I’ll never forget that night. November 1999, my first semester of college.
I had gone to a party hosted by the music frat. I knew a lot of people there because I played in the jazz ensemble and orchestra, even though I wasn’t in any Greek groups. I was there with J, this beautiful genderqueer boy I had met through the atheist group on campus (having become quite enamored with secular ethics), a dear friend with benefits. We’d had a few wine coolers back in J’s dorm after making out, discussing philosophy and scripture and cuddling and then walked across campus. I genuinely enjoyed J’s company. He was funny and handsome, and I wasn’t quite sure where all we were going, but it was very exciting not knowing.
By the time we got to the party, everyone was way more blazed than we were. There’s a kind of laughter that gives a party away. We got there just in time to see a trumpet player I knew emerging from his bedroom to loud cheers from the crowd. “I banged that skank,” he yelled pointing into his room.
I saw a vocal major push past him to leave, clutching her clothes around her. “Fuck you,” she said. At least I think that’s what she said. She was crying, and it happened really fast. Once she was gone, there was laughter. A few of the other guys gave the trumpet player high fives. The group of them proceeded to bad mouth the vocalist.
Before I knew it, my world was spinning, and I was profoundly nauseated. It was odd. I hadn’t had much to drink. I gripped the couch, laid my head down. J and a friend of his (this gorgeous blond actress we both had the hots for) coaxed me outside to smoke with them. I didn’t know it then, but that was my first clearcut anxiety attack. And the stimulus was disrespect.
Genuine disrespect. Not play humiliation: “Oh, dirty whore, you like it up the ass, don’t you? You’re filthy. You have to beg me to fuck you,” yadda yadda. But, “I’m going to lure you in, make you trust me, and then betray you.” OR “I’m going to hurt you, and then I’m going to harm you. And it’ll be the world’s biggest fucking joke.”
I remember how difficult it was later that night to focus when J and I were naked, how I kept returning to the disgust and the shame on the vocalist’s face, the genuine cruelty on the trumpet player’s. And yet, no one else had seemed the slightest bit affected by what they had seen.
In a lot of ways, J was my first poly relationship, though neither of us called it that – or called it anything, really. It was a warm, loving connection – we acted as each other’s confidants and sounding boards. I held him as he talked about the girl he’d left back home, who’d broke up with him when he went away to school. I sorted through the guilt I had from recently breaking up with my fiance. We went to hockey games together, went out for pizza, hit on some of the same girls – with varied rates of success. I remember his being happy for me when I went on a date to a talent show with this great girl, who was covering it for the campus newspaper, when it went well, and I started writing for the campus paper. And I was happy when he had good dates, good encounters, supported him as he explored the varied facets of his sexuality. He took it in stride when a cast party for a show I’d written got steamy, and I’d had quite a group adventure – all of which he’d missed, home for the weekend visiting his parents. We were loving and supportive – but pretty damn casual about it. No games. No dishonesty. And always respect.
He and I eventually drifted apart. We were still friends but found ourselves physically intimate less and less. We moved on to other partners, other lives. To be quite honest, I had a lot friends in college and lost track of J altogether. I’m not even sure where he ended up, but I still think highly of him to this day.
I guess that’s what I’ve always liked about poly. The respect. I found a lack of that in random hook-ups, the drunken one-night stands. I didn’t think relationships always needed to be serious – but I wanted them to be respectful. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, not all serious relationships are based on respect. I can think of examples in my past and those of others’ that prove that all too well.
Whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re doing it with, please be excellent to each other.