I entered my friend’s apartment in a giddy state, excited to see quite a few people from our writing workshops who I had been eager to interact with—artists I admired from afar but never had the courage to praise, people whose personalities pulled me in but I felt too awkward to approach—and figured now was the time to go for it. Among these was Keith, a young poet who ran a literary journal, and his long-term girlfriend Elizabeth, a slender and graceful woman working on a masters in literature. Practically inseparable, always holding hands or sneaking affectionate glances, they were the kind of couple people saw and thought, “love does exist and it looks as adorable as I imagined.”
I had chatted with them now and then, but never had the chance to progress beyond small talk. I was surprised to see that Keith had come alone to the party; Elizabeth had went back to campus for the weekend to work on her thesis with her advisor. As it turned out, Keith and I had quite a bit in common and spent a considerable portion of the night forming a friendship. We were perhaps a little too friendly due to a steady flow of alcohol, but I wouldn’t have called it flirting. Coming from a family with divorced parents (due to my father’s multiple affairs), and having seen the damage that does to a person, I’m careful not to make advances on taken individuals.
Eventually a group ended up in a circle, passing a wine bottle around, talking about our sexcapades. Keith expressed his enthusiasm for giving road head, and until that moment I hadn’t known eating a woman out while she drove was possible. Impressed, I commented that if he and Elizabeth ever broke up he should give me a call. I realized it was inappropriate as soon as I said it (though admittedly I would have responded similarly if someone said they make awesome chocolate cakes—of course I’d want to try). I apologized for the comment, feeling guilty for overstepping boundaries and disrespecting his relationship, but he told me not to worry about it.
Around 3:30am, after several glasses of wine, two joints, and some champagne, I whispered to a friend that I needed to lay down. She followed me into the bedroom, as did Keith and some other curious people, and soon five of us were cuddling in bed. Keith got into bed next to me, positioned so that I spooned him. I found nothing explicitly wrong with this: with five adults in a small bed, cuddling was necessary to fit. But when everyone else got up to roll a joint in the next room we lingered, staring awkwardly at the ceiling and ignoring the heavy sexual tension. He asked if I had ever felt a connection with someone. Careful with my words, I rambled into a new conversation, but he steered back. He said he would happily spoon me but thought it’d be rude since he couldn’t without getting hard. I brushed it off, saying I had a friend I casually cuddled with who sometimes got a boner and it wasn’t a big deal. I should’ve just confronted him about his flirting and said, “you have a girlfriend, I am interested in you, but this is not okay,” but it didn’t occur to me at the time. I guess I assumed if I avoided his advances he wouldn’t have the nerve to try anything. And of course part of me wanted him to keep trying.
We joined the others to smoke and then crawled back into bed. He slipped his arms around me and I snuggled into the curve of his body, knowing we had crossed the threshold. Everyone mumbled and giggled for a while, speech slurring in and out of sleep. I too had drifted off—or rather, I had entered an exhausted and drug-influenced light sleep—when I felt someone touch me between my legs: tentative and invitatory. I froze, flashing back to when I was sexually assaulted in my sleep at college. The same hazy thoughts came back: acknowledging the pleasure and then the stomach-dropping sickness after realizing I was being touched without my consent.
I knew it was Keith. Was I offended that he assumed he could touch me? Did he intend this in a creepy way? Perhaps he assumed I was still awake and had slid his hand slowly over my thigh, waiting for my reaction? I stopped his hand, taking it in my own while I leveled my breathing. Unlike the time in college, I was attracted to Keith and we had been somewhat intimate leading up to his attempt. However, I don’t think anyone should just grope someone and assume they will be okay with it. Even though we had flirted and cuddled before didn’t automatically mean I wanted something sexual with him. But for me, in this particular situation, I did want it.
After calming down from the flashback, my (kinky) sexual side tuned in, and the thought of getting fingered in a bed with three other people turned me on. For a half hour or so we laid there, caressing, limbs intertwining, noses almost touching. He decided to try again, and this time I let him slip down into my underwear. He brushed past my clit and I sighed, which made him smile, a reaction that both adorable and sexy. He went inside of me and I weaved my fingers through his hair, tugging slightly. As far as my experience with hook-ups went, guys usually placed my hand on them, or attempted to jump right into sex. Having someone reach out to me, touching me in ways that made me feel good without any kind of expectation for repayment, felt wonderful. I didn’t have to react or impress, I could just enjoy.
Slowly the room brightened and the others started stirring. Even after people woke up he kept his hand on me underneath the covers. But once we got dressed everything turned back to normal. I’m positive no one guessed a thing as we walked down the streets and got the first train home.
The ambiguity, though quite sexy in the darkness, made my mind whirl in the daytime: did he think I was “the type of girl” who would enjoy being sexually solicited like that? Am I? What does that even mean? Did he see me as the perfect person to cheat on his girlfriend with? Does that mean I’m not the type of person people see as relationship material? Do I even want a relationship? Was I being self-destructive by going along with it? Does what Keith did invalidate his relationship? Does it make his feelings towards her less real?
When I confronted him about the encounter later via Facebook, he said that it had been a dreamlike, intense encounter that had surprised him—both thinking of doing something like it and actually acting upon it. Esther Perel, a therapist and “sexual healer” describes exactly this sentiment in her article about cheating: “…an affair is such an erotic experience [because] it’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss…”
I don’t condone infidelity, but I don’t think Keith meant to be intentionally hurtful with what he did. I’m positive he still loves his girlfriend. I believe that he never thought he would do something like that. I think he felt some sexual attraction towards me and, since we were in a “safe” environment (squished in a crowded bed), he went for it knowing the encounter couldn’t progress even if we wanted it to.
It occurred to me afterwards that I might be what some people label a “slut” or a “whore.” I tend to hook up, one way or another, with someone new about every two weeks. In this particular instance, I didn’t provoke the encounter. I didn’t intentionally seek it out, even if I was wrong to give in. It amuses me that I could fit into the realm of such a judgmental and hateful slur. I certainly don’t feel like a bad or vindictive person. I do feel uncomfortable that he maybe lied to his girlfriend and that I would’ve been involved in that lie, but I don’t feel responsible for his infidelity. To label someone as a “slut” ignores the fact that she is a complex being with a lot of hormones, psychology, and emotions and judges us based off of a single aspect of our lives. The reality is, no one and no situation is that one-dimensional.
I’m curious – do you think it’s possible for someone to cheat and still love their significant other? Are Keith and I both responsible for what happened? Or he is more the guilty party since he betrayed his own relationship? Or, do you think humans are fallible creatures and everyone should cut us some slack? Leave me your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to share you own (‘morally ambiguous’) hook up story.