Both Ways

Advice from the Help Desk

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Knitted Fragment. 2014, Oil and wax on canvas, 50 x 56”. Parafin Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

This is the second print installment of Kristin Dombek’s advice column. Questions can be sent to askkristin@nplusonemag.com.

Dear Kristin,

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?

Sincerely,

Both Ways


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.”

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