The New Rules for Love, Sex and Marriage

Does flirting lead to an affair? Should you tell your friend you saw her husband out with someone else? And other questions answered.

What exactly counts as an affair today? Cheating wives, husbands and the new rules of marriage.

There was no way around it—this totally crossed the line:

A drunk, married dad-of-two was spied canoodling with a random woman in the middle of a bar, in the middle of town.

Our town.

Where he lives.

Who would be that stupid?

That seemed to be the general consensus as the story made the rounds the following morning at the ball fields. In fact, that was how the news officially got to me. (Not that I didn’t hear about it again, the next day, from one person who saw it firsthand and then, in the days to come, from two other people who’d also gotten wind of it and whispered to me, with hands covering their lips as if there might be surveillance equipment on the playground, “Did you hear about that dad at that bar?”) A friend of mine was at the field, innocently sitting in her bag-chair and watching her child play, when she overheard some Gladys Kravitz-type talking about it, loudly, in great detail, using specific locations. And body parts. And names. She texted me immediately.

Turns out she knew the guy, and she assured me that if she pointed him out at the pool or the annual town luau, I’d recognize him—this married dad who allegedly had his arms wrapped around a woman who wasn’t his wife, talking way too close, her hand rubbing his back. All of this in front of people he knew but was apparently too tanked to realize were there, watching him like he was a car wreck.

As the overheard details at the ball field spilled (there may or may not have been slow-dancing), my friend heard someone else casually shush Gladys, reprimanding her jokingly: “Keep your voice down!” Gladys wasn’t having any of it. “If you’re going to do that in a bar in the middle of town,” she replied, “then you deserve to be talked about in the middle of town!”

Word.

The stickiest part, though, was this—my friend, who knew who this guy was? She also knew his wife. Not well. But well enough.

“Are you going to tell her?” I texted.

“No way!” she texted back.

I mulled this for a second. “Don’t you feel like you should?” I texted.

Five minutes passed, and no return text. Then five more minutes. I began to wonder: Did she think I was overreacting? Because in my opinion, that dude had totally and unequivocally crossed the line. Unless maybe he just crossed my line. Maybe my friend had a different line.

Finally, my phone beeped. A text.

“There is no way I’m getting involved!”

A pause. Another beep: “He’s a pig.”

At least my friend Kristen’s married-mom-pals leave town to cross their lines, which are, oddly, the exact same lines—kissing in bars. A gaggle of them in Cherry Hill all train down to Atlantic City for a weekend once or twice a year, in part for the purpose of kissing random men where no one they know will see them kissing, presumably because they know it crosses the line. I wasn’t sure what was weirder: the premeditated not-my-husband-kissing, or the premeditated not-my-husband-kissing en masse.

“It’s a ‘What happens in A.C. stays in A.C.’ arrangement,” says Kristen. “They all agree. They all do it.” Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that not being seen gives them plausible deniability of line-crossing. Or perhaps their husbands are well aware of the plan, and it’s all part of a neat little marriage agreement: “When I cook, you clean up the dishes. When I head down to A.C. with my girlfriends to kiss strange men who are hopefully more attractive than you, you get to stay home and watch golf.” I find the whole situation hard to comprehend—that there’s a cluster of couples in one town who all consider calculated stranger-kissing to be acceptable married-people behavior.

It seems like such lines would more likely be determined on a couple-by-couple basis. I decide to investigate.

“Thad,” I ask my husband as we lie in bed, me reading Ladies Home Journal, him reading the fourth Game of Thrones book on his iPad, “if I went down to Harrah’s and camped out in one of those swanky bed ouin-y tents so I could get drunk and kiss someone who wasn’t you, would you be mad?”

“What are you talking about?” he asks, likely most baffled by my casual use of the word “bedouin-y.”

“Go with me on this. It’s just a hypothetical. Would that cross a line? Would you be mad?”

“If you did it more than once, I would be.” (Note to self: “Once” equals “okay.”)

