In a leafy, affluent suburb, a happily married couple experiments with alternative love. When the clothing comes off, the chaos begins.
Does America’s new polyamory movement mean:
That it is possible to have a serious commitment to more than one person.
That there is an alternative to hypocrisy and infidelity, or
That in suburban New Jersey, Tom and Nan and John and Jen are having a lot more fun than you are?
Labor Day 1994, a cool and sunny morning in Northern New Jersey. John wakes up feeling great. He's thirty-eight years old, a successful lawyer with a busy bankruptcy practice in Newark, a nice house in the suburbs, and two cars and two healthy kids. Lying next to him is his wife, his actual high school sweetheart still there twenty-one years later with her regal face and lean athletic body and that striking mass of coiled copper curls -and her formidable personality with its disconcerting mixtures, clear-eyed and dreamy, controlling bitch and hedonistic pleasure queen.
On this ground, in this hot tub, these four suburbanites are experimenting with the future of American sex.
John reaches for her and she rolls to him and the old fire lights gain. That night he writes in his blue composition book: Great sex in the morning. Roland and Mary and their children came over later. Sat in the yard and had a fun time, BBQ, drinks, kids... I told Nan I was the luckiest man in the world.
Three weeks later, they drive into Manhattan with the same couple, Mary* and Roland*. They met, of all places, at the school their kids attended. Mary is blond, fleshy, excitable. She sits up front with her husband and John sits with Nan in the back. They chat comfortably, with a giddy energy. They've become quick friends, the way couples sometimes do when there is a touch of mutual attraction. When they get to the pier, they climb aboard the boat and find seats next to the bandstand. A blues band churns up the night. The music pulls at John, who once wanted to be a musician himself and spent a year playing in coffeehouses between college and law school. They make a toast, pass around a joint, dance and switch partners, and Roland and John go up to the bow and watch the waves together and by the time they get back they're all pretty stoned and the band is playing and this time when John and Mary start to dance, she's really assertive -rubs against him and gives him that deep hungry look we all know from dreams. And John's getting turned on. It's been ages since he's been turned on by anybody but Nan. And Nan's watching and it's all pretty obvious, but she's not worried. They're not the kind of people who would get uptight about something like this. Roland's whispering in her ear how beautiful and fascinating she is. At the worst it'll be a hoot, something to talk about later, in bed.
(* These names have been changed)
In the parking lot, Mary says to Nan, Why don't you sit up front and I'll sit in the back with John? And before they leave the parking lot, Mary scoots over to John's side of the car and starts some serious snuggling. In his composition book later, John records his reaction: Wow! After an evening of incredibly dirty dancing, this woman was looking to go further. I was flooded with feeling. It was like a dam breaking. Things I hadn't felt in years. Alive, vital, scared, excited. While this is going on I am trying to keep myself and her under control. I call up to the front of the car- "Nan, Mary wants to come home with us tonight. Is that OK?"
John and Nan have one of those marathon three-hour conversations. This is another three weeks down the line. It all comes out -how angry Nan is with John for letting himself get carried away, how threatened she feels. And yes she is attracted to Roland, and yes it's thrilling, yes there's a real spark there. She's even had this fantasy lately -she's with Roland in the den, and he starts to put the moves on, and she says, Only with our clothes on, you can do anything to me that two people can do with their clothes on, and so they do and he's incredibly hot and she's stroking him and -you come in and "surprise" us. She’s comfortable talking about these sorts of things. A gestalt therapist, she's accustomed to rooting around in issues of feelings and sexuality. But if John expects her to explore her own limits, Nan's going to have to feel safe -and safe means knowing her husband is in control. Later John writes it down. He already has a sense that all this might be significant or important, so he's keeping careful notes. We talked about it for a long time. The hours flew by. We didn't sleep until after midnight and were up again at 5:30. Maybe that's how life is supposed to be. I am wildly in love and turned on by Nan. It's unbelievable.
A week later the two couples try fooling around naked but without crossing the "no sex" line. Nan records it in her journal later: We are in the middle of something I don't quite understand. The rather short leash I've kept myself bound to is unraveling before my eyes. I feel unglued, expansive, and utterly alive. Friday night with R&M was totally different than I had even envisioned. We talked, drank, smoked, took off clothes, and rolled around on the rugs embracing and having this very innocent, sensuous, sexual lovefest. Now I am pulsing with passion without focusing on John's experience with Mary as threatening. Some of this is just plain ecstasy at off-loading hang-ups of betrayal, men as pigs, and sex as synonymous with interpersonal fascism. I feel like I want to fuck the whole world. Nan has let down the walls and stands amidst the ruins smoldering with being. It takes my breath away.
