It’s late into the party, likely the final quarter of it judging by the sharp drop-off in energy and attendance. A lot of the guests have gone home. Most of the ones who are still here have gone inside. Out by the fire, it’s just me and my friend Z, the reverse canary, arguably the most jaded person I know. We’re sitting by a campfire in a couple of camping chairs.
In some ways, Z and I have a lot in common. We resonate on that particular emotional frequency that’s generally reserved for children with abusive mothers.
But in other ways, Z is my polar opposite in that he can be rather pessimistic and likes to argue. And while we’re both married, Z is monogamous and “basically asexual” (in his own words).
I can’t help but feel sometimes that we’re essentially different kids from the same high-functioning dysfunctional family.
But we’re each smart in ways the other is not, so we tend to have really good conversations.
And this night has been no different from the others.
When a Pessimist Believes in You, You Know You’re Being Way Too Hard on Yourself
Mostly we’ve been talking about the fact that my husband Justin works too hard, especially because he hasn’t felt well lately, knocked half on his ass by a mystery illness. Whatever’s wrong with him is behaving exactly like gallbladder disease but hiding from the extensive battery of tests and multiple medical professionals we’ve consulted in the past eight months. Meanwhile, Justin has unintentionally lost over 100 pounds because eating anything with fat in it causes him pain and heart palpitations.
However, in spite of this, Justin hasn’t missed any work and routinely puts in 10-hour days. Which is admirable in one sense but also hard to watch. For me as his wife and apparently also for friends like Z. So we commiserate, trade worries about this person we both care about, albeit in different ways.
We also discuss my weirdly successful writing career. Z was an unlikely early supporter and a big reason I didn’t quit back in 2016:
That’s been the hardest part this past month — not knowing if anything I’m doing matters, that feeling that I’m “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” (as my friend Max put it).
“It all just makes me wonder: Should I descend into hedonism because the world is burning?” I asked my friend Z. “Or try to save it?”
“A little from column A. A little from column B,” Z answered.
I laughed. “I have a lot of weird fucking guilt because I made this commitment to write a blog post every day and finish my book, and I’m doing it, but it makes me feel selfish. Because who cares about my stupid writing? The world is burning. Or about to.”
And Z, the most jaded fuck I know, with no compelling reason to tell me this, replied, “No, it’s important because you’re sharing your voice, which right now a lot of people need to hear, so they know they aren’t alone.”
Two years later, he’s happy to hear that it’s going so well. But he admonishes me for working so hard, says I’m not much better than Justin regarding the tendency to overwork.
Z tells me that feeling guilty about writing for a living doesn’t make me any better at it. And that I’m kidding myself to think that chaining myself to my computer when I can’t think of anything to write helps anyone.
“Go for a walk every once in a while,” he says. “Have fun. That’s the one perk of being a writer. You can get up every now and then and take a minute for yourself. The rest of it sucks. The awful pay, the pressure. Don’t make the fun parts suck, too. Jesus, Page. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to suffer on purpose.”
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, But Not Learning From Them or Using Them to Understand Your Limitations Can Make Things Downright Impossible
A few moments later, a guest comes out into the back yard to smoke but leaves the door open a little longer than they really should, considering the fact that one of my elderly house cats has perpetual wanderlust.
So I quickly yell a warning at that guest, and doing so prompts me to tell Z about the time a former boyfriend of mine probably let our 17-year-old cat out at a party.
I’ll never know for sure. No one saw this former boyfriend let the cat out, and he never told anybody “oh my goodness, I think I just let the cat out” — otherwise we would have gone looking for the cat. Me. Justin. Any guests who would join us. It likely would have turned into a partywide feline search and rescue.
True, this former boyfriend never fessed up to letting out the cat.
But one fact makes me think it’s likely that he did and just didn’t tell anyone about it. After Justin found the old cat outside the morning after the party looking quite worse for wear, I got a text from said boyfriend a few hours later asking me how my cat was doing. And it wasn’t like this was a normal thing for him to do. In fact, this was the first time he’d ever inquired about that particular cat. In any context. Verrrrrrry suspicious timing.
And another time a few weeks prior to that when I’d been saying goodbye to him after a date, this same boyfriend had held the door open way too long, taking his time to wish me goodbye with a big flourish, and my cats had actually escaped onto the lawn, and we’d both had to run out and retrieve them.
While you’d hope someone would learn from that experience, I’d noticed he really did have a habit of leaving doors open too long when he was wishing people goodbye. It was entirely possible that it had happened again.
“I can’t prove anything, but it looked pretty bad,” I say to Z as we sit by the campfire.
