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Photograph by Rhonda Miller

More than One

One woman's path to polyamory

By M. Volkova

Say you have a friend, a fine, upstanding lesbian friend who's in a long-term relationship that you've always envied. She and her girlfriend have been together for over a decade. They're a fucking institution. The only reason they don't have an actual picket fence is because they rent and their landlord keeps saying something about building permits.

So one day, after you and your friend have drunk to the murky bottom of several cups of coffee, she turns to you and says, "I've taken a male lover. But, um, I'm still with my girlfriend." You pick up your jaw from the table, but then what do you do? Condole? Congratulate?

Both. Neither. Just listen.

It was a clear and sultry night, like any other summer night in Phoenix. The pool was warm, the triple margarita was well and truly tripled, and the fresh-faced young salesman was pleasantly persistent. The conference had come to an end, and we had nothing better to do than each other.

Back in my hotel room, I sprawled in an easy chair and watched him take off his swim trunks. Somewhere underneath my drunken haze and growing excitement, something prompted me to ask: "Did you know that I'm a lesbian?"

"Um. No." He had the decency to pause.

"Yeah," I said, my head lolling back. "I've been with my girlfriend for eight years."

"Oh. Well. Do you want to stop?"

Something else uncurled in me. "No," I said.

One of these days I should write that young man a thank-you note. That one drunken fuck set me on the path to polyamory.

Sitting on my shoulders as I write this is a crowd of poly people, folks in the polyamory community whom I haven't met yet but want to. I imagine it howling in protest, this subculture that is tired, perhaps, of being sensationalized in the media but always will be because certain aspects of our (sex) lives are more titillating (sex sex sex) to the general public.

Your whiplash entry into the world of multiple loves, say these shoulder-sitters, is not what polyamory is about. It's about conscious living, loving more, like snugglebunnies in a big puppy pile, dismantling the dominant paradigm of mono-hetero domesticity, remaining open to the magical realm of possibility.

Well, yeah. These days no one could ever accuse me of not being, you know, open to possibilities. And I don't want to be labeled a traitor to the cause, whatever that is.

But I'm beginning to understand that there are many paths to polyamory. Some people always knew about themselves; they could never settle down. Some people are drawn ever upward to Love, a higher state of being that transcends a marriage license. And some people get shitfaced and wake up with a bra on the lampshade and their world turned upside down.

So shut up and let me tell my tawdry truth.

I can speak of that time now with some calmness and even humor, but on June 3, 2000, I was not dealing well. I was hurtling down the dark desert highway at 100 miles per hour, feeling sick and hyperventilating and listening to the poignant harmonies of the Indigo Girls on endless repeat. (With my hetero indiscretion, had I resigned the right to listen to them?) I wept so hard I could barely see the road.

At home I stumbled into the bedroom and flung myself on the mercy of my partner, L., who was still half asleep and therefore quick to offer at least surface forgiveness.

Unconvinced of my worth and her sincerity, I called a counselor the next day.

Existential angst is not in the DSM-IV--every mental-health professional's guide to psychological disorders--but it ought to be. Because for months and months I had nothing to pin my problems on.

This whole thing confused the hell out of me. The uncomfortable urgency of my sexuality disgusted me, angered me, shook me to the core of my lesbian-feminist being. I had slept with men in college, but that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, as they say.

Yes, yes, I was getting in touch with my deepest desires, which is a radical act for women. But some of my deepest desires revolved around dick, around getting hard evidence, so to speak, of male appreciation for me and my physical attributes. I wanted to be adored, objectified, flirted with, sought after--and how fucked up is that?

Not so very, it seems, not for me. Of course, it took me six months of counseling to get to that point. (Don't ask me to show you the bills.) That's about the time I began to realize I wasn't going to get any of the aforementioned action from L.

L. is a calm, serene woman, less verbally expressive than I am by far, and psychologically incapable of spilling torrents of trash-talk in my ear. She would never eye me up and down before grabbing my shoulders and ravishing my mouth--ugh, it's right off the cover of some paperback romance novel. And she will certainly never grow a penis.

