I was in bed with a married man when I realized that my own marriage was over.
I was leaning over his body when an odd feeling of nostalgia took hold of me. It was a bit too soon to be nostalgic, but I couldn’t help it, my yearning for the past: I’m Arab, and for us, nostalgia is almost genetic. For a moment, I thought of how my husband and I used to spend hours in bed when we first met, of how my husband hadn’t had sex with me in over a year. And I thought, looking down at the married man, This is what people talk about when they say that as soon as you start thinking about the beginning of a relationship, you’ve reached the end.
I had spent the afternoon with the married man by a lake. The lake glittered, and the married man told me, as we sat by a fire at the edge of the lake, that he had heard the lake was so deep that it could flood the entire state. He made a motion with his hands to show how deep into the earth the lake was; late that night, he made that same gesture as his fingers went in and out of me.
There were casinos near the lake, and before his hands went in and out of me, he said he wanted to gamble. I walked through a small wood and to the hotel near my cabin, and saw him at the bar of the hotel casino; he was already very drunk. I told him I wasn’t sure I would gamble, but that I would watch him. He wanted to know why I didn’t want to gamble, and I told him it was the last thing forbidden in Islam that I hadn’t broken, the only thing I had left to call myself a Muslim by. I ate pork, didn’t pray, never fasted Ramadan, and had had premarital sex. But gambling, I said, I had never gambled.
This must have turned the married man on because he became determined that I should gamble. He put his hands on my shoulders and said, “We are going to gamble.”
I had lied to him about never gambling. I had gambled with my best friend in Louisiana; five of us had driven out there from Texas in 2005 and for her bachelorette party we gambled all night, and then slept in a double motel room, drunk.
I had lied to him because I knew it would turn him on, the notion of taking my gambler cherry — stripping me of being a Muslim. And it worked. He gave the blackjack dealer $200, and split the chips into two piles, pushing one of the piles to me. I had never played blackjack — that part was true — but he taught me patiently. He told me when to hit and when to stay. The dealer, a middle-aged brunette named Jill, assumed we were a couple. I told her we were in town for our 12th anniversary. The married man glanced at me; he played along.
When we ran out of chips, he put another hundred on the table, split the chips again.
The casino played the Rolling Stones, and I said, I fucking hate this song. I want to get what I want.
The truth was, though I had gambled before, I had never cheated on a husband. I had been living without regular sex for years, and yet, I had never cheated. "Zina" is the Arabic word in the Qur'an for adultery. It is a beautiful word, the Z so final, the a at the end feminine, bewitching. Although I didn’t pop my gambler cherry that night, I popped my infidelity cherry — my zina cherry.
When I got blackjack, the married man leaned in and kissed me. He loved that I was being a bad Muslim.
When I was a child, I flared up with fevers and strep at least once or twice a year. My mother would come to my bed and put cold compresses on my forehead and then pat me with the back of her hand, her wrists encircled with bracelets her father had given her when she had graduated from college — the first woman in her family to do so. She would pet my forehead and read, in a whisper, verses from the Qur'an. My favorite was the verse about envy and evil, with its images of witches blowing on knots. She read the verse over and over, soothing my fever and my skin, nursing me back to health.
As an adult woman, I tried to fast Ramadan, to pray five times a day, to give alms to the poor, to read up on my rights as a wife. I only succeeded at the latter. I discovered, early on in my marriage, that a wife is entitled to sex with her husband at least once every four months. A husband who doesn’t provide sex for his wife is sinning by denying her. I tried to talk about this with my mother once, but was too shy; I wanted to talk to all my friends about my sexless marriage, but was too ashamed. And besides — my husband wasn’t Muslim.
Let me go back and tell more about how I met the married man. I did not meet the married man by the lake. The first time I met him was on a train from Hamburg, Germany, to Berlin. I was on my German book tour and he boarded the train one stop after I did. He was helping a fellow passenger with a guitar case; I got up to help them both, but mostly to place myself in view of the man, because I was so drawn to him. I asked him if he was a musician, and he said he was a writer, and told me his name. I recognized it but pretended I didn't. He asked me if I was a singer. I said I was a writer, and that I was touring Germany with my book in translation. He said he was touring Germany with his book too.
He invited me to join him two rows back. I glanced at the woman seated next to me; her face was contorted with disgust at my loud voice. She had been disgusted when I had sat next to her, repulsed by my fat body. The married man was not repulsed by me, and I got up and went to sit next to him. I sat across the aisle because a woman — his publicist, I found out later — was sitting directly next to him.
The man and I both wore wedding rings. We had both lived in the same small college town once. He told me about the time a man had held him at knifepoint outside a bar. He told me about his twenties, immigrating to America, his attempt to be a teacher before he became a writer. The college town had given him refuge the way it had given me refuge. We spoke about our children.
We talked the entire ride over to Berlin, and when the train stopped, he invited me to go to his reading that evening, and said he would put my name on the list at the box office. I told him I was already an invitee at the same literary festival, and was already on the list. Amusingly, or perhaps because he was blindly sexist, he ignored me and kissed my cheek and said he hoped to see me later.
