Advice from the Help Desk
This is the second print installment of Kristin Dombek’s advice column. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t know how exactly to ask this question. I am a woman who has loved and fucked men and women. I don’t love the word bisexual for all the usual reasons, but it can be a useful word, and in conveying the equalness with which I have committed myself to men and women it might be useful here. I’ve tried a couple of times to be in open or less-defined relationships, where I know the other person is sleeping with other people and they know I am too. These have left me feeling unseen and unsupported, like some great one-on-one, “You are my person” intimacy is just not possible, and I am nothing but a big slut. But when I’m in committed relationships, I always feel some part of myself is not welcome, that I am, in some way, too big for our arrangement — too sexual, too wandering, too large in my demands for freedom and creativity. I have cheated on a male partner with a woman, and cheated on a woman partner with a man. I didn’t start dating women until college, and I am a firm believer that gay marriage should be an equal opportunity. When advances are made for gay rights, I cry in the coffee shop reading the newspaper. It feels personal. The words husband, wife, resonate, feel sacred, important. But they feel equally impossible, as if I will never get to either of them.
And here is the problem I’m having. There’s a part of me that absolutely wants to get to one of those words, to say, hello, here is my husband, Joe; meet my wife, Jane. My wife, Jane, feels much more possible at this juncture than my husband, Joe; I couldn’t imagine living a life with a husband that felt truthful. Part of me thinks I will die if I don’t get there, if I don’t get a person. But. Another part of me does not want to get there, thinks those words are nothing that could ever be true and nothing I could want. I feel twoness and bothness as the dominant themes in my life right now. If there were a song called “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” after Maile Meloy’s short-story collection, I would listen to it on repeat. I want safety and love, I want truth. I want to be settled, I’m always restless.
You told another letter writer that part of her problem was that her story was illegible to other people. There was “no conventional boy-girl or girl-girl true-love story, no Facebook relationship status. . . . You dared to create another kind of world and then the real one, it must have seemed, crashed down.” I think that about sums it up. I feel, in the most boo-hoo queer-me way, that I have so few models to look to for who I can be, in my self and in my relationships. Part of me wants to create another world, part of me wants the true-love story. I want both.
I’ve started seeing a wonderful woman recently. I care for her so much. We could have the girl-girl true-love story, I think. But do I want it? If I do want it, but want it to look a little different, will I fuck up what we have by trying to get everything I want at once?
Dear Both Ways:
Night has fallen on the Help Desk many times since your question arrived. You’ve put into such clearheaded words a problem so difficult that when I began researching it was Easter Sunday, and Brooklyn was warming. In the spring it seemed clear you should refuse this sacrificial logic of life and love and create another world; in the honesty and generosity of open relationships, I believed, you could refuse all the double binds and find your true love story. But any tragedy will tell you that it’s impossible to have anything both ways, that the only alternative to the ambivalence you describe is decision and sacrifice — that such sacrifice is the very lifeblood of social and cultural life. Any romance will tell you that sacrifice is the sine qua non of fidelity: no one else but him, or her, forever. In the heat of summer, I wrote four or five letters to you, each one disagreeing with the one before. Now the snowless sidewalks are lined with dead Christmas trees, put out for garbage collectors whose breath will steam in the frigid air, and the Help Desk is littered with scraps of paper onto which are scratched calculations and schematics, decision trees and flowcharts. I don’t know which is more depressing: how hard it is to escape the hegemony of compulsory twoness, on the one hand, or the ambivalence that threatens twoness when we actually have it, on the other. Your question has me reading Emerson, the alternately cynical and exhilaratingly hopeful essay “Circles”: “Our moods do not believe in each other.”
