Pele Cox: I was the other woman

The poet Pele Cox was seduced by a wealthy married man and embarked on a passionate affair. Could it go beyond the hotel bedroom?

June 21 2015, 1:01am, The Sunday Times

 
All illustrations by Lyndon Hayes

All illustrations by Lyndon Hayes

 

The poet Pele Cox was seduced by a wealthy married man and embarked on a passionate affair. Could it go beyond the hotel bedroom?

We met at a party one night, three years ago. At the time I was poet in residence at the Royal Academy of Arts. He worked in finance. After two years of long lunches and friendship, he asked me if I would have an affair with him. I remember sliding back across the red leather seat in Ronnie Scott’s towards the door, saying: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous.” Two months later I was on a plane with him, keeping him company on a work trip to California.

I remember it like it was yesterday — going straight for dinner at the nearby restaurant, the two of us sitting there in perfect contentment, a pair of jet-lagged bookends, dragging vast martinis to our mouths in the empty dining room, his standard American hire car outside, waiting to take us back to the first hotel. He said: “Sometimes you have to fly 10 hours to get to where you really are.” But it is on the shortest journeys that a story can start, when you realise the affair will become a transaction of love. We hadn’t been to bed together — but it’s amazing how quickly you can feel married to what’s already married when it makes you feel that safe.It was in the five minutes down the hill from the restaurant to the room that I decided to let go, to let it be, to let it be whatever it wanted to be.

***

The Rules For Going Away With a Married Man

Ask for separate bedrooms, do your own thing. 
Do not fall in love with him.
Take books, including a guide book, so you can explore on your own if things get rocky.
Have a task, make sure he doesn’t think you think it’s a holiday.
Take shades through which he cannot see your eyes. Take your own money.
Be as blank as possible. Take a notebook to write in furiously.
Think along the lines you know: ‘Bikini, ‘The Horizon’, ‘Poetry’.
Let him decide.
Buy him a novel.
Take more poetry.
Some barrier – SPF 65 (not just for your skin).
Don’t text furiously it’s rude: Remember you are creating another world with just one room.
Don’t have the answers, they are up to him. Anyway, for now it’s you - and that is a silent thing.
Make him happy.
Think about your self-esteem and if you have any, cancel him.

***

I remember the moody green succulents gazing like monuments as we drove by, getting out of the car and walking towards my bedroom knowing he would follow, feeling relieved, as if this tiny structure over the other side of the world was the place we had unearthed from some past vocabulary. We became two souls walking towards a room disconnected from any reality, where we could reach out for one another in peace.

Afterwards we talked all night, the stars fired out of the window like bullet holes in a dark canopy. And we must have known the bullets would come, but by 10am we were head over heels, shot through with some draught of affection, truth, empathy, connection — and we were transformed by it. “Perhaps this started two years ago, the first night we met,” he said. I remember saying something like: “I never noticed.”

He went to work early and I remember folding up my clothes in neat piles and putting them away in the imitation George IV dresser. Thousands of miles from what was habitual, how could it be that I suddenly belonged to this earth? That, in this unfamiliar room, I had reached home? For the first time, I felt the ground under my feet. I spied the stub of my boarding pass on the dresser: “LHR-LAX”. This was a different continent.

On the third day, he said: “Pack up your stuff, we are changing hotels. Things are serious, we should spend the last few days somewhere really special.”

 

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We got in the car and took the brief, straight road from one hotel room to the next. I remember how nervous he was. The perfect room is a small white cube overlooking acres of ocean, next to countless identical rooms, perfectly stacked. I can’t remember the number on the door because it is in the thousands. I see a whale and a sunset from the tiny balcony. For much of the time when he is back from work, he is staring out at the middle distance. He doesn’t know what to do. He knows he is in trouble.

During the few days in the hotel while he is out at work, everything becomes surreal: I do not go out of the hotel complex; I look out of the floor-to-ceiling windows while I wait for the lift to the terrace. I sit all day, whale-watching and grazing on luxury, the half-written page of my notebook spread out in front of me. Philip Larkin wrote that a church is “a serious house on serious earth”. The same is true of poetry. But I did not yet know the way in which this house would be rocked to its very foundations and change the way I saw myself, and my relationship to my notebook and its empty pages.

