Eavesdropping on Adultery


For Sheila Nevins, an overheard conversation on a train proves to be a fascinating window into marriage — and female friendships

The Amtrak from New York to Providence was much easier than taking a puddle-jumper flight. The seats were comfortable, and I decided to read John Updike’s Endpoint. Just this one trip doing something not related to work – just this one time.

I found myself sitting opposite two reasonably attractive women, somewhere in their late 40s. They were engaged in a delicious conversation about adultery — and I was transfixed. I did my “pretend-read” act, displaying deep interest in my book while intently turning the pages that could have been just as well blank.

WOMAN ONE: Yes … but frankly it wouldn’t matter to me if Chuck screwed around. We’ve been married nearly 30 years and let’s face it, sex is dull. I fake everything and it’s really not that frequent.

WOMAN TWO: How frequent?

WOMAN ONE: The truth?

WOMEN TWO: Of course, Madam Genevieve.

GENEVIEVE: Maybe once a month. Maybe once in two months. Sometimes longer. Who keeps track, Margaret? We’re stuck with each other. Isn’t that what one calls “mature love?”

MARGARET: They say the pheromones wear off and attraction goes out the window.

GENEVIEVE: What’s a phen-a-rome?

MARGARET: A pheromone, not phenarome. It’s a smell – one that attracts the sexes, like beetles and apes and a man and a woman. It makes them lusty – for a while at least.

GENEVIEVE: Well we ain’t got none, ole Chucky and I. We’ve been with each other since high school. Then it was hot and heavy and panting. Then Chuck had hair. And what about you, Ms. Margaret? Ms. Sexual Silencio?

MARGARET: Boris is just Boris.

GENEVIEVE: What does that mean?

MARGARET: Sex was never the mainstay. He’s a genius, you know. They won’t part with him at Yale. They even matched the Stanford offer.

GENEVIEVE: Boris is certainly smart. No doubt about it. Would you care if he “strayed?”

MARGARET: Boris isn’t the straying type.

GENEVIEVE: Why do you say that?

MARGARET: He’s like a lab rat. He never leaves his research lab.

GENEVIEVE: I guess like Chuck’s addiction to the Red Sox.

MARGARET: At least they’re seasonal. Labs are forever – 24/7. They never close. Boris and I have been married for 27 years in February. Oops. No, no, 28 years in March.

GENEVIEVE: Just like me and Chuck. Chuck is sweet, you could say. I love him in my own way … Margaret, I’m exhausted. Shopping wears me out. Want a coffee? It’s just two cars up.

MARGARET: Yes, yes, coffee.

GENEVIEVE: With what inside?

MARGARET: This time with cream and Sweet & Low. I’m a study in contradictions.

Genevieve gets up and moves, swaying with the train, after taking a bill out of her wallet. She disappears as the electric train door lets her pass through. It closes. Margaret takes her compact and lipstick out of her bag and powders her nose, then rubs a bright pink lipstick over her lips several times – puckering at her reflection. As for me, I am still “pretend reading” when Margaret suddenly reaches for her cell phone and dials. She checks her face in her compact mirror and watches herself as she talks.

MARGARET: (whispering into the phone) Chuck. Hi my darling. I am here with Genevieve on Amtrak. We shopped till we dropped. She went for coffee. Chuck, she has no idea. You would not believe our conversation. She said you have sex. (Pause.) You don’t, do you? (Pause.) Yes, I knew it wasn’t true. Darling, poopsie, I miss you. I get all gooey just thinking about you. Tomorrow at seven, yes. I want you badly. (Pause.) Me too. I love you too. Got to go. Adieu hot pants chili pepper.

None too soon, Genevieve returns with two cups of coffee tipping to the train’s jolts. Margaret puts away her mirror and phone.

GENEVIEVE: Darn, guess what? I forgot your Sweet & Low. Sorry, sorry.

MARGARET: No difference, I can drink it without it. I’m desperate for caffeine. I love the black blouse you bought. A bit pricey but awfully pretty. Chuck will love you in it.

GENEVIEVE: (smiling) Chuck won’t even notice, Margaret. Trust me.

MARGARET: I trust you.

And they sipped their coffee staring out the window. The conductor bellowed, “Next stop, New Haven! New Haven, next stop!” The women gathered their packages and waited for the train to come to a halt. And me? I wished John Updike were around to hear them, so he could write this all down for you to read.

12 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Maizie James says:

    Dear Sheila

    Um … You’re kidding.  Right?  Did you make this up?  Be honest.  I confess that I’m a bit gullible and naive.  Cause the scenario you describe including the characters, the setting on the train, and the theme all seems convoluted/contrite – a bit stranger than fiction.  But then, I have hear similar stories involving adultery.  Still, please tell me it ain’t true.

