My boyfriend, Max, continued to needle me. “I just think it’s a little, you know, pampered of you and your friends, that you can afford to be so … paranoid.”
I bristled, but I let the writer in me reply first. “I think you mean ‘privileged,’ not ‘pampered’ — I’d hardly call this a romp at the spa — but, like, seriously?”
As we talked, I paced the same four gently sloping blocks, the only zone with both reception and relative privacy near the house I shared with my husband and our 5-year-old son — ours an untamed plot of land nestled among the manicured lawns of a tidy and tony neighborhood in Long Island’s eastern North Shore.
I didn’t need to talk out of earshot of my husband, whom I’ll call Ethan (like Max, his name is a pseudonym). Ours was an open marriage; my boyfriend of three years wasn’t a secret. But still, I wanted privacy. Especially now, under the Covid-19 lockdown, when ears and bodies and endless, sprawling projects seemed to have consumed the house.
Tonight’s topic was getting as tiresome as the view: Max felt ready to resume our weekly visits, but in the pandemic I just couldn’t justify it. My husband and I were both working from home and staying in. Meanwhile, Max’s heating and plumbing business was designated an essential service in New Jersey; he was still making house calls, and so to go visit him, a trip of 70-plus miles, would raise my family’s exposure level by several gaping degrees.
“Of course you’re doing the right thing. You always do the right thing — for your family.” Max said this matter-of-factly, but what I heard were echoes of accusations, hints of things left unsaid. “Must be nice … ” he continued. It was hard to imagine that less than two months ago, our relationship had never been better. Rock solid, in fact.
As I paced the neighborhood, I could feel blisters forming on my right foot. In a few weeks’ time, I’d become convinced that they were “Covid toes,” but it was just my sandal’s stiff webbing rubbing in just the wrong way, exactly like this whole situation had been rubbing me for weeks. Maybe it was finally wearing on Max, too, because his standard-issue ribbing had taken on a slight edge.
“As in, it must be nice for you to be able to work from home, or to not work at all if you want, like you and your mom friends you’re worried about. But some of us do have to work, like, in the real world, where people are still living their lives, and guess what? The sky isn’t falling — ”
Just then the line broke up and I strained to hear what Max was saying — or not saying — and hurled obscenities at my phone that I only hoped my neighbors couldn’t hear. I did another about-face and the signal returned.
“Demanding to go visit my lover during a pandemic, when there are people dying right now — it’s sort of a big ask, dude. So is driving two hours out to your place just to wave at you from your backyard.”
The evening’s light was waning now. Suddenly, without meaning to, I found myself saying the words I thought I’d been saving for an emergency: “What if we just put our relationship on hold? Like, until this is over? Consider it part of our civic duty … and then, you know, restart.”
Over the static of the line, Max paused to light a cigarette. I waited for him to fill the silence. When he did, he too sounded tired.
“That’s just it, though. What relationship? I haven’t seen you in six weeks — and we’re easily looking at six more. This is just an idea of a relationship at this point. A hypothetical.” I heard a bottle uncork and a splash of what I knew to be aged, top-shelf rum hit a rocks glass, and I pictured Max there, feet up on his patio table, face stubbled and grim in the dimming light.
Finally I said, “I don’t know. I’ll talk to Ethan. Maybe soon.”
How could a virus so microscopic so quickly destroy the arrangement, through great effort and design, I’d spent the last three years, if not my whole adult life, crafting?
“Have you ever heard of … polyamory?” I first braved the topic with my now-husband on our third date 13 years ago. We stood in his messy yet somehow strikingly spare NYU studio as I tried to explain, as delicately as I could, about my other relationships — yes, plural and no, I’d no plans to stop — despite my obvious, and growing, attachment to him.
Ethan listened until he’d fallen completely silent — and then quietly asked me to leave.
Three torturous days later, corn-fed, Midwestern Ethan finally called back and surprised both of us: “You’re not my property. I don’t own you — so, if this is going to work, it has to be because we choose each other, because we’re each other’s foundation, and everything else is extra.” Our relationship has been “open” ever since.
But, “open” in name is one thing — in practice, another. We dabbled in flirtations and flings early on, but mostly our escapades amounted to crushes and makeouts (more my thing), rare one-night stands (more Ethan’s thing), and costumed, sexy “play” parties. Though Ethan tried dating other women, he found it too effortful — I barely had time to get jealous before he wrote the whole thing off. So the reality was that for the better part of a decade, we were far more exclusive than poly. ‘Monogam-ish,’ at best.
Frankly, we were too busy to think much about fucking, or not fucking, other people: The next few years brought jobs and promotions, a move to the suburbs, a house and a perfunctory, courthouse marriage — and, eventually, a baby.
Which means it wasn’t entirely surprising when Ethan and I stopped paying attention to each other — and stopped having sex. This, I presumed, was the “post-kid slump” even my non-poly parent friends complained about. But compounding matters was that, after a long bout of postpartum blues, I’d emerged with a new, red-hot libido. And Ethan, unfortunately, just wasn’t turned on by any of my new fantasies.
