The first time I told my girlfriend Ally I loved her, we were lying in the bed I shared with my boyfriend, Dan. He was at a metal show. It was a Monday after a weekend I’d spent with family. My family came to visit from Oregon for four days, but they didn’t meet Ally. They stayed with Dan and I in our apartment, admiring the pool in the center of the building that lit up gold at night. After five years of dating, Dan was part of our family. He led us around town, eating and drinking. We played cards into the night. I felt a million miles away.
Or perhaps approximately 12 miles away – the distance on the 10 freeway between my West LA apartment and Ally’s near downtown. Since we’d started dating in August, I traveled it a couple of times a week, often after midnight with my car’s one working window wide open. Each time, especially when coming home, glee pumped from my heart out through my limbs. I’d touch the skin of my face, put my fingers in my mouth, tug at my hair, trying to make the feeling of being with her last. When I wasn’t able to travel it, this 12 miles ached, heavy and full of static.
Curled around each other on the bed that Monday night, Ally and I admitted how painful the weekend had felt. To spend time with my family and boyfriend on one side of L.A., while she was alone on the other, tore us both up. It made us think of the future.
“You’re the first person I’ve imagined having a future with,” she said, looking at the space around my head instead my eyes. “I know that’s not an option. It feels a little tragic, but I’m OK with that.”
I assured her that it was an option. Next time my family came, we’d push harder to bridge the gaps. I knew my mom would love her. We’d get dinner together. I promised Ally that I wasn’t going to let her go. Holding her face close to mine, I let out words that had been knocking around in my chest for weeks.
Dan came home later that night and the three of us drank whiskey together at our kitchen table. He played Ally her favorite Kate Bush record. He insisted on sleeping on the couch, so Ally slept with me in our bed. He woke up first and made coffee. The fact of us all sitting half-awake together in the morning, over-analyzing a date Dan went on the night before, made this life feel possible.
When I made an online dating profile in August of that year, I hadn’t expected to fall so hard. On our first date, Ally and I talked about the death of loved ones, religion, our rural hometowns, my relationship with Dan, and our queerness. We didn’t kiss that night, but her deep voice and intricate thoughts stuck in my head. Soon we were hanging out every weekend. She cuddled harder than anyone I’d ever met, hooking her feet and hands between me and the bed. I could easily fall asleep in her embrace. She’d hold me like that all night. We didn’t do much. We would lie around looking at each other until the space between us collapsed. We’d talk and talk in a deep, winding way that felt teenage in its expansive electricity.
Dan wasn’t threatened by our built dream space. He liked hearing about Ally and was a patient editor of the texts I agonized over in those first months. We hadn’t entered nonmonogamy blindly. We embraced how it made us stare the death of our relationship in the face and consciously decide to continue being together.
Openness had been part of our relationship from the beginning. Before we were ever alone together, Dan and I were wild in a three-person crush with our friend Hanna. One summer afternoon, the three of us danced around an empty Michael’s Crafts, draping ourselves in tulle and performing art weirdo wedding ceremonies. Over tacos later that afternoon, Hanna and I squeezed Dan’s cheeks and speckled his head with kisses. Our held hands made a triangle over the tabletop. We were high on the creative potential of norm-breaking love. We had a PG-13 threesome that night – lots of caresses and kisses and hands running through hair. We all felt sexy and impressed with what we’d made happen.
It didn’t happen again. Instead, I fell in love with Hanna and she promptly broke my heart. Two months later, I was dating Dan. You could ask many questions of this situation, but no, Dan wasn’t a backup. Ours was real love that had my heart swelling every morning. We’d talk at diners for hours, and dance at warehouse parties where our love swallowed me whole under spinning lights. We shared an intrinsic playfulness and imagination that’s central to who I am.
Three monogamous years later, we were tipsy on a plane when we dually admitted our wish to open things up. It felt exciting, natural, and rooted this sense of play. With trust and history, we felt well prepared for the experiment. I felt Dan deeply understood my queerness and the needs that polyamory could fill for me. I didn’t tell him how I hoped it would silence the gnawing sexuality crisis that had bubbled up insides of me every couple years since I was young.
On OKCupid we were a bisexual woman, not interested in men, looking for single women 25 to 40 for sex and play. Justine messaged us before we even matched. She was upfront about what she was looking for: a sweet couple for regular hookups and in-between flirting, nothing serious.
