He was so calm and reasonable-sounding, it had never occurred to me that he was completely full of shit.
It sounds like the whitest, hipster-est cliche of all time to say you met your boyfriend at Burning Man, but…I met my boyfriend at Burning Man. I was in what would turn out to be the last year of my unhappy marriage, desperately wishing for a sign, any sign, that things were going to change.
And I got it.
Burning Man lasts a week. On Wednesday, I accompanied a friend to a now-defunct event called the Great Canadian Beaver Eating Competition: competitive cunnilingus. For several hours, I jumped up and down and cheered on the contestants. When the crowds dissipated, there was a small dark-haired man standing in the middle of the room wearing a referee shirt and looking dejected.
"What's the matter?" I asked him.
"The whole tent smells like pussy, and everybody's going home to get laid except for me," he said.
I laughed and kissed him. It was intended to be a consolation kiss, but about ten minutes in, I noticed that I had somehow wrapped my legs around him. I disentangled myself with some difficulty as my friend came up and we bicycled off into the night. I was disappointed to leave the little referee behind.
Thursday, my camp mates and I came across an unmanned kissing booth and decided to stay there for awhile, kissing all comers. We'd been there for about an hour when a young dark-haired guy came along, wearing a pirate coat. He kissed each of us in turn, gently, but with great enthusiasm. I was last. It was the kind of kiss that knocks you on your ass, and it was over all too soon. It was with regret that I watched him bike away into the crowd.
We were walking back to camp after the kissing booth when the same guy in the coat came across us again and kissed us all more thoroughly on the dusty side road. He and I got so enmeshed in our kiss that the other two ladies started back to camp without me. After we disengaged, he said, "What are you doing now?""Eating dinner, what about you?"
"I have this speed dating thing, but maybe you could meet me afterwards?"
I raced through dinner, went to the camp he said he'd be at: not there. Chalking it up to the impossibility of connecting with someone at Burning Man, I shrugged it off.
Friday, I woke up in the morning thinking, "I really want to go find that guy from the kissing booth." I didn't know his name, where he was from, where he was camping, nothing. So I started walking along the Esplanade…and about five minutes later, saw him walking towards me from the other direction.
I had lunch with him at his camp and saw the referee shirt thrown over a chair…neither of us had recognized each other, but we'd somehow managed to randomly meet three days in a row, at an event that is notorious for missed connections. It was the sign I wanted. Too bad I didn't know what it was pointing to.
Matt was charismatic and had the kind of emotional self-expression that comes from years in therapy or rehab. He'd actually just completed both: released from rehab for an addiction to ketamine, sleeping pills, and anything else he could swallow or put up his nose only a month before Burning Man. He was also in post-DUI court-enforced therapy. As my marriage shattered, I was happy to be in communication with someone who was the polar opposite of my husband: where my husband was pure logic, rejecting all emotion as weakness, Matt talked about his feelings and listened to mine. My husband was a homebody and hated it when I went out or did anything with anyone; Matt was a bird-of-paradise extrovert, flitting from event to event and friend to friend. Where my husband had been open to non-monogamy when we got married, he changed his mind almost immediately thereafter; Matt, like me, was poly.
We fell head over heels, as you do when you're passionately long-distance and in recovery: he from drugs, me from marriage. We talked about the people we were dating in what felt like a very healthy, mature way. He was honest about the sex he was having, and so was I. He said he loved me before I said it to him, and he begged me to live with him in Los Angeles. I was wary, but he was so enthusiastic and told me he loved me, loved me, loved me — and I loved him too. So I said yes, after a year of four-hour phone conversations, exciting cross-country trips to Fallingwater and Santa Monica, and fantastic sex. I moved to LA, to live in a pool house next to an avocado tree.
The first sign that things were not as they should be was Andrea. Obviously we had talked about all our boundaries and rules when I moved in, as good poly couples do. He'd requested no sex in our bed; I'd wanted to make sure we both felt loved. The usual. He met Andrea at a party and before very long, they were texting each other constantly. He was in the supermarket or at dinner with me, texting Andrea. We'd never specifically made a rule about that sort of thing, because it had never been an issue.
"Do you think you could stop texting so much?" I asked him. "I feel like you're ignoring me."
"Sure," he said. Instead, he started going to the bathroom all the time when we were in restaurants. Anyone else, I would have said "coke problem", but he was on his 18 month chip from AA and wanted to text his girlfriend where I wouldn't know about it. I chalked it up to early-relationship crush and let it go.
I got back from a dance rehearsal a month or so later and kissed him. "How was your date with Andrea?" I said.