I was bored, restless, horny and increasingly irritable — but by then the subject of our open marriage had been up on a shelf so long it’d gathered dust.
“Look, why even have this agreement, if not for this exact situation?” I implored one night. Ethan and I were eating terrible onion rings at a terrible, run-of-the-mill grill we thought we’d try for date night, because, well, there just weren’t that many options out in strip-mall suburbia.
“Now? When we’re not even getting along? This is supposed to be the worst time,” Ethan retorted. And he wasn’t wrong. But I didn’t know what else to do — I was going stir-crazy, and had to admit to both myself and him, “Honestly, I’m afraid of what will happen to us if we don’t.”
We made it through the rest of dinner without tears, a rare feat in those days, and finally, over a shared dessert, agreed on the fact that I simply had interests, and an appetite, that went beyond his. “It’s OK,” I said, gently. “We can do this.”
Ethan nodded, but slowly. Resigned. “As long as everyone’s safe — and we don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
A few months later, on the rooftop of a Brooklyn loft party, I struck up a conversation with Max — a flamboyant, leather-vested Russian in a top hat and curls, a camera around his neck and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He told me of his upcoming travels to Ecuador, and I vented about my troubled, but creative, marriage. Genuinely interested, he said he wanted to know more — a conversation I was happy to continue at a mutual friend’s barbecue a few weeks later, and then through long emails while he was in Ecuador, and finally into Max’s bed (and heart) across the Hudson.
Max was effusive, over-the-top fun, challenging in all the right ways — and looked at me in ways Ethan never did. I’d leave Max’s place whistling a tune, feeling appreciated — no, downright worshipped — more ready, able and present, I felt, to face whatever needed my attention at home in between visits. So, for a while it seemed better not to ask questions, or reach for labels. Ethan was clear: He didn’t want to know much, and Max and I agreed that as long as we were having fun, did it matter what we were to each other? But soon, it was hard to deny: I had a full-blown boyfriend, and despite our best efforts not to — we were falling in love.
At first, when I started spending time in New Jersey, Ethan graciously stepped it up as a caregiver back at home. I’d done the heavy lifting in our relationship for so long, this stark rebalancing of our roles felt like a revolution. Even the drive out to Max’s place was a kind of hair-in-the-wind, crank-up-the-music respite: from my full-time role as lead parent, from the bottomless pit of housework — from the shriek of midlife stagnation.
But as Max’s pull grew stronger, Ethan’s support for our relationship waned. In his view, instead of fortifying our marriage, my side piece was becoming an ever-increasing, serious distraction. Ethan simply couldn’t fathom the senseless commute — “like there’s not plenty of dick on Long Island?” — but the more he resisted, the more I became convinced that maybe Max wasn’t the problem at all.
It didn’t help that Ethan’s response was to retreat — eschewing the counselors, communication and relationship-repair work needed to get us back on track. Instead, he became distant, cold and combustible — only fueling my suspicion, and fear, that our marriage might well be beyond repair. Finally, we got to a breaking point.
Can’t you see what’s happening to us? What you’re doing to this family? And I couldn’t. I could only feel the rage, and hear the words, mine, coming out in regrettable torrents … isn’t working … not happy … can’t do this … trial separation. Disconnection and tension had us both spiraling out of control, free-falling into the bottom of a deep, dry well.
No matter how broken we were as a couple, though, I did know one thing: that Ethan and I would never stop cooperatively co-parenting our son. We both cared too much about the kid and life we’d built together to walk away so easily — and so, separately but firmly, we both resolved to make something work, even if it meant something else had to give. After all, for better or for worse, we’d constructed our relationship to bend — not break.
So, Ethan accepted the conditions of our reconciliation as reluctantly as I accepted mine: I could do whatever, and whoever, I wanted — as long as Ethan and our son had nothing to do with it. And, as long as Ethan got more help at home. So, I created a shared calendar. I hired a trusted babysitter. I built more structure and predictability into our routine. I cringe now to think of the hours I scrambled, the sleep I lost, the speeds I drove — just to get from one partner to the other.
But a year later, exhausted, I was ready for all my hard work to pay off. I wanted, so much, for there to be hope: that one day, Ethan might fully accept Max into our lives. That my two partners could call each other friends, or maybe even family one day — my heart’s two halves, whole. For now, though, surely, we’d weathered the worst of it. With spring coming, I resolved to make this our best year yet, and it had to be: I’d come to think of Max as the nourishing mortar holding the cracks of my marriage together. Without him, I thought, everything might collapse.
Little did I know the world had plans to collapse on its own.
Before we knew what was happening, the chaos of Covid-19 hit the East Coast, and my trips to Jersey abruptly stopped. At first, Max and I both figured: Lots of people are making sacrifices right now; we’re used to spending time apart. What’s a few more weeks?