By Christmas, Roland and Mary are their new best friends, over all the time, sharing daily suburban family life with their children and also thrilling night adventures that stop just short of group sex. Both John and Nan are sizzling with emotion, talking feverishly to their analysts about all the mommy-daddy issues of abandonment and rejection and transference that keep cropping up and also this exhilarating sense of limitlessness-of freedom, possibility, the dream of a dark chocolate world sensual and rich with love. Because it's not just sexual with Roland and Mary; it's more than that. It's like they're falling in love with this other couple. It's a great adventure and they are going on it together. Today is the 20th anniversary of my first date with Nan. I brought her roses on Monday night for no reason and perfume and a beautiful simple white silk nightgown last night. She looked fabulous in it. We made love for the 23rd consecutive day and are more in love than ever. It's something when you can't wait to get up the next day because you are so excited about your life. I don't know quite where this goes but I have glimpsed a way of life, a state of mind, and it feels a bit like riding a bike-once you learn, you can never "not know."
Finally, four months after the blues cruise, they "cross the big F boundary." John is upstairs with Mary and Nan is downstairs with Roland in the kitchen. John senses something is happening even before he knows what happened. He feels some betrayal. And excitement, too. He turns to Mary. And the sex is good, great, just like he knew it would be, and such a relief, although his first thought when it's over is Will it ruin our marriage? Au contraire, mon chérie: Afterward Nan's sexuality goes into overdrive, and so does his. It's a whole new playground where you can make up your own rules. And there's something incredibly exhilarating about that. It takes that exhilaration to make John realize that he's been trapped for years by these bogus ideas of what "kind of" person he is, acting a role instead of really being himself, and that now for the first time he is choosing what he wants. Like training for a marathon and choosing not to stop, choosing to push yourself to your limit, he's getting past the idea that Nan has to be everything for him, getting past possessing her in that needy sexist way because now he can get his needs filled elsewhere. Now he is coming to her from a place of wholeness.
John drives the baby-sitter home while Roland and Nan and Mary wait for him. He parks the Volvo in the driveway and hears silence when he opens the door, goes upstairs with that feeling that something is going to happen, and sure enough he finds Roland in bed with Nan. Jesus man, Nan is really into it! And there's Mary waiting for him with that hungry look.
They go off and the room is dark and he's kissing her and the clothes come off. They go at it hot and hard for hours, like healthy animals. The next day is a Saturday but he goes to work at seven-thirty in the morning and works without stopping till nine that night.
The kids go to the beach with their grandparents, and John and Nan and Mary and Roland have an afternoon tryst that feels just like an episode of Ab Fab, in bed with wineglasses and joints and their pals in the middle of the day. Laughing, lighthearted fun with incredible sex. Nan is multiorgasmic. It's not possible that any four people anywhere could be having more fun than they are right now. For hours and even days afterward, Nan floats on a cloud of teen-girl bliss. She and John talk about testing the limits and taking the leap into communal intimacy. Everything seems possible.
A few months later John is flipping through Yoga magazine when he sees an advertisement for a book called Love Without Limits, a guide to creating loving relationships with more than one person. This is just what they need, especially since there's been so much turmoil coming up lately, all the usual relationship stuff times two -Roland feels threatened because John and Mary are connecting on such a deep level, so he withdraws emotionally and then Mary feels undercut and destabilized and her hunger for that emotional charge she needs becomes aggravated and she goes back to John and the cycle continues, real quadrophenia. When the book comes in the mail, he opens it up and right there on the back cover are all the questions they've been asking themselves: Can you really love two or more people at a time? How do you cope with jealousy? Does polyamory harm children? Inside, there are sections on how to let jealousy be your teacher and how to open yourself to sexual energy and replace guilt and shame with self-acceptance and love. It has an ecotopic California glow that resonates with the confused spiritual hungers left in John after twelve years of Catholic schooling: "We cannot teach our children to share and to love one another when we jealously guard and covertly control our most precious possessions -our spouses. By making the boundaries of the family more flexible and more permeable to the outside world, we set the stage for a new worldview in which we recognize our kinship with all humanity." The author is a woman named Deborah Anapol, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology who "has been helping people explore New Paradigm relationships since 1983." They're so excited they photocopy half the book so they can read it simultaneously.
That spring the four of them leave the kids with relatives and go on a romantic island getaway. But Mary gets manic and starts slipping into her Zelda Fitzgerald alter ego, swimming way out into the ocean until people get nervous and go after her.
