I met K in Virginia in a strange season when nothing else was working. Not friendship—ships in the night. Not cat—gone for days and days. Not girlfriend— killing me. Not even the weather seemed right. Walking meant sweating long into October and Hurricane Sandy was just a light rain that blew sideways.
K’s profile said “seeing someone.” Through the plate glass window wall of the Southern-themed bar, I saw her sitting on a stool reading a book on mass incarceration. Her muscled shoulders wore a men’s white v-neck t-shirt but her feet didn’t touch the ground. What is it about looking at a butch woman? Double your pleasure, double your fun. She looked back at me from behind big two-toned Buddy Holly glasses. Didn’t smile.
That season, the word but had invaded every corner of my life. It was in every letter to every friend and in every phone call to every ex-lover. For example: I wanted to go to the disco party but I also wanted to stay facedown in bed. I wanted the wildness and freedom of a cabin in the mountains but also the opportunities for accidental human contact and Romanian abortion films offered only by the city. I wanted my friends to stay the same and be ever-psyched to see me, but I wanted to change and shut out their calls when I pleased. I wanted the gentleness of men in ponytails who wanted me to be their girlfriend but I wanted the sharp charge of women in lace-up boots who didn’t.
Was it simply the human reality of choosing I was wrestling with—in walking one way, all others get gulped in the dust storm? Perhaps. But other people did not seem to struggle so desperately: these are the hours, we cannot be in two places at once. I always had.
K picked me up in a squat Volvo sedan missing a side mirror and drove me twenty miles west on Interstate 64. She pulled off for the state park then took the switchbacks too fast. We found the trailhead but not the trail, ended up squatting down on a sunny rock beneath a T of power lines on the side of a Blue Ridge mountain.
She had been with her girlfriend seven years; they had been dating other people for five. Her girlfriend had another girlfriend in California—a wonderfully special person, K said. K had dated a tall girl in addition to her girlfriend for the past two years but it was over now.
How does that work? I asked. I knew about dating more than one person at a time, but not about loving more.
This is not a zero sum game, K said. My care and energy are not finite resources.
I agreed. But she could smell my doubt. She looked at me a long time, then said, Do you want to be here?
I did. I had wanted out of every relationship and every place I’d ever been in, i told her, and wanted to know why. I thought maybe my love machinery, or at least my monogamy machinery, was broken. I told her that wanting out was a thing I used to feel proud of but now did not. This was mostly true. Actually, I was still a little proud of it. Something, I told her, was not working.
I remember that feeling, K said. There came a time, she said, when I realized I could no longer say in good faith: my girlfriend is killing me.
I told K about a man I knew, a friend I’d slept with a few times, who drove a blue pickup truck and grasped the twoness in me but had only strange, antiquated words for it.
Yes, K said. I don’t love the term bisexual. I don’t love the term polyamory. Sometimes it’s not about the words.
Later, in bed, K turned to me and said, I want you to fuck me in the ass.
Did I want to? Didn’t know.
The first time I fucked her in the ass, it seemed impossible. It was not. At first I could not look. Then I looked. Soon I could not look away from her blooming asshole, ridges on the inside becoming ridges on the outside. She had the heartshaped and fat-shined ass of a woman, but the shaved neck nape of a man, which is how I felt on the inside but did not know until that moment that I felt on the inside.
K leant me the book on mass incarceration, but I didn’t read it. I watched the leaves slap wetly against my window in that old columned house in Virginia that had once been the location of grinding bondage. I flirted with the man of the blue pickup truck, but once he was in my bed I no earthly idea what to with him. What a story should be, what a person should be, a sexuality and a body, and how it should all add up. I was losing my grip. But I still thought I had all the right pieces. If I could just find their correct arrangement.
Then one bright April day, across the asphalt parking lot of the farmer’s market, I spotted K and her girlfriend under the good apple tent tossing pink ladies into an opaque plastic sack. K had her hand on her girlfriend’s back in a way that suggested enormous tenderness. Too far, too far, too far, someone said. I turned and I ran.
I wrote a letter to the writer Kristen Dombek’s advice column. I told her I felt perpetually pulled between dating men and women, between freedom and togetherness, between monogamy and something else. I signed it “Both Ways.” I had been reading Maile Meloy’s story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and was smitten with the phrase. I taped it above my task. I also taped F. Scott Fitzgerald of course—“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” What did I care about having a first-rate intelligence? It was the functioning I was after. I was just trying to get through the day without making some grave and irrevocable error.
I kept losing things. Another nice girlfriend, another apartment, two more years. The cat—squashed by a passing car.
“Lose something every day,” Elizabeth Bishop advises. “Practice losing farther, losing faster: places and names, and where it was you meant to travel.”
I practiced. Was I a woman? Didn’t know. I wasn’t a woman like my students were women—tiny, blond, sweatshirted, silent. There were other ways, I knew, but I had lost them. One day I woke up and stepped out my front door and looked into the branches of the maple tree on my street and then into the sunny eye of the traffic light and the voice that usually leapt up saying, Good morning! You’re a woman! Good morning! You’re a woman! was much too quiet, a whisper. Stayed still a long time listening, but it was gone. Didn’t shower much. Closed the door on my closet. Wore sweatpants.
