter, I just need out. I just need the bleeding to stop.

My face is wet with tears as I sit up in bed, heart racing, gasping for breath. The dream has ended but the effects linger. I stumble out of bed and find life to be normal: boys up early, chattering and demanding their breakfast. I tend to them, starting the morning routine of pancakes and milk and refills and cleaning up spills, messy hands, messy faces. I see my husband before he leaves for work and I can barely look at him, anger rising up in chest.

He leans in to kiss me and I allow it, but then whisper to him with my back to the kids, “You cheated on my in a dream last night.”

He smiles and says with a shrug, “Sorry!” but as he turns to head for the door, the feeling of betrayal still fresh in my soul, I grab him and whisper a forceful warning: “Don’t ever cheat on me.” He looks at me with pity and a touch of confusion and says, “I won’t. Love you!” then waves goodbyes to the boys and he’s out the door. As I watch him go I wonder to myself who the woman was.

“I’ve had those dreams, too,” he replies after another sip of cold beer. “But I never know why.”

An old friend is in our dining room, drinking a beer and settling into the chair at the end of the table as my husband takes his turn to quiet the baby upstairs who has decided he doesn’t want to sleep tonight. Fighter pilot by trade, this friend is no stranger to life with cancer. Although it’s been more than a decade, the pain remains, just under the surface. I see it every now and then when he connects with me over this selfish, indiscriminate disease that stole his brother, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of his nephew, sister in law, family where a father, husband, brother, son used to be.

Easter weekend, after my harried text message to our Air Force friends with the news of my husband’s serious turn for the worse after becoming septic, this friend texted back four simple words that made me weep upon reading: “I’ll be there tomorrow”; his insight into our life leaving no room for formalities or indecision. He sat beside my husband in the small, foul-smelling hospital room and waited patiently while my husband shuffled back and forth to the bathroom, filling in the spaces with his story-telling, reducing my husband to tears from side-splitting laughter. The best remedy. And he sits with me now, lending an ear as we wait for the baby to release my husband to us.

I take a sip of my Corona and taste the lime on my lips, then inhale. “What do you think it means?” wondering aloud what my subconscious is telling me.

He shrugs and takes a swig, contemplating for a moment. But before he can answer we are joined by my husband and the conversation moves away from dreams and back to reality. We talk and drink and suddenly the room is dark; the sun has set without fanfare and we were too involved in stories to notice. In the low light of the dining room I hear my husband laugh the way he did in the hospital, the way he’s done for years with his friend by his side. And I smile as I take another sip, letting the buzz go to my head and feeling grateful for friendships that transcend distance and time and cancer.

I do a quick google search on my phone while still sitting in the dim light at the table during a conversation that I don’t follow—too many Air Force acronyms and phrases I don’t understand—and read about the meaning behind dreams of spousal infidelity. I survey a few websites and the answer is the same: the dreamer’s guilt is projected onto the spouse in the dream. I laugh at the absurd assumption—what could I be guilty of? I tuck away my phone and let the sound of my husband’s laughter fill my soul as the darkness settles in for the night.

Morning light filters through the downstairs windows as the rest of the world quietly sleeps. Early-bird dog-walkers and runners take advantage of the sliver of sun to beat the swampy DC summer heat. But our day started an hour ago, our alarm clock squawking babes, with toys and books strewn about the floor as evidence to our early morning wake up call. I watch over my coffee mug as my toddler chases sunbeams while he spins around the living room and my baby sits with legs splayed and a book cradled under his big belly, pointing to the pictures as he reads to himself. Suddenly, a “code 531” interrupts the spinning and quiet reading and, donning fire fighter hats, my husband and the boys must rescue a kitten from a tree. The boys are all giggles and swirls of jammies and joy and messy golden hair peeking out from under red plastic as they complete their mission between sunbeams and pancake debris. Their three faces flush with laughter and they bask in the glory of their successful rescue and I know there’s nowhere else my boys would rather be than in the warm, safe embrace of their playful, selfless, loving daddy. And now it all makes sense.

It should be me.

And I feel guilty that it’s not.

Perhaps that’s why our friend and I share this dream, maybe we are both guilty that the better parts of us suffer. That we can do nothing more than watch—hoping, praying, scheming that the cancer doesn’t win, that good prevails. His brother should have lived, should have seen his son grow. My husband must live; he must see his sons grow. Teach them his generosity of spirit, his love of life; instill in them his enthusiasm for leaving things better than he found it. Yet I am powerless to ensure it. All I can do is hope, will it to happen; bargain, beg, steal, cheat. Sell my soul. Anything. Everything.

“Babe, do you want some more tea?” my husband asks, balancing the baby in his arms, the red plastic hat still on his head as he carefully steps over our toddler on his way to the kitchen. My heart aches, but I smile.

It should be me.

Maybe we are guilty after all.

Originally published August 8, 2013