Akhil Sharma writes that secrecy was a big appeal of sleeping with married women
Sharma said the relationships made him feel both "special" and "unimportant"
It has been nearly 20 years since Sharma dated a married woman
I am not sure what caused me to start sleeping with married women, especially ones who were much older than I was. The easy explanation is that I was abandoned by my mother, and so I wanted to have a relationship with someone who would comfort me the way a mother can a child. The truth, as with everything involving love and sex and loss, is more confusing to me.
The single most important event in my life is my brother’s accident. When I was 10 and my brother 14, he dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on the pool’s bottom, and remained underwater for three minutes. When he was pulled out, he could no longer walk or talk. He could no longer roll over in his sleep. His corneas had been destroyed because of oxygen deprivation. As he lay in his hospital bed, his eyes would move around like a blind person’s.
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Anup was in hospitals for two years before my parents brought him home and we started taking care of him ourselves. The stress of caring for someone so incapacitated is astonishing: bathing Anup in the morning, feeding him, cleaning him up, exercising him so that his tendons didn’t shrink and his body didn’t fold in on itself. To a 12-year-old, the experience was terrifying.
Even though I was with my parents every day, I don’t think I fully understood their suffering. They were constantly angry. The walls of our house vibrated with rage. When they attacked each other and me, it was almost as if the intention was to destroy. Once, my mother said to me, “People wouldn’t spit on you, if it weren’t for me,” meaning that nobody would waste his spit. (My mother denies saying this, which I explain by the simple fact that the person who has been hurt remembers who injured him, while the person causing the harm has reason to forget what she has done.) Because I sometimes get angry at my parents and yet at other times feel only tenderness (when I wrote an autobiographical novel, the only title that I could find that contained all the contradictions was “Family Life”), to me, my childhood is only a variation of what others experience.
Before the accident, I was a typical little boy. I was in love with my mother. I thought she was as beautiful as a movie star. Sometimes I would feel shy around her, the way I later felt around women on whom I had crushes. To be shouted at by her, to be treated as loathsome, made me feel unloved and unlovable.
After we brought Anup home, our house began to attract all sorts of strange people. Among Indians, the act of sacrificing for others is often viewed as holy, sacred. Scores of women visited our house and asked for my parents’ blessing. They would kneel before them, and my parents would put their hands on the visitors’ heads. Often, my mother, desperate to find a fix for my brother, invited miracle workers to visit Anup. Some of them made grand claims: One said God had visited him in a dream and told him how to awaken Anup. “If a cure is free and causes no harm,” my mother would say, “then why not try?”
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In that chaotic time, one of the people we got to know this way was a woman named Hema. Hema paid me a great deal of attention, including buying me comic books. Her kindnesses felt like a mistake – like she must be misunderstanding the situation if she were offering sympathy to me rather than to my brother – but also like a miracle.
I began seeking her out. When she came to our house, I’d rush around making her tea or bringing plates of biscuits; another guest once teased that I was her shadow. After speaking with Hema, I’d feel relieved, as if I had left a crowded, noisy room and was now in the open air.
One day when I was 15, Hema and I were sitting at a table, and she told me that whenever she took a shower, she would imagine how my lips might feel against hers. Hema was in her early 40s, and I can honestly say that until then I had not thought of her in a sexual way.
We started meeting at the public library. I would bike there, and she would pick me up in her car. I’d lie on the floor and she’d drive me into her garage. Then, we would go upstairs to her bedroom and have sex, she lying on a towel on top of her bedsheets. Other times we drove to a corner of our local mall’s parking lot and had sex there. After we had sex for the first time, I was so happy that for days I couldn’t stop running around the house. I would start at a walk and then find myself speeding up and trotting from room to room.
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The combination of sex and secrecy was incredibly potent. Standing before the library doors in winter, the wind whipping me, I would have an erection and a dry mouth. The secrets made me feel like I lived in a separate world from everybody else. Also, it was exciting that I could hurt Hema. I could ruin her marriage. I could cause her to lose her job. Power made me feel masculine.
I was glad to have this power over Hema, and yet I also loved her. If I did not see her for a day or two, I became heartsick. When she went away on vacation for two weeks, I began to droop so obviously that a relative of mine asked, “Majnu, have you lost your Laila?” Majnu and Laila are the Romeo and Juliet of India.
To help me overcome my longing for her, Hema suggested that I look at the moon at eight o’clock each evening and think of her, and she’d do the same. She had us say, “I marry you. I marry you. I marry you,” because she’d heard that Muslims may be married by saying this.