I started putting the word and everywhere the word but wanted to be. Enough loss. And was the solution to the problem that had been dogging me all my life. If but erases everything that comes before it, implying a clear judgment or course of action, and preserves the gravity of both parts of the sentence and the warring, misdirected complexity of the whole. If I could not fix the problem in life I would fix it in words.
This shift did not come naturally. A great deal of typing but, deleting it. Typing and.
Kristin Dombek wrote back. “Dear Both Ways. Night has fallen on the Help Desk many times since your question arrived. In the spring it seemed clear you should refuse this sacrificial logic of life and love and create another world; in the honesty and generosity of open relationships, I believed, you could refuse all the double binds and find your true love story. But any tragedy will tell you that it’s impossible to have anything both ways, that the only alternative to the ambivalence you describe is decision and sacrifice—that such sacrifice is the very lifeblood of social and cultural life.” She wrote of Derrida, of how he says that the problem of choosing between different but equally desirable alternatives is universal, an ethical dilemma that is fundamental to being alive. My question was about bisexuality and polyamory, sure. But also, she wrote: “This is the problem where we all live.”
In a moment of universe synchronicity or just coincidence, Dombek wrote of a recurring nightmare she used to have that almost identically matched a nightmare I used to have. It was of finding ourselves in wedding dresses about to marry someone. We don’t know who it is and it doesn’t really matter, but we do know that we don’t want to be married and we don’t know how we got there or how to get away and yet we march on, slowly, towards the alter.
Dombek said the dream wasn’t a prophecy, as she once thought, but rather an exposure of her fears in the present. “We cannot live in all the universes we want to, but neither do we live in that wedding nightmare,” she said, “a world in which there is only one story, coming for you, and you cannot extricate yourself from it.”
Then K came back. She was a lawyer now, serving the disenfranchised. Now those shoulders rode beneath blue button-ups instead of t-shirts. She was bigger, gentler. She no longer said, I want you to fuck me in the ass. Instead she said, Do you want to come over and dye Easter eggs? Do you want me to help you move? I was newly single again, feral again, and rushing forward. I was going to get out of this town, out of Virginia, out of the American south once and for all—just blow this popsicle stand and never look back.
It was June. That whole ride north to Philadelphia in her girlfriend’s green hatchback, we spoke of ourselves in the past tense, telling each other how we had once been in pain but now were not. Once she had been a girl all-wrong, scraggly-haired in a string bikini top and board shorts, knee-deep in the Atlantic and squinting into the sun as she watched her crush reach for a boy’s hand. I had been a girl so right it was scary—killing every test, so early for school I paced the aisles of the drug store next door, ice-statue still and miles away when men on the subway touched my body.
My hair was long and dirty. It blew out the open window of the AC-less car. So deep were we into our alcoholic fathers and how they dominated us with their dictatorial and changeable wishes—pick up your feet, pick up your feet, mine was fond of saying—that K and I did two complete revolutions around the Washington DC beltway before righting our course northward. It was midnight by the time we were hauling my collapsible bookcases and copies of Stone Butch Blues and Where I’m Calling From up the three flights of rickety wooden stairs to my subletted room.
Without her thick glasses, K’s eyes were ice blue and owlish. She blinked at me. She sat at the foot of the mattress which was old but new to both of us. I kissed her small hot mouth. Her septum piercing smelled fleshy sweet, like the inside of my belly button when I am fatter and no air gets in. She drew me to her and mashed her forehead up against mine. It was closer than I had ever slept—intolerable, interesting. We swapped air.
None of the beds we slept on that summer belonged to us. Nor any of the states we met in. The state of feeling large, the way your life rushes forth when you’ve introduced a new idea: it feels good to hold someone loosely. There was the Baltimore hospital where we visited her chosen brother’s father, his skin so badly burned all visitors had to wear a mask. The letters in the mail, the packages, the phone calls made while driving interstates in the dark. I was not done with the American South, as it turned out. I lead her, me in my car and she in hers, from Virginia into West Virginia, two hours around the switchbacks of the Allegheny mountains. The way K listened to people, really listened to them. Unlike me, she was not always waiting to speak.
Then there was the Florida hurricane I drove through in a rented car to pick her up. The birds, tall as girls, that we passed on our way to the point of the island. How hard it rained down on us on the walk back, way past romantic, and what we did with that time. My room at the artist residency welcomed her body. White furniture, white cotton sheets, sunburned good arms. How quiet the jungle was that night when it was done raining and the fish we fried in the silence. She wore a black t-shirt, handsome as a star.
In the morning, we waded into the Gulf of Mexico. Placid, green. The words that bumbled out, the mistakes and the mysteries, the way sex had seemed impossible when we were kids and then become so abundant it hijacked our lives and held us hostage. Every other love we’d ever had.
K was still suffering over the tall girl she’d dated for two years while also dating her girlfriend. K told of how when she and the tall girl broke up, K went down to the floor. Then her girlfriend, C, came in and rubbed her back. K said, I’ve caused you so much pain. C said yes, it was true, but that she was still there. That she would always be there, with K, even when K got very old, even if they were no longer together.
