Before Covid-19, Chris was a great husband - attentive, supportive and generous. He took his family on lavish holidays abroad and always made sure to listen to his wife’s stories about her work colleagues. The key, he found, was to remember one key fact from the previous conversation and to start a sentence with ‘I thought Sandra already…’ or ‘Is Elaine still…’ This, he thought smugly, showed a level of engagement that his friends didn’t have. Chris had a high level banking job in the city and most of his friends treated their wives like objects. Not like him. He respected his wife.
He loved Jess, too. She was bright and outgoing, not to mention beautiful. She had long, curly hair that she dyed regularly so that the grey only ever made a brief appearance and she kept her figure trim by going to thrice weekly HIIT classes. He earned enough that she didn’t have to work - so few of his friend’s wives did - but she was determined and ambitious and wanted an identity outside him and the children. He admired that about her and often boasted to his colleagues about her work ethic.
Because of their busy schedules, they had to consciously make time for each other. He often didn’t get home till 8 or 9 at night so they always made sure that between 9 and 10 they sat together and discussed their day, the kids and the wider world. Chris was a very happy man.
Then lockdown happened.
Chris found himself as one of the millions around the world who were suddenly working from home. This did not suit his personality at all - he liked the hustle and bustle of the office and the competitive nature of his colleagues, which was considerably muted now that they could take meetings in their pyjamas, as long as they wore a shirt over the top.
Jess was furloughed from her job at a packaging company because suddenly, nobody was looking to change their products or spend extra money on new ones.
The children, all three of them, became homeschooled overnight. From sniping about how little teachers did and wondering if they even deserved their end-of-year box of chocolates, Chris and Jess realised how challenging teaching actually was. Their four year old was learning phonics and had told Chris with no little amount of derision that he was pronouncing the ‘d’ sound wrong. Their 6 year old was attempting multiplication but apparently the method had changed since her parents had been taught it; they’d all ended up having a little cry after that session. And their 11 year old was learning about the subjunctive tense. Chris didn’t even try to touch that.
Chris went from having a wife he adored and children he loved spending time with to living with a stressed out harpy and three little hellions that he got absolutely no relief from. His home office saw more footfall than Kings Cross station and his sacred hour debrief with Jess was now given to catching up on the work that he’d been unable to do while he was failing dramatically at being a teacher.
He was stressed, depressed and, worst of all, he couldn’t talk to Jess about any of it. Every time he started to point out - reasonably, he thought - that as she was furloughed, maybe she should be teaching the three children, she blew up at him. She was completely impossible and seemed to think that he should be taking some hand in the housework and food preparation as the cleaner was banned from the house and he was technically physically available. She didn’t seem to understand that if he didn’t work, they wouldn’t have a house for their cleaner to come back to. She didn’t get that the fact that he was in the house didn’t mean he was free. And, as the cherry on top of a truly miserable sundae, their sex life had gradually decreased to nothing.
Was it any wonder he found his way into Cheetr?
The app was one that his friends had been raving about for a year or so. He’d always been repulsed by the idea of cheating. Why would he need to? Jess fulfilled all his needs and more. But having a mistress or two was, in the same vein as having a bit of a coke habit, de rigueur for bankers nowadays.
And Jess was no longer giving him anything that he needed.
So he downloaded the app.
It was disguised as a calculator and you could only gain access by typing in the correct number sequence into the keypad. Once in, everything was anonymous. You could put up profile pictures and information if you wanted, of course, but Chris was new to this and did not have the confidence that his banking friends did. He chose the alias ‘Greg Jones’ and entered details that were similar but not identical to the truth. A career in stocks and shares; two children; a distant stay-at-home wife. Enough that he could be fairly honest with whoever he connected with but different enough that nobody would be able to identify him. When asked what he was hoping to get out of the app, he put, ‘A connection and maybe some fun too’ and then had to put his phone down for a bit to feel sad.
It started simply enough. He was matched with a few people and some were interesting enough - or had photos attractive enough - to spend a few hours messaging. His office had a lock, though he wasn’t allowed to use it when the children were awake in case they had homework questions, but he found himself locking himself away in the evening for an hour or so most nights. Jess never tried the door so had no idea but Chris wasn’t taking any chances with her walking in on him with his pants undone.
At first, it was a naughty thrill. He ended up messaging the same three women on a rough rotation and initially it was just about finding a bit of relief and enjoying flirting with someone again. Then one of the women, Susan, became a little more.
She was one of the ones that had no picture but he’d been intrigued by her profile because she had once worked in the same field as Jess, albeit in a different part of the country. She’d given it up 12 years ago, when she had had children but, still. The vaguest connection to the woman his wife had once been was enough and he found himself messaging her more and more, way beyond their little dalliances each night.
