A quiet, rainy Saturday. I was supposed to have dinner and drinks with Atomic and the girls, but due to a pandemic of lingering hangovers, we decided to reschedule. My meeting calendar cleared, I spent the remainder of the day puttering around the apartment and enjoyed this immensely.
Last night, Jonathan asked me about my relationship with Phil, and I found myself explaining that, for about ten of our thirteen years together, we had an open relationship. It was strange to talk about it, since it feels so far away, but it reminded me of how I used to think about these things.
It was my idea, of course. After reading too much de Beauvoir at far too young an age, I decided that open relationships were the only kind that made any sense. Ada likes to call them “hipster relationships,” which they may well be, but that’s not the reason I had them.
My decision was informed by an earnest blend of pragmatism (why end a perfectly good relationship simply because you want to have sex with someone else?), romanticism (if we’re meant to be together, then being with others is no threat to us), Marxism (human beings, and women especially, are not property), and Kantianism (people are ends and never means). I genuinely believed in these principles, insofar as I understood them, and I made a sincere effort to conduct my relationships accordingly.
These days, I’m not at all sure what kind of relationship makes sense. Maybe pragmatism is accepting that relationships end for myriad reasons, and that there is really nothing you can do to eliminate the risk? Maybe romanticism is letting yourself fall into them anyway? Maybe the Categorical Imperative is more firmly grasped on the level of moments, rather than structures? And maybe, just maybe, Marx is best left out of the bedroom entirely? (Sorry, Karl – I’ll call you tomorrow.)
I suppose, as Jonathan and I talked about last night, it always and inevitably comes back to fear. The more I talk to people, the more I realize that we’re all desperately afraid most of the time, of being hurt or of hurting others. What if he doesn’t feel as I do? What if she leaves? What if I leave? What if I don’t? I actually know someone who, at the moment she first feels desire for another person, promptly envisions what their break-up will be like. Like me, she has been single for quite some time.
Then there is the fear of being alone and apart, the one that keeps us in dying relationships and blinds us to their death; the one that makes us lie and cheat and become slowly smaller. In time, there we are: a congregation of cowards, martyrs, assholes, and shrews, all itching to escape what we have become.
When I set out on my time alone, I imagined that, eventually, I would find a way to make sense of these things again. I haven’t. I can’t even guess. I’m less afraid than I was of being alone, but I am more keenly aware of the risks of relationship than I have ever been. (What if he leaves? What if I leave? What if I don’t?) But the need to draw close to someone remains, and it is no less insistent for being untheorized.
What if I let myself draw close anyway? What would that be like? I could tell people they’re beautiful when it occurs to me that they are. I could stop talking for a minute and kiss them instead. I could conceivably love someone again. What would that be like? What would it be like to be fearless?
This is why grad students drink so much, isn’t it? It must be.