Wow, I said.
Yeah, K said.
We stood in the water a long time.
Back in Philadelphia, I was fixing up a dark row home. What had once been part of a dining room was now a bathroom. Faucets, outlet covers, windows, floors. None of these things were born in place but had once been purchased at a brightly lit home improvement store or one of the dusty warehouses on Washington Avenue. Out in the world, I began to look at bathrooms and think: this was once a dining room, this was once a room for a child.
K drove across the Mason Dixon line to help me build kitchen cabinets. Now we had connection but we did not have a compartment in which to put it. Who were we to each other? Not friends. Not girlfriends. Didn’t know each others’ people or parents or home towns. There were no pictures of us together on the internet.
We exhausted ourselves wrestling with wooden pegs and particle board in the dust then moved outside to talk on the porch. Every house on the block had one—all in a line you could look down. I sat on the top step, she stretched out below. There we were, two white dykes in a neighborhood of black families. K opened a can of sardines, conjuring a convergence of alley cats.
It seemed to me, I told K, that the people I knew were either doing exactly what they were supposed to do—marriage, office work, prepping for offspring— or they seemed to feel completely unconstrained by expectations, joyfully creating their own ridiculous worlds. What did it mean that I felt in neither camp, that I found myself yearning for a new way but suspicious of it, critical of the old way but not free of it?
I don’t know, K said, taking a bite of apple. But I’m right there with you.
If we left my house and moved through the city, we remarked with contempt on the same things—the glittering chrome lettering on a new building of condominiums where a community center had once been, the prosperous lesbians in matching polar fleece jackets bearing the University’s name. In the anarchist coffee shop in my neighborhood, every table held bodies with short or half-shaved hair, thigh tattoos, grey zip-up hoodies. By the free water, two cute genderqueers soberly discussed their impending trip to Nicaragua to fight for the rights of the indigenous, but when one asked the other exactly what kinds of rights they were hoping to secure, both were silent with lip-biting. Taking up the ripped velvet couch and footstool, a group with rattails and reflective clogs established parameters for their book club: no straight people, no men, no one who came from the owning class. K and I burst outside, paper coffee cups burning our hands. We could see it so clearly, the way neighborhoods like this one, in trying to resist and opt-out, only create their own reactive and equally dogmatic rules.
We preferred people who were suspicious of ideology, like Rebecca Solnit. We returned to my porch steps to read her aloud. “The politics we have is so pathetically bipolar that we only tell this story two ways,” Solnit writes, in Hope in the Dark: either what’s been achieved through activism is absolute success so shut up about it already, or what’s been achieved is nowhere near good enough and we might as well give up. “Both versions are defeatist because they are static,” she says. “What’s missing from these two ways of telling is an ability to recognize a situation in which you are traveling and have not arrived, in which you have cause both to celebrate and fight, in which the world is always being made and is never finished.”
Whole swaths of morning or afternoon passed this way: walking, talking, fucking. We joked we could collapse time and space, that our bodies and minds in proximity had the potential energy necessary to defy the realities of those two world properties. An hour unfolded in real time—complete focus, complete attention. Didn’t touch my phone when K was in town, didn’t answer emails, didn’t clean the bathroom. Dinner was sausages sizzled on an electric hotplate plugged into my single live outlet. It was two AM, then it was four, then we were hitting the bottom of sleep exactly where we’d left off. Through the bedroom wall of the rowhome, my neighbor watched game shows. The only sounds were our bodies gathering speed and the ping of an answer lighting up.
There was only one problem, if I chose to see it that way, which I ultimately did.
K’s girlfriend C was a slender tomboy and kindergarten teacher whom K had been loving since they turned old enough to smoke. I had hung out with C several times during the Easter egg dying period—she was smart, funny, lovely, and thoroughly different from me. Where I mothered, she teased; where she saw friends or cooked dinner first and worked second, I reversed; where she acted, I intellectualized.
One day in October, I opened my mailbox and there was a card from C.
Have a frighteningly fun Halloween! said the card’s front. Just wanted to send some warm thoughts your way, C had written inside. And underneath her signature, P.S. This is not a trick.
With K, I was finally doing what I had never done—closeness—or I was walking blindly down a path towards complete self-annihilation. Which one? Didn’t know. I could go round and round this way, ping ponging back and forth between the two opposed ideas for an hour or more, the amount of time it took me to walk a loop around my neighborhood.
K pointed to how much I cared for my friends and how giving to one friend did not diminish the lowdown stomach good feeling for another. But, she conceded, some things are finite. Time is. Space is. She could not be in two places at once. I understood. I agreed. Intellectually. And yet. For example, I could not call K on the phone on a whim and have her answer. I had to arrange a time beforehand by text. On the one hand, one could view this as mature, prudent, an inevitable byproduct of our advancing age and responsibilities. But what of romance? What if I was in the hospital and/or died? (I was also commuting to New York City for a graduate program in journalism so I had a lot of time to worry about overpasses from the top deck of the double-decker bus.)
