If You Want Me I'll Be in the Bar: On an Open RelationshipS

Just before our love got lost I said, "I am the worst guy and you are the best." We had reached the moment of truth, one that was pronounced even in our established dynamic of honesty. It was the moment when even I couldn't tolerate my behavior any longer. Or at least, I couldn't tolerate not knowing whether he would.

Over the past four months, I have learned that even when you are allowed to cheat, cheating still feels like cheating. I'm still not sure how I feel about polygamy or polyamory as it concerns my sexuality, but I understand the argument for monogamy louder and clearer than ever before. Frustration would be a relief compared to this blur of confusion, seduction, distraction. It's really hard to draw lines while you are having sex. Your hand is either moving or stabilizing you and, ugh, who cares about drawing — you're having sex.

These are the symptoms of my open relationship, or whatever it is.

***

I fell in love in paradise. My third trip to Fire Island's Pines this summer in early August made for the most beautiful weekend of my year. My visual memories of it are washed-out and lovely, a series of mental Instagrams. I was amongst closer friends than I was when I'd previously visited. We spent our first day there, Friday, sitting by the pool, smoking joints, drinking jalepeno-infused vodka, talking about R&B and arguing about pop culture.

In the early evening, a circle of us were dancing near the stereo inside the house when the two final guests arrived: King*, a friend of the weekend's organizer, and Raph*, a friend of King's that no one had met before. I don't know what song was playing when they arrived because I was drunk by that point, but let's say it was Ghostown DJs' "My Boo." It might as well have been that.

King and Raph immediately joined the circle. I was struck by how much Raph looked like a straight friend of mine that I always considered hot but had never pursued. For the novelty of that resemblance alone, I figured I should fuck Raph. Don't get me wrong: he was beautiful in his own right, with a lean, chiseled ‘70s body, these giant eyes that closed into points like cartoon teardrops on their sides and the thick curls of a Roman god.

I don't know what I said to Raph or how closely we bonded while I familiarized myself with the ways his body moved, but I know that when we left for the underwear party, I walked next to him. I did not want to go to the underwear party. I never want to go to the underwear party. Raph and I walked (well, I stumbled) along the boardwalk in pitch darkness talking about horror movies. We had been walking for at least 10 minutes when I asked him, "Do you actually want to go to the underwear party?" He said he didn't care. "Do you want to just head back and hook up?" I asked.

"Yeah."

Great. I kissed him. We turned around.

We got home and "Yours," from Mariah Carey's flop album Charmbracelet, was playing. Raph knew all the words. We sang them together, swirling in the pool, reveling in cultural and biological gayness, like you're supposed to on Fire Island.

We went upstairs, wet, and sloppily fumbled with each other's bodies in the single bed I had picked. That night, there was a shortage of places to sleep and either Raph or King would have to take the couch. Raph never made it down.

Over the next two days, I consumed him in every way I could, short of literally inhaling him. Everywhere he went, my head turned and my body followed. We swam and danced and talked and talked and talked and listened to Elle Varner's "Refill" on repeat, like our ears were bottomless. I loved that he had forgotten to bring a swimsuit and still wandered around Fire Island in wet, dark briefs for the entirety of Saturday, without a bit of self-consciousness. I loved the way he'd say something mildly funny and then throw back his head with a stoned, "Heh heh heh," regardless of whether he had been smoking weed. I loved how high his IQ was (I could tell it was, so I asked). I loved the way he moved in a PG-13 stripper formation, rolling his body toward and all over me. I loved that my interest in him seemed to be reciprocated entirely.

On Saturday night, we walked with our group to Cherry Grove for another party that turned out to have an exorbitant cover charge. We scoffed and went to a bar around the corner instead, just the two of us. We walked home through the Meat Rack, the section of wilderness between the Pines and Cherry Grove that's notorious for public sex. Some guy approached us and said he wanted to play with us. We both made out with him. It was whatever. I could tell Raph wasn't at all into it, so I told the guy Raph was traditional and we went away. Then Raph and I fucked in the dunes.

We walked on the beach back to the Pines and when we reached the boardwalk, we found an unopened bottle of Amsterdam poppers waiting for us. We huffed them walking back and I almost fell off the boardwalk. Once back in my bed, we used them again and got crazier for each other.

