BIG LITTLE LIES

Craigslist confessional: “Had he made the first move, I probably would have started an affair with him.”

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Rita, 30s

I woke up that morning with the conviction that the day would be different—better. I packed lunch for my children and helped my husband steam his shirt. After he left for work, I drove the kids to school, already dreading the emptiness I would feel once at home again, alone.

I hadn’t always been this way. I could remember the days when I’d been my own person, not someone’s wife or someone’s mom, but myself. I hadn’t worried about making lunch on time, or getting the laundry folded, or making sure the kids got their homework done. I’d had my job, my disposable income, and my group of friends, and life had seemed impossibly simple and happy.

Now I found myself wondering who I was once my family was stripped away. I hadn’t worked in years, and the last time I saw my closest friend, we’d spent hours talking about our children and husbands. It seemed like I’d lost myself, and could only define my existence through the people who consumed my time. I’d inadvertently become the woman I used to make fun of — the bored housewife who drank before noon and took anxiety medication to alleviate her existential crisis.

I sat down on the couch and debated what to do for the rest of the day, eventually defaulting to my social media. I started scrolling through the countless photos posted by people I once knew. Behind the makeup and filters, I was certain that they, too, had their own problems and fought their own battles. But the scars were hard to see from this side of the screen.

I was hundreds of photos deep in someone’s photo album when I received a message notification. My heart raced immediately as I registered the opportunity to have a day outside of the ordinary—perhaps to talk to an old friend or former flame. But when I clicked on the link, I saw it was a message from the financial planner one of my friends had recommended months ago. Although my husband had a steady job, having two kids in a one-income family was getting expensive, so I had reached out to Steve in hopes that he could help us with our savings.

I clicked on Steve’s profile and shuffled through his photos—married, two kids, successful, and handsome—and then I replied to his message. We agreed to meet later that afternoon, and in spite of having more than three hours to get ready, I decided to start right away. I showered, shaved, put on lotion, and then I poured myself a glass of red wine.

For some reason, I felt nervous. There was nothing in our conversation that came off as flirtatious, but I was curiously looking forward to the appointment with Steve. I wondered what my husband would think, and then I pushed the thought from my mind as quickly as it had entered. This was an innocent meeting.

I curled my hair and did my makeup, and I stared at myself in the mirror with fresh eyes—seeing for the first time in a long while not just the perfunctory and tired body of a mother, but the beautiful and full body of a woman. I felt immediately guilty about having spent my afternoon so selfishly, and decided to tidy up around the house before leaving for the appointment.

Steve wasn’t quite as handsome in person. There was a tired shadow behind his eyes, and his demeanor was slightly prickly. Determined not to waste my efforts, I overlooked his initial coldness and carried the conversation easily. He warmed up to me and there were moments when I caught a glimpse of flirtation. Or perhaps he was just being kind; it had been so long since I’d gotten dressed up and met a man who wasn’t my husband that I thought it possible I was getting my signals crossed. Steve talked about finances and family life, and an hour after we first met, he walked me out of his office as we said our goodbyes.

On my drive back home, I felt an overwhelming chill in my gut, a sense of emptiness and shame. I started crying and was thankful that nothing had happened, but ashamed because had Steve made a first move, I probably would have started an affair with him. And as I distanced myself from his office and the afternoon, I saw in the plain light of day that I’d just made a date out of a financial consultation. I’d reflected upon a married man the feelings that I myself entertained—of a different life, a new romance, and an afternoon of excitement.

I carefully edged the car into the garage and snapped the visor mirror open, checking for running mascara. I ran my ring fingers under my puffy eyes, pinched my cheeks red, and straightened up. When I got home, I took off my clothes and threw them in the wash, hoping to clean away any evidence of my afternoon—not from my husband and kids, but from myself.

The pot of tea I’d been brewing started whistling from the kitchen as I busied myself wiping off my makeup and dabbing anti-wrinkle cream around my eyes. I poured a glass of chamomile, and sat back down on our couch. My friend—the same friend who had recommended Steve—had given me a book to read. I got through two pages before I was distracted by my thoughts.

Opening up Steve’s Facebook page again, I went through his photos with a strange greed, studying the snapshots of his wife for signs of unhappiness. I didn’t wish for their marriage to crumble, but I longed to feel excitement again. To my own shame, I found that I was comparing myself to her and was about to snap my computer shut when I noticed that I had a message notification.

Minutes after I’d left his office, Steve had written: “Do you want to maybe grab a drink sometime?”

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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