Before I met my husband on a bus, I had a feeling that I might marry him. I had just moved to Albany, New York, a city so bleak it was named one of the ten worst cities in the United States to retire because of the high cost of living, high crime, and abominable weather. The winter I was there was one of the worst in recently memory, including a 30 day stretch where the temperature did not get above 20 degrees F. It was on a typical dark, cold and snowy evening that I saw him, a handsome face that stood out among the crowd of weary commuters. He had curly black hair, pale skin, and shapely features; he looked Chinese but also seemed biracial, and was well dressed; there was something about him that was glamorous like a movie star and yet down-to-earth. I felt awakened as if out of a stupor, warmed as by a fire lit inside. All was quiet yet something had changed.
I forgot about the incident until weeks later when I was riding the bus downtown and thinking about the beautiful stranger on the bus. When I got off the bus to cross the street, he was suddenly right in front of me! He was wearing a long dark coat which made him look tall and slim, talking on the cell phone, so I couldn’t approach him, but I smiled widely and looked up as I walked by him. I felt as if someone had given me an enormous present, and love kindled in my heart like a giddy teenager.
In the coming weeks I kept thinking about the beautiful stranger. The idea that he was somewhere in the city, not so far away from me, gave me a feeling of intimacy. I tried riding the bus at different times in the evening to try to catch him. He didn’t appear for weeks. Then one day, when I had gotten on a later bus than usual, he got on the bus! My heart began to race. My palms started sweating. Finally I got up the nerve to approach him. I introduced myself and said, “I’ve seen you before, and I think you are very handsome.” He laughed and we started talking. The bus ride was only 15 minutes and I was so absorbed that I missed my stop! But I had gotten what I wanted –his number.
On our third date, I told him that I was learning about polyamory, the practice of open relationships with more than one person. Instead of being thrown off course, he exclaimed, “I love being with you! You challenge me!” How could I not be totally in love with him after that? We talked about the idea of eventually having additional partners. We both liked the idea of another woman in our relationship, but felt that we’d also be content by ourselves. Let’s start with one, I thought. Jack and I were married a year later, under the term that monogamy was negotiable for us.
For the first two years, we didn’t entertain any other partners. I was busy working most of the time, but I was often lonely. For the first six months of our relationship Jack went back to China because his visa expired. I had started a new job and moved to a suburb of Philadelphia where it was very difficult to meet people my age. But my job was very social and engaged me so much I didn’t really mind.
After Jack came back from China, he had health issues, his visa application gave us a lot of stress, and unemployment made him depressed. I found a new job that moved us to Baltimore, and soon after Jack found a job in Pennsylvania. Because the two jobs were too far apart, we decided to live apart for a while. For a whole year we saw other on the weekends and talked on the phone once a day. He often slept 17 hours or more on the days that we saw each other, which made it difficult to connect even when we were together.
A year into our living apart, I decided that I needed to meet some polyamorous people in order to continue learning about it. I found a local polyamory meetup group, and spent $40 in taxi fare in order to get there. In the noisy bar where I sat next to a heavily tattooed woman explaining the lack of attractive vaginas at a recent play party that she attended, I met Mark, an unassuming man in his forties with intense dark eyes and horse thick brown hair. He read audiobooks for a living, and I found out that we both majored in English in college. He immediately made me feel at ease and engaged with me in a conversation about the poly life. We met up weeks later, and over coffee, tea, and broccoli cheddar soup in a bread bowl, he related to me how he was introduced to polyamory by an ex-girlfriend who was dating another guy when they met. Eventually Mark met his wife through the local poly network. Because both of them work from home and they do not have children, meeting others allows them to take breaks from each other and make their lives more interesting. We talked for four hours. I liked how articulate and attentive he was; he was wholly present with me, unlike my sleepy, often distracted husband.
On our third date, he came over to my place. On my couch, we read some of my poetry together, which is usually the point at which literary guys literally start to swoon into my lap. He turned out to be an amazing kisser. The kind where he holds your head in his hands and your heart feels like it just went over a roller coaster. We weren’t sure if we wanted to get into a relationship because I was planning to move to Pennsylvania in a month, but we decided that we would each talk to our spouse.
I wasn’t too worried about telling Jack. I thought that since we had talked about polyamory since day one, he would accept my desire to have a lover. I had to wait in order to bring up the topic in person, since we weren’t living together. In the meantime I met up with Mark two more times and each time our relationship became deeper and more intimate. When I finally brought it up, Jack was stone faced. Who is this guy? What does he want with you? He thought that the way I went about it was dishonest and deceptive, that I had essentially commenced a relationship without consulting him, and it wasn’t the way we agreed to do things at all, which was that we would make a decision together about when to open our relationship, something he didn’t think would come up for decades, if at all.