In a moment of optimism about your question, a friend and I planned a panel on bisexuality, that unlovable word. It wouldn’t be on one topic but two: love and justice. The panelists would each have two cups with different beverages in them, maybe a mug of steaming-hot cocoa for warmth and a glass of sweet tea, chilly with crushed ice. We would answer every question both ways, taking sips from both cups, and it would be the funniest and wisest panel ever. Would you like to be on it with us? It would show how our apparent indecisiveness is actually about trying to be true. It would stage the movement expressed in deeply equal bisexuality, the way we try to search out and be and love both this and that, him and her, here and there, the thing and its opposite. How, both loyal and wild, we refuse the sacrifice of one thing for another that lies at the heart of injustice and yet is somehow considered necessary to true love.
Sometimes this feels right, that the ambivalence expressed in loving both men and women holds some revolutionary, world-expanding answer. But it’s not that simple, is it? Because you can in fact fuck up what you have by trying to get everything you want at once. There is something inherent in being a bisexual woman, or drawn to nonmonogamy, that does put you at risk of being treated as if you want or are “too much.” You can be rejected or held hostage, or hold yourself hostage; you can lose the people you love. And then if you do manage to be intentionally and honestly multiple in sex and love, it turns out to be difficult to do it in a way that’s satisfying for everyone involved, and tends to invite even more fear and stigma than being gay. There is a lot at stake in what you ask. I don’t know why you’ve cheated, and you may not either, but these are some of the reasons people do.
Shortly after your question arrived, astronomers discovered infrared traces of the big bang, offering what seemed to be empirical evidence of eternal inflation. I was supposed to be researching statistics on open relationships, affairs, straightness, and gayness, but instead I kept trying to understand one of the stranger implications of this discovery. Nobody really knows how many open relationships are successful, anyway. Most people have cheated on a partner at least once, according to the internet, and half of all romantic relationships suffer from an affair. Most people who identify as straight have been at least partly gay at least once in their life, and most gay people at least partly straight. We know this already. We don’t know why the expansion of the universe is speeding up, or why there is exactly the right ratio of dark energy to gravity and the strong and weak forces to allow for life in our solar system, on our planet. A tiny bit more or less dark energy and we’d be smushed or exploded; that is to say, we wouldn’t exist in the first place. The shocking thing about this evidence is that some astrophysicists have long argued that if eternal inflation can be proved, there must be multiple universes, existing alongside or even inside ours. One multiverse theory posits that there must be an infinite number of universes, every one that is statistically possible, given the tiniest variations in the expansion of matter and ratio of dark energy to something or other. In this view, there are universes in which every possible version of your life plays out.
This is massively unhelpful, of course. Since even if there is a universe for each possible version of your life — the one in which you make a singular marriage, the one in which you’re restless and wild and free, and all the others — you’re trapped in this one; knowing they’re happening, right now, might even make it worse. In this world, the moment you commit yourself to someone or something you change everything that comes afterward, and live inside it, or so it feels. You also reject or ignore the people who might have been better off if you’d chosen differently. Life feels less like a multiverse and more like the kind of endless sacrificial negotiation Jacques Derrida describes in his little book The Gift of Death:
Let us not look for the examples, there would be too many of them, at every step we took. By preferring my work, simply by giving it my time and attention . . . I am perhaps fulfilling my duty. But I am sacrificing and betraying at every moment all my other obligations: my obligations to the other others whom I know or don’t know, the billions of my fellows (without mentioning the animals that are even more other others than my fellows), my fellows who are dying of starvation or sickness. I betray my fidelity or my obligations to other citizens, to those who don’t speak my language and to whom I neither speak nor respond, to each of those who listen or read [and so on] . . . thus also to those I love in private, my own, my family, my sons, each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day.
While some of what you ask is native to bisexuality and polyamory — to sex and the working out of what you desire — the problem is so deep and so familiar to us all that Derrida calls it “our habitat.” In every moment we want it both ways, even when we decide how to divide our time among family and friends. We feel it tragic to choose among competing and equally valid beliefs in order to live our one singular life. This problem of desire and commitment is, for Derrida, also an ethical question, perhaps the ethical question. The moment we pledge fidelity to another person or people, we make an unethical choice with regard to others.
