by Alanna Duffield
In the archives of mythology, women can be either goddesses or monsters, never both.
We either bite from the apple with both hands, or we dangle our shaved legs from the pedestal on which we are placed. We can transform, of course, from one to the other, but we must always slot neatly into either-or. Good, evil. Heroine, villain.
I think about this as I type and re-type a message on my laptop, the keys tick-tacking under my plastic-clad nails. “I’m wearing candy pink panties, which I’m sliding off my thighs.” To my right, my husband rolls over in his sleep.
I’m not, obviously, wearing aforementioned lingerie. I think they know that too, deep down. It’s just a story we tell ourselves. A story we tell each other. I give an almighty, unsavoury yawn as I wait for a reply. Men believe what they want to. They believe it when you tell them you prefer them bald, or that they’re the best you’ve ever had. They believe it when you tell them it’s the gynaecologist on the phone and that you’ll have to take it outside.
The first time I messaged another man was a year after we were married, almost to the date. I must have been counting in the unconscious part of my mind, drawing large red crosses over calendar squares. You see, what we fail to talk about is that often marriage feels like the end of the road for women. It is the glittering, sweaty climax of our lives, and then—what? Children, yes. But you’ll find that children will also serve as a constant reminder that you will never again make a selfish decision without feeling judged. You will never again fuck in the kitchen.
For Sam, I believe marriage felt like undoing his belt after sucking in his whole life. He shelved his charisma almost immediately and settled in for fifty years of small talk and overzealous sneezes. It felt like a betrayal, but it wouldn’t hold up in cultural court. So your husband sneezes loudly. Does he shout in your face? Does he come at you wielding a bread knife? Then get over it. Get a gua sha.
I need to pee, so I check on the kids on my way. They’re still little enough to need a night light which makes their faces a curious teal blue colour, as though underwater. When I get back into bed and check the screen, there is a reply. “Mmm, I’m taking your panties off and sniffing them.” I close the lid, no longer interested.
Perhaps it’s useful for you to know that I have never physically cheated on my husband. But over the last three years, I have accumulated thousands of explicit messages, photos, videos and voice notes from both men and women. When I found out I was pregnant for a second time, I spent a whole weekend dressing up in garter belts and crotchless knickers, storing up content for the coming nine months like a farmer before a bad winter. It wasn’t even wholly necessary. It turns out a lot of people like a pregnant woman.
Do you think I’m a villain? Would you want me as your wife?
The moment I began to feel enriched by this behaviour, I set ground rules for myself.
The most crucial is that I will never meet any of these people in real life. It’s not reality that I want anyway. I like the way it feels like writing a two-way screenplay—moulding my character differently for each performance, creating alternate women that say and do things I admire or despise. I don’t feel a need to break the fourth wall.
Other rules include never revealing my real name and face or talking to anyone I know personally. As it stands, I’m only failing on the latter.
It loosely began when I made a fake Facebook profile. I realised there was no challenge or reward in getting people to speak sexually through illicit websites and chatrooms. I wanted to see if I could lure people away from their everyday, meat and vegetable, argan oil and french press lives. That’s how I began talking to Sandy.
I know him. I’ve even spoken to him on occasion. He is the father of an older child at the same school as my children. He is athletic and handsome and wealthy—a triple threat. The sort of man that entices you to breathe in as he walks past so that you might have your suspicions
about him smelling fucking amazing proven correct. He has a wife that is attractive. Children that are proactively into sports. A cookie-cutter life, buttery but unadventurous.
Finding pores in such a life feels good—like squeezing a spot.
I used photos of my old yoga instructor from when I lived in London. She looks a little like me, so it felt accurate—pushing against the brink of what’s real, like a thumbnail on a rubber balloon.