“In case you were wondering,” I add, “if you did the same thing with a sassy blonde in a halter dress with never-been-nursed-on C-cups, I’d make you sleep on the couch for a week. Okay? I mean … I think it’s important we’re on the same page here.”

He turns to me. “So brunettes are okay?”

“Thad!”

“Kidding! Got it. Same page,” he says.

That said, I’m pretty sure I would have made him move into a hotel—or worse—if I’d found out he was one of the men who evidently frequented the massage parlor just blocks from our house, on quaint little Haddon Avenue. In May, an employee was arrested on prostitution charges and the place was shut down by police on safety and code violations. It turned out it wasn’t exactly a massage parlor. It was, allegedly, a whorehouse.

“Who went there?” I asked every person I ran into in my town for weeks afterward. I just had to find out.

“I don’t know,” everyone said, shocked, as if the patrons of Sunrise Massage in Westmont, New Jersey, couldn’t possibly have been anyone who lived in Westmont, New Jersey. Whether that was true, or a case study in group denial, it seemed to indicate that as a community, we shared at least one definitive line: “Paying for extramarital sex on the main street in your neighborhood” equals “not okay.”

But what about paying for “the best 30 minutes of your day” in your neighborhood? That was what the sign outside the barbershop, across from the township’s administrative offices, offered on a big placard it placed on the sidewalk. The deal: $20 for a haircut, a shave and a massage on one of those cushy chrome barbershop chairs right in the front window, manned by the most booby barbers South Jersey has ever known—it was like a Hair Cuttery merged with Delilah’s Den. When my friend Amanda’s husband announced he was walking up there “to get a trim,” she was instantly on high alert. She’d just had her second baby and was feeling all “just had my second baby”-y. On top of that, she felt a tad unclear about which of the services offered warranted the claim of “the best 30 minutes of your day.”

“I pushed the stroller up to the corner, and I stood across the street, and I could see him in there,” she says. “That woman had her hand down his back! She was reaching her hand from his collar all the way down his back! Like, up to her shoulder! Down. His. Back!” And just like that: line crossed. Amanda pulled out her cell and called her husband: If he looks at his phone and then turns it off, I am so walking over there and knocking on that window. “Hello! Wife and children here! We can SEE you! How’s THAT for the best 30 minutes of your day?!?!”

“He answered the phone,” she admits. “I felt like a crazy person.”

When she told me this story, I had to admit: I thought she was a bit of a crazy person. Because, let’s be practical: more down-the-back massaging by busty barbers translates to less down-the-back massaging that has to be done by exhausted wives. That night, in bed once again, I made sure Thad was aware that this didn’t cross my line: “If you feel like you need to go to that barbershop to experience the best 30 minutes of your day, well, I think I might have a twenty in my wallet right here.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

“You will?”

“Wait. Is this one of those times when you say something’s okay because you want me to think you think it’s okay, but it’s really not okay?”

“Thad!”

My friend Melinda, mother of one, is absolutely certain that her husband would be “pissed as hell” if he knew about the little “affair” she’s been having with a fellow customer at the neighborhood coffee shop down the road from the barber.

“We run into each other every morning,” she says, describing the guy’s dark hair that always looks “just out of bed,” his easy smile. “I get my dirty chai latte with soy. He gets his vegan apricot scone and a large coffee with two shots of espresso. We chat. I giggle. We go our separate ways. It’s … just … perfect.”

When I mention Melinda’s flirty kaffeeklatsch to a mutual friend of ours—and I mention it in a dreamy kind of way, in a “Boy, it sure would charge my battery a little to have an innocent tête-à-tête like that to look forward to every morning” kind of way—she doesn’t hesitate: “What? Are they insane?”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because that’s how real affairs get started!” she screams.

Oh. Right.

Big line there. Big, fat universal line there.

Still, the ambiguity of The Line from person to person reminds me of my married mom friend Karen in Upper Dublin, who had a crush on married dad Eric. Their kids were in the same school. They saw each other all the time at drop-off, and chatted long enough after the kids went in the building that other parents probably started asking each other, “Is there something going on?”