We left together the next day. I had some Molly saved for a friend of mine and I to do, but I wanted to experience it with Raph. He agreed. Back at my place, we did the MDMA, fooled around on my bed and retreated to the bathroom to wash up. He got into the shower first and he looked so gorgeous - his tight, compact body complemented by the lighting and smoothed by the water. I asked if I could take a picture of him nude in the shower and he let me. I took two.

"This is…something, right? You feel this between us?" I asked. "I…think so?" he said, placidly zonked. He tilted his head back. "Heh heh heh." I swooned like a girl at the bar who'd been there too long.

***

Those first days together comprised the purest love experience of my life. Do you know what it feels like to love every single thing about another person? To be enthralled and entertained merely by staring at someone? I do.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I'd given myself a year to "recover" from my last relationship. The idea was to reclaim youth I lost by settling down at 24 with my first-ever boyfriend and then staying with him for a decade. My wild oats had just gotten rolling when I met Raph. I let them run wherever they'd take me.

I suspect that, if I am to be satisfied, having sex with one person for the rest of my life is not in my future. No matter how committed I am to someone, I need a modicum of negotiable freedom. More than anything, I think this comes down to my lifelong obsession with options. I feel anxious in their absence – separation anxiety that prefers a concept over one human. On car trips I took as a child, I'd carry with me every book in the series I was reading. Now I always have an iPod of 150 gigs of music on me, just in case.

I took Raph to the intersection of where I'm at and who I am sometime during our first week together. One night at Soy and Sake, I blurted out that I wanted to keep things open. If he flinched, he cloaked it in a blink.

"I don't have a problem with that," he said. "I don't think we should get in the way of doing what the other one wants. Do what feels right. The most important thing is to be honest." I wondered how open he needed me to be about my openness, if there were some guidelines we should set, but we didn't really reach a conclusion. He told me that knowing ahead of time was preferable to not knowing, but this was a hazy directive at best. "I might get mad if I walk into the apartment and you're doing it with someone," he went on. "But then again, I might just join you." A man after my own dubiously available heart.

I loved him more after hearing this. Yes, I loved him and I told him that the next time we did MDMA, a week or so later. I had planned on verbalizing what was so clearly there while driving back from my mother's house in Jersey, where we'd spend the upcoming Labor Day weekend. But I couldn't help it – I was bursting with truth.

"I love you, too, Rich," he said. "And you're so nice to me." This he said almost frowning, but pushing back at the weight of his past. I considered the implications of his expression. Being mean to this guy, this innocent vessel of pure kindness, would require the same level cruelty as abusing an animal.

The next time I was home alone that week, I was on Grindr, chatting idly but not, y'know, pointlessly. The week after Labor Day, I hooked up with two strangers.

***

Negotiating the difference between honesty, openness and self-truth is brutal. I didn't tell Raph about those Grindr hookups because they were meaningless but also because I knew they were sleazy and sometimes in the moment, I use a total lack of acknowledgement to will away things that I am ashamed of.

However, I did tell Raph about dudes that I was thinking about hooking up with – ones I had encountered circumstantially, not ones I'd actively cruised for on Grindr. There's this one guy I see all the time that drives me fucking crazy with desire and I told Raph about him a few times. One day, Raph told me he wouldn't be able to hang out that evening because of plans and I told him, "I think I'm going to make a move on that dude tonight." "Go for it. Try him out for both of us," he said, leaving the door open for a threeway. The dude turned out to be straight. Oh well.

I told Raph about a former next-door neighbor that I'd reconnected with recently. I had always wanted to have sex with him. "I can see why you'd want to have sex with him, that sounds hot," he said. I took that as an endorsement. I hooked up with him. It was fun until I felt like shit.

I knew I had to tell Raph about it. I introduced the topic on the G train platform by stammering for a while in that unfair way of buying time while casting fear in someone's heart.

"I told you about that guy that I used to live next to?" I said finally. "I hooked up with him this week."

"OK," said Raph.

