In fifth grade, I was friends with Ashley, the most popular girl at school. Her mother was our girl scout troop leader. Ashley was blonde. Good at sports. Her older sister was going to Dartmouth, a fact Ashley would constantly reveal to any new adult she encountered.
I never quite understood at the time why, but said adult would always nod approvingly. “Oh, Dartmouth. Well, that’s a very good school,” they’d reply.
It was a big deal to rural Mainers, to hear someone local broke into the Ivy League. But I didn’t understand that as a kid. I just thought Ashley’s Dartmouth sweatshirts were stylish and that her sister looked awfully pretty in photographs, like one of the Wakefield twins in the Sweet Valley High books.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure exactly why Ashley hung out with me. We were in the same class. But we didn’t really have all that much in common, other than the fact that my mother had also been a girl scout troop leader (for my older sisters) and was friends with Ashley’s mother.
As an adult looking back, I suspect our mothers’ friendship was why we were encouraged to spend time with one another, in spite of the fact that we lacked any of the normal social chemistry I experienced with my other friends. And from Ashley’s equal lack of enthusiasm, I suspect she felt exactly the same way.
Still, she invited me to come to her birthday sleepover, where I was surrounded by other girls equally as popular as Ashley. Jocks. The kids of the parents who had all been the cool kids when they were in school (like my own mother, who had been a modelesque cheerleader in high school and was frankly pretty disappointed at how I seemed to be turning out). These were kids who would later turn out to be sorority chapter officers and eventually school board members.
The upstanding. The Instagram perfect.
My mother was so thrilled when I was invited to that party, but I remember it even now as one of the most awkward and uncomfortable evenings of my life. It became evident that none of the other children actually wanted me there and that my invitation had been more of a favor to my mother, who was considered beautiful and cool by the other mothers (and their children). Me? I was a clunker.
And to make matters worse, the other kids frequently spoke in references I didn’t get. The girls who surrounded me all lived in town close to the school, where there was cable access. I conversely at that time only had four channels on my black and white TV and only two of them came in very well. And their parents didn’t have them on such a tight leash as my own mother did.
So they laughed at me when I didn’t know what Wayne’s World was, with that cruel kind of abandon that kids are good at.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had been just the once. But it happened dozens of times. And before I knew it, I was crying out of frustration, and they were laughing at me for that as well. Crying like a baby. Way uncool.
I survived that party but begged my mother afterwards to never make me hang out with Ashley again.
“What don’t you like about her?” she asked.
I couldn’t really explain it, not completely. I think I told her that Ashley was mean and bossy. And that my mother replied something like, “Well, you’re no picnic yourself.”
But I managed to escape the forced hangouts.
The Uncool Kid Who Was Always Last to Know
As I mentioned in an earlier piece, I had a lot of friends growing up, but I always felt peripheral. I was frequently in situations where I would consider someone my best friend, but they wouldn’t necessarily consider me theirs back.
I was a pretty funny kid and generally well liked. Even had a few brief stints where I was considered somewhat “popular.” With Ashley for a bit in fifth grade and later the next year when I penned a wildly popular smut book into two manuscript notebooks that traveled around the entire sixth grade and most of the seventh before someone ratted me out and I had to sit down with the administration.
But I didn’t stay popular for long. It didn’t help that I was growing up queer and closeted in a small town. And things took an especially harrowing turn once my older sister was seen holding hands with her girlfriend at the fair. Word traveled fast, and I started to be bullied relentlessly for it. It probably wouldn’t have been so bad except that I refused to say that my sister was wrong to date another girl, which made the bullying about ten times worse.
Even after that storm passed, however, I never did get the hang of the calculus of popularity. There seemed to be some risks that you took and ones that you didn’t. Ones that were obvious to other people, but I didn’t really grasp.
I was frequently told that the risks I chose to take were “quee-ah” — the way you say queer in a Maine accent. In 1990s Maine, the queer label had nothing to do with sexual orientation, but was more an allegation that you were weird and unhip. If someone was trying to say you were a gay woman, you were much more likely to be told you were a “lez,” “lesbo,” or a “dyke.”
Queer basically meant uncool. Especially regarding ideas and opinions.
Anyway, I continued to have friends, but I didn’t seem to be anybody’s first choice. I was often not invited to everything. And I’d frequently hear about parties that had happened without me much later. When someone was talking about it who didn’t realize I hadn’t been invited.
It seemed like I was always the last to know about anything important going on socially.
And it was humiliating.
When Third Parties Let You Know About Your Partner’s Sex Life
It’s still a touchy subject for me. Something I’ve had to actively work on for years and years. To not jump to conclusions when I hear an important piece of news way later than everyone else seems to have learned it.