Watching this, Roland gets more and more withdrawn, and then Nan gets annoyed about being ignored and skittish about the mania and everyone's being very emotional and it's not relaxing at all. John and Nan talk about how this adventure might be affecting their kids. They've been discreet; there should be no problem. But just before they leave the island, John has a dream of going home to a world of ice and watching his daughter slide beneath a snowdrift. He runs to pull her out and almost sinks himself. I am crying, holding Alison to my chest and feeling her breathing. I tell Nan, as I am sobbing, that she has to be more vigilant. When they get back to New Jersey, the foursome breaks up for two weeks.
In August they all go to their first Loving More meeting, a preconvention workshop that promises to give them "tools for intimacy." The idea is to explore the barriers to making multiple connections, which boils down to ten people sitting in a room for three days with Brett Hill and Ryan Nearing of Loving More magazine, talking about their deepest sexual fears and longings. And it helps, it really does. Roland begins to open up and admit that he just isn't comfortable talking about feelings and is just more introverted than John and Nan and Mary. Seeing that vulnerability makes Nan warm to him in a deeper way. They even start talking about going into group counseling together. When the convention starts, a whole battalion of polyamorists descend on the retreat-a hundred people who all believe the poly life is possible, or hope it is. A lot of them are pretty freaky looking, it must be said, with piercings and tattoos and beards (and that's just the women), but they meet Deborah Anapol and other sexual healers and fourples and tribes and all kinds of extended relationships and it's such a validation, seeing so many other people trying this communal life.
And suddenly there's this world of recent books pointing in the same direction, like The Celestine Prophecy and The Art of Everyday Ecstasy and The Artist's Way and Radical Honesty and The Ethical Slut and Breaking the Barriers of Desire. And there are dozens of Web sites with names like Poly Personals, the Poly Advisors, How Poly People Meet, Liberated Christians, all sprouting up in the last few years and spreading fast, plus three annual conventions and dozens of discussion groups in cities all over the country. In the last few years, after fifteen years of scraggly publication, Loving More magazine's subscriber base has shot up to ten thousand and its Web site now gets ten thousand to twenty thousand hits a week. It's a movement, the world expanding right in front of them, the old paradigm of control and punishment slowly dying and in its place a new paradigm of abundance being born. They are pioneers! They are doing the work of the soul! They're building the new age right here and now in their own bedrooms, where all the ladders start. They're mountain climbers stuck in the suburbs and dreaming up their own mountain!
On a piece of John's yellow legal paper, Nan writes an imaginary dictionary definition for a condition she has begun calling "polyhead": Adj. State of bliss induced by radical opening of the 4th heart chakra, characterized by dramatic, expansive altered consciousness, sexual energy, abrupt positive shifts of attitudes, god consciousness, singing in the shower, being abnormally nice to dreaded relatives, smiling uncontrollably in the supermarket, desire to live communally, believing John and Yoko weren't perhaps so crazy with their bed-in-for-peace campaign.
Upstairs, in the attic bedroom, John and Mary are fucking. Nan sits one floor below, listening. The sounds fill her with jealousy and loss. It's been a year since that first poly convention and they've been through ups and downs and breakups and reconciliations. The worst was one crazy night when Mary started rolling in John's lap in a sheer T-shirt while her kids were in the house. That really upset Nan, who does her best to insulate everybody's kids from anything too weird, who always tells everyone to keep their clothes on and not let the energy get out of control. It upset Roland even more. He has so much unresolved rage. Maybe he's not strong enough for poly life; maybe he's just an ordinary philanderer. A mere swinger. In contrast, John has been very supportive, holding Nan while she cried through the torment of abandonment one more time. Although sometimes she thinks John's patience and forbearance are not so altruistic. Maybe it represented his considerable and covert investment in maintaining his own relationship with Mary? Oh yes what a mess it has become. Fucking insanity. Stop the insanity is what keeps ringing in my ears. Stop the chaos.
That November John and Roland run the New York City Marathon as planned. It's chilly, with a ragged wind. Things are tense because Roland has announced once and for all that he is through, and Nan is in the usual state of rage. John sets off at a 3:42 pace and maintains it for twenty-one miles, then runs out of gas for the last five miles and clocks out at just under four hours. He feels like a quitter. You have to keep pushing. You have to advance the level of the game and play at the highest level you possibly can. Roland finishes an hour later, which he never would have done without John's help, without all the training runs and all the pep talks about focus and human potential. The next day he brings John a copy of Howard Stern's Private Parts as a thank-you gift, a bittersweet moment. They both know it's a kind of goodbye.