"I mean, I know you wanted to know beforehand and I felt like I gave you a heads-up but I wasn't sure if you wanted to know, like, immediately before if it was a sure thing or if this counts as sufficient disclosure or what you'd like to know in addition to the fact that we hooked up or what?"

"No, it's cool," he said. I could tell he wasn't lying. I know what it's like to be accepted by this person and I felt him accepting me all over again.

"I know I'm fucked up and I'm making up for lost time in potentially fucked-up ways, so if anything about this isn't cool to you, tell me," I continued vomiting.

"I'm really trying to search myself for ways in which I might be mad, but I'm not coming up with anything," he said. "I... don't care?"

I was so relieved. My heart leapt another notch and I decided that this whole fucking bizarre feedback loop of me doing shameful things and him accepting them without a hint of reservation made me love him even more. When I was preparing for my trip to Florida, I jokingly told him I was going to find a worker at Disney to hook up with in a bathroom there. I did it (in Universal Studios, actually) and I told him within minutes of reuniting after I'd returned to New York.

"Seriously?" he said, with glee in his eye. We high-fived.

***

In October, Raph moved to Jersey for a month – he knew someone with an open room and he wanted some more time to find a place in New York. A few days before he moved, he found out that he had cancer.

At one point on Fire Island, he'd mentioned to me that he'd undergone treatment for skin cancer earlier in the year, but he didn't really go into detail and it just seemed like an unpleasant relic of a past life. I didn't get the sense that he wanted to talk about it – it conflicted with the joy he lived to project and it seemed irrelevant anyway. This kid was fine and healthy. His spry body moving to Brandy's "Put It Down" over and over again was proof alone, I thought.

The cancer was returning just a few months after he'd been treated. "He's going to die," I thought. A few hours after he texted me the news, we met in the Village to hear a DJ, but I was so miserable that I asked to leave after 10 minutes. In a cab en route to Williamsburg, he lay down across the back seat with his head on my lap, assuring me that everything was going to be OK. He was the one with cancer. I could barely speak.

It was OK. Or, at least, that's how it seems right now. Test results came back suggesting the cancer hadn't spread – not to the lymph nodes, not to anywhere. All he needed was outpatient surgery to get the cancer removed from his skin, and regular treatments of immuno drugs for about three months. He wouldn't even have to go through chemo, which initially seemed like a certainty.

But as a result of the small amount of treatment he does need, he is often tired and his sex drive has decreased. Intellectually, I understand, but having the passion evaporate before my eyes feels a lot like a replication of my last relationship. My support of Raph has been unwavering, though. Even if we hang out consistently for weeks and don't end up doing it, that doesn't make me want to see him less. If anything, he's pulled back from me.

Hurricane Sandy marked a sharp turn for us: Raph was supposed to come over to my place that Sunday and ride out the storm with me. I bought a bunch of snacks, asked him to bring board games and was looking forward to cracking into my pile of unwatched movies. But Raph was called into work for pre-storm prep and missed the subway – they had all shut down at 7 p.m. that Sunday before the storm. I was disappointed.

I saw Raph twice that week. He had mostly stayed at his place in the Lower East Side without electricity, but dipped up into the power zone a few times to hang out with friends of friends. He came to me Thursday and left Friday. On Saturday, I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge to meet him for dinner before jetting off to Florida.

I kept myself busy the Raph-less week of Sandy by reconnecting with a one-off hook-up. This guy helped me take my mind off things, but put a bunch more on it. My bed becomes a slippery slope when I hook up with someone more than once. At what point does this association become a thing, and then at what point does that thing threaten my relationship? At what point do I give into that and follow my heart to where it seems to be wandering?

I felt confused and bad and soon after I returned from Florida in mid-November, I brought up the subject of our sex life. Actually, the first thing I did that evening after work was start babbling pathetically. I almost had it all with Raph and otherwise had way too much on my plate. I was a wreck, but I didn't tell him exactly what had me so upset.