But I didn't want to leave L. We had years of shared history, a comfortable, sweet home life. She thinks I'm crazy for all the impossible projects I pursue, but she supports me nonetheless. I like to cook for her, watch movies with her, take road trips, snuggle.

The sex? I knew you'd ask. Her heavy-lidded gaze makes my chest ache. Her lips are so soft and giving when I lean down to kiss her. We can make out for hours. After all this time I still love to do her, to make her gasp. She makes love to me tenderly, tentatively--she does not have the stamina to fuck me hard for long--and she always holds me while I pound myself and cry out and come in violent waves, asking no questions and wiping away my sweat.

Was it worth jeopardizing this seemingly sure thing for the uncertain lusts of the flesh? What kind of sex-crazed nympho was I for even asking?

I couldn't answer any of these questions. I was trapped in this state for months, until one day my counselor asked me what I really wanted, if I could have it free from fear or shame or judgment or scheduling complications. And I started crying, again--oh, for fuck's sake, where's that tissue box?--and said, "I want to stay with L., and I want to sleep with men."

In psychobabble, this is known as "a breakthrough moment." Other people might call it "wanting to have your cake and eat it too." That's how irrational and crazy and greedy I felt.

In a movement theater piece I choreographed at the time, I had myself walking around and around in a circle, saying, "I ask too much."

I ask too much. I ask too much. I ask too much.

You get the drift.

Eventually, on Independence Day, 2001, I did ask. That conversation was the most frightening thing that L. and I ever did.

After several such talks, we agreed not to discuss it anymore at night in our bed. The uncertainties were strongest then, their monstrous shadows stretching out long from the closet and leaving a chill around our shoulders, even in the midsummer heat.

Instead, we took to driving out to a nearby lake, where we sat on some gnarled tree roots by the water and carefully negotiated the protocol of this new relationship. The swimming ducks and paddleboats lent a surreal calm to the waterscape as we stared up at the improbably blue sky and tried to patch together some rickety framework on which to hang our tattered hearts.

I still have the original notes from those first tortured talks. "Not in the house." "Not in L.'s car." "Call if spending the night." "No messages on our shared voice mail." "Nobody who L. knows socially." Can you read between the lines? Can you imagine the cracks in our coupleness that had to happen for us to even speak those ideas aloud?

L. agreed to give an open relationship a try, but I knew, I knew she was deeply unhappy about it. And I wrestled with the guilt of going through with it anyway.

My one source of relief in the middle of the tumult was the thought that I actually wasn't the only one. I found the alt.poly newsgroup, a fractious bunch that, like many newsgroups, had little cohesion but great FAQs.

And it turned out that a few female friends who I thought were dyed-in-the-wool dykes were actually managing multiple long-term relationships with both men and women. I came out to one of those acquaintances at a retreat, while we were skinny-dipping in a country pond. (Hey, we were naked. It felt like a self-disclosure kind of moment.) Her response was gratifyingly calm, something along the lines of "Wow, that's great. Are you and L. doing okay?"

Were we? Yes, about as well as could be expected. But so far, the whole thing was hypothetical. Any real-world application felt beyond me. I was, however, intensely curious about what would happen if I did put myself back on the market.

As a birthday present, a friend wrote my personal ad, which I posted to a local online bulletin board. The ad read: "Fierce, articulate bi-dyke with big tits seeks caring, confident man who won't bore me. We both make conscious choices about our atypical sex lives."

Most of the men who responded sounded like Neanderthal fuckwits. (Ah-ha, grumbled my inner feminist, still chafing at the embarrassing implications of my true sexual preferences. That's what you get when you mention tits.)

Not always. Occasionally you get men like S.

Obviously articulate, ironic without being completely detached, S. introduced himself as a mischievous South Asian lad, a doctoral student in an advanced field of science who liked to cook, read voraciously, and wanted a no-strings-attached sexual adventure with someone who could hold up her end of the conversation. Works for me, I thought, and wrote back.

