I knew what I was doing was wrong. But that wasn’t what scared me.
When I was in my early twenties, I became obsessed with running. Or more to the point, any activity guaranteed to expend maximum calories and keep me in the waif thin shape I’d whittled myself down to through a gruelling regime of exercise and restrictive eating.
I was in an emotionally toxic relationship, a job in which I was merely coasting along, and overall, deeply unhappy. As such, relentlessly pounding the pavement had become a kind of recluse. The further I ran, the further away my problems felt, for a while.
One afternoon at a staff lunch, an athletic looking fiery-haired guy plonked himself down on the seat beside me as I rearranged the salad on my plate in an attempt to look like I was eating it.
“I’ve seen you running,” he said, interrupting my lettuce leaf twirling.
“You have?” I said, surprised anyone would notice me at all.
“Of course! You look like you’re in great shape!” he laughed.
“I’m Mark, I just started here. I’m actually a runner too. If you ever want a jogging buddy to motivate you, I’d love to come along,” he said.
And so every day after work, and then some weekends, Mark and I laced up our sneakers and hit the sidewalk. We jogged every possible route within a 10 mile radius around work, then around some of the popular running tracks around our city, and finally, Mark invited me back to his place which was right by one of the toughest and longest running tracks, he assured me, “With beautiful views of the city.”
By the time I pulled on my old sweatshirt and threw on my battered Nikes at Mark’s after work one muggy afternoon, I’d lost myself so deeply in my running obsession I’d spent weeks training on a twisted ankle, twice passed out from exhaustion and was so thin I no longer felt like I existed. I’d stopped meticulously applying my makeup before work in the mornings, abandoned my usual regular mirror checks to ensure my hair was in place, and began withdrawing socially.
My boyfriend was working late, long hours, which suited my need to escape the noxious energy that fired between us when we were together, and I’d stopped going anywhere unless it was to work or run, so Mark had become my main point of contact. Far from reinforcing the sense of being a pinball aimlessly flicking about in a box that was keeping me from plugging into my life, Mark cheered me on when I ran, pushing me when I was certain my feet couldn’t go another step, making me feel like anything was possible. I began to long for our time together in between running sessions, fantasizing about the abandon I felt when I chased his sneakers along the never-ending sidewalk.
Funnily enough, in all the time we’d spent together, I still knew little about him. Our discussions were always focused on what track we’d run next and what time we’d set to knock it over in.
But as I reclined back on the front steps to his apartment building to stretch before our run that afternoon, something had changed. There was an electricity between us that prickled at the back of my throat when he shuffled in on the step next to me, a steadiness to his usually animated voice I hadn’t heard before.
“You wanna go for a drink after this?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered, without missing a beat, unsure of what to expect.
After our run we grabbed a quiet couch in the back of the local bar by his house, running the cool vodka tonics we were drinking against our foreheads for refreshment.
“I can’t stay long, my wife will be home at seven and she’ll be wondering where I am,” he said.
It was the first time he’d mentioned a wife. I breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously the oddness I’d felt between us was just pre-running jitters, he was clearly in a committed relationship.
“The running’s working wonders for you, you’re looking so toned,” he added.
“Hardly, I look terrible,” I responded, brushing him off. No one had given me a compliment in months, I was convinced he felt sorry for me and was trying to build me up out of pity.
“Really? What would you give yourself then, out of ten, looks-wise?” he asked, sounding startled.
“I don’t know…three?” I answered, staring down at the condensation dripping from my glass onto my sneaker.
“No, you are a ten,” he said suddenly, resting his hand on my knee, forcing me to look up from my glass. His eyes were focused, his pupils wide, and his face stoic.
“You know, just because someone is married doesn’t mean they can’t be really attracted to someone else,” he said, his voice trailing off at the end into a whisper, his cheeks turning the same crimson shade they lit up when we ran.
I was frozen. I smiled and took a sip of my drink, politely changing the conversation to our run, hoping he hadn’t noticed my hand trembling so vigorously the bubbles in my drink had began to dance together and fizz over.