John and Nan on the bed. Rocking together while Nan weeps. John is not responsible for how she feels. Nan is responsible for her own feelings. So even though John isn't going to lie about his feelings for Mary, he can still give Nan his complete emotional support. Even when she's crying in heartbreak over another man, he can hold her and show that he loves her so deeply and so fully that he can love even this part of her. The things they've learned and the freedoms and breakthroughs they've achieved aren't illusions, aren't worthless -pain is just the price you pay to learn. They are going to a different place but they are still going there together.
So Nan takes control of her own pleasure and puts an ad in The Village Voice: Spiritual, loving marathon runners looking for loving friends and friendly lovers. Interests include yoga, meditation. Everyone is all wrong until Keith calls. He has a cute English accent, says he's a marathon runner like John -actually an ultramarathon runner. He's here on a visa so he won't be around long. On a mad whim she meets him in the Village and they go out dancing. He's cute and flirty and Nan feels electric again. They end up at the house at six in the morning, playing pool, and John comes in and suddenly they're all over her. She writes in her journal: I am in a constant state of relaxed orgasming with two delicious boys servicing my every sensuous desire. Keith holds me while John fucks me. I burst with energy while I come and come.
Sometimes they think of it as a movie, a new-age Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or The Harrad Experiment meets mind/body medicine. If it were a movie, this is where the montage sequence would come: scenes of the collapse of John's relationship with Mary cut against glimpses of lust and soul work with Keith, culminating in his inevitable and amicable but tearful return to England, then a blur of tantra workshops and poly conferences (note how impressed everyone is with John and Nan, who seem so suburban and together) and the calendar pages fly until Carolena the tantrika with her exotic dark beauty wakes up between them, and yoga and running and the pleasures of children, and sometimes another couple and all five of them end up in a magical chain of energy on the big bed. Dissolve to:
A small tantra meeting in Massachusetts, nine couples in a living room. Here the emphasis is on honoring the divine within each other, on reclaiming sexuality as a spiritual act -you look into each other's eyes, light candles, use aromatic oils, go slowly, and consecrate the moment. It's a woman-centered path. Also a good place to meet people who are open to poly, because after three years you realize that civilians just can't deal with it and you have to find people who are more open. Like this cute guy with the boyish energy and crooked grin. These feelings between them are natural and healthy. It's good to share positive energies with another human. Especially with other humans sharing energy nearby, which raises the intensity level for everyone. Nan likes the way his hair parts in the middle and hangs there, that puppy-dog look. His name is Tom.
It feels weird knowing that she's married. But after the tantra conference, Tom gives Nan a call. He lives on Long Island, she lives in Jersey, she sort of let him know she wouldn't mind. He got divorced a year ago after seven years of marriage to a woman so religious she didn't sleep with him until their wedding night, and he's been making up for lost time. So they make a date. But Tom doesn't show. And get this -the next day the husband calls. Says, Nice going bud, Nan is pissed, she was expecting you to call. Tom doesn't know how to respond. He's a pretty liberal post-hippie dopesmoking kind of guy but this is a bit beyond his experience-a husband calling to chew you out for standing up his wife? They try again a couple of days later at John and Nan's new house, a five-bedroom on a beautiful leafy street. The kids are at the beach. John welcomes Tom and makes himself scarce. They have a candlelight dinner and a bottle of wine and a bong and go upstairs.
Tom asks John if Wednesdays are good for him. John says Wednesdays will be fine. Tom looks at him. Does he mean it? Or is he just saying so to make Nan happy? Because things have changed now. Tom and Nan are going deep. She's such a searcher and thinker and she's also got that dark pleasure-queen side that just rocks his world-she feels so comfortable doing things nice girls don't do. Little by little he's been dropping his old girlfriends. Now he's down to just this girl Jen up in Boston whom he hasn't even slept with. Even so, Nan is jealous, which is pretty funny under the circumstances. But she says she's been through this before and needs a commitment to feel safe enough to go deep. The important thing is how it feels and not how it looks to the outside world. And it feels good. He even likes how normal it is, the suburban house and the kids and everyone sitting in the kitchen while dinner cooks. Alison* is sweet, a little friend to all the world. Her brother Mark* (*The children's names have been changed) is thirteen and more wary. But they accept him, and suddenly he's part of this family. The whole thing is incredibly intoxicating, this idea that people can actually live this way, which is what makes it so painful when John gets so tense. He says he's ready to walk out, he'll be walking out anytime now. Tom throws it right back at him -you know what, this doesn't work, I'm out of here!