I’m adding Derrida’s avalanche of sacrificial dilemmas here not to overwhelm the problem further, but to say to you, Both Ways: You’re not alone in this. The particularities are different, and it’s fair enough to wish it were better for queer people already, but this is the problem where we all live. There is a bit of freedom in knowing it: this is all there is. This is where the question of love meets the question of justice.
Derrida mentions the land of Moriah because he’s been thinking about Abraham, up on the mountain, called on to sacrifice one great love — his son — for another: the God who demanded the sacrifice. Abraham’s choice is validated by a very big story: Because you were willing to sacrifice for me, you don’t have to — there’s a ram in the bushes — and because you proved your fidelity, you’ll be blessed. Your offspring will be fruitful and multiply. In the region of Moriah that is romantic love, we replace God with stories about the other — my husband, Joe; my wife, Jane — and stories about ourselves: I’m too big and wandering. As if in choosing these stories against all others we’ll be enchanted. We’ll be blessed. But I have a feeling, Both Ways, that whatever story you choose, your longing for bothness will unravel it, until you see that it is you, yourself, who have invested it with its enchanting power.
I used to have a recurring nightmare about a wedding. I walk onto a vast green lawn and see rows of wooden white folding chairs. Suited men clump and scatter across the lawn, and women in taffeta and silk circle up and laugh softly. There are half a dozen bridesmaids in pink dresses puffed by tulle. There are flowers woven cinematically into a fucking white wicker archway. I can feel a hulk of a house off to the right. But I have tunnel vision. I don’t know whose wedding it is, and then I feel a rustle, a soft scratching around my legs, a kind of drag when I walk. I look down and I’m in a white wedding dress. In my mind are sentences so loud they feel physical — how did this happen? How do I get out? — but I cannot say any of them out loud; I cannot speak. Even if I had the courage to run I couldn’t because the dress is too heavy. I’m pinioned to the lawn and people are beginning to notice me, they turn to look at me, I try to smile, and then I wake up. The worst part of it, when I wake, is the knowledge that even my dreams are clichés.
For years I interpreted the dream as prophetic, as if someday I would be tricked into a marriage from which I could not escape. But I missed the point, I think. We cannot live in all the universes we want to, but neither do we live in that wedding nightmare, a world in which there is only one story, coming for you, and you cannot extricate yourself from it. The dream was pointing out my belief in such a nightmare. Some of the stories you choose will feel like solid worlds and then unravel; some you will unravel, yourself, when you need to. My hope is that you might come to love the unraveling, the way it invites the next story, creates a new world, no matter the relationship structures you choose.
There is a world in which the story is this: you commit yourself to one person after another, a man and then a woman, a woman and then a man, for balance, and when you are with a man, you cheat with a woman, and when you are with a woman, you cheat with a man. And then you find this woman, and something about her stops you. You get to know each other in the way one can only do with another person when there’s no one else for you. You see the world through her eyes, and it is like you live in two worlds, yours and hers, rather than one. You learn what it is like to be with her when she is bored, restless, just trying to exist on a Sunday afternoon when she doesn’t know what to do, and neither of you has anyone else to run away to, and your own long restlessness helps you to understand and quiet her. In this story, you realize that the cheating, for you, was not so much about bisexuality or ambivalence about monogamy but a way of escaping how embarrassing it is to be seen this way — just trying to exist, yourself. Because you’ve stopped enough to know her and be known, this ends some loneliness in you. You have the girl-girl true-love story.
In this world, or another, you might decide to have an open relationship with this woman, and after learning to deal with the jealousy and learning to reassure her, you get a boyfriend who knows the deal and wants exactly the freedom and fidelity of loving a woman who is in another relationship. You are, because of the hard work of your honesty, finally yourself in the world: you have it both ways. You have “you are my person” intimacy with both of them; you learn how to divide your life between them, so that you can be present in each place. But your time grows short, and you find yourself weeping inexplicably when you go between them, and you feel you’re doing a bad job of caring for each one. In this world, you rewrite the story in one of two directions. In one, you choose between your girlfriend and your boyfriend. Because you’ve been honest, it is no longer a sacrifice of your identity and desire when you have to choose between them: it is a sacrifice of the life you could have had with either one of them, if there were world enough and time. In another story, your girlfriend and your boyfriend become friends; you begin spending time with them both, together. You come to love your girlfriend’s girlfriends; she cares about your boyfriend. Now you have two monogamous relationships each, and a family’s worth of friendships, and two or three or four houses, and shared weekends and alone-together weekends, and calendars and schedules and your own shorthand the four of you use to make incredibly complex decisions so that everyone can see everyone. You find that love is not scarce, but like any family, any group of friends, any monogamous relationship, you find that time and space are scarce, and that even here, Both Ways, you may find yourself restless.
