Op-ed: When Three’s a Crowd
“You’ll never be enough for me,” he whispered into my ear. It was the last thing he would ever say to me. Too drunk to muster some witty reply and with my eyelids heavy, I slipped into dreamland. And just like that, our social experiment exploring open relationships was over. Brian was gone before I woke up.
To tell you that our time together was perfect would be an understatement. We spent two weeks waking up entwined and enraptured. Drinking Javanese Sumatra in tandem, we ate breakfast, showered, lunched, and prowled about. We explored the city’s best and eventually settled into drinks, sometimes dinner and often dancing. Each day quickly rolled along and soon, we’d be crawling back in bed only to start it all over again the next day.
We first met in Argentina six months earlier. Brian was an American expat living a simple, peso-driven lifestyle in steamy Buenos Aires. When he approached this New Yorker at a crowded bar that night, I remember an instant pow! moment, our eyes locking. And despite saying something to me in Spanish that I couldn’t easily discern because of the loud music and his gleaming smile, he instinctively switched to English and I swooned. It wasn’t long before we left the cavernous bar, avoiding the lure of diva-spirited drag queens, shirtless Latin lovers, and feisty transsexuals.
Standing in the early glow of dawn in a verdant city park, we couldn’t stop chattering while soaking up every nuance. The warm morning sunlight beamed on our faces as we curiously locked lips for the first time. The earth practically stopped moving while epic, longing kisses made us wonder why we had ever kissed anyone else before.
Giddy with excitement over discovering tangible chemistry, we pulled out our iPhones for 6 a.m. selfies to capture it all for posterity. At the time, we laughed at our own vanity and frivolity, but we would stare at those pictures as a wonderful memory for months to come. We were anything but tired.
There’s nothing quite like a vacation romance.
We were instantly familiar. There were intimate kindnesses and grand gestures. As we shared toothbrushes, morning breath, and toilet bowl conversations, our rapport was uncanny and instinctive. Not wasting a minute, we squeezed in all types of dating rites into our short time, even romantic dinners and meeting the amigos. Hanging out was so easy, so natural, like I met a long-lost friend. Slow, sleepy mornings were so perfect that we naturally lay nuzzled up until nightfall.
New York City to Buenos Aires was definitely too far for the long-distance effort, but at the time we met, Brian eagerly buzzed about moving back stateside. While I didn’t put much into those hypothetical what-ifs, he had plenty of ambitious ideas how to make things work, but there was one issue we didn’t quite agree on. Brian was eager to add another person in the bedroom, while I wanted to relish the newness of it all. But he always pressed the point. Brian wanted a third.
Men and women who talk about sex and love today, talk about open relationships. My best friends each come up with solutions with their partners. Arrangements and rules abound. Be it a girlfriend bored in her marriage or a friend looking for a bigger dick. I know couples that don’t sleep together at all. Variety is the spice of life.
I’ve encountered orgy-loving suburban marrieds that share their kids’ carpool duties the next day. And there’s my coworker who lives in an androgynous love commune in Williamsburg. And of course, many long-term monogamish couples have their own rules, like opening up the boundaries for guilt-free sex on vacations only. Some people need a fantasy fulfilled and others simply need more than they’re getting.
Even celebrities and politicians have been caught dabbling, some openly, others discreetly rumored, depending on the rapper or GOP member. TV shows like Discovery Health’s Swingers spell it out and Showtime’s Polyamory shines with the slogan “married and dating.” This past December, the state of Utah broke from heteronormative tradition by ruling the ban on polygamy unconstitutional. Even Mom and I discussed the topic when she told me her hairdresser’s mail-order Russian lover had gone astray. Freedom tends to do that to a boy.
And maybe it’s the Jewish hippie in me, but I like to think of myself as sex modern. I always understood Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she reminded her johns, “No kissing.” Sex and love can be mutually exclusive. The religious establishment long declared sex sacred, but that’s less important today. Sex doesn’t have to be confined by morals or conventions. Live and let live.
When Brian finally came to New York for round 2, our routine had not changed. Plans never panned out for an international move, but we eased back into our rhythm with barely a long breath. Certainly, we both had other boys on the back burners, but those details were fairly inconsequential. We were in our own happy bubble.