I drop a napkin; another is placed on my lap within seconds. He says I can have anything from the hotel boutique and charge it to the bill. I spend what feels like hours in the small room, packed with overpriced sarongs and jewellery. Looking back, I must have been in shock because I stare at those objects as though they were something in a museum, objects from the hotel that would become part of an unknown future. Everything is captivating: this other world, this luxury and then this love, appearing at the end of every artificial, overpriced “slow-mo” day. After about 24 hours here I start to feel like the hotel, carved into the edges of the rock, part of the geology of illicit love living among the other guests. I am like a goldfinch with my foot attached by a string to the bed.

The only nice thing in the shop is a white silk jumper with gold edging on the sleeves and neckline. It’s $400. I try it on. It suits me. I put it back on the rail; that is “whore country”.

***

The Ritz – Carlton, Laguna Niguel

He goes away.
he comes back, he goes away.

He takes me to another hotel.
It's higher, clearer, more beautiful, it is as if

our affair has been moved to a costlier ocean.
That low, cool, marble atrium, the dollars of footsteps and

orange blossom hoisted in their garlands higher than us even.
Everyone is in white, waiting as our car rounds the bend,

a swarm of help. The valets come like large white butterflies.
I have been lifted to a hand-made heaven

so visible it hurts: Wow, wow!! I said,
getting out of our black car into the white release of an asylum

(millionaire America style). So this is love?
I will not leave this complex for three days. Then we are at

Reception. This is the part we hate, with the names again and
the silver rail with our bags, which hang like nylon meat, to the lift.

Along the brown marble walkway we run. Ancient Rome, Disney, Tutankhamun.
“So, Mr and Mrs Brown, are you enjoying your stay?” “We’re not married”, we say.

Walking beside this man, we know what is true. For a moment he is our sect, takes us
away from sense to this perfect white room, leads us

to lie along the white down of a bed.
I say, “Are you afraid of where you are?”

“I think I hold back,” he says,
“But coming here is the opposite of that.”

***

Some people are built for affairs, and some are not. This man was not. But we are so in love that we wake up in the middle of the night to hold on to each other, just to feel the rush of joy, that feeling of belonging and connection. As Clint Eastwood’s character says in The Bridges of Madison County: “This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime.”

Then, in the middle of all the happiness, the recalibration: it’s time to go back to London. There is a powerful urge to flee, never to go back, partly because you are trying to create a new reality but, as the pixelations of the real life come into view, you realise this is, of course, impossible.

When we got back, it was all nights without him as he clambered back into his old life. We became all the clichés: the odd text, full of yearning and guilt; a few nights in hotels on Park Lane. The minute we get back to reality, there is none for us.

The patterns of reality can only be the family and work and the routine that sews all that together. The DNA of a successful affair is time and space, and without these things it cannot be — and can only live in the head, like a remembered movie. The hope of a shared future disappears like a body through a trap door. You become a victim of logic, but still you dream of change.

The irony is that your very existence means it is easier for him to keep everything the same, and this slowly dawns on you. By your very existence, you have made everyday life just a little more bearable, you are still secret but you become integrated; seeing you is a way of topping up all the things that come with that internal reality — virility, attraction, connection. They can become virtual with you there; he doesn’t need to leave his life to have them, and you have shown him that. This is the perfect island to visit, the perfect fragment — it’s never very far from the mainland — and this is what the entrenched and determined mistress tries to fight against. By her very existence, she is fighting a losing battle.

***

Betrayal

Everyone is so nice. I’m full of betrayal,
so is he.
He gets back from the office and

we

have to lie down,
not for the sex
but the sea change. He’s very quiet,
staring at the ceiling in our room
(both Sistine and pure blank white, like
A stripped bed after lovers have left). He says,

“We could just meet and not have sex,
you say so much that makes me feel odd.”

“But what else is there to say?
It is the polite fade out of the brave, isn’t it, walking away?
And I think you are, by the way.”

And I take him down to the sea.
“You must go in without me.”

He wades back. His silver watch gleams in the sunset.
“You look like a different person now,” I say
and he takes me to the lift and he takes me to the lift.

***

 

 

 

Rhyme and reasoning: “Your very existence means it is easier for him to keep everything the same, and this slowly dawns on you,” says Pele Cox (Pal Hansen)

 

After six months he had started to pace the room too often, hating the lies that are dealt out repeatedly by text and on the phone. It is all getting to him. Soon the connection, however strong, starts to feel like a disconnect unless your lover is an indifferent liar, or he has a plan. Still more time passes and I can feel the sweat, guilt and lies building up around him, like the skin of a crocodile. I don’t think I can take much more of the pacing and the fear of being found out, the logistics of being second best, meeting at 10pm, gone by 8am.

