I couldn't help myself. When I heard, last night, that the data dump from the Ashley Madison hack was online and searchable, I navigated toward it almost automatically. On a crowded subway platform coming home from a baseball game, three beers and a hot dog into my evening, on my tiny little phone, I started tapping every email address I could remember by heart into that empty white box, almost without thinking.
The first email address I entered was my father's (no dice, mercifully). The second was my ex's, and I searched it half by virtue of the fact that three years together has a way of searing an email address into your brain and half because I felt almost gleefully certain that I knew what I would find. Two summers ago, I'd found out he'd cheated on me with a woman he'd met online. It seemed like if anyone I knew was among the millions of people whose email addresses were exposed by the hack, he'd be it. Anyway, muscle memory and morbid curiosity make for quite the cocktail.
Of course, I was right:
I remember the moment I found out he cheated on me in a way that's so vivid it's almost physical: the scratchiness in my throat, the rag-doll crumple of my knees, the ringing in my ears. The vertigo. I felt disoriented for days after. It's a feeling a lot of people — maybe thousands — will be having this week.
We stayed together for months afterward — my choice. There are a lot of different kinds of infidelity, was my argument, and a lot of different ways to be in a relationship. There are a million different ways to be cruel to the people you love, and only a fraction of them involve pulling your browser up to a page you shouldn't and clicking "sign in." I'm still really happy I made that decision.
During that time, I was asked by probably two dozen people whether I would have preferred not to know, if such a choice were possible. I always said yes.
Ultimately, we did break up, partly because of the cheating but also, in some ways — more ways than you might imagine — not at all because of the cheating. We ended it sitting in his parked car outside a 24 Hour Fitness, and it was awful. But we have, perhaps somewhat improbably, retained a very tender, if sometimes strained, friendship. So I texted him to ask about the hack.
When I pressed him, though, he was straightforward about having used it.
He said he didn't meet anyone there, and I think I believe him. So I asked about how he felt about his privacy:
He did not care. This seemed like a strange stance for someone who, not all that long ago, saw his relationship blown up when his girlfriend found out about his online behavior. But he was genuine:
Conversations like mine will begin happening all around the world (if they're not happening already) today and tomorrow and next week. Easily tens of thousands of them; probably many, many more. And not just between spouses, but between siblings and parents and co-workers and friends. They'll all be different, but I suspect a lot of them will feel like this: weighted, peculiar, oddly prosaic (cheating is, after all, among the more ordinary things you can do in a marriage). There is a not-insignificant likelihood that somewhere in the world right now, someone else is experiencing the same stomach-drop sickness I still remember, is sitting on a bathroom floor or a bed wondering What the hell happened and What the hell now. Some of these discoveries might drive people apart. Some will bring people together. Some will quickly be found irrelevant and happily, relievedly dismissed. Almost all, at first, will feel deeply consequential to those who act on the impulse to type an address into that little white box.
Mostly, in my case, he just seemed to not want to talk about it. I tried to ask him if he'd signed up while we were together and he changed the subject. I made a joke, and then he made a joke. We talked about data security, and a radio show we'd once listened to together, and work, and the recent vacations each of us had taken with our respective new people. It was probably the longest conversation we'd had in months, and it was oddly nice.
Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Ellen Cushing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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