Karen insisted: That was a line she wouldn’t cross. No way. But when a mutual friend of ours called her right before a PTA meeting, she said she couldn’t talk because she was on her way to get a blowout.

“Why?” our friend asked.

Karen didn’t say anything for a second. And then, quietly, she hushed, “Well, Eric’s going to be there.”

Nothing ever happened between Karen and Eric. No obvious lines were crossed. But that blowout? That crossed my line. And there’s where these lines start to crisscross and get a little jaggy.

Running into each other every morning at the coffee shop for vegan scones? No.

Pre-PTA blowout? Yes.

My lines seem to come down to whether or not there are plans to cross them. So when my friend Jessica told me about the splinter at the pool, I just didn’t get what the big deal was. She was there with her husband and son, who were throwing a football around in the wooded playground. Next thing she knew, her husband was standing next to her with a bandage on his finger.

“I got a splinter,” he said. “Kelly pulled it out.” It is important to note that “Kelly” is a single mom who can still wear bikinis, and does. She is also very sweet. And has nice teeth. Upon learning of Kelly’s act of mercy, Jessica couldn’t speak. In fact, she couldn’t even look at her husband, instead staring out over the waters of the pool, her hands clutching the arms of her lawn chair to keep from crushing him in the crotch.

“It’s not like I was in Topeka!” she tells me later. “I was at the snack bar. He couldn’t have waited for his wife to take out his splinter?”

A few days later, I start to write her an email. I tell her how I think she needs to let this one go, how her husband clearly didn’t plan to get a splinter, how he didn’t plan to have Kelly take it out with the straight pin she keeps in her purse because she’s the kind of mom who keeps pins in her purse in case of splinter emergencies. But before I send it, I get a message from Jessica:

“I am still so mad. I’ve slept on the couch for three nights.”

And round it goes. When I tell another friend about the splinter incident, she doesn’t get it, either. But in a different way. “Haven’t they been together long enough for him to know that having that girl pull out the splinter was going to cross his wife’s line?” she asks.

I think about that for a minute. It sounds very rational. Couples probably should discuss lines. My husband, for example, knows it’s okay to check out hot girls we see at the Shore, because I tell him so. In fact, I point the cutest girls out to him, because I don’t want him to miss anything good. And for his part, he knows that our friend Danny often feels me up when we visit him. Granted, Danny is gay, and my husband knows that, but we both agree there’s no line-crossing going on there. I decide we’re very evolved.

Trouble is, we’ve never had a conversation about whether or not it’s okay to go to a massage parlor for a happy ending. And we’ve certainly never determined what constitutes the crossing of a line when you’re drunk and flirting at a bar with a person who is touching you, skin on skin. Those lines are different for everyone. Mine is planning to cheat; Jessica’s is, apparently, splinters. But lines generally don’t get discussed until they’re crossed. And by then, we’re on the other side, looking behind us for the line, but we can’t even see it anymore.

The next time I’m with Jessica, we are standing in my kitchen, talking about Hot Township Guy. Because there is a hot township guy, who looks like that guy from Grimm mashed up with some Tom Cruise circa Risky Business. We love everything about Hot Township Guy, a.k.a HTG. We text each other every time we see a white township truck being driven by HTG, which I had done that very morning, when I walked home from dropping off the kids at school and, out of nowhere, a man swooped in to remove an empty garbage can from my path on the sidewalk.

“It was HTG,” I say, just as my husband walks in the room. Jessica immediately stops talking. I do not. “He saved the day and then gave me a big HTG smile. I think I swooned a little.”

Jessica opens her eyes wide like a signal: Do you not see your husband? In this room? Right now?

“Oh,” I say. “He doesn’t care. Thad, we’re talking about Hot Township Guy. You’re okay with that? Right?” While we’ve never had a conversation about whether my love for HTG crosses any of Thad’s lines, I feel confident that we’re on the same side.

“Do I have a choice?” Thad asks as he walks downstairs to the laundry room. I turn back to Jessica, hold my hands out in front of me, shrug.

“See?”

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