Later, John comes to him and asks him not to leave. They'll work it out. This kind of relating isn't easy. It takes extra commitment.
With Mary long gone, John needs an outlet. Nan and Tom agree. They take out a personal ad in Loving More magazine: Really cool, loving triad, 2 men and one woman (a married couple plus a great guy) looking for another woman to share love. Interests include mind/body healing, running, spirituality, community, and radical honesty. But then the pressure of it all gets to Tom and he bolts to Jen's little apartment in the North End of Boston. She's thirty-two, a graphic designer at an AIDS-support organization, one of the gentle people. She wears glasses and dresses in floral patterns. If you met her at a party, you might think she was a little shy. But she knows from personal experience how hard Tom's road is -in college, when she was working on South Africa and women's issues, she tried living with another woman and her boyfriend. Later she had a five-year relationship with a married man, but it was always tense. His wife never really partnered with her. Jen believes in polyamory but in practice it feels like beating your head against a brick wall, hoping it will open.
When Tom gets to Boston he calls Nan and there's some mixup with the answering machine-he has to wait for her to call back. When he and Jen finally get to bed, it feels stilted, like Nan is there the whole time.
Another day, another Loving More convention, this one up in the Catskills at a former dude ranch turned alternative conference center, still decorated in seventies shag carpeting and faux wood paneling. Jen comes to meet Nan and Tom and John and she's determined to keep it cool with Tom, to show Nan that she honors her position as Tom's primary. And she's very impressed by Nan, struck by her beauty and forceful personality. But then, without planning for it at all, she hits it off with Tom's old college buddy Dave, who is just coming through a divorce and taking a flier on the convention at Tom's suggestion. He's tall and handsome and has a sweet, open energy, and Jen's so distracted she's not even aware she's attracted to him until they give each other a quick hug outside the conference center and the hug continues until everyone else is gone and Jen's glasses steam up. Eventually they end up in the room that Nan and Tom and John and Malcolm and Robin and Dave are sharing-three beds pushed together so it's like one huge bed, all the pillows in a row and all the heads on the pillows like Who-ville. They try to be "good," but then John notices what's going on and whispers with the others and announces -Guys, there's obviously some chemistry going on here and you obviously want to go with it, so I've checked with everyone and we're all okay with it. Rock on. Which leaves Jen pretty much flabbergasted. She doesn't even know John. If anything he seems kind of aloof. And she's never done anything like this before. But one thing leads to another and the atmosphere is so accepting they eventually just go with it, and there really is something magical about it all, everyone together like that, everything accepted and quietly supported in a loving space. For the rest of the weekend Jen feels a pervasive sense of rightness -This is how people were meant to be, all sleeping in a big pile.
A few weeks later, Jen comes down to New Jersey drawn by Nan's disapproval. She wants Nan to respect her. And of course there's a sexual energy; they're checking her out and she knows it -a woman like her, open to poly, is something of a hot commodity in certain circles. She's used to it. Anyway that's not really on her mind. She's still talking to Dave on the phone almost every night. But that night, when John tells her he wants her right there in front of Nan and Tom, she has to admit she's intrigued. She says she's not ready but he persists -what if they just sleep together, share the bed, hug each other. She says she doesn't think so but later she goes to the bathroom and somehow she ends up taking a bath with Nan. Not in a sexual way but it's all sort of dreamlike and when she comes out of the bath wrapped in a towel, she finds John in the bed. He holds her all night and in the morning when she starts to cry, he holds her some more, and they end up spending the rest of the day in bed. Tom and Nan are nowhere to be seen.
Carolena’s wearing a white peasant blouse and an Indian "bindi" smudge over her third eye and talking about her women's Web site. "The minute I posted that I was interested in exploring my g spot, other women started pouring in." This is the day after Thanksgiving, a party at John and Nan's with various lovers and friends and Mac, who will be moving in later this month to take a little break from life -and, of course, Tom and Jen. Reggae on the stereo, a man working the blender, Nan in the kitchen, bragging on Mark: "Out of 800 in the verbal, he got 770."
It's a reunion for the 1997 Deborah Anapol Sacred Sexuality tantra conference. But Carolena is saying that even though she lives with Anapol in Mann County, she's not sure polyamory works -it's so hard to find men. "What I really want is a goddess community," she says.