It has definitely posed challenging in a polyamorous context. As I wrote in an earlier piece about relationships that happened some years ago, I struggled for quite some time with feeling horrible whenever I heard about my partner’s sexual activity from a third party. This tendency puzzled me because I didn’t even require that my partner at the time tell me everything he did (because I trusted him completely and his judgement re: safety seemed as good as mine, if not better). However, this issue of third-party notification came up when we were in the early stages of dating another couple.
At the onset, the male half of the couple was primarily dating me, and my husband Justin was dating his wife. I hadn’t yet begun to date his wife (although I was quite attracted to her and certainly was interested, actually was much more attracted to her than I was to her husband).
It was highly unlikely that the husbands would go on to date (as they were both straight enough to preclude this).
However, this new guy I was dating had a habit of casually mentioning gory details of Justin’s encounters with his wife. It would seem that this other couple discussed what had happened with others they dated. In almost a play-by-play sort of fashion. With what seemed like an almost excessive level of detail. This wouldn’t have posed a problem if they’d kept it to themselves. But for whatever reason, he felt compelled to share those details with me, too. And not even in a relevant, practical way. But basically apropos of nothing.
This could have been fine had they been dating different folks. However, Justin and I weren’t discussing particulars too much with one another. So I was frequently being confronted with things I didn’t know, presented to me by a third party, one who had a way of putting things indelicately and at times when I wasn’t expecting to hear such a thing.
And suddenly, I was being frequently reminded that I was essentially the last person to know what was going on in that relationship between Justin and this other man’s wife. Every. Single. Time.
I found it deeply distressing. Justin hadn’t done anything wrong. But I kept wrestling with incredible amounts of fear and panic: “IS HE KEEPING THINGS FROM ME BECAUSE THIS CONNECTION WITH HER IS SO INTENSE THAT IT WOULD THREATEN ME????”
All the while knowing I was being irrational and that these thoughts weren’t helpful. Plus, I would later find out that this man’s reporting was actually wrong, misunderstandings of what his wife had actually told him.
Logically, I also knew that a good time with someone else didn’t take away from the good times with me. I had direct experience on the other side of things — I knew I wasn’t comparing my experiences with other lovers with Justin and trying to determine the winner. Fun plus fun equaled fun. No need to assess inequalities.
But still the discomfort and worry were undeniable.
As was the feeling that I was somewhat lesser than everyone else involved, since I kept learning about things last. The uncool kid again.
At the same time, there wasn’t an easy solution to be had. Because I didn’t want to require frequent detailed check-ins with Justin. I liked how we vibed at default with the level of disclosure we naturally had.
I felt stuck.
So I tried to solve things in another way, by telling the guy I was dating to knock it off. But he seemed incapable of zipping his lip and also a little judgmental in response to this request, seeming to think it made me “less poly” (something I always find a silly concept).
The issue was eventually incidentally resolved when I broke up with him. He was a terrible fit for me for a number of reasons. Our chemistry had always been iffy at best (I tend to lean very to the gay side of things, have a specific physical type when it comes to men, and he was definitely not it). And this and multiple other habits of his weren’t really helpful.
“Do You Even Know Where Your Partner Is Right Now?”
I’ve also consistently struggled in situations where I’ve felt mocked by someone I care about for not knowing my partner’s whereabouts. Especially when a friend implies that I’m irresponsible to allow my partners have their freedom and that they’re running around making a fool out of me. The intensity of my emotional response when this happens actually scares me. Because I’m typically pretty zen, but this is a hot button.
I’m typically a very chill person. Not a violent person at all. But if you ask me something like, “Do you even know where your partner is right now?” I might actually slap you.
This tendency of mine has been personally very challenging. I’m generally a person who wants my partners to go off and have fun. Who doesn’t want to need thorough briefings and debriefings every time they go out with someone else.
It’s awesome being in relationships where I afford my partners so much freedom — and in which they extend the same to me. Y’know, respecting each other’s agency. Trusting one another without a constant stream of detailed audit. The only downside is that sometimes it means you risk getting ambushed by things.
So I’ve worked very hard at thinking about why being the last one to know bothers me and have done a lot of work to become more secure about it.
Signs of Progress
Anyway, it’s been interesting dating my girlfriend Ro. We’ve been together a few years now, and because of the logistics of our lives and how busy we are, I’m frequently the last to know about things in her life.
But I do okay with it. I don’t feel the same intensely emotional responses to such a thing as I would have felt in the past.
I suspect the same would be true with Justin, although to be fair it’s been quite a while since either of us has dated anyone new (we’ve had more or less the same people in our respective orbits for a while now).
Whatever the case, I do take it as a sign of progress that I don’t feel that way with Ro, that I don’t feel crushed or humiliated whenever I’m the last one to know.