  2. avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

    This story, and I assume it’s mostly fiction, is interesting in light of the Anthony Weiner scandal because it seems to me that the word “delicious” to describe a conversation––and I agree with Maizie’s assessment––regarding a betrayal, not only of spouses, but of a friendship is hardly delicious unless one views lying somehow titillating and Margaret’s little chat with Chuck at the end sealed the deal for me in terms of flummery––– I mean who on earth talks that way?

    P.S. I would stick to Updike, if I were you, and stay away from those strangers on a train.

  3. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Maizie. Phyllis.  I’ve been around as they say. Too much looking back.  Maybe you’re on the wrong trains.  Me, I’ve heard and overheard this time and time again through the years. Men aren’t the only ones who stray in marriage. Women just don’t get caught as often. Mainly because husbands never consider the possibility that while they’re cheating, the wife may be cheating as well.

    • avatar Maizie James says:

      Baby Snooks,

      You misunderstand.

      It’s not that I don’t believe that these type of exchanges happen. They do. Unfortunately far too often. Rather, the way Sheila presents the story …. well, it seems concocted/fabricated.

      I love Sheila’s sharp wit, intelligence, and writing style. So. Perhaps, this was an instance where I mistook her story literally, rather than rhetorically.

  4. avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

    Dear Snooks: Maybe Maize doesn’t know that women are compliant in these sexual escapades, although I doubt that very much, our comments veer in another direction. Shelia, in the past, has written some very clever pieces; this one seemed trite, unbelievable, and I’m afraid, corny. I think you misunderstood our––well, at least my problem with it.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      It may seem trite but I remember well a conversation with a friend, who then became a former friend, relating a similar conversation she had with another friend. Talking about how stupid the other friend was for not even suspecting her husband was having an affair with someone. “And I would love to see the look on her face if she found out I was the other woman.” I excused myself and left. The other friend did find out.  And took the husband to the cleaners as they say. And had the friend sent to Social Siberia. Not because she had an affair with her husband. But because the “other woman” was a friend. Until she found out.  Of course that was in the old days when even the most immoral among us had some morals despite appearances that we didn’t. 

      • avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

        Sorry, Snooks, it’s perhaps my fault for not making myself clear. I was not doubting the content, obviously this kind of thing happens all the time; I was commenting on the WRITING itself. And if one looks at this as something “delicious”, then make it so. It didn’t ring true as fiction or reality because of silly sentences like, MARGARET: (whispering into the phone) Chuck. Hi my darling. I am here with Genevieve on Amtrak. We shopped till we dropped. She went for coffee. Chuck, she has no idea. You would not believe our conversation. She said you have sex. (Pause.) You don’t, do you? (Pause.) Yes, I knew it wasn’t true. Darling, poopsie, I miss you. I get all gooey just thinking about you. Tomorrow at seven, yes. I want you badly. (Pause.) Me too. I love you too. Got to go. Adieu hot pants chili pepper.

        Really? Poopsie? gooey? hot pants chili pepper?

        • avatar Maizie James says:

          Dear Phyliss,

          I laughed and laughed, and laughed – quite heartily. It is so wonderful reading your sharp wit, and intelligent spin and analysis on whatever the topic.

          Thanks so much for your comments! You are the best, and an asset to wOw – among three women I consider the crowned ‘jewels’; the ‘stars’ who contribute a high standard of cerebral fodder that make this site so exhilarating and enjoyable.

          Hoping you are well, and wishing you all the best!

        • avatar Irreverent says:

          Some people actually do speak like this. The best example I can think of is the conversation (or was it a letter?) of a certain married prince to his mistress, expressing how he’d love to live in her underpants forever (the exact wording escapes me, but this is the general idea—his language was just plain silly.)

  5. avatar Karen Ferguson says:

    I hope that Sheila Nevins will check in and comment. Because it is presented as real, I’m believing it. I was once on a New York City bus, going north from Fifth at 42nd to the Upper West Side on West End, while I sat exactly next to a woman in pain and anger about a man who was cheating on her. I passed my stop so I could hear the end of the story. The man happened to be my boss, married for 40 years, and the “other woman” the bus passenger was upset with was his mistress.

  6. avatar D C says:

    Perhaps it’s a true story told with a heaping helping of poetic license. 

    I once sent out an email to lots of friends detailing the fantastical evening out, the feeling of being followed, the break-in, me finding the shotgun we were storing for a family member (I don’t like guns in the house), and using said shotgun like a baseball bat to intruder’s head, then him falling into the sliding glass door, breaking the glass and slicing his throat with it. 

    And then I said, Happy Hallowe’en!  I had them going for a bit.  Everyone likes a good suspense thriller once in a while. 

  7. avatar flyonthewall says:

    Ms. Nevin’s story reminds me of the stories that I overheard while riding on a city bus many years ago. Some people do talk about private matters in public places where anyone sitting nearby can hear every word. Most of the things I heard was along these lines (infidelity) and other things just as unpleasant. Needless to say, I became very depressed listening to all of the chatter and went out of my way to avoid certain buses. I would love to hear Ms. Nevins comment more about this story and her feelings about it.