Abby Ellin had spent months recovering from her engagement to a conman when another guy swept her off her feet. He was sexy, kind and knew all about her past heartbreak — it was the perfect love story. But he was hiding something that would change everything.
Here’s the thing about trust. You will be vigilant and you will be strong and you will steer clear of bad actors. One day you will go to an art opening for a friend and you will meet someone who will, quite literally, charm the pants off you, and all your caution and hesitation and reticence will fly out the window. Then you will be in really big trouble.
In March 2015, my friend Ethan had an art show downtown. The evening was cold and grey, and I would have preferred to stay home. But it was a big deal for Ethan so I forced myself to go.
And wouldn’t you know, I met a very funny abstract painter, slightly rumpled with a full head of silver hair who was separated from his wife of 25 years, which he shared in an email the following day.
On our first date at a Greenwich Village cafe, I must have asked 82 different ways the specifics of his situation. Did he and his wife have an open marriage? Did they take an annual marital rumspringa, where they used electricity and drove real cars before returning to the dry Amish homestead?
All I wanted was information so I could make an educated decision about my life — what Immanuel Kant, who was against lying in all circumstances, called a “moral” decision. Kant believed that every choice we make should be made freely, of our own volition, and not through coercion or deception.
I was pretty certain the painter was legit. We had friends in common and I knew lots of people who were friendly with his soon-to-be ex, so I didn’t think he would lie to me. It wouldn’t be prudent.
Plus, he was the father of a daughter. A daughter! Men with daughters don’t jerk women around, do they? Do not do unto others what you wouldn’t have them do unto your offspring.
And I wasn’t some random hook-up. I was different. Special. But I’d learned my lesson, damn it! I needed to know what I was dealing with. I don’t date married men. My ego is too big and too small.
The next time I saw him I asked him point blank: “Are you legally separated?”
Well, no, he admitted. Not yet. “I guess that’s the next step.”
“Does your wife know you’re separated?”
“My wife doesn’t give a sh*t what I do,” he said. He actually may have chortled.
It wasn’t that he was so unhappy, he explained. But he could be happier. He wanted to laugh more, poor guy.
“I’d like to be Amal Clooney,” I said.
He swore that he and his wife led parallel lives and, more importantly, slept in separate quarters. “We haven’t had sex in six years!” he said triumphantly, Atticus Finch resting his case.
He’d wanted to leave for a long time, but he couldn’t for the sake of his kid. “How old is she?” I asked, sipping my wine.
“Twenty-four,” he said. “She lives with her boyfriend in Vancouver.”
I choked so hard Merlot practically shot out of my nose. Twenty-four? It sounded insane, especially to the wiser, smarter, learn-from-her-mistakes gal that I now was. Except, well, I’d heard about grown-up kids devastated by their parents’ later life divorce. He was trying to extricate himself from a long marriage. These things take time.
I didn’t want to let my past experience ruin a potentially great thing. Isn’t that what we say after a terrorist attack? We won’t let hate win.
Rather than retreat, I went Reagan. I would trust but verify. Not only would I listen to what he said, I’d watch what he did. Most importantly, I’d listen to how I felt.
There were lots of signs supporting his claim of separation. In an early email, he made mention of “Big Fish,” the Larry David play on Broadway that cost $400 for two tickets and was a “massive disappointment”. “My date almost got thrown out of the theatre for audibly groaning at the jokes,” he wrote.
Eureka! said Nancy Drew. A ‘date!’ He said ‘date!’ A ‘date’ is not a wife. A good sign.
He always referred to his life in first person singular. As in, “I’m going to dinner” or “I’m heading upstate”. Most people in long-term relationships default to third person plural. Again, a good sign.
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He was often free at night, even Fridays and Saturdays. He invited me to join him and a few friends for a long weekend in London.
And what I believed to be irrefutable evidence that he was playing it straight: He knew about my past. What kind of jerk would mess with me after hearing that?
These all amounted to a shimmering green light, and I felt secure enough to move forward. He was as charming as my ex but funnier, sexier, and successful in a real New York way.
When we were together I felt funny and sexy and creative and sharp. We had a visceral, animal chemistry. I delighted in delighting him. He was exactly, and unexpectedly, what I wanted.
He said he was in love with me, too, and it certainly felt like it. I was one of “four people” he ever felt emotionally close to. In order of appearance: His first wife, his second wife (whom he took up with while still married to the first), another woman who was “batsh*t crazy” but they shared a “connection in suffering”, and me.
So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email the night he was scheduled to return home from Berlin, where he was on a “working vacation”. The email, clearly errant, mentioned a nerve-racking experience at the airport when a Teutonic security guard yanked him out of line, frisked him, and practically slapped a yellow star on his left bicep. “My wife called out, ‘What are you doing to my husband?’” he wrote.
I’d been in Prague at the same time and hoped to meet up with him on the Danube somewhere. He squashed that idea — he was sharing a suite with his colleague, there was no time for fun.
Now I understood the real reason. “I don’t think you meant to send this to me,” I shot back. “I didn’t know you were travelling with your wife.”
His reply practically flew into my inbox. “She was with her sister in Amsterdam visiting my nephew, and they decided to stop over in Germany at the last minute. We had breakfast and went to the airport. But we didn’t sit together!” he said proudly, as if he had discovered the cure for cancer. “The plane was empty, and we didn’t sit together!”
I knew he was lying.
I hoped he wasn’t.
But I knew he was.