Except infection rates in the region were only just starting to peak, not recede. Lockdown measures tightened. My concern for both the world and our relationship grew, but Max’s didn’t — and our mismatched reactions to the pandemic were becoming both apparent, and annoying, to both of us.
Meanwhile, at home, I braced myself for quarantine to be horrible. Ethan and I hadn’t been confined in the house together, isolated like this, since before I met Max. Without our usual buffers and outlets, I feared the worst.
But then … it wasn’t the worst. Ethan and I got right down to business: negotiating work schedules and schooling. Tooling around and building things. Planting a garden and eating its yield. We stayed positive, and productive — and Ethan and I went from being at each other’s throats to simply being at ease. My heart, which had chilled toward my husband over the years, was somehow unseizing, and — whether by exposure or force of nature — was warming itself in the pre-summer, quarantine sun.
Like the day Ethan and I watched from the driveway as our son sprayed a hose into the air and let cold “rain” fall on him as he squealed. Just being outside had us giddy, high on fresh air — and suddenly, all we had to be grateful for, in the midst of this virus and otherwise, seized ahold of me and tears sprang to my eyes. Breaking through weeks, if not years, of tension, I reached out across the chasm between my husband and me and put an arm around his side — and he gave me a welcomed squeeze back. Suddenly, I was saying all of the hard things like it was easy again: “I just want you to know that I love you. And that I’m so, so sorry.”
Ethan’s way is to be silent, but I could tell that he had heard me. He seemed to need to hear these words, and I felt relief saying them. Trying not to let my son hear the wavering in my voice, I went on: “I’m just … I spent so long feeling disconnected from you … I was mad at you, and took it out on you. But I needed something for myself — ” I tried to stop, but the tears were falling freely now, joining the stream of water flowing down our driveway and out into the street’s gutter. Spending time together as a family — seeing how much I’d been missing at home, how much the two of them needed me — it was enough to see how Ethan might have suffered here, alone. “It must have been so, so hard,” I said.
Ethan paused and then nodded, gently, then leaned in as if confessing. “I’m a simple man, ya know? I just want a simple life.” His eyes stayed on our son as he spoke, hose water still raining down. “But I know you’re more complex, and have needs I don’t understand. And maybe never will.” As I listened, I looked for the familiar judgment in his voice, but found none. “We’re gonna be here for you, though. OK? We’ll always be here.”
For the first time since the pandemic, or maybe since our son was just born, my heart swelled with love for Ethan like a roar in my ears — and I knew I’d always be there for them too. “Yep. Things are only going to get better now, babe,” he said as he pulled me tighter, and I clung to his chest and we breathed.
Meanwhile, Max and I were stalled. Weeks of separation had turned into months — of solitary walks, patchy calls, toe blisters and Covid scares. And lately, a growing sense of doom. Even before quarantine, Max wanted more of the only thing I couldn’t give him — me. And if our relationship wasn’t enough during normal times, where did that leave us in the End Times?
It was three and a half months into the pandemic that Max and I finally scheduled a visit — though whether it was to talk, fuck, break up or simply assess the damage, I’m not sure either of us knew. But a couple of negative lab results later, I found myself driving out to his place: excited, tingling — but also, measured. Prepared. Trying to have hope, in case there was reason to have some. As I crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey — a different world, a different culture, a different state-level Covid response — somehow I knew there’d be a different “us” too.
I arrived and entered without knocking, as I usually did, and gasped: Max’s standard Cape house had been transformed: Stripped of walls and carpets, it gleamed with airy openness and the smell of fresh paint and pine. Just then, Max strode in from the back of the house, and I sank into his warm, solid arms for seconds, or maybe minutes. I hadn’t expected that we’d kiss right away — Shouldn’t we talk first? About keeping our hearts in check? — but there I was, getting lost in his ample, expert lips. And no surprise, for the rest of the night and morning, we had just as good a time as always. No distractions, no virus, no distorted phone lines — just good intentions, love, humor, and the stark reality of our situation staring back at us. If nothing else, the pandemic had given us the gift of sight — and frankly, the perfect opportunity for getting out clean.
I packed up my stuff at Max’s place knowing I wouldn’t be back, at least not for a while, and that the closet and drawer that used to be mine would one day have a new woman’s things in it. I found myself hoping I’d still be around for that day, welcoming whoever-she’d-be into the fold, trying not to get jealous from the sidelines. Or, maybe the back seat? In case Max hadn’t thought of it, I floated the idea:
“Instead of being your sometimes-wife … what do you say to me being your forever-mistress?” I said, just the slyest of smiles. Hesitantly, then assuredly, he returned it, with a cuff on my nose. “Maybe. If you’re good.”
I drove away in tears, and finally alone with it, let the grief roll over me in torrents. But the long drive — anyone else’s bane, but to me, always a welcomed meditation — gave me ample time to think, so that by the time I got back to Long Island I was clear-headed and calm again, ready to embrace my husband and son. And, more than ever, looking forward to being home.