But maybe the restlessness is really about sex, and there is a world in which you realize that what you really want is butch women, women with whom you can play with all the impossible twos as a game, inhabit everything, occupy everything yourselves. Or there is a world in which you realize that it’s your own masculinity you’ve been after, that you need to play out that old power yourself, and that you can claim this thanks to some woman or man who loves exactly this about you. Cocks are strapped on or not strapped on, depending on your mood. It is not a girl-girl story or a boy-girl story. You have it both ways. Maybe you need a woman for this, maybe you couldn’t have this with a biological man, but if you choose a woman you’ll never know. You won’t need to: you’ll have friends who love men, and in friendship with them, you’ll see some of the other worlds through their eyes.
There is a world in which you fall in love with and marry a woman or a man and you have children together, by whatever means, and caring for these children together with your wife or husband expands the circle of people you’d take a bullet for, such that you are living not at the center of the world, yourself, but in all their lives, from all their points of view, and you realize that your restlessness was not about sex, after all: it was about needing to love multiply, rather than in binaries. There is a world in which you do several of these things in succession, failing or feeling you’ve failed at each, until you hit on one that is not perfect but that you know, in a way you don’t know now, is the best bet, and you choose it, knowing that it’s not so much about losing these other worlds: you are choosing this one, absurdly, recklessly.
There is, in all these worlds, at least one man or woman who sees the restlessness in you and accepts it. Someone who is more interesting than your ambivalence; who is more interested in you, in all your ways, than in owning you. Who moves with you when you move, who lets you breathe when you need to breathe. Who knows and loves about you that you desire men and women with mysterious, unsettling equality, and seeks to balance out all that is unfair and sacrificial in the world. Who tries out new worlds with you. Because you are fundamentally together, with this person, you can be apart. Because you know you are fundamentally apart, responsible for yourselves, you can be together. Because you think of yourself as no longer alone in the world, no longer the center — you never were, no one ever is — you can make these decisions without seeing them as some kind of sacrifice. And because of this person, you come to understand that your longing for twoness, for having things “both ways,” is a desire for love itself, for being really together with another person, for seeing past the illusion that the world you inhabit is the solitary one, and in this way, rehearsing some larger justice. You can do it with several people or you can do it with one, because if you stay long and deep enough, and allow the other to be as restless as you, each other person is a world and, over time, a hundred worlds.
And there is a world — instead or inside of any of these worlds — in which the “true love” story is not the one at the center of your life. You find your place instead among all the people of your town or the world; you love your friends better than anyone has ever loved friends. You change more of the world than most, because you can give your time to more people than those for whom the most important story is having a husband or a wife, children and/or dogs. This is, for you, the bigger love, the most ethical commitment, the least sacrificial fidelity.
However many of these stories you manage to inhabit until they feel like worlds unto themselves, I’m betting that what will matter most is whether you can enjoy the way they change, because they will, from Easter to the dark of winter, on every trip around the sun. Since I started writing to you, that empirical proof of the Big Bang has been challenged, and the hot new theory in astrophysics is that it never happened, the universe has always existed. The stories we research most rigorously always change the most. Truth falls fast on the heels of love, which can’t live long without it. Your longing to have things both ways is not some great and secret flaw. There is a creativity in the way you want to commit yourself that will produce something that hasn’t yet been seen. Finding the perfect relationship structure means less, I think, than knowing this.