He was a rapper who happened to be polyamorous. Before dating him, I thought I knew what that meant. But even for us millennials, the reality of polyamory often remains elusive. What does it mean to date more than one person at the same time? I had a best friend in college with two perfectly consenting girlfriends. She had her primary partner who was from Canada and her secondary partner who we also went to college with. They seemed to live in domestic bliss. So why couldn’t I?
Polyamory is a careful web of social relationships. There are usually primary partners. Two people who are in an emotional and physical relationship. Then, both partners are free to pursue other relationships. These other relationships may or may not be physical and emotional. Both partners negotiate their needs and expectations.
Many people I know often wonder what the difference is between polyamory and open relationships. Open relationships usually have more rules and usually only the primary partnership is emotional. Polyamory has risen to be a well-known phenomenon charted in Rolling Stone and the New York Times alike. From “The Ethical Slut” to “Insecure,” the rise of seeing other people has launched electric think-pieces and essays. My friend Pat often says gay people shrug at open relationships and polyamory. Many do. Grindr is filled with “open relationship” tags and people looking for thirds.
The rapper and I met, as always, on the internet. I neurotically fumbled my way through our first date and managed not to ask too many questions about his boyfriend. We watched British dramas and cuddled. Things went well and he met my friends, who managed not to embarrass me. We watched anime and cuddled. It felt fun and relatively safe and maybe that was the difference from the men before. The men before were always hard to pin down. Here, there was a safety net. I could never get too hurt because I was never in the running in the first place. He could never get hurt because he could always go back to Jersey to see his cuter and more permanent version of me.
“I’ll do it until it isn’t fun,” I said. I think a part of me believed it would be fun for a while, that I could be fun. I wrote before about not wanting to be the chill girl. I am messy and quick to ask for what I need — a steely-eyed person with their eyes on the prize. My horoscope said I was a Libra in Venus, meaning I sought balance.
One night, as we were hanging out, I got a text from a friend inviting me out to one of those classic Bushwick art gallery parties. I dragged my polyamorous boy along to meet my friend Shy and to get out of the apartment.
We arrive late off the Morgan stop, somehow needing to get our IDs checked. We find our group of fellow attendees. We go through the motions and I promptly drink some red wine in a backroom. We are whisked through a night that is ending as ours was just beginning. The backroom suddenly comes alive and Cardi B plays. I make money moves.
I suddenly ask to sit on another boy’s lap. He says sure. I drink a bottle of Orangina. The night goes on, we migrate to the Johnson’s. The boy whose lap I sat on is nowhere in sight. Right now, it’s just me and my polyamorous pal. I tell him that I want to get married someday. He holds my hand. I feel like I am in a French movie. Everything I want is in front of me, but I am watching it slip. “It’s my fault,” I think to myself.
At the bar, I find the boy whose lap I sat on and we begin flirting. He buys me a cosmopolitan and I make idle chitchat about the scenery. The bar is busy and the music is defiantly dull. My friends play pool. I cluck my tongue and ask if he wants to make out. He says he’s tired but I’m cute and he wants to kiss me. It’s a nice kiss, pleasant enough, but unsatiating. Like one drop of rain instead of a flood.
When we all arrive at the train, he is going to Lorimer and me and my polyamorous friend are going the towards my apartment in the other direction. I politely say I want another kiss and scuttle from the Rockaway to the Manhattan side and boldly ask for another kiss. Then after hearing a yes, I kiss the boy whose lap I sat on. Then, rather abruptly, I run back to the other side.
What I have, what I want.
When he is out of sight, the polyamorous boy tells me he talked me up all night to the boy who I had by then kissed twice. “I told him you knew what it was.” I ask what he means. “I told him you knew it was casual. Like me. That you were cool. He was worried he would hurt your feelings, he has a boy.”
Suddenly I feel a draft. I get out some water and knock it back like a shot.
Sometimes I feel like a cartographer seeking out new experiences just to map out how they feel. I want to be able to show myself and others some new specific vertebrae. But inevitably this means that some sensations are gray. It’s not that I feel betrayed or broken. Just that I feel a tinge of regret for not listening to myself sooner.
I break up with the polyamorous boy before a New Year’s party. “I’m just not built for this,” I say. “Talk soon?” he says. I mumble yes and go drink a vodka cranberry. I throw most of it into an Ayn Rand book. When the clock strikes midnight, I look coolly at the television and raise my glass with a hardened smile at the couples kissing around me. I’m only as alone as I let myself feel, I think.
Cover image courtesy of Kevin Cloney