You should really meet my friend Mason*. You're basically the same person. You'd be obsessed with each other," said Ace*, my skinny college roommate. I had just made a highly inappropriate joke, peppered with c-words, which apparently signalled that this Mason guy and I were a match made in heaven.
Mason was dark-haired with an earring and miscellaneous tattoos. Although he wasn't traditionally attractive, what he did have was charisma. When he spoke, people were drawn to him. He had a way of making you feel important, like you were the only person in the world.
We finally met one night towards the end of our first semester of freshman year. Instantly, a chemical, animalistic attraction possessed us. From the moment he said hello, he didn't take his eyes off of me. His laugh gave me goosebumps.
Mason's charms were like an infectious disease: One person in the room caught the bug and then passed it on to someone else. Pretty soon everyone was lapping up what he was serving, myself included.
I don't know how much we actually spoke that evening, but I sensed that our bodies needed to be touching. Naked.
As our group left the pre-game to go out for the night, Mason and I redirected the cab we were sharing to go home and strip each other's clothes off in my extra-long twin bed. I had my first orgasm with another person that night. That oxytocin, it's like a drug. I became an addict; I needed my next hit.
Ace was right: We were a match made in heaven. Two hedonists with a penchant for Jim Beam and bad decisions. The morning after we first had (mindblowing) sex and went about our days, we simultaneously made our Facebook statuses, "[Insert name] is a hot mess." It was WiFi-enabled cosmic fate.
We got close quickly, spending our days in bed hungover and our nights drinking cheap whiskey and having lots of sex. When we weren't together, we were sending graphic texts to each other on our flip phones.
At bars and clubs, we spent entire nights wrapped around each other. I felt like I had won the big prize. On Mason's arm, I absorbed his energy. I became the most interesting person in the room, too.
Our foundation was sex, but Mason soon grew to be more than a lover. He became my best friend, someone I felt comfortable talking about absolutely everything with. Well, with one exception: His girlfriend back home.
The girlfriend may be the betrayed one, but there is no worse agony than being the mistress. You are the half-loved one. You're never "The One." You're the one's who not good enough. You're never the priority. Eventually, you forget what it's like to be treated as a human being who's deserving of love.
And though I knew Mason had a serious girlfriend before I slept with him, I don't think that either one of us even considered that a reason to avoid hooking up. We were nineteen, an age where you lack big-picture thinking and are almost always drunk. I suppose I knew I was supposed to care, but I didn't.
The weight of the affair didn't set in until I fell in love with him—which I did quickly and violently.
And then, the inevitable: I became every cliché side-chick. Thinking I was different and special...knowing in my bones that we would end up together. But I wasn't different. I wound up so absorbed in his charms that he was even able to convince me to edit most of his college papers (add tutor to the growing list of talents I was offering up with no remuneration). I pretended his girlfriend didn't exist and refused to speak of her, forbidding Ace and our other friends from broaching the subject, too. I was in a constant state of frenzy: Wrapped up in "the game" of winning him, while battling an overwhelming sense of impermanence.
It was a concoction of self-preservation and self-loathing: the deadly makeup of the side-chick's psyche.
One morning, lying naked and fresh from sex, I picked up Mason's phone while he was in my shower. It didn't have a lock. I don't know why I did it other than masochism, but there it was: a text from his girlfriend that said, "I want to f*ck you."
I dropped the phone and pretended it never happened. It's surprisingly easy to convince yourself that abnormal things are normal when you're sleeping with someone else's boyfriend. In my mind, he was my boyfriend.
But at the same time, I knew things weren't quite right. Our bond was somehow growing both deeper and weaker at the same time. I became desperate for his affection and more insecure about our arrangement. If I just show him how amazing and funny and gorgeous I am, he'll eventually wake up and realize that I'm the one for him, right? Of course, that's never how it goes. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
If you're a crappy enough person to juggle two women in the first place, why would you suddenly breakup with one of them when you could keep a girlfriend at school and another back home? It's simple logic.
Everything came to a head one morning in early April. Ace informed me that Mason's girlfriend was in town and that the whole crew was getting together for lunch.
Mason hadn't told me about her visit, obviously. I was terrified by how horrible I felt. With my heart like a fragile balloon, I spent the entire day in bed, unable to move. I didn't even cry, instead just laying there in agony.
Mason and I continued sleeping together sporadically for a few weeks after, but the whole thing felt poisoned. The bubble had burst. The harsh reality of the situation was beyond plausible deniability.
Other than one night at a club where we did too much cocaine and screamed at each other, there was no grand finale or fiery crescendo. The novelty of it all had faded. He wasn't willing to slow down and commit to me, and I'd grown worn out from waiting.Where spending time with him had once excited me, now it just made me sad.
The texts were fewer and farther between, until they stopped coming at all. I started sleeping with some other guy and then another; he started sleeping with other women too—and notably continued dating his girlfriend.
As many freshman-year friendships do, our crew eventually splintered into factions. Mason and his friends went one way, Ace and I another. We didn't have to avoid each other because there was nothing to avoid. There was no awkwardness or harsh feelings, just shades of disillusionment.
Being the side chick means you're painted as a vile harlot who is out to ruin the lives of committed, "good" women. Conveniently exempted from this stigma: the person who chose to cheat on this "good woman." Despite the reputation, I know these truths about a side chick: She's rarely malicious. She isn't sleeping with another woman's boyfriend or husband because she's a terrible, home-wrecking nutjob. She's in so deep that the consequences don't matter. She doesn't want to be a side chick. She wants to be the only chick. The only problem is that she, like many women, chose to love a jerk.
To this day I still feel worse for myself than I do for his girlfriend. My adult brain says I shouldn't, that I should take full responsibility for my part in the affair, but she was never real to me and she never will be.
She and I never saw each other in person and I never felt her pain. When Mason texted me the following year, announcing he'd made a mistake and wanted to try with me "for real" because he'd finally left her, she still felt like a character in a TV show. It was too late then, of course.
Now, years later, in a committed relationship with my domestic partner (and future husband), I can look back on this experience and recognize it as my foundation for understanding adult relationships. It isn't as screwed up as it sounds.
I know what real love is now because I finally have it unconditionally. Looking back on what I had with Mason, I can see how glaringly wrong it all was. It felt like love, but it wasn't. Love lifts you up. It makes you feel whole, happy, confident, and adored. It doesn't eat away at you like bacteria.
I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what I'd done to end up in such a screwed up situation. I even cheated on several really good (and a few really bad) people. Therapists have told me this was a way of trying to take back some power. I think I just didn't know what love was supposed to look like in real life.
With a lot of work toward self-awareness, I've found that I am deserving of love. All women are—no matter their past mistakes. Your past does not hinder your ability to grow and change. It fuels it.
*Names have been changed.
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Gigi Engle is a writer, certified sexologist, sex coach, and sex educator. Her work regularly appears in many publications including Brides, Marie Claire, Elle Magazine, Teen Vogue, Glamour and Women's Health.
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