As we did these things, I felt guilty and dishonest. I did not think that we would have a future together; I could not imagine being willing to hurt my parents by marrying someone so much older than I was. (Now I am 42, and part of me still feels like I betrayed Hema by not marrying her. I know this is crazy. And I know that many children who have sex with adults think that they are equal partners in what occurs.)
The secrets also often made me feel invisible. Sometimes Hema and her husband visited our house. When this occurred, I felt ghostly, like someone whose reality could be denied. This not mattering, not being seen, was exactly what it was like to always have to put my brother first: to wake at a certain time every morning to bathe Anup, to be unable to leave the house if a nurse wasn’t on duty to exercise him or transfer him to his wheelchair, to be eating a meal only to have my mother call out to me to help my brother, because Anup could not wait. Not only did Hema reaffirm my invisibility, but, because she had a husband, my relationship with her also reaffirmed that I could not have what I wanted.
All of what was bad also contained wonderful, fizzy excitement. To be invisible meant not to have to be responsible or deal with the ordinary details of dating someone. While the anger and pain of feeling second to Hema’s husband mapped exactly my relationship with Anup, anger has its pleasures. The knowledge that I was f–king this man’s wife allowed me to take the vengeance that I could not take on my poor brother.
For me, the appeal of sleeping with married women has always been about being miserable in a particular way. I can feel special and I can also feel unimportant. I can feel wounded and simultaneously that I am taking revenge. I guess many adults try to recreate their childhood families, and so, though the specifics of my life are unusual, the effort to recreate home is not.
I was a bright teenager. I read widely and deeply and loved books with such a sincere passion that when I talked about them, I seemed charismatic. I was accepted into Princeton when I was in the 11th grade, and within a few months of entering college, I started sleeping with Nancy, a professor in her mid-40s. (Now I feel embarrassed at the pride I used to take at having older women as lovers. Looking back, I realize that these women were damaged in some basic way. Both Hema and Nancy, for example, told me they’d been sexually molested as children.)
Unlike Hema, Nancy was not concerned about keeping our sleeping together a secret. Her husband worked at the time in another state, and he had begun to have sex with men while away from his family. Nancy and I used to talk every night on the phone at about 11. One night, when I called, the phone was off the hook. Nancy was convinced that her son, who was in elementary school, had done this deliberately. She asked me what she should do. Seventeen, and playing at being adult, I said she should talk to her son about it.
Among the strange aspects of being with Nancy was that she expected me to act like a grown man. When we went out, I paid for dinner. At night, we sometimes watched “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” When Nancy moved to be with her husband, I was glad she was gone.
When I dated single women, I tried to replicate some of the sense of having secrets, of not being truly committed, that sleeping with married women had allowed. When I was 19, I began seeing Susan, a woman in her early 30s; because we worked for the same company, we had to conceal our affair. Susan also wanted to continue seeing other men. I felt as jealous over this, as ashamed, as if she were married.
Sometimes I dated women who were my age, and I would urge them not to tell anyone about us. We would arrive separately at parties and mostly not talk where we could be seen.
To have secrets is to feel like one has done the unacceptable. I sometimes think that, for me, the unacceptable thing that I did was to live normally while my brother lay brain damaged in a hospital bed.
I had nightmares of shame every night, and I would sweat. I slept wearing a T-shirt and lying on a towel. In the middle of the night, I would wake up, take off my shirt, rub myself dry, and try to go back to sleep. Sometimes I sweated so much that my fingertips became as wrinkled as if I had taken a bath.
The last married woman I went out with was the wife of a friend. Brenda was beautiful, funny, smart. She was living abroad when we started our affair, and it did not last long. One afternoon, we were sitting in a car in her driveway, talking intensely, and something in our manner made her husband suspicious. He came out of the house and called out, “What are you doing with my wife?” A few days later, Brenda’s husband confronted her with his suspicions. She admitted to what had happened. This led to the end of two friendships that, despite my dishonesty, had meant a great deal to me.
It is nearly 20 years since I last dated a married woman. Mostly we grow at the rate of pain we’ve accrued, and for me, as the losses began piling up, one bad relationship after another, I started to realize that this could be my life forever. In fact, it seemed likely that this was going to be my life if I did not make a change.
I was on my third date with the woman who would become my wife when she told me that she had an airplane ticket to see a boyfriend in Montreal. At first I was excited. I could sense the old familiar dramas, all the unhappiness and shame. At the same time I felt exhausted. I did not want to do this again. I could not do this again. “You can’t go,” I said. “You have to make a choice.”