Just the Three of Us

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St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahl
St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahl


Polyamory used to be something that happened to other people — paunchy swingers in the suburbs with chest hair, hippies sprawled on rattan pillows. I imagined harems, armpit hair, hairiness in general. Multiple partnership always struck me as either a new age cop-out from the realities of relationships, or a frat boy fantasy — either way, it was gross. “Polyamory” sounded distasteful — scientific even, like a subspecies of amoeba — and nothing like the half-formed thoughts and desires I could barely admit were my own. So when I found myself falling for two of my friends last summer, I was quite literally at a loss for words.
     A recent heartbreak had thrown me off kilter, and a good friend and his lovely girlfriend were leaving town. Plus, Sam and Melissa (not their real names) had done this before. As their goodbye party wound to a close, we were dancing in bare feet, a little St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahltipsy on sangria, a little high on the view of the city they were leaving, a little emotional. I sat on the couch. Melissa leaned in next to me. I put my arm around her shoulder. She lay her head in my lap. I started running my fingers through her hair. Every time her hair slipped through my fingers, I could feel the heat rising between my legs.
     She turned her face towards mine and her lips moved up closer, and then Sam was on the other side of me, leaning gently on my shoulder, encouraging this kiss. I could feel Sam’s breath on the back of my neck as he watched our lips meet. I had kissed a woman before then, but it was nothing like this: This was softer, and more electric.
     In some sense, I know that a threesome is no big deal. I’m well aware of the spectrum out there, from Catherine Millet’s hundred-person orgies to fetishists of every stripe. I’ve conducted a few experiments of my own, but they have always felt just that — self-conscious exploration, like playing doctor; one-night dalliances within the context of heterosexual monogamous dating. But nothing ever got under my skin, nothing pushed me face to face with my basic assumptions.

It started like this: A few weeks before the party, I have dinner with Sam while Melissa is away for the weekend. I end up crashing on his futon, a little tipsy. We share a drunken kiss, and I go to sleep with the room spinning.
     In the morning we discuss: Inappropriate. Harmless. I have just broken up with someone. “I love Melissa,” Sam says. “Of course you do,” I say. “I would never want to come between you two.” And I don’t — I’ve never doubted them as a unit.
     Sam and Melissa are one of those couples who entertain. He’s a little wackier, she’s a little trendier. He does something a little crazy, she rolls her eyes at him. He won’t let her leave the house in heels, he doesn’t want to carry her home, she takes the heels off. Their little power plays are hard to imagine in private — do they do this when they’re alone? Sam and Melissa seem built to be watched, their little spats a kind of preening. It always seemed natural for them to have an audience. And it seemed natural for that audience to be me.
     We all go out after work one night. I haven’t eaten much, and end up much drunker than I planned. Melissa and I become a pair of thieves. We introduce ourselves to strange St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahlboys, while making sure that Sam is watching to see how successfully we’re flirting. We climb onto the bar and interrupt some kind of liquor company-sponsored giveaway. Melissa starts kissing people. She kisses our boss (a woman). She kisses our friends. When I wake up the next morning, I seem to remember Melissa kissing me, but I’m not entirely sure.
     Somehow, through all this, it isn’t awkward; we all get closer. Sam and I have a beer after work one day, and just in passing, by the by, he lets drop, hey, how would I feel about hooking up with him and Melissa?
     Floored, I come out with a defensive response that strikes me as clichéd even as I’m saying it: “That’s, like, your wet dream, isn’t it?”
     “I know, I’m shameless,” he says graciously. And then there’s a pause. Clearly, I’m expected to fill this pause, to protest or accept or say . . . something.
     “What does Melissa think?” I ask. And Sam tells me about Melissa’s interest in women. He tells me about their previous threesome with a lesbian. He tells me about Melissa’s general fondness for me. He obviously hasn’t run this idea by her, yet. But he’s getting there.
     He’s a schemer, that one.
     So, here is my good friend and colleague, and here is my beer glinting in a square of evening sunlight, and here are all kinds of still, deep waters being disturbed. I think, “What if my boss walks by, like, right now?” And then, “Sam and I hang out all the time, what the hell does my boss care?” And then, “But what if my boss looks at me and I suddenly look . . . deviant?”
     Evidently, testing my own limits makes me an idiot.
     It’s not that I’ve never questioned the status quo before. I know our obsession with heterosexual monogamy includes an element of societal pressure. I have deconstructed the need to conform to gender roles, the Rules, the whole shebang. But has questioning cultural constructs ever really made you want to give up on them entirely? No matter how much you hate what Pretty Woman stands for, don’t you still want to watch it when you’re depressed? (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) My point is, three-way love makes me feel like it’s suddenly A-okay not to find The One. Who cares? I’ll take The Many.
     “Thing is,” Sam says to me, “people always say, ‘Stuff like that never works.’ And then they give you one example of the one person they’ve met who actually tried something other than monogamy, and how it failed. But think about it. How many couples do you know thatSt. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahl haven’t worked out? How often does monogamy work?”
     This hits me like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Monogamy almost never works. Heartbroken for the eighth time in seven years, I’m beating myself up for letting someone who truly loved me move continents away, and for trying to hold onto someone else who clearly didn’t want me. I look out at the dating scene and see nothing but damage, detritus and fear. Boy/girl monogamy looks like a logical fallacy. The model is faulty! Clearly we’re meant to relax, let go and sleep with all of our friends!
     And so Melissa lands in my lap. And then all three of us land in bed.
     The sex itself is complicated. There are too many elbows and not enough room in the bed. It’s hard enough to get two people to come at once; it’s even harder to get three people on the same intimate wavelength. Sam and I can pretty much just look at each other and tell how close we are. Melissa is much harder for me to figure out. It’s trite but true — I have a whole new appreciation for guys who know what they’re doing. For the most part, we’re focused on Melissa. I’m holding back, trying to figure out where she is. Sam’s doing double duty on me with a hand here and something else somewhere else. I’m nervous, and worried about my performance. I want Melissa to have fun. I think I know what the signs are, but what if she’s different? When she’s not as wet as I think she should be, or as I am, I have to check myself constantly to avoid asking “Is that good?” like a fourteen-year-old guy.
     Nevertheless, it is every bit as arousing and intense as I ever could have wanted it to be. He takes her from behind while she goes down on me. I have never been present when two other people were having sex before. He brings me to orgasm by his hand while she rocks under him against my shoulder. I look down at Melissa while I’m straddling her, while he takes me from behind and she touches me. Every possible combination is worth the effort. I find myself in a constant state of arousal. I come four times in one night. At another party, Melissa pulls me into the bathroom to make out. “This was Sam’s idea,” she says. When we leave, we see him and smile. We’re a delicious, naughty clique.
     I spend two weeks in an oversexed haze. We go to a strip club together. We strip for each other. I keep saying I won’t spend another evening with them and then come home at four in the morning anyway, showing up at work bleary-eyed and distracted. Other nights we sleep over together, spooning in their bed; I am always the middle spoon.
     Then Sam and Melissa leave town.