He becomes more difficult to reach, even though you couldn’t slide a piece of paper between us in bed. The love is strong between us and never wavers, and the coordinates have changed, so that he is hinting he is going to tell his wife about me, and we even go to look at flats to rent in Pimlico. I say to him: “When this is all over, what’s the first thing we’ll do together?” “Oh, go and stay in one of those huts on stilts in the Maldives.”

It’s then I realise this has nothing to do with any real change. How could an exotic holiday be anything to do with this map of love, its edges and hard voyages, its genuine trajectory? This affair has found its default — and it is fantasy. The ticker tape across the sky has started to read: “He will never leave her.”

***

Marriot Grovesnor House Hotel Park Lane

This strange hotel
Lies here trapped,

Iconoclast, ally.
My shape across this room

Distorts
Without you. Why am I here

So impersonal in this emptiness,
Its only form gone back to its wife

It is the act of home placing me here
How sour it is,

The yellow wallpaper,
The white lampshade against it,

The pneumatic drilling outside
At the edge of the world

It comes through this savage change. Then your text
Suddenly saying

Along an Elgin Marbles photo,
That shows your name,

I’m crazy for you baby and I’m on the train.
Sleep like a baby. I’m in a daze – but deeply happy.’

The sky stops, the curtains preen their acrylic,
The terrible pictures of Charleston girls

Hurl abuse at what
We cannot have again.

***

For a mistress, there are two things working in opposition during an affair. When you fall in love with somebody, it is hard to argue against the core fact: you have fallen in love with life again, you feel the life coming back into your fingertips. The illicit lovers watch every moment like sand running through an hourglass: “I can’t see you again, but I can’t not,” from connection to severance and back again, month in, month out, trying to hold on to a life that has no life.

So, after a while, however precious, it’s no use — it has no use to the mistress, and that is the tragedy. She is under a bell jar, sitting in public places and hiding in hotel rooms, the sides shrinking and shrinking until, like some distorted Dorothy, she starts to realise there’s no place like home and the next hotel room is it. As Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

After a few months, the affair started to draw different kinds of parallels. My poems are no longer lustrous arias, but skeletal cries for intervention. A poem picks up your soul and runs with it, as does the beginning of an affair. But, after a while, the hotel room feels like a camping trip in the rain: however much you move on and pitch the tent on another site, the weather always follows. And these hotels were no longer perched on rocks in California — they had become large, anonymous buildings in the city I was born. And, however long the mistress leaves him waiting in the foyer, she is always alone in a space he visits, now and then.

***

Phone

“I have told her. It is not good she has taken it very badly.”
He rings from the bottom of the garden. Within an hour she has rung all her
friends to tell them about me.

“She will destroy me” he says - as if I am all the things she is. 
He tells me everything in graphic detail. I am his therapist. 
“She’s on her knees on the floor. 
She says she can’t believe it,
says she will kill herself.
She is saying I am not the man she married,
I'm a sick bastard.
She says she will make it all better.”

She is sailing the ship - she cannot sail it.
She has hit a toxic land full of blackmail and
unhappy kids and suicide. This land, that is a hater of our bliss.
Our depths are pure but our surface is riddled with it.

My telephone’s a broken surface, 
its shards filling my ears four times a day.
It is hell being without him, this man of my heart, who has suddenly disappeared. And
we will not survive this - nothing can survive this.

Within a week my whole personality has changed,
whore, gold-digger, home-wrecker, thief, feckless destroyer of worlds. Disease
to be eradicated. I am nuclear: Hiroshima, Belsen, 9/11. Of course
this is not what I wanted to be and I watch
our love disappear underneath.

“She’s on her knees on the floor. 
She says she can’t believe it,
says she will kill herself.
She is saying I am not the man she married,
that I'm a sick bastard,
She says she will make it all better.”

He is under house arrest, is not allowed to leave. 
her friends say my picture on Facebook looks just like her ten years ago.
So this is falling in love with a man and setting him free.
“Basically she wants you dead and she’s forbidding me from loving you,

she's only after your money,” 
as she looks through the bank statements to see what he has spent on me
(a few dinners, that is all and some poetry).
“ I will destroy your life and the children's if you leave.”