Things happen fast on the Internet. Fortunes are made and lost, news travels at lightning speed, and lust blooms like a flower in one of those fast-forward nature documentaries. Within a week we were exchanging porn fantasies, and a month later S. and I met for a coffee chat.

I wore my schoolgirl-gone-bad outfit: short plaid skirt, very unbuttoned shirt, and thigh-high fishnet stockings. The getup made me look much more assertive than I felt.

Sitting across from S. in the dimly lit cafe, I toyed with some coffee that I didn't really need. I was jittery enough, terrified of what we were doing. He saw my fear before I said anything and talked to me softly about everything except what we were doing, about his work, about movies, about childhood books, about I don't remember what--and it didn't much matter. He was just making calming noises to coax me down from the ledge, all the while gently stroking my shaking hands with his delicate fingers.

Eventually I stopped trembling and blushing, and we agreed to head out for dinner. On the way there, my chutzpah came roaring back, and I pulled S. into an empty doorway. When he pressed me up against the wall, gazing at me darkly and running those soft fingers up my thigh, I knew.

The next day S. e-mailed me to explain that our encounter, which went on to include nine noisy hours in a hotel room, had "surpassed [his] expectations by orders of magnitude."

Ah, that S. Ever the scientist.

That was five months ago, five months of more or less weekly trysts that leave me wrung out for a day or two afterward. I did not know back then how much I craved this kind of connection.

S. meets me blow for blow and gets off on the intensity of my appetite. He is confident to the point of arrogance, explicit in every sense of the word, snuggly or sadistic at just the right moment, a truly twisted pervert with impeccable manners. He has a disconcerting postcoital habit of bringing up science news of the day, but it's cute when he's naked and nuzzling my wrist.

Complications have arisen, of course. This is no poly paradise (which I'm not sure even exists, except maybe at the end of some Robert Heinlein novels). The more L. and I are honest with each other about how we are growing and changing, as individuals and as a couple, the less certain we are about our long-term future.

In our lakeside summit meetings, we had said we were committed to the relationship; that was the truth but not the whole truth. Now we know that we are committed to the relationship as long as it works for both of us, which does look possible, even likely, but is not the sure bet we once thought we had.

And S. and I have actually fallen in love, despite our original intention of keeping things on a fuck-buddy basis. This goes against everything I had intended at the beginning, when I was feeling all jaded and gritty and I-can-keep-my-distance. But I must be forgiven. Turns out I can't resist a man who calls me his little girl and feeds me mango ice cream, and then beats me with his belt and screws me senseless. (Yes, my emergent BDSM tendencies are a complicating factor, yet another thing that L. can't, won't help me with. But that's a different story.)

What about this story? How will it end? Soon, for one thing, at least as a tale featuring S. as a central character. He told me from the beginning that he would probably be leaving the area for his postdoc work. It seems also that he might have an arranged marriage in the near future, something that happens with some frequency among the upper class in his culture.

Whatever happens, I am an interested party with no right to speak. All I can do is laugh at the notion of this Muslim-turned-atheist top arrayed in the chaste white of a bridegroom and marrying a virgin and cleaving unto her forever.

A few months ago I was having a hard time swallowing the bitter irony of this conclusion. Though I had thrown over the monogamy paradigm, I got stuck in the true-love-is-forever conundrum. But this true love, it turns out, is perfect in its short-term, limited-warranty way.

Besides, if I got lucky once with that ad, who knows who might answer it next time?

These days I'm feeling philosophical like that. I mean, I will cry my eyes out at our last rendezvous, and I won't move on right away to someone new, as a couple of my friends have suggested with only the slightest touch of cattiness. And yes, it is a messy, messy business, leaving tearstains on pillowcases and scribbled-out pages in my day planner.

But I would not rewrite this story for anything. From my ecstatic date last weekend with S. to yet another heart-wrenching talk with L. this morning, this is the way it has to be, as I remind myself with a string of poetry magnets on S.'s fridge:

you have saved me from an eternity
of what if
with one moment of yes

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From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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