I flew across the country to catch a guy cheating. What I discovered was much better.

The author wore her orange shirt during the weekend of the trousseau that never took place.  (Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Paik)

The author wore her orange shirt during the weekend of the trousseau that never took place. (Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Paik)

It’s 5:44 a.m. at the airport where I just landed on the East Coast and I’m wearing what may be the worst take off shirt in the world. It’s beautiful, but also orange. The good news is I have a two hour layover. There is plenty of time to change. The bad news is it’s 2:44 a.m. California time and I’m delirious and about to convince someone at a RV campground to scout the grounds to see if my friend’s soon-to-be ex-husband received another woman while he was supposed to babysit their son. WTF.

After a year and a half of a global pandemic, who’s to say what crosses the threshold of unhinged? Lockdowns, drive-by birthday parties, no one who feels safe and people who often feel a little angry have made the new normal. But still, this caper feels memorable. Sometimes you jump without any idea where you’re going because a friend asks for help. Reason takes a backseat in friendship, and mighty forces come to your aid – or not.

Three days earlier, one of my best friends told me she was getting a divorce. We have the kind of friendship where it made perfect sense to immediately look at plane tickets and fly over to her side. But the day before my scheduled flight, my friend texted me if I could switch to an earlier red-eye option so we could pull out to see (and take pictures) if the woman’s car my friend suspected was her. man had contact with was parked next to his newly purchased motorhome. She had no definitive proof of an affair, but she had a suspicion.

I was a bridesmaid at this friend’s wedding, but the entire wedding took place thousands of miles and many states away from where I live in Los Angeles. I’d only seen him in person a few times, so chances were he wouldn’t recognize me from a distance if he saw me.

Back at the airport, I decided not to change. I originally chose my orange shirt because it reminded me of Which PTA mom you know, the one who packs the really good lunches and volunteers for everything. I stuck to my first instinct that the shirt helped support our cover story, the one where I’m just sorting out potential sites for a big family reunion. I reminded myself that we wouldn’t be in a parked van reaching for night vision goggles.

But alas, our trousseau was not to be. Before we could get off the highway and head to the campground office, we drove past his rig. We could see it from the highway and there were no cars parked next to it. Most people would have been happy to have his RV on the edge of the campgrounds, so no undercover trips were necessary. And since there was no other woman’s car, we didn’t have to go to the side of a highway (albeit a one-lane) to take pictures. But the delirium and adrenaline shot up and I found myself disappointed.

The staking was a failure, but my weekend in the Deep South was a call to arms. Instead of taking pictures of an affair, we ate carbs, remembered how to chain smoke, and got more formidable as the night turned into morning.

Capturing evidence of an affair fresh off a red eye would have added a worthy chapter to my friend and me’s story. We met adorable over two decades ago when we started reporting for the Vail Daily on the same day. Our news editor tried to squeeze more industry out of both of us by preying on our insecurities. He insincerely told me not to be intimidated into starting with someone who routinely wrote four articles a day in Sterling, Colorado (population 11,000); at the same time, he casually mentioned to my friend that I had just finished an internship at The New York Times. His tactics lasted until the end of the first day, when I stuck my head over the dividing wall of our cubicle and asked her to go to Paddy’s across the street for happy hour.

The staking was a failure, but my weekend in the Deep South was a call to arms. Instead of taking pictures of an affair, we ate carbs, remembered how to chain smoke, and got more formidable as the night turned into morning. I introduced her to the delights of a jalapeƱo margarita, and she showed me that it’s possible not to flinch when a once cherished partner becomes a ruthless stranger.

Some describe true friends as choosing your own family. I say it’s more like choosing your own army. There are friendships that make you braver, smarter, and stronger. Only it’s easier to get discouraged by an opponent who seeks advantage by discovering new lows. Dirty fighting can be a winning strategy. I can’t sit next to her in mediation. But what I can do is remind her who she is, strengthen her defenses, and thereby remove some of the toxins from my own life.

Before I strapped in for my cross-country run, my head was a mess. COVID had killed my book club, my monthly writing group, my political postcard writing group, and local girls’ nights involving more than two people. Then the delta variant in turn presses the pause button on every attempt to bring them back to life. Yes I know. Ridiculously small COVID potatoes compared to what many people have experienced or succumbed to in the past 20 months.

But sometimes it’s the little potatoes that get you. Darkness is darkness when you are swallowed up in it. And if you can’t get through it, it doesn’t matter how frivolous the original source is. I missed the psychological nourishment I got from live meetings with people who share a worldview and/or just want to laugh together. I’m sure the feeling is general enough. The damage, however, came when I mentally self-punished for how much real estate this desire occupied in my head.

My eviction weekend kicked that pointless but very real penalty in the teeth. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got it done: you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find what you need. I am lucky enough to consider some of the most remarkable people in the world to be friends. It took a vague flight and a shameless soon-to-be ex-husband to see I wasn’t even close to the fact that it mattered.

Sarah Paik is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and the editor at Best of Korea. Her work has appeared in The Aspen Times, Vail Daily and The New York Times. Although she is a PTA member, she only packs a slightly above average lunch.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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