Dan and I were stiff with nervous giggles on the late spring walk to our first date. Justine wasn’t there yet, but texted: “Sorry I’m late. Just getting pretty for you two.” She turned out to be perfect. For almost four months, we were part of her weekly routine, which also involved trips to a dungeon by the airport, ‘normal’ romantic dates, evenings spent suspended in ropes, and marathon training. She usually came over to our place, often with a purse full of toys. She was the first person to fuck me with a strap-on, my legs hanging over the edge of the wooden bed that Dan had bought us, a symbol of adulthood. She was a textbook example of a good communicator; her “I” statement check-ins glittered with honesty and sex appeal. She gifted us with selfies of her lounging around in lacy lingerie, her bronze skin shimmering. Dan and I enveloped her in the breezy comfort of our home and the soft, easy post-sex lay-arounds of a long-term relationship. We even got skilled at taking sexy couples pics for her (not an easy task).
I enjoyed talking to friends about our arrangement, but quickly found that most everyone knew someone who had left their male partner for a woman after a messy bout with polyamory.
“Be careful,” they’d say. “What if you fall in love?”
As if it is easy for someone with so many complicated feelings about love’s intersection with identity to “be careful.” As if it was possible for me to entirely “know what I was doing.”
I ensured my friends that, given my queerness, our open relationship gave me hope for the future. With it, I could imagine Dan and I growing old together and still communicating well, still having good sex, still seeking what we needed. I left out my desires to text Justine outside of our group text, something she’d said she wasn’t into.
Then, I became the first woman to make Justine come. When her body shook I was filled with a fullness that almost made me cry. For me, in that moment, Dan wasn’t even in the room.
I said that I wanted to end things because I didn’t have enough headspace to handle everything – the communication, the planning, the concerns about satisfying everyone. This was partially true. It was a lot. But really, it wasn’t enough.
Dan and I laid low for some months. We felt connected and in love. We got our kicks talking about crushes and flipping through dating apps, but never making plans. I went to Chicago to rekindle a romantic relationship with a close friend. Our intimate time together and regular texting fed some of my desires. Then I got a debilitating crush on a very straight girl. I regressed to an emotional register I recognized only from high school, crying at night and rehearsing words to tell her how I felt. Instead of doing it, I decided I had to go back on dating apps, alone.
Ally was the first date I went on. Maybe when I talked about the beginning of our relationship earlier, it seemed slow and sweet, well balanced. I would love for you to think that, but wouldn’t trade the manic love-craze it really was for anything. With her, my world slowed. I was fully present in a way I rarely am. But when we were apart, my sticky heart lodged itself in my throat. I lost weight, lived in my daydreams, and overwhelmed Dan with them. My adrenals went so haywire that for a couple of weeks, I thought I was pregnant. I ran past the emotions about this, desperate to prove to Ally and Dan that I could make them feel safe, that I could love them both enough to never have to choose. I was racing to build something strong that consistently felt fragile. My life depended on it.
Needless to say, I didn’t have much time or energy to question things. But fierce doubt, a tightly-packed time bomb, eventually chased me down. Two weeks before Christmas, Dan and I walked to dinner by our house. As we sipped our beers, I started talking about the future. Maybe to fill space, maybe to toy with danger, I talked about us moving for me to attend grad school. I said that I felt ready to leave L.A. These were things I’d said before. Then I said that if I didn’t get into school, I wanted to have a baby. Maybe I could move to the desert. I didn’t say “We.”
After dinner, he dropped me off at the train. My body pulsed with the self-contained energy and ease of being alone with headphones in, barreling across the city. At Ally’s, we took shots and left for a dance night at a Koreatown dive that had dusty stuffed animals shoved into every corner. We had a game, then, of carting around our imaginary daughter. Roxy was a bitchy little fashionista, a seven-year-old power goth who perched on bar stools sucking down apple juice, her eyes constantly rolling back in her head at the trivial things adults did. We downed a couple more tequila shots, denying them of Roxy who sat between us.
We joked that Roxy kept us honest. Really, she made us mushy inside, in a way that felt both naughty and vapidly predictable.
“I know you wanted me to be pregnant,” I said, in one slow breath, almost like flirting.
“Maybe,” she murmured, her eyes locking with mine like a dare. Something wild squirmed around in my chest, a band strung tight from my heart out along my collarbone. I’d felt it before, when we looked into each other and said ‘I love you.’ Something threatening to break me.
I ran outside. Because we were drunk, the conversation evaporated into the night air. We talked with friends and Ally smoked a cigarette. Later, she leaned against a streetlight and I played with her hair. Our faces got close and the air between us sparked with a tugging lust.