“She’s on her knees on the floor,
she says she can’t believe it,
says she will kill herself.
She is saying I am not the man she married
That I'm a sick bastard.
She says she will make it all better.”

“Basically, she is offering me the whole package:
kids, house, our friends, security and
family holidays. She is saying you and me
will never last, you'll find something better and leave.”

I will never leave you, I try to say but my voice disappears.
I can only say, “I see” and “poor you” and “what are we going to do?”
So gagged I am by my love for you. I dream of Parvati and Boudicca but
I have become the woman from Solomon who will not tear the child in half
and so has he.

“She says she can’t be bothered to find another man at this stage, says
with help from her friends
our love can be eradicated by the end of the summer
by a nice expensive holiday.”

***

It is an autumnal day and I am walking to lunch in St James’s Park. One of those stormy afternoons in London out of nowhere, past Piccadilly, down towards the grand old Duke of York and the palace, the buildings like wedding cakes. I am late and aggravated, not just because of the pollen from the plane trees, thick in the air, like features reaching into my eyes and throat, but because I am going to meet this man I love in a restaurant I have never heard of. I’m worried I won’t be able to find it because it is in the middle of a park, and my Google map is just a blue line jutting through a green space — but also because, as I rush past the high trees and across the red road of the Mall, it slowly dawns on me that this might be the last time we meet, the last time we will see each other.

Three days previously, he had told his wife about me. Now the freedoms that we counted to be in our possession will be wrenched from us by the force of domesticity, responsibility, children and “my wife knows”. He is under house arrest and has been let out under the pretext of a meeting that he has cut short in order to meet me. To his credit, he had confessed, he had told her off his own bat — he hadn’t just waited until she found out — and that made him a good person, right? Or a better person than someone who might lie for years.

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None of these things matter to me in this moment. All I know is that I must get to him. I don’t know what state he will be in and I have been worried. I catch myself thinking that he may even have left her, and that will be it, and all the things that one dares not hope for may become true. All life’s rewards may tip into my lap, and my love may be mine to keep.

I could see the restaurant and there was something about the shape of the body in the chair — as if he had been cut out of cardboard — and the way he was sitting at the table outside, looking fixedly at the duck pond, that did not look hopeful.

Both parties know that the end of the affair will come. The form the end will take is unknown until it happens. In our case, he told his wife about me. Whatever this perfect love was between us, it was not enough for him. He went back to his family and, because of our affair, was a better husband and father. And, I, in poetry, wrote the story.

The writing process and the readings are what saved me from the desolation after he left me. I have been lucky he gave me a wealth of creative experience to put in my back pocket. There was something pure and grounding about putting one word in front of another, like learning to walk again. Poetry is a life in itself. It is about creation and it can recalibrate perception. Shelley said that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and poetry has helped me to become the legislator of my own experience.

***

Lunch in the Park

He says, “me and her we had sex
last night.”
 I try to ask casually
“Was it good?” But the pollen is
choked in my throat. “it was quite”

he says and I notice this is
his wife and her words I'm eating
lunch with. I know
he is trying to end this.

The pollens droop their animal into our food.
His hand clenches his knife. I think
how different his head looks on

this raised platform surrounded
in real life. But he cannot
reach for the axe she sent with him
he can’t do it without her there.

He goes back to work. 
I go for a glass of wine nearby
because I can hardly walk even though it is 2.00pm.
A man sits down next to me.

It's a summer afternoon and
everyone’s outside so that’s all right.
We talk. He asks me what I do, where
I live, all about everything in fact.

I text you, you come out of the office,
we take a taxi to the station, you
talk about taking a week out
to go and learn dry-stone walling.

We get out and she calls
and you’re kicking and kicking the railings by the station hotel
like you’re kicking her out
then she’s kicking you out,

packing your bags as you speak,
“putting them out on the street”.
You are broken and homeless, you say
“let's sleep here.”

She knows he's still with me and it's all surveillance. 
So within an hour he has promised himself back. 
My heart is breaking. As we are about to leave,
in the lobby, a woman from the next table comes over
with a note and thrusts it into his hand.
And we read, our heads

like tired lilies at a grave.
It says, “You’d better catch that 9.40 train, 
or your life is over.
You and her you’ll never prosper.”