Later, Nan tries to explain all the relationships. Jen and John have been lovers for almost four months now. She and Tom have been lovers for eighteen months. As for the others, "John's had sex with Robin, but that's in the past -she wants to settle down and meet a nice Jewish boy. Mac and I fooled around, but it wasn't what I would call really sexual."
Then the smaller kids go upstairs to jump on the bed and John invites everyone out to the patio to examine the site of the future hot tub. They stand in the space defining the absence of a hot tub and pass around a joint and stroke one another's backs to create that loving tantric environment, until Nan laughs and says it's a good thing that kids are around tonight or it could be like the Labor Day party, when the energy went way over the edge. They can see the kids right there in the window, going magically up and down as they jump on the bed. Everyone is being very affectionate. Hands are working busily away. "People have such a hard time dealing with things they can't understand," John says. "They want to interpret it, put a name on it and a label so they can think they're back in control."
Then Nan tells everyone to join in a heart circle and the eight of them come together with arms around one another's shoulders, heads bowed, ommmmmmmmming together in a hivelike drone.
Up in Vermont for the holiday, Jen's mother wants to know what she's doing in New Jersey every weekend. Who are these people? What is she doing with them? Jen tries to explain, they are just this wonderful new group of friends, but her mother just gets angrier. What's happening? What is she doing? Jen talks about community and how important it is for her to try to share a loving space with other people. She's always had that communal dream, they know that. But both her parents get angry and say that's ridiculous, it never works, and finally Jen can't take it anymore and she goes off to cry. When she calms down, she calls John. She wants desperately to get out of here and see him but the bus company is on strike and there's no way out. She's trapped! John cups the phone and asks Nan for permission to go rescue Jen. "Sure," Nan says. "Go ahead. It sounds like an adventure."
He arrives the next morning just as Jen and her parents are sitting down to breakfast. They had planned a big family day, and now Mom and Dad are furious. This man left his wife to come get our daughter? What are his kids doing? What kind of a scene is it down there? Her mother won't even look at John. It's the most uncomfortable moment in the history of their family.
Dave is coming for a visit next week. Then the three Dutch polyamorists-a woman and her husband and lover-are coming for the week just before Christmas. They saw the ad in Loving More last summer and John and the woman have developed quite the little Internet flirtation. So the question on the coffee table is whether Jen or John will sleep with these potential partners.
"My inclination right now is not to," Jen says. "Mostly because I really like the place where we're at with each other. I just want to let this deepen, and let us all have safety and peace."
John says his inclination is also to honor what they have. "If there's a general sense that it would be a net negative for all concerned, I'm very okay with not doing anything."
Then Jen reconsiders. Maybe John should sleep with the Dutch woman. "I want him to have abundance, to have a lot of love and few restrictions," she says. "Plus I think that if John is with Pam and I could still experience him being there for me, that could help me heal and be very useful."
Then there are the feelings of Nan and Tom to consider. Tom thinks abundance and sexual healing are very good ideas indeed, but Nan is just about abundanced out. "How much more meaningless sex do you have to have?"
"Lots," Tom says.
"You've had lots."
Despite the squabbling, Tom is starting to move his stuff in. At the end of the month, he's going to give up his apartment on Long Island.
Nan picks up a pair of Tom's socks under the coffee table. She scowls and holds them out to him on extended fingers. "His socks," she says. Tom takes the socks and throws them back on the floor. "Look what he just did!"
Nan says she's just a Jewish mom in the suburbs. She likes baby steps and manageability. "The idea of chaos scares me," she says. Tom flashes his knowing smirk. "The clothing comes off, the chaos begins."
Late one Saturday afternoon, John’s father comes over. In his sixties, he's gray and sober looking, exactly like the banker he once was. He doesn't seem surprised at all to find his son absent and Tom lounging around the house with his son's wife. "Did you catch the end of the jets game?" he asks.
"Missed it," Tom says. "What's been going on?"
"They were down about twelve points with about five minutes to go, and with thirty seconds to go, Vinny Testaverde goes in from the five-yard line and he scores."
Tom thinks that John's father suspects what is going on. Nan's parents suspect, too. Her sister knows and thinks it's cool, says she should have tried poly before divorce. Nan's Republican brother has figured it out, too -he calls Tom and Jen Nan's "entourage," and just this month for the first time invited them along to a barbecue.
Dave arrives the week before Christmas. He's lean and athletic, an outdoorsman in peak condition. The spark jumps between him and Jen as strong as ever, but they agreed to a no-sex rule on the phone, so that first night they are affectionate and connected on the dance floor but go to bed in the usual configurations. The next morning they're in the hot tub talking about the charge in the atmosphere and the various social complications and the wonderful feeling of just being in a loving space with someone regardless of whether you're having sex with them. Although there is an obvious sexual vibe between them right at this moment, what with all the stroking and hugging.