To make matters worse, my grandfather died not too long after this. And when I had to return to Maine for the funeral, this guy who had let my cats out by mistake at least once (but probably twice, if my hunch about the party were true) preemptively offered to cat sit.
That stopped me dead in my tracks. It was intended as a kind offer. But wow. Talk about not understanding your limitations.
“It wasn’t the only reason that the breakup happened about a month later. There were a bunch of reasons,” I say. “But this certainly didn’t help.”
“That guy always seemed a little young for you. Not grown up. Not surprised he’s irresponsible,” Z agrees.
“Oh that’s right, you met him,” I say.
When Someone Who Dumps You Gets Upset That You Get Over Them so Fast
I talk about another breakup I had where the person dumped me and then seemed upset that I got over them so fast.
“Oh, that wasn’t a breakup, that was a test,” Z says. He adds in a sarcastic voice, “Do you really want me? Are you going to chase me and argue about the breakup? Are you going to sulk and beg for me back?”
“Right?” I say. “Thank you. It felt really fishy to me.”
Z nods. “Yeah. Fuck that. No thank you. You’re better off. No wonder you got over it so fast.”
“Yes!” I exclaim. “Exactly that.”
Adult Friendships Can Be So Flaky
At that point, my metamour KC emerges from the house briefly looking to talk to me. We discuss a few logistical things, and we talk about the metal concert I’m going to with our shared partner Ro.
“I bet you’re glad you don’t have to go,” I say to KC. Since he’s an introvert and going to do something like that is his idea of torture. Me, I’m not a big fan of metal or anything, but I always enjoy a spectacle, which concerts invariably are.
“You’re damn right I am,” KC says. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We tie up a few loose ends before KC returns to the house.
I turn to Z after KC is gone. “That’s actually one of the nice things about polyamory,” I say. “It gets you into a regular habit of seeing different people. Doing different stuff.”
“Although to be fair, I guess you could achieve the same thing with friendship,” I say. This is normally what Internet commenters like to contend. They typically allege that polyamory is really for swingers who are in denial about the sexual/hedonistic aspects of it. That it’s all about sex. They like to say that polyamory and having multiple romantic relationships at the same time doesn’t achieve anything that having multiple friendships can’t.
And I always feel like this assessment is off base but figure I’m biased about the whole thing. While I’m more ambiamorous than polyamorous, I write about consensual non-monogamy for a living, so there’s a vested interest there.
And in that moment I suspect Z will agree and echo the Internet commenters.
But as often happens when I talk to Z, my guess about what he’ll say next is wrong.
“No way,” he says. “It’s so hard to actually get friends to go out and do stuff with you. Half the time, they cancel. Fuck, more than half the time. Sometimes it seems like if people aren’t sleeping with you, they won’t even try to make time for you.”
“You’re right,” I say. “The state of adult friendships is pretty sad.” I tell him about how people always use that argument to indicate that polyamory is unnecessary.
“Yeah, it’s not unnecessary,” he says. “I think it’s a smart way to deal with that problem. The only way? No. But definitely one good option. Even if it’s just having a standard day a week or even a month that you’re seeing someone else, doing something else.”
It’s Easy to Knock Polyamory If You Haven’t Seen Any Healthy Examples of It
The night winds on a little longer, eventually running out of steam. We all say our goodbyes.
But as always happens with Z, I’m left with a lingering mystified sense that it’s easy for people who aren’t polyamorous to trash it when they’ve never seen a happy, stable community of polyamorous people. And much harder for them to knock it once they’ve seen it in action and working well, like Z has.
However, for what it’s worth, most people haven’t been close to a stable community like that — because we tend to be careful about who we let in.
I think carefully about who I invite to parties, who I bring into my life, even as a friend. I’m always on the lookout for fun interesting new people but they have to be ones who are also empathetic, kind. Ones who know how to use their words and set and respect boundaries.
Even people who are recommended or referred by friends are basically on probation. They could get banned from parties at any time if they don’t respect the rules of engagement (especially after being gently and then sternly corrected several times). If they don’t follow the customs of the culture they’re in.
Not every polyamorous community is as stable and lovely as our little corner of the world. Some people are initially exposed to polyamorous relationship systems that are unhealthy and dysfunctional — which can certainly set you on a path to assume all of it has to be that way.
And there are still a lot of people who don’t really know any polyamorous people personally (or at least think they don’t).
So I get why sometimes people really find it alien, other, unworkable, or unrealistic.
Because it’s easy to knock polyamory if you haven’t seen any healthy examples of it. But Z has. So he doesn’t.