“Ours is the best sex I’ve ever had,” I breathed.
“Better than with Dan?” she said.
“Bad!” I said, slapping her cheek lightly. Though we never denoted off-limits conversation topics, we knew comparisons of Ally and Dan were definitely forbidden.
I couldn’t say another word. It was like she’d gestured to this giant pile of unmentioned feelings that I’d been running around with. Our relationship relied on that heap retaining its shadows. In memory, I picture myself sobbing on the sidewalk there, but I think it was a couple of hours before I broke. On her couch, I cried and cried, but couldn’t yet say why.
The next day, I was quiet and still on the train home. Dan and I made dinner together, not talking much. When we got into bed, I choked into my pillow and told him for the first time ever that I think I may be gay; not bi, but gay. He said, “I thought you were so comfortable being queer like you always have been.”
I climbed into a hole that week. I called every friend whose opinion I valued. I wrote in my journal for hours. I barely spoke to Dan or Ally. I worried that the pressure I felt to break from dating men was essentialist or biphobic. Was it convention that was pushing me to choose? Didn’t I believe so deeply in fluid queerness? I obsessed over the question of certainty: why cause grief and pain unless I was undeniably sure? In this darkness, though, coming out felt light. By the end of the week, I knew what I had to do, but I waited until after Christmas to tell Dan.
After I moved out of our apartment on January 1st, Dan and I didn’t see each other for seven months. Daily, I felt alternating elation, relief and dense sadness, mostly for a sense of time lost and prior lack of self-awareness. Grief for Dan never came in the storm I thought it would. When we met for brunch in July, I expected it to hit me. Sitting across from him at a diner by my (third) new apartment, I felt blurry and soft, far from the bold conductor of affairs I’d been before. We caught up, our smiles honest. He admitted things had been pretty bad for him, but had gotten easier. I offered to answer any questions he had.
“Were there reasons besides your sexuality?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “But if it weren’t for my sexuality, we probably could have worked things out.”
He agreed and then asked if it was hard to be with Ally, in another long-term relationship so soon.
“Sometimes,” I mumbled. “I take space when I need it.”
I felt numb, then, trying to connect the joy and wholeness of my current relationship with his loss. I couldn’t tell him that Ally and I existed on a completely plane from he and I, that I had never been in love like this before. I couldn’t tell him that no, it wasn’t jarring, because it felt like the first relationship of my life.
He nodded at my vague response and said his friends had urged him to meet our situation with the anger awarded to other “unjust” breakup narratives: me cheating and then continuing to date the Other Woman; Dan cursing polyamory for driving us apart; me moving on too quickly and too publicly. This frustrated him. He couldn’t feel angry with me. He did not regret our polyamory. He simply carried the pain of a breakup: the deep missing, the lonely recalibration.
Walking home, I didn’t feel the broke-open grief I thought I might. Maybe it would never come. I thought instead about Dan’s friends’ words. I thought about a queer friend of mine saying she didn’t think her boyfriend would be open to trying non-monogamy, now, even though her sexuality is so different from mine. I thought about the sorrowful letter my grandma wrote me after I came out, about her heart breaking for Dan. She didn’t even know about Ally, at that point, but she felt that I’d done him wrong. Throughout the spring, I’d internalized this shame and zeroed in on guilty moments: When Dan gave me money for grad school applications and I barely said thanks before sequestering myself in our bathroom to film myself reading Ally her horoscope (yes, we are that gay). When I made him sit on the couch and listen to me sing a song Ally loved on his mini-amp mic, to determine if my voice sounded good enough to sing for her. Worse than that was when I went home with him for Thanksgiving and picked apart his family, wondering aloud if we’d have to spend holidays with them after we had kids. I felt invisible in the face of heteronormativity, and acted out. Dan had been patient with me.
Getting back to my apartment, a breezy space I felt immensely comfortable in, anger began to surface over this shame. Not anger at Dan in any way, but at having to answer for my winding path, to anyone. I don’t want to apologize for the timing of things. They happened at exactly the right time, if not too late. While I love Dan and am so grateful for the times we shared, I choose anger at the powerful norms that slowed my coming out, over shame and guilt. Anger is uncomfortable to me, but it is mine. Eventually, the daily miracle of my queerness and the ways I’ll continue to grow into it might eclipse that anger. Or I’ll be an angry dyke, unapologetically obsessed with her girlfriend, forever, and that’s great too.
edited by Rachel Kincaid.