"I got a hard-on," jokes Tom.
"He keeps us from getting too classy," Jen says.
"I keep it real for the people," Tom says.
Then John walks through, stressing about his job. "I've got two hundred cases and I'm only fucking up five of them." And Alison leans out of her bedroom window and throws a chunk of purple dough into the hot tub. "It's the purple thingamajiggie!" she cries. Tom and Nan start doing laundry.
All through the holidays Jen’s mother makes comments about finding an available man. Jen decides not to say anything -it's Christmas. On Saturday after a board game and a few glasses of wine, her stepfather goes to sleep and she stays up with her mother, and Mom says in a steady reasonable tone -Jen, your father and I have a problem with you going down to New Jersey every weekend. Your father and I just feel that intimate relationship is hard enough with just one person. The odds are against two people, much less four. These things just don't work. If they did, we'd see more examples. Jen decides just to listen. She realizes that some of the things her mother is saying are things she's thought herself. Is it viable? Will it just blow up? Little by little, she gives her mom the impression she's not as involved as she is, that she's thinking of staying in Boston more anyway. Her mother softens and apologizes for Thanksgiving. I don't know why I got so upset, she says. I trust you, I know you'll be okay. Which makes Jen feel very good. It's too bad she can't tell her mother and father the truth, that she's thinking of moving to New Jersey, but they'd hate that. They'd think it was the ultimate bonehead move. It would be easier to tell them she was gay.
It’s not like they flaunt their sex lives n front of the kids. They wear pajamas in bed and bathing suits in the Jacuzzi. But sometimes in the morning the kids find the wrong people in bed together, or see the pajamas tangled on the floor. They're getting the idea. So these last few weeks, driving to school or over dinner, John has been trying to talk to Mark. He doesn't worry so much about Alison, who's always been secure and independent and is still too young to get the big picture. But Mark is hitting the delicate age, and John worries about all the classical Freudian stuff about sexual identification with the father and worries about the stress the kids have witnessed these last four years -you can't have growth without stress. He doesn't want to treat Mark like a little adult and doesn't want to bullshit him either. So he asks him, tentatively, Do you understand that your mother and father have relationships that are kind of out of the ordinary? Mark says yes and John asks if he has any problems with it, and Mark says no. His friends think the house is a cool place to hang out.
Later, Mark comes downstairs wearing baggy jeans and a guayabera shirt. "Can you give me a ride to el centro de commerciale?"
"You're really taking the Spanish lessons seriously," John says.
"Dude, it rules."
At work, John wears a gray suit and carries a double-thick lawyer's briefcase. Between phone calls, he talks current events. "As much as I hated Richard Nixon, I hate Bill Clinton more," he says. "The idea of Monica kneeling under the desk with him committing troops to Bosnia -you know, that's not what I'm looking for in a president."
He kicks on the speakerphone for a client call. "Everyone's been notified of your bankruptcy, so all distribution to any creditors has been stayed, okay? In other words, they're not gonna pay your inheritance out to that creditor. You follow?"
"Okay, so give me a call Tuesday of next week, and we'll have more progress for you."
On the wall of his office are pictures of his kids, awards for his marathon completions with the New York Road Runners Club. On his bookshelf, the Bhagavad Gita sits next to Bankruptcy Law Digest.
He calls his son. "How was the science test? The crust -way to go. Lava, too? I'm proud of you. What does igneous mean?" His secretary comes in. "Mr. Mason's on the phone. Uh, sounds like money."
"Yeah, I feel my hair growing back, too," John says.
He loves bankruptcy, he says. If he'd been a doctor, he would have asked for the emergency room. "I like the idea of cataclysm," he says, "of sorting everything out, of addressing the bleeding, and then seeing where we are."
Just before heading home, he calls Jen in Boston and tells her he loves her.
Jen's boss wants to know which graphics she has planned for the needle-exchange spread.
"You want a photo with Ted Kennedy, right?" Jen asks. She's been doing this for ages, seven years at Cornell University and almost two here at the AIDS organization. "I was thinking of doing these in blue with a reverse blue background," she says.
