I’m Not Having an Affair (But I Watched One on TV)

When does a guilty pleasure become a real concern?

Here in Shanghai, we have a television with a complicated remote and a host of channels running costumed dramas from various stages of Chinese history. We hardly ever turn it on. Instead we stream shows from the strange underworld of pirate websites that require patience and a quick hand eliminating pop-ups. Or rather, I stream. I like television a lot more than my fiancé does.

Sometimes Dan will be writing in his office and I’ll sneak into the bedroom and watch a show or two under the pretense of writing or working or whatever Dan actually thinks I’m doing. We have heavy curtains that soften the constant traffic noise and block the sun, and I snuggle half-under our IKEA comforter with my computer on my lap, happily absorbed in the drama du jour. Which is what happened a couple of weeks ago when I started watching The Affair. One episode of the steamy Showtime drama became another until I was three episodes in and ready to commit to the rest of the season.

Being Apart, Together

A part of me wanted to tell Dan about the show. I knew he would have been interested in the Rashomon-style storyline, the way the narrative flips back and forth between the lovers Noah and Alison, giving its viewers two sometimes contradictory accounts. But that evening as we got ready to go out with friends, Dan asked me about my afternoon—“How’d everything go?”— and I replied only “Good.” I didn’t mention The Affair. This wasn’t exactly a lie, but an omission. Those three hours of my day went unaccounted for.

I told myself that there were several reasons for this silence. Despite the rise of the acclaimed HBO-style drama and the Atlantic’s post-episode commentary on each and every Game of Thrones, television still feels like the lazy person’s entertainment to me, a true escapism. Television is not work. And not-work is a hard thing for a Protestant girl like me to accept, especially when there is always work to be done—grading papers or writing pages or sweeping the corner of the dining room where all my stray hair manages to collect. Shame is an excellent conductor of secrets.

I also justified my secret as an issue of personal space. Because we live abroad away from our families and dearest friends and because we have the same job at the same new university, Dan and I spend a lot of time together. Our offices at work are about twelve steps apart, but at home Dan and I have two separate spaces—our screens. We flip through different websites and different Twitter feeds. We’re at work on own projects. We need our own space, and our computers have a way of providing that space, even when our schedules don’t.

Still, what accounted for guilty little flip in my chest when Dan came into the room? And why had I immediately clicked out of the tab, as though I was doing something wrong?

Are We Doomed to Hit Repeat?

The Affair awoke my unspoken anxiety about what our marriage might be like in our forties: Dan and I will never be summering in Montauk, but maybe I will be a perfectly nice, slightly naggy wife, and Dan will be a dissatisfied one-novel writer who sleeps with a waitress. The implied assertion throughout The Affair is that most men cheat at a certain age. I didn’t want my future husband to have yet another model of middle-aged infidelity. There are too many of those already. If stories teach us how to live, I didn’t want to be married to the cheatin’ Noah Salloway; I wanted to be Connie Britton married to Coach Taylor.

But meanwhile, I was the one sneaking around with a television show.

In a recent New York Times piece, philosopher Clancy Martin argues that “good lovers lie.” Good lies protect our partners. They can keep us from hurting one another; they serve as necessary buffers, and as means to a better end. “Love is a greater good than truth,” he writes. (Martin’s example of a bad lie? Sleeping with a colleague at an academic conference.) But if omission is a lie, when does it become a bad one? And can a television show even count as a secret? Maybe sometimes it does.

The Affair wasn’t The Amazing Race or some other delightfully staged reality drama. The Affair was something else. Dan and I had spent the past year discussing and anticipating our upcoming marriage, and here I was watching a show about infidelity that was causing me to reflect on marriage, what it might be, and what it could look like. Not telling Dan about what I was watching felt like a real withholding. It felt wrong.

And so, five episodes in, I confessed both my watching and my worries. Dan lay next to me to watch episodes six and seven, while I detailed all the plot points necessary to catch him up, and then he let me watch the rest of the season on my own. The next week, over bad Shanghai margaritas at our local bar, I gave him the rundown on every twist and turn of the betrayal.

The best television is a repository for our fears. Hence The Affair (and the zombies of The Walking Dead). While Dan and I can’t know with absolute certainty whom we will love fifteen years from now, we’re saying our vows because we plan for it to be one another (plus a few kids). Television often tells us that we’re doomed, and we have to tell ourselves that we’re not. For us, part of that telling is being honest about the fear itself.

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