That night as I rolled away from my boyfriend in bed, creating an empty chasm of duvet between us, Mark’s words played in my head like a record on repeat. My skin tingled, my throat felt dry again and my heart fluttered. No one had made me feel as desired and as worth noticing before as he did. And it felt good.
I realized then that I liked Mark, as much more than a running buddy. And so, in the early hours of the morning, I told my boyfriend the truth. I’d been suffocating for months in our relationship and I no longer had the strength to ignore it. I also told him I had feelings for someone else, and even though I knew nothing could come of them – Mark was, after all, married – it didn’t feel right staying with him while I was invested elsewhere.
But after Mark asked about him one day as we were getting our breath back from a run on the park bench by his apartment building, and I told him we’d split, things changed. Mark began being more explicit about his attraction to me, one day sending me a text while he was on holiday with his wife, which simply said, ‘I’m consumed with thoughts of you.’
It was the first time anyone had made me feel like I could actually be someone worth lusting over.
Finally, at the end of year staff party, he asked me to take a walk with him. With four glasses of wine under my belt, my now tiny frame was positively woozy with booze. I plonked down my half empty glass and followed Mark down the narrow winding hallway until we reached his office. The building isolated and silent as the rest of the staff celebrated at the other end of the hall, Mark seized the moment and stopped at the door, turning to face me with an intensity flickering in his green eyes.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said in a whispered tone, the heat in the back of his throat brushing against my lips as he spoke.
And in that moment, something clicked. I knew Mark was married, I knew we shouldn’t have been alone together at his office, but I wanted to know what the kind of desire he spoke of having for me would feel like. What it would be like, to have someone want me the way I’d watched classically attractive women have.
I reached behind him and opened his office door, pressing my free hand against his chest and propelling him back into the room as the door swung shut behind us. It was my acknowledgement to Mark that I couldn’t resist him anymore. I was his, if he wanted me.
Mark pushed me into the door and kissed me deeply and passionately. My legs immediately began to tremble with longing. Images of what we were about to do started to crackle through my mind like an old movie slowly coming into focus. I put my fingers up to the first button of his shirt then pushed him back off of me to slip it open.
But then, as easily as the switch had flipped on inside me, it flipped out as Mark came into focus again. He was panting heavily, like a schoolboy opening his first present on Christmas morning, the excitement was almost too much for him. His eyes were wide with a mixture of fear and longing and his hands shook visibly as he brought them up to my face.
“I want to tell you, I’m in love with y..” he began.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” I lied, cutting him off, not wanting to hear the words I’d felt dancing on the tip of his tongue in our last few heated conversations.
I knew what I was doing was wrong. But that wasn’t what scared me. What scared me was the fact Mark was ready to leave his wife if I reciprocated his feelings. The last few weeks he’d intensified his openness about his feelings toward me, always beginning to tell me how he hadn’t been ready for marriage and realized he was ready to walk away, but I’d always found a way to change the conversation, not wanting to head down the path I knew he was veering towards. I’d just ended a very intense and toxic relationship, I wasn’t ready to commit myself to anyone again. More than anything, I’d just wanted to know what it felt to be truly desired and held up on a pedestal the way Mark regarded me.
I grasped the door knob behind me and flung the door open again. And just like that, I walked away.
I never saw Mark or heard from him again, until several years later, by chance, when I passed him on the street, navigating a pram carrying a newborn as his wife walked ahead chatting to someone on the phone, unaware of me.
I wondered why he’d stayed. If he was truly happy, and if he’d ever told his wife the truth about what happened between us. But I don’t wonder if I could have done things differently, because as a 23 year-old with a desperately low self esteem who would’ve done or said anything to feel worthy of someone’s attention, I don’t think there’s any other way the story could’ve gone. But I do know, that while infidelity is unforgivable, sometimes, not forgiving yourself is worse. Because you can pound the pavement for miles and miles, but in the end, if you don’t accept yourself wholly, including your stumbles, the only person you’ll really be running from when you hit that winding stretch of sidewalk, is yourself.