"We just came back here and had sex and dinner," he said.
I blinked. "I thought you didn't want us to have sex with other people in our bed."
"Oh. I thought you wouldn't mind."
It wasn't my rule in the first place. I didn't really feel justified in calling him out. If it was his rule, and he'd broken it, what did it really matter? I told myself.
Then a few things happened. I was going away to Europe with a friend for a few weeks, and Matt was cranky about it. He never said he was jealous, but he punished me in a thousand small ways that surprised me. We had specifically made a date to spend the evening together several days before my departure; that afternoon, in the brilliant California sunshine, he said, "You know, I'm kind of bored. Would it be all right with you if I went out with Andrea tonight?"
Of course it wasn't. I opened and closed my mouth, stunned, and he said, "Thanks!" It was too late for me to try and find alternate plans, so I spent our date night at home reading a book and drinking tea. Three hours after he left, he came back. "We just drove around in my truck for awhile and then fucked in the driveway," he reported.
It turned out that Matt's fearless self-inventory and therapy-speak just made him sound like he was communicating effectively. He thoughtfully listened when I told him how upset I was and nodded seriously and shared his feelings: that I was trying to restrict him and he didn't think that's what poly relationships were about. I'd just spent 8 years being monogamous, he offered, maybe I was rusty. I began to doubt my own anger: maybe this WAS how poly relationships worked now. He'd gone through all that therapy, he had the Big Book next to his bed. Surely he was reasonable? Besides, we trusted and loved each other. Right?
Then, came Abi. He met Abi at a business event that I was also at, schmoozing furiously to help promote his photography business. Abi was round and gorgeous, and he was immediately smitten. Just as immediately, all our boundaries went out the window. He texted her constantly, texts about how he thought he could fall in love with her if it weren't for me, and she texted back how much she wished they could really be together. How do I know what the texts said? Because she sent them to me, with a "Just thought you should know" note.
He was so calm and reasonable-sounding, it had never occurred to me that he was completely full of shit. But as he started sneaking out to see Abi and pretending he was going to business meetings, as he lied to me about how much time they spent on the phone, I became more and more confused. We were in a non-monogamous relationship: he could fuck whoever he wanted, love whoever he wanted, and I was okay with it. So why was he acting like the cheatin' guy in a cowgirl song?
Dating Matt was like EXXXTREME DATING; it came with loud rock music and bright colors and a guy in a garish ski-suit snowboarding off a mountain in slow motion. He was fun, weird, and engaging: he glued a rhinestone to his front tooth and wore hand-tailored Italian shirts, went on impromptu road trips to the Mojave desert, adored a wall-sized oil painting of a man clubbing a baby seal that we found at the Pasadena flea market. He had so many friends and people came to him for advice on everything from their career to their grandmother. He put on a great performance of knowing exactly what he wanted and being able to ask for it: such a great show that I was leading the standing ovation in his personal audience. But as soon as I sat down, stopped clapping, and asked him what the hell he thought he was up to, everything fell to pieces.
I started calling him on his boundary-pushing. He got defensive, cried, got angry with me. At some point, he showed me the Excel spreadsheet he made to keep track of his sexual partners; crammed with designations like "hooker in Reno" and "French girl 1", had more than 170 entries. I felt cold. I didn't really care how many people he'd had sex with, but this seemed like compulsivity, the kind of frenzied drive for fucking that would edge out the desire for anything else. His behavior bore this out: it was more important to him to have whatever girl he wanted at that moment than to fulfill the agreement of our relationship. Once that became obvious, I ended it. He was still protesting to the last that he couldn't understand why I had said I was okay with open relationships, then tried to tell him what to do. He just had to be free, man.
Confused and reeling, I left for Australia to study at university. Matt was my first addict; despite his key-ring full of sobriety chips, he exhibited all the classic signs of someone who's just moved his yearning from Special K to boobs. I found myself suspicious of anyone who fiddled with their phone a lot, and I was always watching for hints of uncontrollable sneaking around: was that a lie? Were you really at a business meeting? I am naturally trusting — some might say naive — and after a while, the reminders of Matt and his manipulative, erratic behavior slowly faded.
Except for one thing. Matt was a musician, with two albums produced entirely with other people's money…mostly women he'd charmed and fucked somewhere along the line. They're all love songs. When I first met him, in the throes of that post-Burning Man intensity, I believed every line of the sweet professions, the sad demands for an explanation as to why she left. By the end of our relationship, not only was I one hundred percent certain why every one of those girls had ever left him, I couldn't even listen to the songs anymore.