A new feeling set in. If I called K and she didn’t answer, my face flushed and my hands shook. I wanted to throw up, punch myself, slap my thighs, roll around on the dusty floor of my house like a dog. I experimented with what it meant not to be good—not a good friend, not a good citizen. I stole dumplings from a deli buffet, got caught and lied, left coffee cups on park benches. Not a good student: stopped doing the reading, brought nothing to the department party. Wouldn’t back down from a male professor over a petty assignment. I could not be touched on the street, bumped into, looked at. On MetroNorth home for Thanksgiving, the man sharing my seat squashed me into the window and I turned and met his zipper ready for violence, to fight or even to die for what was mine if it was necessary. K had opened the lid on some new kind of love and now my feelings were slashing and burning through my body like a disease.
I could not read for class but I could read endlessly about other subjects— psychology, philosophy, religion, love addiction, anything that might help me. I was trying to reject twos now and had become obsessed with threes, was bamboozled by the ridiculousness of the Holy Spirit—a force of God that was neither the father nor the son—and yet its wide acceptance.
I sat on my porch steps and talked to K on the phone at the appointed hour. As a lapsed Catholic—evident in her penchant for over-caffeination, denying herself comfort and grinding forward as the foundation of living—I wanted K’s take.
K’s take was that she remembered almost nothing from her faithful childhood except that the Holy Spirit was supposed to be like grace and didn’t really make sense. Also, she remembered she had these sweet multi-colored floating blocks. I would play with them in the bath while I was trying to psych myself up for church, she said. And I would say out loud, knowing already that it was a lie: I am going to God’s house.
Erotic love, we are taught, exists in twos and ones—two people, one love at a time. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm defines it as “the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive.”
K had told me that this book taught her how to love, so I read it. She also sent me scanned pages from The Jealousy Workbook by Kathy Labriola, a leading resource for polyamorous relationships. Labriola believed that people can be “naturally inclined” towards polyamory and that others are naturally inclined away from it, similar to the way we talk about the sexual orientations straight and gay. Of the clients she sees every day in her practice, she writes “They may spend years trying to change themselves to be able to accept polyamory or demanding that their partner change to become monogamous. Only after long periods of intense suffering and turmoil do they grasp that polyamory and monogamy are mutually exclusive.”
But in other moments, Labriola herself seemed to waffle. “This is a theory rather than a scientific fact and more research may clarify whether relationship orientation can be as fixed as being straight or gay. Similarly, many people can be attracted to both monogamy and polyamory, and may be capable of succeeding in both types of relationships.”
As I read this, I was sitting in the NYU library in a dark, wide hallway. My hair was greasy and my pants bore smudges of paint and drywall dust from my house in Philadelphia. I was supposed to be reading about the history of journalism, how facts have been made and checked since the dawn of time. I was supposed to be calling “experts” on given topics and asking them their truths. The book in my hands had a glossy red cover with glossy red words. In the jacket photo, Labriola was a thin white woman with loose grey hair and a patterned vest worn over a green turtle-neck. If her book could not resolve my questions, perhaps she, the expert on love, might be able to.
When I called the next day, Labriola told me that I was reaching her in Berkeley in a cluster of houses she’d bought decades ago with her women’s collective.
“Oooh could you hold on?” she said into her end of the phone line. She needed to check on her chickens. “I hear them squawking in an odd way.” A brief silence. “OK,” she said. “False alarm.”
Labriola’s voice was breezy and thoughtful, at the same time evoking the sense that she was genuinely jazzed to dig into this subject afresh and that she talked about this stuff all day long. She told me that people end up in romantic relationships for a mix of healthy and unhealthy reasons, regardless of whether the relationship is “mono” or “poly.”
For mono relationships: “Because they have an overly strong need for structure, predictability, security, and control, or a very strong tendency to be overly dependent.” Or, more healthily, “because they want to focus on just one person and they want to feel the other person focusing only on them. That allows them to experience a greater degree of intimacy and commitment.”
For poly relationships: “Because they do have a great fear of committing to just one person or they’ve been hurt and are hedging their bets. Maybe they really do have a sex addiction or a love addiction and are seeking constant validation of their sexual desirability. Or they want power in the relationship and want to keep their partner in a powerless position.”
She used the word “choice” many times. But what of “natural inclination?”
“Let me clarify,” she said. “Poly is a skill set that for most people can be learned.” Most people have been brainwashed into believing sexual exclusivity is the be-all, end-all, she said, and they can learn otherwise. “As long as you don’t have a rigidly monogamous orientation. Some people will never be happy in a poly relationship because of their sense of the meaning of sexual exclusivity. I do think it’s a fixed orientation and how they’re wired. To them, exclusivity is so foundational to feeling loved and safe that they cannot feel safe and loved without it. It just goes against everything they feel on a gut level. To try to change that, it does not seem possible. It seems cruel.”
How does a person who, for example, runs away at the sight of their love buying apples at a farmer’s market know if they’re hard wired or just subject to societal pressures?
