It's 7:30 pm on a Monday, and the bartenders are clearing away someone's dinner from an open spot at the bar of Mangos (904 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale). As I try to put my purse down on the empty chair beside me, a husky man with a stack of blond hair says "That seat's taken" in a pleasant tone.

About two minutes later, an equally brawny dark-haired man walks up to the chair and sits down. After he's seated, he says to me, "When I left, a man was sitting here. Now, I come back and there's a woman."

It's a statement of the obvious, sure, but the man wants to talk, and I've got a topic for him. But I sit quietly and stare off into space while they eat dinner. I'm not yet sure how I'm going to steer the conversation to infidelity, but then comes the handshake.

The dark-haired man extends his huge paw and says, "I'm George." As it engulfs my hand and wobbles my shoulder in its socket, I realize just how big and strong these fellas are. They both appear to be in their early 50s. They're big in the belly for sure, but they've got the arms, shoulders, chests, and backs of men who've spent a lot of time doing hard, physical work. They live in Baltimore, and they are in town conducting some business at the port.

George's light-haired companion stretches his hand out to shake mine and says, "I'm Joe."

"You guys have really normal names," I remark.

Joe smiles at my observation. He asks me what I do, and I reply that I'm a nightlife writer, which makes him a little wary. Then he says, "I used to be a poet for a year before I started working."

"Give us one," I plead.

George sits there with his huge arms crossed, knowing that Joe is going to recite one.

Joe's face brightens. "There is one I wrote about a pig in a ditch."

"Tell it," I say again.

He busts out with the poem in an Irish accent. I can't understand what he's saying, but I tell him that it reminds me of this one pervy Irish ditty about a Scottish guy lying in a ditch with his kilt up around his waist.

Suddenly, George starts talking about women. He tells me about his extramarital activities on business trips. "My first wife would scream at me. We were high school sweethearts, and I loved her, but she couldn't deal with my meeting other women when I would go away."

Then he shows me his wedding ring... and adds that he hopes to meet a woman tonight. He evidently has nothing to hide. In fact, he gives me his card and says, "Go ahead and give my wife a call."

What's the harm in a sordid little tale? We're at Mangos, after all. And yes, it's a fun bar and restaurant with good food, but with the soft jazz and tropical air, it also smacks of the setting for an extramarital affair in a Danielle Steel novel.

George continues, "Then, I went on a trip to Davenport and met Patty. After a few trips, we fell in love. We were both married, but we both had the same idea about an open relationship. There was some swinging and stuff," George continues, as he stretches his arm out to rest it on the back of my chair, "but that was a long time ago. And as you get older, you have less of a need to have a lot of sex." But that's not to say that George isn't looking around at Mangos.

Joe has finally warmed up to the flow of the conversation. He offers his own tale, a tale of woe. "Listen to this," Joe says, "I was married for 20 years, faithful for 20 years, and then my wife left me for another woman." Joe finishes, and we all look at one another in silence, a little bewildered by the way these things work out. Whoa, there's always the flip side to consider: Nice guys finish last.

After his revelation, Joe is ready for bed. George isn't finding what he's looking for at Mangos. I suggest that he might try the scene at Christopher's (2857 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale); then I head off to O'Hara's to get a female perspective on the topic.

Fidelity and its opposite are the stuff of daytime television. Indeed, bad relationships and their exploitation for entertainment value have robbed the word fidelity of meaning. Sometimes one has to wonder, as the vision in white -- that color usually being the first lie of marriage -- sails down the aisle toward the altar, if the groom isn't already chatting it up with his groomsmen: "Hey, Bill, no more tail for you, nudge-nudge, wink-wink."

Yes, it's the nudge-nudge, wink-wink circle of infidelity, and if, as a woman you try to penetrate this circle, as I did last week, you might find yourself in a difficult spot. Why? Well, the most cunning thing that the kingdom of man ever did -- besides making the Biblical assertion that a woman's cunning is responsible for mankind's eternal damnation -- was refuse to reveal its own duplicitous nature. The male specimen's mendacity can be so deeply repressed that he doesn't know it exists.

When I arrive at O'Haras (722 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale), it's 9 p.m., and the cover band, Fuse, is setting up on the stage of the dark, smoky jazz bar. Two well-dressed blond women in their 40s are perched at a high-top table near the entrance, sending out the vibe that they know a thing or two about men and that's why they're sitting alone. I approach their table and describe my conversation with George and Joe. They're taken aback. Their faces become pinched at the mention of the word infidelity, and upon hearing the story of George's open marriage, Linda says, "You know, that's exactly what my husband would say if you asked him about our marriage. It's open for him, but not for me. You know, he really can't believe that I'm divorcing him."

Her friend, Samantha, looks at me out of the corner of her eye, not wanting to have anything to do with the conversation. They're on a two-week vacation from upstate New York to get away from the drudgery in their lives, and I feel bad for introducing a downer topic.

But Linda seems intrigued, so I ask her, "But now that you're divorcing, how would your husband deal with you being with another man?"

"He would go crazy, but he's been with several other women, and that's supposed to be just fine. He doesn't understand how I can leave him when we have so many things together. But I've had enough of it. I want something, you know, more than that."

I ask her how she feels about truly open relationships that are honest from the outset. Would she ever want to be in one? "I don't understand how, if you love someone, you could have that connection and be with other people," she responds.

Has she ever fallen for anyone else? "After I'd been married for four years, I met a man. But I was married, and I was committed to that."

After talking to Linda for a few moments, I realize that the topic of open relationships is going nowhere. There is no discussing it as a serious consideration. She seems as unyielding as the soon-to-be-ex-husband she describes, and it's her right to pursue her idea of love.

But why is so common a phenomenon as infidelity such an awkward and taboo topic? Do we all benefit from sealing our lips, looking askance, and publicly hailing marriage as an institution? Kinda big questions to be asking those who pass through Fort Lauderdale's bars, but bringing the issue to voice kills the need for all that sign language.

The next day, I remember that George gave me his card and said to call his wife. It would be interesting to talk to a woman who's into open relationships, I think. So I call George's cell phone just to make sure it's OK. I leave him a message and get one in return that says, "Hey, I got your message there about our little conversation. I tell you what. Yeah, my wife probably wouldn't be comfortable talking to a stranger about something like that. So, I'd say it'd be, uh, no on that." Roger that, George.

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