Truth be told, romantic nostalgia made it a little hard to watch and join the first time we had group sex. Seeing Brian with someone else didn’t incite jealousy exactly, but a type of unease. Maybe I just didn’t like the guy.
But over our few weeks together, I learned to let go. We both found ways to fulfill needs — real and imaginary — with other people and each other, simultaneously. Sometimes he got off more than me, and sometimes I more than him. Sometimes we liked to watch.
When it was all over, it was all lovey-dovey, hand-holding with gentle “I love you’s” peppered in. The casual sex was compartmentalized. It didn’t matter outside of those hot and heavy sessions.
Brian confessed that he had a very hard time with intimacy even among his closest family and friends, but our time crunch forced both our walls down. Being vulnerable is so easy when you have nothing to lose. And sharing our fantasies brought us even closer because now we had no secrets.
What developed was a sex-positive atmosphere. Even the best pair might disagree on a match, but open communication left no room for curveballs. Imagine no averting gaze when someone attractive walks by — just stare, admire, and compare notes. It was freeing to be honest.
And certainly, it’s not always just about the actual sex act; there can be legitimate and deep ways of experiencing things in threes. Picture a whole new way to shake up daily routines by adding a third for even casual activities, like meals and conversations. If everyone vibes, that makes for ample stimulation.
We even joked about becoming a throuple, a pop-culture term for a three-person relationship, with someone we met on a weekend trip. The Urban Dictionary says a throuple is “two times the sex, but six times the baggage,” which would definitely recreate too much Melrose Place in my tiny Greenwich Village apartment.
So Brian and I spent our time swapping and comparing, always hunting for more. Often it was thrilling and fun, other times more like a chore because I just wanted plain old eggs for breakfast, minus the sausage. Perhaps he was tantalized by New York’s sexual smorgasbord, but the yearning seemed constant and the vetting process exhausting. It didn’t make me crave monogamy by any means, but I wondered if the pursuit had a shelf life.
Between our romance and mutual self-interests, it generally balanced out. But there’s always a chance for someone to get hurt, feel left out, or not be in the mood. Because jealousy is a very personal emotion, part social creation and part insecurity, it can be pushed aside.
Occasionally however, all the logic in the world can’t help when you notice an emotional connection brewing. That can be killer because feelings should stay off-limits. The thrill of the chase certainly has its perils. Keeping yourself permanently on autopilot means you may eventually fly into something.
For me, this was all a work in progress. Brian had several successful long-term, open relationships that, for him, normalized it all. His first love cheated on him quite elaborately, which taught him that honest, open fun was a preferred policy to ignoring the perpetual horny elephant in the room. For me, I evaluated each experience with a learning curve. I certainly liked the idea at times and of course, the motion of it in practice, but the rest was a balancing act. The idealized versions of open relationships seem quite fun; it’s the particulars that need tinkering.
Living in a big city where the options for varied sexual partners are plentiful can confuse everything. The grass is perpetually greener or so it seems. Pervasive dating and hookup technology don’t help matters.
On our last night together, after a completely clichéd, glittery evening slugging vodka shots and swapping kisses atop the Empire State Building (maddeningly cheesy, I know), we joined my friends for a night out.
Many hours later we found ourselves at one those dark, underground, very hush-hush parties in Chinatown that are too cool for Facebook and rely on a DJ’s infamy. Intoxicated by the sights and sounds, Brian was in heaven. It wasn’t long before everyone was shirtless and Brian was haphazardly hooking up with one of my friends.
It was far from personal, but for me it crossed the invisible line we didn’t quite draw. Strangers were fair game, but my friends were a dealbreaker.
The night was long and went downhill from there.
Despite sharing so many sublime moments together, we never quite recovered from those bumps in the night.
Crawling into bed late with little left to say, he cozied up to me one last time as we passed out. His flight home left only a few short hours later. But unlike the first morning we met, we would not brace this last dawn together.
ELLIOT KOTLYAR is a globe-trotting freelance writer based in New York City and currently working on a play about another love gone wrong. When he's not catching the latest Broadway premiere or dining at the hottest new restaurant, he's seeking out the best of culture in Beirut, Berlin, Sydney, and Istanbul. Follow his musings on CityTsar.com or everywhere else @CityTsar.