Susan was funny and engaging. Her views on politics lined up with his and they messaged for hours about the incompetent politicians and the ways in which they should improve. She had an utterly filthy mouth, too, and it took him right back to the early days of dating Jess, before marriage and kids and life made their time in the bedroom mundane and repetitive. He found himself confessing things - about his fantasies, about his ambitions, about his own failings as a father and husband - that he would never have dreamed of telling Jess. And Susan never judged him. She listened and comforted and indulged.
Chris found himself itching to be away from Jess and the kids as often as possible so that he could message Susan instead. As he withdrew, his wife did too, possibly out of a sense of self-preservation. She gave up on trying to engage him in conversation and this made Susan all the more important.
It wasn’t one way, either. Susan wasn’t married but she did live with her partner and their two children and she was going through much of the same things he was. They bonded over the creative writing and long division dramas. Her partner was, in much the way Jess was, distant and abrasive. He worked from home and holed himself away in his office from 9 till 7, which left her to do all the childcare and home maintenance. He had an important job as a London lawyer and she understood his need to keep working, even though the legal sector had slowed down somewhat. She said that she wouldn’t mind taking the brunt of the domestic side - she was a stay-at-home mother after all and had been doing the lion’s share for years - but her boyfriend never showed any appreciation or offered any support even though he was now around 24/7. She felt isolated and abandoned. Chris listened and consoled her, making sure she knew that her partner’s self-centred world view wasn’t a reflection on her.
Months passed. Every day, Chris felt further and further away from Jess and closer and closer to Susan. One night, Jess, desperate to reconnect after months of celibacy, dressed in black lingerie and seduced him. Afterwards, Chris lay next to his sleeping wife, feeling the sick stab of betrayal. He confessed the next day to Susan. She had slept with her other half in the last week or so, too, she said, and Chris had to bite down on the jealousy he felt. They agreed to turn down their spouse’s advances from then on, saving themselves for each other.
It was the day before lockdown was lifted that Chris realised how deeply in love with Susan he was. She was at the back of his mind constantly and the buzz of his phone made him happier than he’d felt in years. Part of him was ashamed about breaking Jess’s trust but they were more like roommates now anyway. She had withdrawn almost entirely from him, focusing exclusively on the children. He wondered if she sensed that he had already mentally left her; she certainly seemed to carry a cloud of hurt and sadness around that he found faintly irritating.
Chris messaged Susan that evening. He loved her, he said, and he needed to see her. They agreed to meet as soon as restrictions lifted and when it was announced, a mere 12 hours later, that the world was going to start making its way back to normal, Chris felt an excitement that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager.
They hadn’t video called at all over their four month courtship, fearing the interruption of their partners. The one thing that remained, Chris decided, before he could leave his wife was to see if the physical attraction was as strong in person as it was over IM. In fact, it had become somewhat of a taboo to ask each other about what they looked like. Chris found this deeply exciting, though. In his head, she looked like a different fantasy at any given moment.
He told Jess that work had called him in for a full day meeting. She was frustrated because her work had done the same - pulling her off of furlough now that the government bailout money was drying up - and she’d been relying on him for childcare. But Susan had promised that she could make it up to the city and he was not giving up his opportunity to meet her. In the end, they managed to persuade the nanny to begin working again, earlier than government guidance.
Chris worked hard on putting plans in place. Lockdown was only just starting to ease, after all. There were few places that were open to the public yet but his bank had a floor of a hotel in town permanently booked for visiting clients and, through significant wrangling and a fair amount of deception, he had managed to secure one of the rooms.
Susan was to meet him in the lobby at 10am. There was only a skeleton staff there but the hotel had been accommodating key workers through lockdown and he had no idea how many people would be around. They agreed, then, to wear certain things, in the style of old Hollywood movies, to identify themselves. Susan was to wear a red blouse and black trousers, with the cliched pink carnation in her jacket’s buttonhole. Chris was to wear a blue shirt and green tie. He’d chosen a yellow rose as his flower of choice. He bought the bouquet on his weekly trip to the supermarket and presented it, sans rose of course, to Jess. She seemed more sad than pleased but he shrugged it off. She had been so weird recently.
The morning finally arrived.
Chris left while Jess was still in the shower, shouting a hasty goodbye and an excuse about avoiding rush hour. The truth was that he wanted to prepare the hotel room with champagne and make sure that he was in place way before Susan arrived. He felt the same way he’d done when Jess had first agreed to date him, all those years ago. He’d arrived early at the cafe back then as well.
At 9:55, Chris was sitting in the lobby, ostensibly reading the newspaper. His hands were clammy and the paper shook slightly as he watched furtively for the love of his life to walk through the doors.
When she did, time slowed. She was wearing black heels that elongated her legs that he could see, even wrapped in black cotton, were shapely and long. Her red shirt clung to her curves and her pink carnation sat high over her right breast. Dark, curly hair bounced as she walked tentatively up to him and they paused, drinking in the sight of each other. Chris was shaken to his very core. She was beautiful. More beautiful than he’d imagined. But…