On my bedroom wall, there is an image of Superman, as drawn by Frank Quitely. It’s beautifully detailed and as he sits on a cloud Superman’s face offers a glimpse of what the word peaceful might actually look like on a human being. When I wake up in the morning it reminds me that people are, at heart, decent. It’s an image that, even before I fell in love with the character of Superman, I tried to emulate. In a real-world-I-bleed sort of way, I’ve always tried to be that hero: I care for, and take care of, those close to me as well as strangers whenever I can; I’m slow to anger; empathy is generally my first reaction when someone is being hurtful; through personal interactions, and on a larger scale through activist work over the last fifteen years, I’ve tried to make the world a better place. I want to be a good person and viewed myself as that for a long time. That changed last year when I had an affair.
My former girlfriend and I were together for two years. I loved her, and at many points near the beginning of our relationship, we talked about children. It was quite serious, and though the details of the how and why I cheated can be saved for another day, I thought it was important to realize why I failed. It’s something I think about daily, during large chunks of time in which I remember the look on her face when she found out what I had done by reading old text messages on my phone—a scene that I masochistically replay to remind me of my guilt. Why I failed to be the Superman that I always strived to be—for myself and for her—has forced me to a newer understanding, but the reason isn’t complicated: I was afraid. I was a coward.
How do you tell the person you love that they’re making you unhappy? How do you say that when you lay in bed with them every night you try to think through solutions to what exactly is wrong and come up with nothing. The obvious response—talk to them—had escaped me; I couldn’t deal with the thought of hurting her with the truth that things were not working out. As grown up as I knew she was, I was afraid she would shatter if I said that I wasn’t sure if we were right for each other. I was afraid of the aftermath of the truth. Afraid of the conflict. Afraid she somehow couldn’t handle what I had to say. And so my mind went through a strange bifurcation. On the one side I was with her, and within a committed relationship, I valued because in her I saw someone that had opened herself up to me and let me in her heart, as I had done with her. The other side of me would have sex with someone else, seeing it as a minor indulgence (like eating candy on diet), while violating the trust that my other half valued so much.
Okay, here’s one detail: I was spending time with a woman who laughed with me and it felt good. Months before I had gotten a new credit card for the purpose of transferring and consolidating some debt. I never planned to actually purchase anything with it, so when the Amex representative asked if I wanted a prefix to my name on the card, “a mister, or a doctor, or something like that,” I said “Okay. Yeah, I wanna be a doctor.” The card came, and sure enough, I was “Dr. Al Claremont,” last name misspelled and all. Me and the woman thought it was both silly and hilarious. After a few belly laughs I mentioned that my girlfriend thought it was silly in a bad way, and also immature of me.
I paused and looked down with an ironic smile, realizing that my attempts at playfulness or general joviality regularly fell flat with my love. It was a concern that Superman would have brought up in conversation and talked through with his partner. Maybe he and Lois Lane would work it out, maybe they wouldn’t and they’d go their separate ways, but everything would have been honest. I was scared and did the opposite. I slept with that woman.
That really is the point. A character that can’t be hurt, in this case physically, doesn’t have to be afraid. He’s not forced to make choices on the spectrum of fear to love, but can always decide what to do based on what is understood as right. Superman will always do what’s right because he has no reason not to. I thought that was me for the most part, but it wasn’t. A fear based on emotional turmoil can be just as harmful to the decision-making process as fearing some physical threat. While I have a general lack of fear of most things, I was scared of coming home and confronting my girlfriend.
What I did was not only hurtful but easy, in a cheap way. We had had conversations about our issues, but what if I had more clearly stated what I felt was wrong? Maybe if we had even gone to a therapist those issues have been worked out. Would I have felt so alone while living with someone who I cared about so deeply? I dismissed these ideas in my mind as wishful thinking. How could these problems work themselves out? I had been thinking about them for the last year we were together, but couldn’t think of a solution as we went to dinners with minimal interaction, or took long train rides to the beach in silence. But really, I never gave our relationship the chance to rise to the challenge. If I was stronger, maybe we could have worked out our problems and both come out better, more loving people for it, but I gave up. I just wasn’t strong enough.
There were a lot of things between us that weren’t right, from our different approaches to life’s curveballs, to our short list of shared interests (She liked The Eagles, I like Ghostface Killah). Things may have been doomed from the start. I didn’t think so, and I still don’t, but by cheating, I never pushed us beyond these hurdles.
I was introduced to comic books by my older brother Joesly, when I was about 10-year- old. I got into superhero stories because the wild adventures and outlandish characters were entertaining. It wasn’t until maybe eight or nine years ago that I realized what they were to me, or at least what they could be. The image of Superman on my wall is an ideal. He and the other costumed characters I read about throughout my young adult and early adult years represent what we’d like to see ourselves become. The whole premise of my brother’s favorite character, Spider-man, is his realization that those who have power must exercise that power to help others—”With great power comes great responsibility.”
Those comic book quotes and ethics became a sizable part of my moral fabric and having disregarded them so flagrantly has made me take stock of who I really am. Sometimes when I think about what I did—how I broke someone who was so precious to me—I begin to tear. If I’m standing, I have to sit down as my heart flutters and my jaw drops a little. It’s what I imagine being a party to murder feels like. It’s a feeling that reminds me that I’m not there yet. I’m not the person I want to be, but I will get there.
Before the relationship that ended last year, I was dating someone who found out that I was still active on a dating app and asked me why. We talked about why and she ended it with a hug before I walked out of her apartment forever. It was the first time I had ever been unfaithful. Before that, I was in a marriage with someone I had been with on and off for seven years. That was part of a very short run of long-term relationships where I did what I said I’d do… That’s all to say that my history with love has been taking a downward trajectory. I’m trying my best to right it now so that if I ever do find someone special again, I’ll be the person she can look at and be proud of. Not because of what I’ve shown her, but because I’ve shown her everything.
I was recently in a short relationship that didn’t work out. It was a great two months but we wanted different things in life. I told her, in detail, what happened in the past. I was clear with how I saw things for my future and explained what I was looking for in the warmest, but clearest way possible. It wasn’t new to me, but something I needed more practice in. When we broke up she told me that I gave her faith that good guys actually existed. Much of her dating experience consisted of one-off dates and short relationships with liars and creeps, but she saw me as an exception. That’s what I plan to be from now on—not necessarily a Superman, but a good man.