It was the summer of 2014. I was at a music festival in Brooklyn with some friends, and couldn’t wait in the enormous lines for the port-a-potties. We spotted a firehouse across the street and dashed over, hoping they’d let us use the bathroom. It was a moment worthy of a sitcom — not only did the firefighters on duty say yes, but they were ridiculously good-looking and asked us to stick around to play pool. We couldn’t resist.
When the alarm went off, the firefighter I’d been flirting with — let’s call him Martin — jumped into his gear and onto the fire truck, sirens blazing. He told me he’d see me soon, and I melted into a pile onto the floor. Martin was the kind of hot where the New York City Firefighters Calendar asked to photograph him every year, but he didn’t take them up on it, because he said he was too timid. He was the kind of hot that was simply too hot for me to handle.
Martin and I never dated seriously, but we saw each other regularly for months: We’d shoot pool and down shots of whiskey, never shying away from PDA. We had sleepovers several times a week and were even photographed arm-in-arm at an event together by a party photographer. He came to my house crying when his dog died, and to see me on Christmas. I met some of his friends. It was a typical beginning of a love affair — except, I didn’t know it was an affair. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t single.
I left New York City in the spring in 2015, and we didn’t stay in touch over the years that I was gone. Still, when I returned in the fall of 2019, I tracked down his old number and texted him. He suggested we meet up that night.
I invited him to a bar, where I was hanging out with my 23-year-old cousin. Martin walked in and swept me up in an embrace. He looked exactly the same, and the chemistry between us was still fuego. I jokingly asked him if he was married with kids; after all, it had been a few years since we had last spoken. He laughed and just said he was a workaholic, which I took to mean no. After a few hours of chatting and cocktails, I gently suggested it was time for my cousin to go home. She wasn’t even out the door before Martin spun me around and kissed me. We spent the night together and the next day he texted: “Forgot how good of a kisser you are.”
At first, it seemed like we were going to pick up where we left off. Except this time, after a few weeks and two dates, he stopped responding to my texts. At first, I was just annoyed, and took to Twitter to gripe about the situation: “My firefighter is either ghosting me... or dead,” I tweeted. “Should I still go to the fireman party he invited me tonight to see if he’s dead?”
I was mostly joking, but I was also seriously worried that he’d been injured on the job, so — on the advice of my followers — I did show up to the fireman happy hour he’d invited me to. But he wasn’t there, and the bouncer confirmed no firefighters had been at the bar all night. I continued to text for a few weeks asking if he was alright. He never responded, and since he wasn’t on social media, I had no other way to contact him. Terrified that he was hurt, I checked to see if there had been any serious fires in Brooklyn and even considered calling his fire station.
A week after Martin disappeared on me, I went to dinner with my cousin, who had been with me when we’d first rekindled our flame and who was always teasing me for how otherworldly handsome Martin was. As we sipped margaritas, she became determined to track him down. And she did. In minutes. She found the fire station’s unofficial Facebook page, and as we scrolled through old posts, we saw photos of him at the station with a woman and children. He was wearing a wedding ring. The kids looked exactly like him. From there, my cousin found Martin’s family members’ on Facebook. There were endless photos from his wedding, his children's birthday parties, and more. He'd already had at least one child before we met in 2014.
It was completely destabilizing to learn that I had unknowingly been a mistress for years. I felt like an accidental home-wrecker as I looked back on the red flags I’d ignored: his non-answer when I asked about his relationship status; him taking me to a hotel or his car the two times we most recently had sex instead of his house; him asking me to put the room on my credit card and paying me back in cash; his lack of an online presence. One reason I was never interested in a relationship with him was that he didn’t stimulate me intellectually. To be frank, I felt he was a bit dumb. Turns out I'm the dummy, as he'd fooled me for years.
In vain, I called and texted Martin, trying to get answers. He never responded. I tweeted about what Martin had done to me and a few women replied, commiserating with me. One told me she’d been in a similar situation, and let me know I did nothing wrong. My Gen Z cousin was outraged and refused to let me feel accountable for Martin’s actions.
They were absolutely correct; it wasn’t my fault. Had I known Martin was married, I'd never have been intimate with him. Though I was beating myself up for not realizing what was going on, the truth was that he had intentionally and purposefully hid his family from me for years. His friends saw us kiss and enabled the affair; he even had the audacity to suggest setting his brother up with my cousin. He must have known that his work schedule and lack of social media allowed him to live a double life, but I’d had no idea.
Some good did come out of this, though: This experience became a transformative exercise in letting go of what I can't control — in this case, that meant Martin’s blatant lies, his cheating, and even his ghosting. I’ll never know the full story of his marriage and the role I unwittingly played within it. But I have allowed myself to accept that his actions were entirely his responsibility, not mine, and I have chosen to forgive myself for not asking more questions.
Still, Martin’s deception upset me for a long time, and it still affects me today. Primarily, I’m less trusting of men. To try to avoid getting into a similar situation, I now always ask people if they’re 100% single, and if they seem uncomfortable with the question, I take it as a sign that, at the very least, they aren’t fully emotionally available. I’m also uneasy when someone isn’t on social media; I can’t help but wonder if they’re hiding something or someone.
I’m forever grateful to the power of women coming together to support each other after they’ve been mistreated by men. The help I received from my nurturing community — my cousin, friends in NYC who stood by my side as I processed what had happened, and virtual comrades on Twitter — was invaluable to me, and stands in stark contrast to Martin's self-preservation-focused disappearing act. These women continue to empower me to this day by reminding me that I wasn’t responsible for the affair, which has helped release a burden of guilt that was never mine to bear.
Welcome to The Single Files, Refinery29's bi-monthly column. Each installment will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.