He assured me that he was still attracted to me, that he wasn't rejecting me. Those things weren't the issue. His kindness was never a question. The situation that my behavior had led me into was. Before we could finish our conversation, his roommate came home. The next day, in an email with the subject line "well hello handsome" (it kills me when he refers to me as "handsome"), Raph told me, in part:

I do not want you to be sad or upset in any way. I am not trying to reject you in any way or pull away even though I realize I have been a bit distant and we have not been spending as much time together recently. I am just trying to regroup and settle. It has been a long time since I have lived in a place that I really liked and with a person who I really liked, and now that I have both of those things in place I am really just trying to enjoy them a bit. I love hanging out with you and staying at your place. I want to reconnect with myself and also get myself on a more productive schedule...I hope that this makes sense and does not come across as selfish or negative at all. I want to be in your life and you in mine and I also want to be as strong and together as you are right now, so that we are both bringing something really awesome to the relationship.

I couldn't argue with any of that. But I could also take a hint. We emailed everyday still, talked all the time, but after this email, we saw each other even less. I slept with even more strangers.

***

After that, every time I received an email starting, "hi handsome," and ending with one of those primitively animated Gmail emoji – everyday, basically, he loves them – I felt worse. There's one that's of two yellow squares with eyes and a mouth – one is static and the other advances for a side hug. This is exactly how Raph hugs sometimes and I know it sounds so stupid, but one morning, that emoji made me cry.

A few weeks ago, I slept with a guy multiple times and then I went home with someone else later that week who told me he loved me while we were hooking up. I don't think he meant it, but it fucked me up. The slippery slope was becoming my plane of existence. I'd think about Raphael, this perfect angel with an unlimited capacity for kindness, and how fucking Satanic I was being and I knew this had to be reconciled before my entire world exploded.

After a movie last week, as Raph and I walked in the West Village, I told him that I was having a really hard time. I verbally shuffled until I finally said, "I'm being really compulsive sexually. I slept with a guy multiple times last week. I went home with another on Friday. I feel like I'm out of control and I'm just being terrible to you. I am the worst guy and you are the best."

At the time, I didn't feel like I was revising the, "It's not you, it's me," cliché in extreme terms. It's not what I meant to do, but it's exactly what I meant. And mean. I'm the cancer here.

As usual, there was no anger or disappointment, just patience from Raph. I wondered if his absence during Sandy had anything to do with our setup, specifically my behavior and in so many words, he confirmed that it did. OK. "Open," to him, he explained, didn't necessarily mean that he wanted to have sex with a bunch of strangers, but it did mean a certain amount of leeway when it comes to our time together, the freedom of "not feeling like I have a responsibility to be by your side every second."

But then what? How do we prevent another Sandy? Do we even want to? Maybe I do and he doesn't? Or vice versa? How do I keep my head straight? By limiting the number of people I sleep with? By limiting the number of times I sleep with one guy? By dropping this shit and obsessing over him like I did for the first two months of our relationship?

"No. No rules," he said. "I accept you. I like spending time with you. And even if we aren't going to date anymore, I'm still going to like you and want to spend time with you. You haven't hurt my feelings. I don't feel bad about what you did. If you do, that's something you have to work on yourself."

"Why are you so nice to me?" I asked him. "I want to shake you and tell you not to be a chump, Raph."

"I'm not being a chump," he said. "I'm doing what feels right. This makes sense. I would rather give love and get hurt a little than do nothing. Anything you could do to me I've already experienced and I don't think you're a bad person. I think you're a great guy."

I put my arm around him and we walked and walked, up to Union Square to Petco, down to a Mexican place on University. When we began the conversation, I was prepared for it to end not just the night but our association. But there he was, by my side, with the acceptance he had always given me. He was emanating it like it wasn't a thing, like it was just something that came with the package, a halo.

We neared the restaurant and he squeezed me a little and told me, "It feels good not to feel bad about something."

It did. Raph's reserving judgment no matter how hard I thought I was pushing was treatment for my guilt addiction. He's either providing methadone so that I can build up the strength to do a different, potentially detrimental fucked-up thing, or he's extracting the sickness from the blood of our relationship. If my narcissistic predictions of hurt and devastation I'm causing that manifest themselves as guilt continue to be wrong, I'm reasonable enough to leave the business of fortune telling.

I think. I hope.

"It's OK, Rich. You're fine," he told me.

If you say so, Raph.

*Not their real names.

Image via Jacqui Martin/Shutterstock.