Earlier this year, as I sat on the hard, wooden bleacher bench and watched my daughter’s volleyball team be destroyed by their opponent, a man sat down next to me. He smiled and said hello. I smiled politely and felt a nervous flutter in my gut. He turned his attention to his daughter, a teammate of my daughter’s, and only occasionally glanced my way. I did my best to avert my eyes and avoid conversation, afraid that something I did might belie the nervousness I felt. He was handsomer than I had remembered, and fitter than I’d expected. Although, in fairness, I’d never seen him up close and in person before. He seemed relaxed and at ease. Happy, even. I kept telling myself that there was no way that he could know that I know what I know.
Because what I know is that 6 years ago he cheated on his wife with a good friend of mine.
My town is just small enough that if your daughter is between the ages of 12 and 14 and plays volleyball competitively, she’s probably on my daughter’s team. And so here we sit, Casanova and I — on a cold, hard bleacher bench, with the cold, hard truth resting resolutely between us but only I am aware of our shared secret.
When my friend Izzie first met Sergio, she and I weren’t really friends. We were more like acquaintances. Our friendship grew as our marriages failed and pretty soon we were sharing all sorts of intimate stories over coffee or (more frequently as time wore on) margaritas. The first time Izzie met Sergio, she told me later, was like falling off a cliff. The attraction was immediate and deep and shattering. It went beyond the physical and into the complicated realms of respect, admiration, and genuine appreciation. Within months they were crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and Izzie was hopelessly and completely in love with Sergio. Every last part of her behavior with him was wildly out of character for Izzie, and she wrestled with all sorts of guilty demons, but her heart was determined and single-minded.
There were a lot of things that predestined the unhappy ending of their story, but primary among them, even more so than the fact that both were still married, was Sergio’s professed fondness for “the European way of approaching these things,” as he euphemistically put it to Izzie after she was already too far gone to retreat. See, Sergio was raised in Europe, amongst money and wealth, and was of the belief that marriage was not necessarily about fidelity but about being partners in raising children and maintaining a family. He suggested to Izzie that affairs were necessary simply — and only — to have needs met that weren’t being met within the marriage. And as time wore on, it became clear that such a set-up — a long-term, no-strings-attached affair — was all that he was prepared to offer or consider with Izzie. Faced with this truth, she was totally crushed, and I was silently outraged (as every good friend is, right?). It was beyond me how he could see my smart, beautiful, open and loving friend and not want every last thing she was willing to offer him. I was appalled and frustrated and furious on her behalf, even as the rational part of me knew that, of course, this is how these cookies usually crumble.
Izzie moved on with her divorce and slowly, with a strength that I admired and tried to emulate, put her past behind her. She displayed remarkable grace and kindness toward Sergio when she heard from him or ran into him, and despite feeling some lingering sense of want, she never wandered one step down that path again. It seemed that perhaps Sergio and all the messiness from that relationship was behind her, and therefore, me. Much later, Izzie heard that Sergio’s wife had finally filed for divorce, and that the two were separated. And time did it’s predictable, comforting march away from that time and pain.
Until Sabrina decided that she wanted to play volleyball.
I saw Sergio’s last name on the team roster and called Izzie. She confirmed that it was, indeed, Sergio’s daughter on the roster, and we both made the usual “small world” comments. I didn’t think much of it until the following weekend, when I found myself standing awkwardly at the snack table next to Sergio’s wife. She tried to make small talk with me, and I, probably quite rudely, walked away. All I could remember was how much Izzie and I had wondered about this woman all those years ago. What was she like? Did she know of Sergio’s affairs? Did she suspect? Did she care? What was wrong with her that he looked elsewhere? (This last was, admittedly, horribly unfair, but a product of the mindset we were in at the time.) And now here I was, forced to make small talk with her, and — gasp! — maybe even grow to like her.
Competitive volleyball is a grueling sport for parents — two to three practices a week and weekend tournaments that start at 8 am and don’t end until almost dinnertime. There is lots of waiting around between matches and lots of coordinating food and travel. After a season of this, I have realized the utter foolishness of my earlier belief that perhaps I could simply avoid Sergio and his wife for the year or two that our girls might play together. I can no more avoid them than I can avoid my own daughter at matches. It’s impossible.
And so I have done the unthinkable: I have sat and talked with Sergio’s wife at length at matches. We have emailed occasionally to confirm practices or set up tournament details. And I have grudgingly come to like her. But we have not shared a single interaction during which her husband’s betrayal did not lurk right under the surface of my consciousness. I wish that it would go away, but it won’t.
As for Sergio, he probably thinks me somewhat aloof; certainly he has not guessed at our connection. My last name, unlike his own, is very common, and I have been careful to avoid mention of Izzie’s name in conversation with or near him. Still, I find myself unfairly disliking him. More so than Izzie, I cannot seem to forgive him for causing her tears and heartbreak. Yes, I know they were consenting adults making a mutually inadvisable decision, the outcome of which was not likely to be good, but I cannot help but lay the blame at his feet.
And I find that it is not just Izzie over whom I feel protective, but Sergio’s wife, too. I do not know her well or even consider her a friend, but I like her, and I hate that I know this about her marriage and she probably does not. I hate to imagine that she would likely feel humiliated and betrayed by my silence, too. And so I blame Sergio for all of it. For Izzie’s tears and his wife’s ignorance and my strange, awkward position. It’s probably not fair, but I do.
I know for certain that I will never, ever, in any small or large way, betray what I know to Sergio or to his wife. I would not violate Izzie’s trust in that manner under any circumstances, and I have no wish to cause possible pain to Sergio’s wife. Instead I will continue to sit through practices and tournaments, musing silently to myself about how far and wide our choices resonate. Nothing that we ever do is completely over. It is there, always, reappearing in surprising places and with never-anticipated results. Our pain, our mistakes, our lapses, all there, capable of being discovered at any given moment and inflicting further pain even years and years later.
I will keep my thoughts to myself. I will wonder at the possible irony of someone in the gymnasium knowing something equally painful and unexpected about me or my life. And I will continue to sit on the hard, wooden bleacher bench, watch my daughter’s team, and silently contemplate my friends and their lovers.