Look at your life,” Labriola said, and I imagined myself flopped on a sunsoaked lawn with her, chickens ruffling around the perimeter. In real time and space, I was back in the NYU library hallway, flopped on an industrial blue carpet that smelled of bleach and Cheetos. “How foundational does it feel to you? I wouldn’t say just give up immediately. Try it for a little while and see if you can make a shift. If it’s literally making you throw up thinking about your partner with someone else, then walk away.”
But why can some people make the shift while others throw up?
“I don’t have a clue and I don’t think anyone does. You’d probably do well to talk to some of those academic types.”
I found just such an academic type in Dr. Elizabeth Sheff. She writes a column for Psychology Today called “The Polyamorists Next Door” (also the title of her first book) and her papers on polyamorous communities and poly families with children are cited by thousands of scholars. She agreed to speak to me over Skype.
“For the majority of people it’s a choice,” she said. She was blunt and funny, with a triangle of curly blond hair, and instructed me to call her Eli. Through my computer screen, Eli leaned forward over the desk in her office as her wife puttered around their Atlanta apartment and occasionally interjected a comment through the open door—“you can always tell a lesbian by her shoes!”
“Most people can move in and out of polyamory depending on who’s in their life at the moment,” Eli reiterated. “People want to do it when they’re younger. Some people want to do it after they divorce and play the field in an authentic and open way. Some people want to do it when their spouse dies or their kids move out of the house when they have more privacy and freedom.
“But for people for whom it is a sexual orientation, it never goes away. They’re never like, oh, I think I would rather be monogamous now. The lifestyle people, yes. But the orientation folks talk about how they never had a best friend as a child but they always had groups of friends. Sometimes when playing house as a child they said they would imagine being married to multiple people. People who are poly oriented tend to say, I’m super conventional except I just happen to love two people. But people who choose it as a lifestyle, are like, ‘this is a political statement. You can’t own people.’”
So maybe I could change the belief in monogamy. What was necessary, I decided, was to overcome my old, constrained thinking. I had triumphed over fear much worse than this before—as when I slept in the back of my pickup truck for three months. There had been the seven hours I drove through a mountain pass between Idaho and Nevada in blind snow for example, stopping every few minutes to put my snow chains on or take them off; the man on a motorcycle who roared past the overlook where my truck was parked then doubled back, putt putt, putt. I heard his feet, the metal spurs on his boots as he approached, the sound of him trying to turn the knob on my camper top.
What was necessary, I decided, was to know everything. What did it matter that my hands shook, my back and thighs cracked when I sat down on the trolley, and I could often see my heart beating in the veins of my ankle? I needed to go closer to fear, to blast myself with knowledge until nothing else could hurt me.
K came down the bus stairs chest-first, her sheepskin coat flapping and her green wool hat pulled down over her eyes. Tiny little feet, tiny black canvas shoes. Her physical smallness surprised me every time because of how large she seemed in every other way. Keys attached to her beltloop, crusty chipped travel mug of coffee, black laptop bag, black gym bag that held pants for men but socks for boys—rocket ships, trucks. If I was lucky, a strap-on harness and cock. We stood in front of a meat packing district bar where a white man in a very expensive suit was getting thrown out onto the curb. K hugged me a long time. All the way to the train she kept her arm around me, her small hand squeezing my shoulder.
How many nights does C stay over? I asked later, brain sex scrambled.
Where does C park her car when she comes over?
On the street, under the tree.
Does C pick you up from the train station when you take the train home from being with me?
Would you prefer that I walk?
What is your sex life like with C? How do you fuck C? How does C fuck you?
Do you really want me to answer that?
There have been times when C and I don’t really have sex. This is not one of those times.
They were the kind of questions a cuckholded wife might feel entitled to ask in a conversation of reckoning except I felt entitled to ask them any time and could have the answers right away.
The answers made me nauseous. My face got hot. My body got hot. My legs threw off the covers. My fists clenched. My shoulders and ass rolled away from K. K just held me, very well and very tight, from behind.
My eyes cried and cried. My chest and the space inside went dark, blank. My mind gave me Mary Oliver’s words: “That time/I thought I could not/go any closer to grief/without dying.” I knew the next line was, “I went closer/and I did not die,” but I did not believe it.
I had to stare at a fixed point in space a long time before I could speak. Out the window and across a great distance in another bright and high apartment building, I could see a very old man watering a very large plant.
I felt K’s breathing against my back, slow and steady. In her heart, there seemed to be no conflict, no resistance, no throwing up. How? How could she just skip the biggest problem of being human—you can’t have it both ways? The world doesn’t work that way, I wanted to tell K. Two things can indeed be in irreconciliable contradiction.
I met a cute musician named J at a Shabbat potluck. She doodled pictures on every scrap of paper in my dusty house. She disliked texting, liked calling. Left messages. Maybe you’re at a movie in a movie theater, she mused. I wonder where you are.
J didn’t apologize, wore her gender fluidity lightly, was quick to laugh, open her mouth, pop her eyes at children. But what to wear to a wedding? she wanted to know. A dress was out of the question, but so was a suit.
I suggested a thousand possible garments in a thousand possible combinations.