Since they left, I have visited them once in their new state. We were chaste and platonic for the first few days. After all, none of this had been clearly defined. I didn’t know if we would sleep together again, but I knew St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahlthey missed me; they had written me separate, longing emails. Yet how could I talk about what’s “going on with us” when I didn’t know what was going on with me? Was I bisexual? Trisexual? Was I . . . polyamorous? What did I want to be?
     While I was visiting them, I managed to find an ex-boyfriend in the vicinity. I spent the night with him. When I was late for brunch with Sam and Melissa the next day, Melissa seemed annoyed.
     Later, we were snuggling in bed, more like two girl friends than two girlfriends. Sam brought up a tray of margaritas, and we lay there listening to the leaves rustling outside in the darkness. Melissa and I finally started kissing to relieve some of the pent-up tension. Sam was just getting involved when Melissa stopped everything. “What’s wrong?” Sam asked. “What is it?”
     “It’s . . . I can’t do this casually,” she said. “I can’t just hook up with you.” She brought up my one-night relapse with the ex.
     She wanted me to be faithful? She wanted me not to be casual?
     Staring up at the shadows, on a wide bed far from home, I was angry. When Sam and Melissa left, they walked away with my amazing, enthralling sex life, a good chunk of my social life and the only two people who understood what was going on with me. I was left alone, and they still had each other.
     I had known all along that Sam and Melissa would eventually get married. They are going to have babies St. Regis Death Trip by Jerry Stahland live somewhere where Melissa will bake and Sam will build things in the garage. I kid you not. Once they left, it became painfully clear that there was no place for me in their new life.
     Meanwhile, I had been left with a kind of breakup that I couldn’t talk about. No one knew how to react. Most of the few conversations I attempted went like this: “You what?” “Yeah, with both of them. I miss them.” “Oh my God, girl, you are so wild!” “I know. And I miss them.” “I bet you do!! Damn, girl!” Et cetera.
     My friends aren’t close-minded. They didn’t judge. They just couldn’t understand how I could grieve for something that clearly never had a future.

A search for that one, single, solitary man who will stick by me into old age still strikes me as doomed and comical. But the alternative is no more preferable. The search for a long-term, multiple and open set of relationships seems eminently possible, but it would take a lot of work, and it would be messy and difficult, just like everything else.
     When I got back from visiting Sam and Melissa, all of my options were open. I could try to define some sort of ongoing, long-distance three-way with them. I could date women. I could date men. I could try and locate a new couple. But my threesome experience has helped me figure out what I want. Although I applaud the efforts of the polyamorous, and although I may not choose vanilla sex, I do choose one-on-one intimacy. Most of us can barely stay open and honest with one person — I can’t hack it with any more. You have to have meetings instead of conversations; otherwise signals inevitably get crossed. As part of a threesome, I got a glimpse of boy/girl monogamy in the sunlight. It has its own pitfalls and madness. I choose it anyway.
     Unless I find the perfect guy who just happens to have a sexy, smart, well-balanced couple of friends . . .

©2002 Naomi H. Lane and Nerve.com, Inc.

Naomi H. Lane is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.