What you must understand is that building a realistic person takes a lot more effort than you think. It also takes a good deal of intelligence, though people will vehemently disagree. Granted, men are easier to fool. Women can sniff out falsehoods like bloodhounds. Too few Facebook friends, no tagged photos, no likes on anything, and they can smell the sourness of deceit. Men, on the other hand, are sceptical of anyone too forward, they assume you’re a bot or – god forbid – a man. But they aren’t so focused on the details, as long as there are plenty of photos of you smiling and stretching in tight shorts.
With Sandy, I messaged him about a new yoga class I was hoping to set up in the local area. I told him I was reaching out to as many people as I could to see if there would be enough enthusiasm. He expressed an interest, saying that he had a few friends who might also be up for it. He wasn’t unfriendly, but there were no frills, no question marks.
It took all of my cunning to coax him away from the sole topic of yoga. It was a delicate balancing act of slow, measured responses and witty, platonic chatter. I found out about his life and he eventually began to ask about mine. I said I was happy to have moved here but that I sometimes found myself feeling invisible, as though I were an extra in someone else’s life. “Person drinking coffee no.2” I said, to which he responded “LOL” in all caps. We bonded over the fact that it was difficult to make friends once you reached 40 and agreed it was nice to chat, even if only about stupid shit.
From there, it was like slipping into warm bathwater. Our conversations began to bleed into the dark hours and I felt him pushing the boundaries of what he knew to be acceptable. It was too easy to tell him I was stretching before bed and for him to tell me that he wished he were there too. “To stretch, of course.” “Of course.”
My new fascination became, not turning him on physically, but tangling our roots together emotionally. It aroused me more than anything else, I was surprised to find. The other men I had been talking to began to take a backseat in favour of these charged, introspective conversations that would merge from sexual to emotional like glittering nighttime traffic. It was heavenly.
I was happy. I was baking gluten-free brownies for Sam and the children. I was bleaching the sink. I was reading books by Dolly Alderton and Elizabeth Day. I felt I had finally found motion after sinking into the sand of marriage with my arms flailing. Fiction and imagination had brought me the same wonder and delight that they offered me as a child. The only problem was that Sandy’s way of falling in love was different to mine. Sandy wanted to break the fourth wall with passionate, clawing hands. Sandy wanted something real.
I wake with my alarm that goes off at 6:15. Sam sleeps through it, his face squashed against his hairy hand. I reach for my phone and see seven notifications. Three are from random men, four are from Sandy.
23:35: Is everything OK? Feel like you’ve been a bit distant lately
23:35: Was it about meeting up?
23:45: Never not thinking of you
23:45: Can’t wait to kiss your beautiful mouth
I get up and shower. I apply five different creams to my face. I stretch my body. I go downstairs and pulverise myself a swamp-coloured vegetable drink. I do not reply to any of the messages.
By lunchtime, there are more.
13:07: Call me when you get this
13:08: Need to talk to you
Perhaps here is where I pass over. Here is where you will no longer feel aligned with my choices. Here is what I message back:
13:32: Hi. Yes, I don’t think meeting up is a good idea. I think this is spiralling into something I didn’t ask for.
I then receive three calls, all of which I do not answer. I put my phone back into my bag but I can feel it vibrating under my armpit like a bee trapped under a glass. I do not look at the device all through my spin class, or after the long shower I take at the gym. I walk slowly to meet Saskia, my youngest, from school when suddenly, here is there.
Right in front of me at the school gates, Sandy is pacing in a circle. He is talking furiously on the phone and I realise, in a strange collision of realities, that he is leaving me a message. He looks unkempt and tired. His shirt has three drips of coffee down the breast. I listen to him hissing down the phone at me as I stand, a stranger, mere metres away.
The reality of Sandy does nothing for me. He has become another meat-packed body with too-hot breath and too-indelicate hands. He has become tired and coffee-stained. He has become my husband, cracking his neck while pissing, leaving his steaming amber foam in the bowl.
Later that night, out of curiosity, I will listen to the many voicemails he has left me. He will tell me he wants to leave his wife and children. He will tell me he is in love with me. He will tell me that there is no one else in this world who understands him the way I have come to.
I will click the side button of my phone, no longer interested.