Maybe, J said, touching the ends of my hair.
Lying on our bellies, we read Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook. I was impressed with Bornstein’s bothness, but it was Bornstein’s neither—neither a man nor a woman—that appealed to J.
“To many people, that’s an impossibility, something to be viewed as a fantasy, a pipe dream, or perhaps a psychosis,” Bornstein writes. “Those people view my gender identity in the same way pre-Colombian navigators viewed the world: you sail too far, you fall off.”
Nevertheless, she lives there. “You can grasp a paradox,” Bornstein insists. “You can experience nothing.”
All of this was interesting. But unhelpful. My hands still cracked and shook. I took a train to Virginia to visit K. Somewhere around Culpeper when the DC sprawl flowed into crab shacks and shooting ranges, I Skyped with Meg-John Barker.
Barker lectures widely on the uncertain and changing nature of relationships these days. They wore a men’s-style purple v-neck sweater over their broad shoulders and had a kind face, grey-green eyes, thin lips.
“The way I always see it,” Barker said, “the same is true for relationship orientation as it is for gender or sexuality—it’s all bio-psycho-social. People get really hooked on this nature/nurture thing, is it something hard wired or is it actually socialized, and there’s always evidence both ways.” Quick to smile, quick to laugh. Bright London apartment full of books, windows, succulents. “I think this bio-psycho-social idea is so much more useful, that everything is a mixture. First of all, we’re gonna be born diverse, in all kinds of ways. Some of us from the start are going to have more masculinity or femininity, attraction to certain genders, more tendency towards anxiety, more tendency towards depression or jealousy. And what we know increasingly is that the stuff that we go through then writes itself on our brains and our bodies, so if we have certain experiences we learn certain things and they’re basically there in the ways our neurons connect up. If something scary happens, our tendency is to kind of turn away from it or to fight, but which we choose depends on what’s happened to us in our lives.”
Barker said that the evidence they’ve seen suggests that polyamorous and monogamous people are not nearly as different as people might think in terms of what they want and what kinds of conversations they have. Attachment style? Inconclusive. Risk aversion? Inconclusive.
“Maybe there’s a different set of questions we need to be asking,” they continued. “Maybe if we thought of openness in a different way, instead of just is it open to different partners, we could be asking, is the relationship open to vulnerability or are the windows open in the relationship so that other people can see what’s going on or is it really closed and private. That’s where I’m going with my thinking at the moment.”
Something broke a little in me. “But,” I said. “It feels so vulnerable. When you strip those armaments away of this is what a relationship looks like, it’s so vulnerable. Maybe some people just can’t handle that.”
Barker looked at me kindly, like a friend. “But also,” they said, “monogamy is incredibly vulnerable. There’s not much more vulnerable you can do in life than become so intimate with a person that you spend your day to day life with them and they get to see you at your worst.” They opened their mouth wide and fake screamed. “Ahhhhh!” They waved their hands which were lovely and large. “Some people could be going to poly because they want to be more open with their vulnerability and sit with their jealousy and insecurities. And some people are going to poly because they want to get the hell away from vulnerability. Which is more vulnerable? They’re both vulnerable. In very different ways.”
In Virginia, an exercise bike with a fan for a wheel sat by the blind-less living room window. K liked to ride it at night in her underwear so all the neighbors—married straight people with children mostly—could see her body and wonder what she was.
Her papers on white slumlords who had tossed the belongings and sacred heirlooms of black families out onto the curb with no regard for their humanity sat in piles and folders on the floor by the exercise bike, covering the kitchen table, stacked on the end of the 1970s yellow formica island.
I told myself that if I was still a weirdo at thirty, I’d be a weirdo forever, K said, boarding the bike. So I guess I made it.
Pages fluttered in her wind.
Her in a suit and me in a dress, we drove to the center of town. A small group of residents of the housing complex K served had completed a training program to prepare them to fight for fair housing on their own behalf. K was proud, but they were prouder. One by one they received their certificates then walked down the makeshift aisle and high-fived K.
I did it, said a young man holding a little boy. The little boy waved his red Velcro hightop sneakers.
You did, K said. You absolutely did.
This one, the young man said, speaking to me but thumbing at K. She is good, he said.
Above a small desk in her bedroom, K had tacked a drawing of an anatomical heart. The gift was meant to remind K that in living as she lived, and loving as she loved, she was at increased risk of a broken heart. Take care, her friend had written underneath the heart.
Drawing strength from cuddling her stuffed brown bear, I sat with K on her bed, a mattress wedged into a corner and covered with a green comforter, and told her that I didn’t want to date other people anymore and I didn’t want her to either.
A cloud came over K’s body. She slouched against the wall. She stuck out her bottom lip. She hugged her Yoda doll tighter.
That spells heartbreak for me, K said. Either way, I have to lose somebody.
I know, I said. I’m sorry.
Are you? she said, in a voice I had never heard before. Are you?
You want me to leave C?
That’s fucked up, she said. That’s fucked up.
She didn’t speak for a long time. I don’t know, she said finally. I don’t know.
