What happens when an open relationship suddenly becomes closed?
Carrie and I hadn't even been on the highway for an hour when the fighting started. We were in my little Honda Civic hatchback, puttering along I-76 East, en route to Baltimore. She'd been giving me a stone-faced version of the silent treatment, and even though I'd tried everything to get her to open up – begging, pleading, cajoling – I wasn't having any luck whatsoever. Occasionally I would get a sarcastic comment in response, or a mean-spirited laugh.
I almost blame myself for what happened at the rest stop. I was opening the Honda's hatch to look for a sweater, and as I leaned deep inside the car, Carrie caught a quick glimpse of my boxers – specifically the elastic waistband that was peeking out from underneath my jeans.
She told me later that the underwear was what really set her off. It was underwear we'd gone shopping for a week or so earlier, and I'd only worn it once or twice before. When she noticed I was wearing it, as opposed to one of the stretched-out, ripped up pairs I'd been wearing almost every day for years, that was apparently all the evidence she needed.
Once we were back on the highway, she told me that as far as she was concerned, the fact that I was wearing new underwear was a clear and obvious sign that I planned on having sex with my friend Nancy later on that evening.
I rolled my eyes, and let out a long, exaggerated sigh, as if to suggest that Carrie was being completely insane. But of course she was right: I was planning on having sex with Nancy, and I figured a fresh pair of underwear wouldn't be the worst place to start. How incredibly wrong I was.
The trip had been entirely my idea. I had hatched the plan a few months earlier, when, completely out of the blue, a brief note from Nancy appeared in my email inbox. The note was something of a surprise, because although Nancy and I had done freelance work for the same music magazine in Seattle four years earlier, the truth was that we weren't actually friends. We barely knew each other, in fact. We were introduced by the magazine's editor, and we talked a bit once, at a party. But eventually we both left town and moved to separate cities, and I don't think we had exchanged so much as one word in the years since.
Which isn't to say she hadn't been on my mind from time to time. In fact, here's an embarrassing yet entirely true confession: To this day, I do a Google image search for Nancy about once a week, just so I can stare slack-jawed at the passport-photo sized image of her that appears on my monitor. Yes, I realize that sounds frighteningly near to stalker behavior. My pulse always quickens when her photo pops up, and eventually I have to force myself to look away. Usually I feel horribly guilty afterwards, because my fiancée is often in the next room over, watching television in our bed, and waiting for me to turn off the computer, and to join her under the covers for the night.
A few weeks after getting Nancy's email, I got mildly drunk by myself at home, which was what it took for me to gather the courage necessary to pick up my cell phone and dial her number. The reason Nancy had decided to email me in the first place, she said, was because she had been thinking about moving to Turkey to teach art. And since I'd once taught English in Istanbul, she figured I'd probably be good for a few travel tips. That was how she explained it, at least. Of course, I knew deep down that there had to be another reason she'd reached out. Because like I said, we barely knew each other.
I was midway through my third beer by the time I managed to gather up enough courage to dial Nancy's number. She let the phone ring and ring before picking up.
We talked about Turkey for awhile – about what life was like there. Eventually I managed to steer the conversation into heavier territory: What was the story with her last boyfriend? What was she doing with her life? What did she really think about her job? With women, this has always been the sole conversational area in which I shine -- existential stuff, you might say. And as usual, it worked: Not long after that phone conversation, Nancy invited me to visit her in Baltimore. She'd recently purchased her very first home, and she lived there all by herself, with only her dog, Lou, to keep her company. She told me I could stay for a night or two.
When I told Carrie, my fiancée, why I was going to Baltimore, and when Carrie then invited herself along for the ride – she had a childhood friend there, she told me, and they hadn't seen each other for awhile – I knew in my gut that it wasn't a good idea. Carrie and I have always had an open relationship policy, as regular readers of this column are no doubt well aware. But even in our earliest days of dating there were occasional and obvious feelings of jealously on both sides. And yet this was my first open relationship – I had never experienced anything like it before – and I was almost addicted to the feelings it inspired in me: Desirability, for one. I felt unique. I felt like an individual. And I loved being out and about in public with Carrie, with the private knowledge that we were doing something that required serious reserves of discipline and emotional control.