I walked around Berlin completely adrift. There was nothing that could wick away the moisture that such an intense encounter had created. I was swimming in it. I needed him. I wanted to keep hearing his voice, his stories.
I met with my editor and I told her the married man had asked me to see him read, and she whooped, because the married man had written books she admired. I walked with her to the venue and found the married man immediately, in the grass outside, smoking a cigarette. I was too nervous to approach him. Plus I wanted him to miss me a little.
I sat in the hall for his reading. He read and spoke for 45 minutes. Afterwards, when he saw me, he walked right up to me, put his hand on the small of my back, and kissed the corner of my mouth. He asked me to hang by and go for dinner afterwards. I waited 30 minutes, but then decided not to stay near him anymore. I was married. I had only been with my husband a total of three years, one of them married. We hadn't had sex in months, but I was hopeful that would change.
It was Ramadan. I walked out of the venue and didn't say goodbye to anyone, just walked through a park and into a small market and then back to my hotel. I ordered a bloody steak sandwich and ate it and then sopped up the blood with the bread and thought about fucking the married man, went to bed, and in the morning, left Berlin.
When I got home, my husband still would not sleep with me. For a year after I went to Berlin, we didn’t have sex. We went to therapy, and the therapist said that we needed to create a nightly practice where we lay in bed, side to side, and petted each other without necessarily doing anything sexual. After doing the practice twice, he stopped. When I nagged him to pet me, I felt I'd become removed from my original desire: that he fuck me. This made me angry, but because I believed that my large body wasn't lovable, I didn't leave.
At that time, I thought I was submissive. I've heard so many women say this: I am in charge in my everyday life; in bed, I want to let go and have someone else be in charge. And I believed it. I thought I was that way too. So when the married man and I left the casino, and went to his cabin, and when he asked me what I wanted to do, I said, Anything you want to do. I claimed I was a sub.
The married man then drew me a bath and told me to get in. I kissed him, something I'd wanted to do years before on the train to Berlin. He didn't kiss me back, testing me. I waited, my mouth completely still, until, finally, he reached for my tongue with his. He twisted my hair in his hands, then pulled roughly. It hurt, but I told myself I needed to take it. I undressed and he watched, then said wow when I was done. I was scared he said it because I was fat. My husband hadn't told me I was fat in years, but I knew he still thought it, because he averted his eyes when I got undressed. I got in the tub, floated back, allowed my breasts to peek out. He didn’t want to undress; he stood at the edge of the tub and washed me. He rubbed my feet clean, then sucked my toes. I took his hands and put them over my throat gently, playing at force. He choked me. I was afraid. He let go. I took a deep breath, and when I let it out, he choked me again, and held me underwater. I thought I would die.
I struggled and he let go.
I wanted to ask him to stop, but didn't know how. He slapped my breasts, my belly. He asked me to slap his face. I did. I slapped him harder and harder. He was soaked in water, his hands around my neck. He hit me on the head. Harder and harder. I finally said stop. He stopped. He took out his penis. It was small and I was disappointed and embarrassed for him. I was embarrassed that he'd hit me and embarrassed that his dick was so small. I got out of the tub and got into his bed. He fingered me, harder than I wanted, and I understood that it was because he couldn't fuck me as roughly as he wanted to. He fell asleep after I put him in my mouth. I got out of bed and found his wallet and his credit cards all over the floor of the cabin. I took out receipts from his wallet and read them: a burrito he'd eaten in Manhattan, a meal he'd bought his children. I wanted proof that he'd hurt me, and that I'd spent this night with him. I texted a mutual acquaintance and asked her to pick me up from the married man’s cabin in the morning. I got back into bed and tried to sleep.
When I woke up, he asked, proud, if I felt sore. I said I didn't, even when I felt the bruises. I didn’t want him to think he’d hurt me, broken me. I had the bruises on my neck and breasts for over a week afterwards; they were a yellowish hue when I finally left my husband, who didn’t notice them.
I left my husband after I came home from the lake. I told him it was over while we were in bed. He had made love to me three times in five years, and refused to get help. This convinced me that there was nothing wrong with him, that he was simply not attracted to me.
He packed all his things and left two weeks later, and took half of our books. It felt almost as if the books’ absence was also the absence of his body.
My mother called, after I told her that I had left my husband. She wanted to help me through my sadness, but I declined her calls. She had told me once, when I had confided in her years earlier about how I often felt hopeless and depressed, that I should pray. She said that praying and talking to God would help me feel better. I have seen my mother pray once or twice my entire life. I wanted to tell her what I had read once: that my husband was the one who had sinned. That he’d been depriving me of my rights.
It is now once again Ramadan. And so, I am thinking once again of the married man and of the way my skin felt for days after that night I committed zina for the first and only time; it felt as if the married man’s hands were still on me, this strange other, the one I’d invited to heal me, to help hurt me and release me, all at once. ●
Randa Jarrar is the author of the novel A Map of Home and the short story collection Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, which recently won the Story Prize Spotlight Award. She has received fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and Hedgebrook. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Sun, The Rumpus, the Oxford American, and others. She teaches at Fresno State's MFA Program and is at work on a memoir.