I thought she might cry, a thing I had never seen. Then she pulled her chest upwards, jumped off the bed and began to pace around the room. She opened her closet door, threw pants this way and that, nudged a biography of Emma Goldman off a shelf and onto the floor. She turned suddenly to face the wall above where I lay on the bed. I looked at it, wondering if her fist would break it.
We have to go, she said. We have to go.
We got in the car. She blared screamo music and did not talk or touch me for many hours. Slowly, in the company of friends and around a fire, she came back to her body. I took her hand and she didn’t take it away. Her small lovely tough hand with its orange pads from all the sweet potatoes and its calluses from weightlifting. She took one breath, two breaths. We fell into bed that night—blotchy, breathless, spent—and slept the sleep of the dead.
In the grey morning, she drove me to the bus stop. We had decided nothing.
As K held me goodbye, I saw a boy with short scruffed brown hair and a blond girl with a long ponytail. They clung to each other much as K and I did, except that when I put my hands on K’s shoulders and told her goodbye, later gator, this boy and girl stayed pressed together. The girl was weeping openly and the boy was doing the thing boys do where they choke and choke and every so often press their hands together over their eyes like a duck bill. Settled into a good curbside window seat I watched K’s back in her sheepskin coat walk away. Then I watched this boy and this girl kiss and cry, cry and kiss. Finally the bus driver, a small man with one arm, cleared his throat and the boy hugged the girl one final time and got on the bus. When he walked by me down the aisle with his black backpack I could hear his teeth chattering. The girl stayed and stayed on the curb even when we pulled away, even, a block later, when I turned to look.
Around this time, I could not come without weeping. For a while I thought this was my body’s conditioned response to what K was teaching me: up alongside joy, there is always suffering. But it lasted long after K, and sometimes happens still. I wonder what it means that when I turn my mind off and surrender the reins to my body, what comes leaking out is salt water.
In every kind of school, we are taught that contradiction is bad for argument—weakness, a problem, the flaw that renders both sides of the point moot, the story incoherent. This roots in Western logic, specifically in Aristotelian philosophy, which tells us that a single statement cannot be both true and false at the same time, that every statement is either true or false and that nothing can be in the middle between true and false. Unsurprisingly perhaps, journalism school was killing me. I looked for other stories.
Taoism gives us: it is and it is not. I recognized that—my trusty and. But even its creators acknowledged, as I had found, that it was nearly impossible to live that way: “My words are very easy to know, and very easy to practice,” writes Lao-tse, “but there is no one in the world who is able to know and able to practice them.”
“Indian philosophy insists that the sphere of logical thought is far exceeded by that of the mind’s possible experiences of reality,” writes Heinrich Zimmer. “Perceived pairs-of-opposites reflect the nature not of things but of the perceiving mind. Hence thought, the intellect itself, must be transcended if true reality is to be attained. Logic is a help for preliminary clarification, but an imperfect, inadequate instrument for the final insight.”
On the one hand there were facts, true things that had happened—the dog next door in Philadelphia barked through the wall or it didn’t, the bill had passed prohibiting trans people to use bathrooms or it hadn’t. On the other hand there was the world of story in which things were arranged for maximum coherence inside in the human mind. One was respected, the other wasn’t. But which was which? A fact could quickly become not a fact if the person it was about didn’t like the way you’d worded it.
You must know exactly where you are going in a piece of writing at all times, the professor with whom I was feuding had said earlier that day.
I was done learning from him. No one could teach me how to do the thing I wanted to do. What did I want to do? No idea. Actually, I did have some idea but it was very faint. If I squinted, the thing was there—waving drunkenly, then giving me the finger.
In my old apartment in Virginia I had once been awakened by a scream. The sound was so high it scraped, so loud it hammered out thought. It was more of a shriek than a scream, really, and I recognized it: a woman had stumbled into my house and now she was dying in it.
I swayed out of bed and into the hallway to look down on the stairs and landing. The shrieker turned out not to be a woman but a chunky cicada imprisoned between the paws of my West Virginia barn cat. The cicada’s meaning was clear: Don’t kill me. My cat, large and orange as a lion, eyed the bug, first with relish, then increasingly, with fear.
I’m deeply ambivalent about my relationship with C, K told me on my steps at some point that winter. It was dark by then; we’d walked home in the wind and been out there a long time. I knew what that word meant—meh, lukewarm, low intensity, the hose not on full blast. I hugged K and slept well that night.
But I was wrong then and I’m still wrong now. “That’s how we know we’re alive,” Philip Roth says. “We’re wrong.”
That is not what ambivalent means, a fact K pointed out with frustrated gravity through the computer screen a week later. She was sitting in her kitchen in Virginia. I could see the yellow counter tops, I could feel the wind from the exercise bike.
I am not lukewarm about my relationship with C, K said.
The air inside my body made a sound like that cicada’s shriek. It was the sound a body makes just before death, the death protest—no more breath getting into the lungs, no more living.