After work, she heads to her tiny apartment to pick up her suitcase for the trip to New Jersey. There's a framed impressionist print over the bed, a bookcase stuffed with volumes by Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, and T.C. Boyle -she studied English lit at the State University of New York at Binghamton. On her bedside table sits a volume called Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, which she's reading because Nan is going through menopause. On the way to New Jersey she thinks about why she's so wild for John -his generosity and passion and drive and sense of humor and introspection and ability to laugh at himself. He doesn't play games. He doesn't hold back. She worries that Tom and Nan are too unstable and might split, and worries that John and Nan may be sacrificing their own relationship to focus on their lovers. When the four of them are together, they almost always pair off lover to spouse, which makes her sad. In an odd way, she depends on the stability of John and Nan's marriage -it means they're both capable of commitment. And she laughs, getting the joke, but she still wants to live the dream. "What we've talked about so far is that I'll quit my job sometime in the summer and come down in the summer or early fall," she says.
He's got almost all his stuff moved in, he's going to turn in his apartment keys in two weeks, and suddenly Tom feels like he doesn't have a home. His friends ask him what the hell he's doing and sometimes, when he tries to answer, he feels shame. He feels like he's doing something fundamentally wrong. "I don't really know if you can passionately love two people at once," he says. "I hear the words, and I can certainly say on an intellectual level that it's possible. But I don't know anybody that's done it. Even at the Loving More conference, most of these group marriages have evolved or devolved into couples within the group -exactly where we're at.
"I've seriously doubted whether Nan really gives a rat's ass about John," he says. If he were in John's place, he wouldn't put up with it for a minute. "I can tell you right now that when I imagine being in love with someone, I don't want them to be making love to other people."
Driving out to Kennedy airport to pick up the Dutch triad, Nan feels stressed. Having so many people around all the time is getting to her. "Sometimes it's a pain to always have to deal with men," she says. "Sunday night Tom was gone, and John went off and slept with Jen in the other room, and it was really nice to have a night off and not have anybody poking you or anything."
Does the no-Dutch-sex proviso still apply? "Well, I'm not having sex with anyone," she says. In fact, lately things have cooled down. She's not getting laid nearly as much as she used to. "I would say an average of maybe six times a week."
After the holidays, John and his father meet at Starbucks and John mentions the magazine article coming up. "I want you to be prepared for this," he says. They've never talked about what's going on. Last year during a holiday visit John's mom teased Tom -You better not be fooling around with my daughter-in-law. But that's as close as they've come.
"Is it about your personal life?" John's father asks. John nods. "Yeah." He knows his father would never approve, senses concern, tells him that their last names won't be used and the kids won't be interviewed. They want to be prudent but at the same time they want to take the risk of becoming more public. Hopefully their experience will be helpful to others. John's father lets it go at that, asks no questions. They finish their coffee and go out to the street, both heading back to work. Usually they shake hands, sometimes hug or kiss on the cheek, but today John feels a sense of distance. He's disappointed that the old man didn't ask questions. He wants to be known, wants to talk to his father on a more intimate level. At the same time he doesn't want just to blurt things out. So he says goodbye with just a wave of the hand. It was a typical father-son meeting, 99 percent of everything unexpressed. Couldn't they do better than that?
Sometimes they read their journals to one another, a practice that reduces you to humility and hilarity pretty darn fast. It's fun and a little horrifying going over all the crazy scenes. Tonight it's Tom's turn to read:
"Yesterday Nan said I'm like a boarder here -I don't participate in the family at all. All I care about is fucking her and if that isn't happening I'm basically a sulky little boy. If I were to leave, the three of them would have a fine time without me. I'm quietly panicked. Thinking about Nan, John, and Jen as lovers together. Hearing her say, I'm glad we got rid of that insecure asshole, he was too uptight to even have group sex. My mind just cycles over and over again."
Through all this they are laughing, and the laughter seems forgiving and humane and very infectious. Then Tom finds an entry from a day when Nan got so angry at him, she wrote her rage down on a piece of paper and tore it up into tiny little bits, and he was so psychotically masochistic he dug the bits out of the trash and spent hours piecing them back together. Now he reads:
"I would like to ask that he produce a meal or take on projects in our communal life -he seems so directionless at times- this is a little boy here, not a man -you should be glad I'm married because otherwise I wouldn't be in a relationship with you-you live like a fucking junkie in squalor-"
"You should see his apartment!" Nan cries.
"I hope you read this and I hope it wounds you-I hate you-cut your toenails and clean your apartment."
They laugh and laugh. And as that forgiving laughter fades, Nan plays with Tom's hair and sighs. There's a lovely glow between them, a glow that feels like life itself. "What were we fighting about?" she asks. "Do you remember?”