Before I had a chance to resolve matters with Mark, I moved to Pennsylvania in order to be with Jack. He was not content that I wouldn’t see Mark anymore, but insisted that I was to have no contact with him, not even through email. One night I was texting with Mark in bed when Jack came in. He saw that I was texting with Mark and asked why tried to hide it; When I said, “You can’t stop me,” he threw my cell phone and then my laptop against the wall, breaking both of them into pieces. Mark heard about this incident later, and told me that he and his wife have a rule to not get involved with anybody who had a spouse that was violent. He would no longer have any contact with me. Heartbroken not only with Jack but also with Mark, I submitted to my husband’s demands to not engage in any romantic relationships but still exhorted for him to be open to the idea of learning about polyamory.
In Pennsylvania I decided that it would be helpful for us to meet some local polyamorists, and we ended up getting to know a guy by the name of Mike. A self employed landlord and contractor in his fifties, Mike started in the swinging community and has been practicing polyamory for twenty years. He lived in a group house with international housemates; he grew his own food and raised his own chickens. His wife lived a few doors down in another house that they owned together. They have been poly for over twenty years and she had been dating another man for almost two years. Over a dinner of rice and curry chicken where I cried copiously into my plate and Jack looked tense, Mike and his girlfriend teased apart our story. Jack kept saying, “It’s not what you did, it’s the way you do things that hurts me.” I kept saying, “I wish you would just let me talk to Mark.”
After that first teary dinner, Jack and I continued to have dinners with Mike each week. Over time our conversations became less about what happened with Mark and more about my differences with Jack. I have a higher than average sex drive and felt constantly that my needs were not met. Most of the time Jack felt worn out by my sexual demands. I also have a strong need for communication and emotional intimacy, whereas Jack was more reserved and private. I am passionate about art and philosophy and political issues, Jack did not share my intellectual background and I rarely had a rewarding discussion with him on these subjects. As a highly passionate person, emotionally, intellectually, and sexually, it was clear that my needs could not be met by one person, much less someone who was as different from me as Jack.
Over the course of our meetups Mike and I grew closer as a result of our intimate communications. Jack wasn’t much interested in polyamory and distanced himself. In an effort to cheer me up, Mike asked me if I would go dancing with him in the city. We talked to Jack about it and he agreed. As the music played, and we were dancing close, we looked into each other’s eyes and did not break contact for a whole minute. We sat for a while immersing ourselves in the music, which was so loud we couldn’t really talk. I closed my eyes to feel him caress my back, my shoulders, and my arms. Our bodies touched but we didn’t kiss. We came back at 2am, Jack was sleeping, and we stayed up and talked and cuddled in the living room until Mike went home at 5am. He was so filled with new relationship energy that he did not sleep the whole day and confessed to his girlfriend that he had never felt a connection that was so exceptional.
Mike and I decided that we would try to spend time with each other, but we would do it in a way that was totally transparent and comfortable for Jack. First, he talked with Jack about his desire to spend time with me privately, and that he understood that Jack was very new to this and he would not do things that crossed boundaries of where Jack felt comfortable. We began by getting together in the middle of the day to have lunch. After lunch we would watch a documentary or cuddle for a while. Mike also took me shopping for things that I needed for the new house that Jack and I had just bought. In one date, he helped me bring two beds that I bought on craigslist home in his truck. He stayed until midnight to help Jack assemble them. He also avoided calling or texting me on the evenings and weekends so that it would not interfere with Jack’a time with me. He gave me some back massages but we did not kiss or engage in other forms of sexual intimacy.
Mike did other things to gain Jack’s trust. Shortly after Jack and I bought a house, our ceiling sprang a leak. Mike brought over his tools, opened up the ceiling for us, and fitted it with new pipes. He also negotiated with the insurance company to get us covered for the damages. He helped us pull up the old carpet and clip our hedges. He took Jack tool shopping and talked to him about how the two of us spent time together, including what we did and what we did not do. He was a regular presence in our lives, coming over for dinner weekly, letting us borrow his tools, and teaching me how to caulk the new moulding that we installed by ourselves. Jack got very used to having him around and was comfortable for him to spend time with me alone.
One evening I proposed that Mike, Jack and I spend some time in bed together. Mike and Jack accepted. In bed, Mike spooned me while I spooned Jack. Sensing the tension in Jack’s body, Mike put his hand on Jack’a chest. He helped him breathe deeply and soon, both guys were relaxed. Afterwards, Mike thanked both of us for being open, and commended Jack especially. Jack said afterwards to me that it was ok, and he even enjoyed it a little bit.
Two months after Mike and I started seeing each other, the three of us were at a house party hosted by one of Mike’s friends. Sitting at the table while our friends were soaking in the hot tub, Mike and I broached the subject of our intimacy to Jack. We have been seeing each other for two months now, Mike began, and you know that we have conducted ourselves in a way that respected your comfort level with our relationship. Are you willing to go a little further? Mike asked him if he would be ok if we kissed. Jack said yes.
What about breast play?
What about genital touching?
How about with gloves?
We agreed that these rules would be acceptable to all three of us. We ended this conversation with the three of us holding hands, Mike expressing his gratitude for Jack’s generosity, and commending him for his growth. Jack expressed his ability to trust the two of us. When we left the party, Mike and I kissed on the lips. The three of us had acccomplished nothing short of a miracle. As we were leaving, he winked to me and whispered, “Breasts are in!”
Photo: The Secret Garden. 1993.