In the emergency psychological services waiting room at NYU, I sat on the very shiny vinyl-topped benches that lined the periphery of a very small room. The undergraduates had moon faces and oversized backpacks. They tried not to look at me though it was hard. One by one, their names were called by a nurse who did not look like a nurse in her black pants and fashionable black boots, and who led them down a brightly-lit hallway. She called one more name, then paused to follow the sound filling the room. She crouched in front of my chair and touched my knee.
Just a little longer, she said.
She didn’t lie. Soon, I sat before her in her small office, her fingers poised over keys. Do you feel safe? she asked while typing.
The body knows truths, people say, that the mind does not. My body was trying to tell me something. This is what it was trying to tell me: No.
The last object exchanged between K and I was a plug-in nightlight with an image of Yoda on it. Underneath, were the words, Do or not do, there is no try.
It was a comforting sentiment, a solid certainty and I felt good just thinking about it, all zipped up and snuggly. It was New Years Eve day, the day 2015 became 2016, and in return, K gave me my very own copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm.
Later in the text, Fromm complicates the idea that erotic love is by nature exclusive. “Erotic love is exclusive, but it loves in the other person all of mankind, all that is alive.” He concludes, “Both views then, that of erotic love as completely individual attraction, unique between two specific persons, as well as the other view that erotic love is nothing but an act of will, are true—or, as it may be put more aptly, the truth is neither this nor that.”
That day, K was cooking black-eyed peas on my stove, a stove she’d helped assemble. K was speaking. If the first thing you eat in the New Year is black-eyed peas, she said, all year long you’ll be blessed.
There is no word in the English language that expresses a state of being deeply q of two minds that is not a problem. If you move between minds, you are “confused,” “mixed up,” “a mess,” “lost.” If you will not choose, you are “split,” “torn,” “conflicted,” “in a quandary.” If you agree to choose, but struggle, you are “undecided,” “indecisive,” “on the fence,” “hesitating,” “wavering,” “vacillating,” “irresolute.” Even after you’ve chosen you remain “unclear,” “uncertain,” “inconclusive,” “equivocal.” People may suspect you of “blowing hot and cold”—not to be trusted.
Actually there is a word in the English language that expresses a state of being deeply of two minds that is not a problem. It is, of course: ambivalent.
Going back now, I see that Kristin Dombek used it in her letter to me, all those years ago, long before I loved K, but I never bothered to look into it. This glossing over of the word and my misinterpretation of the word when K said it speaks, I think, to something deeper—the limit of what my mind could grasp, to my belief that a thing is not true unless it is all the way this or all the way that, ping or pong, and that anything in the middle was middle ground—lukewarm, bourgeois, halfway, a compromise, and compromising.
When it was over, really and truly over, between K and I, I ended up with a pair of shoes I had intended to give K for her birthday.
I looked at the shoes. I didn’t have K. But I did have one pair of men’s size six brown wingtips with a pretty dot pattern around the toes. What to do with them? What did it all mean? Didn’t know. I put the shoes on my feet.
The Buddhist writer and nun Pema Chodron defines “spiritual warriors” as “people who have a certain hunger to know what is true.” But she was not always a spiritual warrior. Once she was a married lady living in a red house in Arizona.
“When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism,” she told me, “I always say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he saved my life. When that marriage fell apart, I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off.”
I read her in my bedroom, which was now a real bedroom even though it was dark and I was once again alone in it.
“This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior,” she writes, by which she means standing in a place of not knowing, a place that is not this and not that.
“In the middle way, there is no reference point,” she writes. “The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going…we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA…Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift.”
For me, this has been growing up.
Here is what I remember. I remember the light that morning, its geometry, how it began as a square and became a rhombus that stretched across K’s thighs and my thighs where they touched warmly underneath my ugly brown comforter. I remember the front of the house knocking, Good morning, it’s cold out there and how are you?, a small man bustling in with the pieces for a PVC plumbing stack and an orange cordless boombox, and how little I cared that he was going to give me water forever. I ran over the cardboard floor and up the stairs and their layers of dust to return to K and that rhombus.
K lay on her back and held me with both arms, my head on her chest. Her chest was bare, flat, her nipples like large pointy moles. Downstairs, the song coming from the boombox was “Brown Eyed Girl.”
She tilted her head slightly to the left to take me in better, like my cat used to do, as if asking some essential and wordless question. Time and space were still our main obstacles. Here, in my bed, with them removed and her face at such a close distance, I couldn’t take both of her eyes in at once. I kept having to shift my gaze from one to the other. Her face. Her face sometimes, through the computer screen when we talked. Sometimes she would approach the computer’s camera with her lips. I saw it all: the sadness in her eyes, the plump cheeks, the hard jaw, the gauged ears, the child that had once lived inside her and the person she was now, a spiritual warrior if ever there was one and also a person with a deep wish not to look, neither shackled nor free.
You love me, I said, for the first time aloud.
I do, she said. Very much.
It was a moment so washed in twoness—the sternum-deep pleasure from hearing we were together and the bone-true knowledge of the sure pain those words would bring me—that my body didn’t know which to feel. I crackled and I hummed, I froze over and I burned.
Ping, ping, ping, came the sound through the wall, the lighting up of some other piece of useless knowledge.