I guess that was why I told Carrie it would be great to have her along for the trip, even though I had strong suspicions to the contrary. I guess I was pretending that both of us were bigger and better people for not being in a monogamous relationship. I was pretending that we could handle anything.
By the time I finally caught up with Nancy on my first night in Baltimore, I was an emotional wreck, and I told her as much. Carrie and I had been awful to each other throughout the entire ride, and every word that came out of Carrie's mouth seemed specially designed to make me feel like the world's most uncaring boyfriend. I don't remember many of the specifics, but Carrie quite clearly knew what I had in mind for Nancy, and the jealousy was practically dripping from her very pores. But instead of fighting back, I tried to use my schoolbook psychology to deflect her anger: I laughed in a cruel sort of way, and I poked fun at her.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," I said, doing my best to sound unaffected and mean, "but I was under the impression that we had an open relationship. So… is there something going on here that I'm not understanding?"
It went on like that for the entire ride: Carrie huffing and puffing, and angry enough to burst. And me, forcing out a series of fake laughs, and refusing to make eye contact. There we were, two supposedly superior beings, acting like a gaggle of bratty, snot-nosed children. And all because I was obsessed with getting laid, and because Carrie had caught a glimpse of the elastic waistband on my new underwear. The entire situation was ridiculous. We were ridiculous.
My evening with Nancy didn't exactly turn out as planned. We started the night at a hipster bar, and then moved on to a karaoke bar, but because she had a half-dozen friends in tow (someone was celebrating a birthday), I wasn't entirely sure how to behave. Should I focus all my attention on Nancy and ignore her friends, thereby coming across as potentially rude but clearly interested? Or should I maybe go for something a bit more aloof? Should I chat up her friends, and attempt to disguise the fact that all I really wanted was to throw Nancy up against the nearest wall, and to press my body into hers?
I went with aloof. And thankfully, Nancy's friends were fascinating people – most were musicians and artists. A week later, after Carrie and I had returned home and apologized to each other for acting so badly, I emailed Nancy and then got an email from her in return. "Aloof," as it turned out, hadn't been the wisest choice. Here's an excerpt:
"I was actually very surprised to get your email on thurs, it didn't seem like you were enjoying my company while you were here. At the bar you seemed distracted and then at my house you spoke of how much you are in love with Carrie for 3 hours. So of course after you left I thought nothing of the possibility of you and I."
She was right, of course. After we'd said goodnight to Nancy's friends and gone back to her house, I found myself in the familiar and awkward position of not having anything to talk about. It was true that we had a few things in common, sure. But on the other hand, we hadn't seen each other in over four years. Not to mention the fact that we'd never gotten to know each other in the first place. But since we'd both had more than a few beers at the karaoke bar, I decided to turn the conversation sexual. I figured that if I shared the odd details of my relationship, considering how unusual they really were, Nancy would see me as a risk taker. Or at least as someone who knew how to loosen up and have fun, even though on the outside I was clearly a bundle of nervous and compulsive energy.
But like I said, the evening didn't go exactly as I'd planned. Nancy didn't seem to be fascinated by my stories at all. At least, not the way most people were. She seemed almost disappointed. It was as if she was realizing that the same person she once thought of as unique and unconventional was clearly just another nut.
This is one of the final paragraphs from her email:
"Your relationship with Carrie is very complex. Even after you describing the dynamics in detail I still don't understand it, and getting caught in the middle of it doesn't seem like a healthy choice for me. It would be great to know you more but I don't think now is the time."
It took a little while before Carrie and I were able to talk about the trip in calm, relaxed tones, and without both of us blowing up and accusing each other of being unreasonable. But eventually we got over it together, more or less. And Carrie finally gave me an honest explanation as to why she was so angry about my infatuation with Nancy. The details were a little complicated, of course. But the short version is that she thought I was trying to make Nancy my girlfriend, and naturally, that scared her. My attraction to Nancy, she told me, was quite obviously about something much more than just the possibility of sex. And she was right. It was.
These are the last two sentences from Nancy's email:
"I agree that it would be good to see each other again under different circumstances. Let's keep in touch and I wish you luck also."