When I trace back the progression of the last few months of my romantic life, it pretty much all leads to Dan Savage.
It was the sex advice columnist and host of the Savage Lovecast who first introduced me to the idea of “monogamish,” or open relationships and his constant touting of them on his podcast that first kindled — and then maintained — my desire to be in one.
Of course, James’s* big biceps didn’t hurt, either.
James is my boyfriend — kind of. Emphasis on the kind of. At 36, he’s almost 10 years older than I am, but you couldn’t tell by looking at him. A former personal trainer, he remains almost cartoonishly muscled, with a square jaw, blue eyes and thick, swooping chestnut hair that gives him a classic handsomeness. He’s a thoughtful guy who likes talking about ideas, asks questions and really listens to your answers. In other words, he’s a catch.
James is also definitely the boyfriend of a girl named Willow*. Soon, she’ll be moving from the city where she lives to the one that James and I both live in, and they’ll be renting a house together. Meanwhile, she’s based two hours away where she has a kinda-boyfriend named Marco*.
Each one of us knows about the other ones. When she’s in town, Willow comes to cookouts at my house with James. In a few weeks, she’ll start working at the same place I do. I’m the one who suggested she apply.
This is where things begin to get complicated.
As much as I have wanted to be in an open relationship for many years, now that I’m in one, I find I’m not really sure what to do. Truth be told, I’d always conceived of a situation in which I was a man’s primary partner, and he slept with other women.
No matter how much I have loved past boyfriends, I’ve never seemed able to keep up with their sex drives. I’ve suggested opening relationships before, so they could get the sexual fulfillment they needed from both me and other women, (ideally) helping keep an otherwise loving and emotionally meaningful relationship stable, even thriving. Without fail, they got upset, thinking what I was really trying to say was that I wanted to sleep with other people. Now I’m the “other people” James is supposed to be sleeping with.
We’ve been seeing each other for about a month now. So far, we’ve done it once.
Willow, though she’s having sex with her secondary partner regularly, isn’t ready to give James the same freedoms yet, which is fine with him and fine with me. But what does it mean to be in an open relationship with a man you can’t f**k?
The other night, as we talked about art and ideas over Blizzards, it meant holding hands. Sometimes, it means kissing goodnight. Once, it meant him showing up at my house at four in the morning and blowing my mind. Mostly, though, it means navigating awkward situations and talking, a lot, about the status of all the criss-crossed relationships in this gang of four.
Last weekend, I got a last-minute invitation to a hip supper club for dinner. I took James as my plus-one, and by some weird coincidence, the couple seated across from us was the same couple who’d been sitting beside James and Willow at the bar in the restaurant where I work on the night the three of us met. (We live in a small town.)
“Hey, you work at [name of restaurant where I work]!” the guy said. “Yeah, I saw you a few weeks ago. Y’all seem so nice! You invited this other couple that was sitting at the bar beside us to your block party.” He squinted his eyes at James for a moment. “Wait a second, wasn’t that you? Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on here? Where’s the girl you were with the last time I saw you? There’s gotta be a story here.”
Under the table, James squeezed my knee. Somehow, he deflected the guy’s questions and avoided having to explain to a table of mostly-strangers why he was out to dinner with a woman who’s not his official girlfriend. I concentrated very hard on looking relaxed and pretended to be fascinated by the clams I was eating.
The awkwardness isn’t just from folks outside our little coterie of people trying to navigate an alternative lifestyle, though. Among the three of us (I’ve never met or communicated with Marco), there’s plenty of uncharted territory to navigate. Willow has floated the idea that she, James and I have a threesome, I think mostly as an exercise in building trust and intimacy between her and me. But kissing is about as far as I’ve ever been interested in going with another girl — aside from one drug-fueled night two summers ago, but that is a story for another time — so I said no. And now I have all these questions.
Is it bad manners to decline a threesome with the primary partner of the guy you want to sleep with? Should I have offered some other option, like watching the two of them go at it, in some kind of attempt to compromise? Is making big compromises even a thing you’re supposed to do in your sex life? When we’re exchanging dirty texts and he starts sharing details about the things Willow tells him she does with Marco, is that a violation of her trust, or part of the sexy tangle of it all? Is it really OK that James appears to come to me first when he wants to talk about certain, usually more intellectual, things instead of seeking out Willow?
All these questions pale in comparison to other seeming trivialities. Willow is a cook and (like me) a food enthusiast; James, not so much, though that’s changing. He recently ate his first oyster with me, and as I watched him first take a little birdlike sip of the liquor before slurping it down, I was filled with the dread you feel when you know you’ve transgressed.
For us food people, oysters are a big deal. We’re fond of saying they’re nature’s perfect food, and let’s not even get into the aphrodisiac mythos of the things. That first wet slurp, for some, is an initiation. There’s a gross-out factor to them, the way they look grey and slimy in their algaed, flaky shells. Just getting yourself to try one can be a challenge, but if you do so and like them, you’re done for. Oysters are the gateway drug to a food-centric lifestyle, and boy, are they one hell of a drug. As I cheered him on through his first perfectly briny, wonderful bivalve, all I could really think was that he should have been doing this with Willow.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I think the oyster might be the nail in the coffin of my monogamish excursion. Any dynamic that can take the careful, pleasure-centric ritual of oyster eating — an expensive and rare treat for me — and turn it into something tinged with guilt and anxiety can’t be good.
I still think open relationships are something I want to explore; a lot about them still appeals to me. But just like more traditional relationships, not every one you get into turns out to be right. I’ve still got the annual visit of my open-married cyclist friend to look forward to this year, when he comes to town for a big criterium race. And with him, I can do a whole lot more than kiss.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.