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Can There Ever Be Sympathy For Cheaters? Some Reflections On Being The Other Woman

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Parveen Narowalia

If you had told me I would end the night in a toilet having sex with someone else’s boyfriend, I wouldn’t have believed you. But there I was, a few hours shy of when my alarm goes off to wake me up in the morning, with my ass propped on the cold porcelain of the sink. My arm was pink from where I burned it against the towel rack, and his stubble was scratching against my chin while I wondered if the fake eyelash that kept sticking to my eyelid had managed to hold in place. I turned away from him and looked not at the mirror in front of me where I’d be forced to acknowledge what I was doing, but down into the plug hole where there was a darkness I could pretend to dive into until it swallowed me up and tore me apart into nothing but shadows.

He wasn’t even my type. I know when friends ask me to show them his Instagram I’m going to end up doing that thing where I scroll for ages and hope they get bored and change the subject before I have to show that picture of him holding a staff of beer at a festival from 2017 because in all the recent ones he looks like he smells of B.O. But I kind of liked, or at least in that moment I liked, that he looked like no one I would ever go for, as though I were roleplaying with a man who underneath the costume was someone else. He was dressed kind of like a character from a Harmony Korine film, all baggy fits, with long hair and a trucker hat, hazel brown eyes that were spooky in their lightness. In real life he didn’t smell bad at all, like tobacco and sandalwood.

I would explain how it happened except I’m not sure I know. I used to hate it when people excused their actions by saying “it came out of nowhere” but this really felt like it did. If I tried to trace my path it would splinter out into strands so small they seem too insignificant to be considered on their own. I suppose the main thing was circumstance. We were watching two mutual friends of ours who’ve just started going out jumping up and down screaming that bit in Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” where she goes: “And I’m not cool and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park.” They’d just started dating and we were watching the way their hands clicked together like the two parts of a handbag clasp, falling back on the sofa laughing. I think we got caught on the wave of those two women’s feelings, a new love so strong it whipped us on the same tide, until our lips were moving closer, then pausing in the air, then moving together again, until they locked together and no one could say nothing happened without lying.

“Hey,” said the first message he sent the next morning. I already knew he regretted it without having to wait the 10 or so minutes it took before the three dots stopped moving and another message appeared. I knew it when we were still having sex. Yes, there was his ticklish breathing on my neck running down into my ear like a hot tap, the bulb of spit on the end of his lip. But there was also him telling me stories about his girlfriend’s little white kitten that she brings to the pub in a tote bag. How he misses how close they used to be before they started arguing over lockdown. When they would fall asleep with her latched onto him like a baby koala. Her brushing his hair to the side and telling him he reminds her of baby Pegasus in that Disney film.

I always tell my friends who get cheated on to break up with whoever did it. Zoning in on the small betrayals that always seem so much bigger than the big one. Why did he even get in the same Uber with her? He shouldn’t have given her his number. But there I was promising, “Don’t worry, I won’t” to the cheating man saying, “Hate to be this guy but can you not tell anyone?” Feeling sorry that he felt so much guilt over something I don’t believe he’ll do again.

I’m not sure I get to be jealous because I was the one who did the bad thing. It should work the other way around. But I am because at least she’s a choice. What we did came out of nowhere, what they share comes from somewhere very specific. Playing football with her nephew at family gatherings so her Aunty can relax. Buying her lip gloss from Fenty, confused as to why it costs £18. I used to be there once with someone but I’m not sure I’m ready to feel my way back to that place. I want a hot girl summer of salty kisses through club smoke. I want to be looking out of the window of an Uber I had to order because whichever guy I went home with wouldn’t let me take a jumper because he knew he wouldn’t see me again. Still, I’m jealous in the way that kids who want all the candy at the store are. We always hate the other woman, but it feels shit being the regret.