A True (Non-Hierarchical, Shared) Love

Journalist Mithila Phadke navigates polyamory while falling in love for the first time.

Mithila Phadke | Longreads | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,006 words)

 

I sit in front of Cory the day after his birthday dinner, slightly hungover and jittery. I anxiously rip a paper napkin into many tiny shreds, stumbling through a speech about having needed to tell him something for weeks now. I do not need him to feel or say it back, I swear. I don’t want to make things awkward. I just desperately need the words to be out there, out of me.

I take a deep breath and sigh.

“I love you,” I say. There. It’s out there.

I’ve destroyed everything. I know it. I nervously chatter right on, concentrating again on the paper napkin, assuring him that this changes nothing and that it’s entirely my “hassle” to deal with. Finally, I’m done. I look up.

He’s smiling.

“I love you too,” he says.

Oh.

I’ve agonized over this for weeks. And now it’s…done? Just like that.

It seems perfect, that moment, as he holds me close, the two of us burrowing happily into the wondrous, downy softness of reciprocated love. The rest of the week, I’ll go about my day with staggeringly corny Bollywood songs playing on loop in my head. It’s perhaps the closest I’ve felt to floating up and away.

A few hours later, Cory tenderly kisses me goodbye and walks out into the warm Beijing evening. He heads home to his live-in girlfriend, who he is also very much in love with. As he is with his wife, who’s away in New York, in another steady relationship of her own.

Since I moved to Beijing last year, eating duck feet had, for the longest time, been the most unexpected experience my new home brought me. Then I go and fall in love with a polyamorous man.

***

I grew up in suburban Mumbai — a neighborhood called Vile Parle — the kind largely populated by respectable, upstanding retirees with offspring that have acquired engineering and IT degrees, and settled down in American suburbia. It’s a relatively more conservative part of the city, with most of my high school friends having married by the time we hit 26 — some to first boyfriends, some through arranged marriages. It’s a kind of life I spent most of my early twenties thrashing against, eager to find one that would fit me better. A string of relationships left me a bit broken, a bit lost, wondering if I should have just done what my parents always told me to. Maybe they knew better. My choices seemed to lead me nowhere.

Since I moved to Beijing last year, eating duck feet had, for the longest time, been the most unexpected experience my new home brought me. Then I go and fall in love with a polyamorous man.

Except for one, which brought me to Beijing. I arrived here at 27, determined to be a different person, keep my heart safe. No falling in love, no emotional investment. I dived into casual sex, learned for the first time in my life what casual racism feels like, what a not-quite-consensual sexual experience feels like. I stopped trusting men. I wrote. I wondered if I’d ever be “good enough” for someone to in fall love with. I missed home. I didn’t want to go back home.

***

I first meet Cory in March of 2017 when Beijing’s winter is still refusing to give way to spring and I’m mortally afraid of the static electricity coming off of every faucet in the house. We match on Tinder, me and this white 29-year-old political science student on an exchange program from the US. It’s meant to be a fling at most, really.

He’s cute. We talk for a bit – mostly about language. I tell him what made me want to learn Italian, and about growing up speaking Hindi, Marathi, a little bit of Gujarati. I find it cool that he speaks Korean and Chinese. As I’d learn later, his wife is Korean.

But ugh, what’s the point, I grumble to my friend Mitali who lives in New Delhi, the day before we’re supposed to meet. “He’s poly, yaar. Where can it go?”

“Go meet him,” she instructs. “You might have fun. People can surprise you.”

But do I really want to spend approximately six hours shaving my legs, washing my hair, venturing out into the chilly winter, and enduring what could potentially be a very boring date for at least 90 minutes, all for the prospect of a mildly pleasant surprise and half-decent lay?

***

I like the bar. Filled with candlelight, it’s tucked away inside a hutong, and has punk rock posters on the walls. “Mi-Thi-Laa…Mithila,” he repeats after I tell him how to pronounce my first name. He’s determined to get his tongue around the unfamiliar “Th” sound. Most Westerners pronounce it like the “t” in “matter”, instead of flattening the tongue against the roof of the mouth. Like the “th” in “then,” but with a slight aspiration.

It’s hard to explain, so often I don’t bother. It feels a tiny bit unsettling when he manages to get it right. The good kind of unsettling.

He excuses himself for taking a second to look at his phone. His girlfriend Erica has just landed in Beijing. She was in Wuhan on a work trip. He sends her a text. Then he puts his phone back on the table, face down.

Girlfriend. It’s still so weird. We get another round of beers and discuss intersectional feminism.

A few hours later, we’re entwined on the couch at the end of the room. He’s a good kisser.

***

A couple of months pass. I try not to meet him every week, but alas I do. Erica travels a lot for work so he and I spend whole weekends together, having sex, listening to podcasts, going for brunch. I try to make sure I see other guys too. But the sex with him is way too good. I become irritated with myself. Self-control, idiot.

Ah well, I assure myself, at least I’m not getting involved with him. He’s married. He has a girlfriend… I tell myself it’s too weird, that I’d never have a part in this.

We talk about very non-relationship-related things — from nuclear disarmament to Chinese grammar. It’s fun. Too much fun. I feel free to say whatever I want because I’m certain this is going to end soon anyway. This time, I don’t fake orgasms to please my male partner. I worry less and less about my body. It helps that he keeps telling me I’m beautiful which makes me feel as if I am. Because I’m not trying to turn this into a relationship, I have no desire to go out of my way to please him, to attempt to change myself for him. If he doesn’t like me, he can leave.

We become good friends. We’re affectionate with each other. He makes me feel heard. He helps me put broken parts of me back together.

I’m still sure it’s going to end any day now. I keep waiting for it to.

***

When we’ve been dating about two months, I meet his girlfriend Erica for the first time. It’s also her first time meeting someone he’s been seeing. She’s nervous. I’m nervous. Cory is irritatingly chill. “Neither of you has to like each other,” he reminds me, gently. “What we share is not contingent on Erica liking you. She doesn’t get veto power over my life, nor I hers.”

She has suggested the meeting. I have heard enough about her to know I’d like her. Cory says she feels the same. Well, maybe if we met in a slightly different situation though? I’m so nervous. We meet for xiao long bao – Shanghainese soup dumplings. Cory texts me when I’m on my way there to tell me I can sit on his side of the table. This is actually one among a few things I’ve been stressing about. I don’t want to end up on one side alone while they sit across from me, like it’s an interrogation. This text calms me down a bit. So does his hug when I meet him outside the restaurant door.

There is no PDA involved in that meeting. It goes very well. Erica and I talk about Mumbai where she spent some time as part of a work program, and about Harry Potter, and that dark phase in our lives when we both wrote fan fiction. I like her. She seems to like me. She invites me to her birthday party the next day. At the end of the night, as we’re standing around saying goodbye, she cracks a joke and Cory laughs and side-hugs her. It’s the most physical contact they’ve had all night. Later on, he’ll ask me if that had bothered me. I’ll tell him it hadn’t. My feelings are complicated. I feel so happy with them, so relieved it went well. They live together and are planning to move to London in the future. It’s an unusual feeling for me to be the new person in this equation. When I see them hug I feel affection for them. But there is also a little something else: a twinge of jealousy. I realize I’m growing fond of Cory. Ah crap.

When we’ve been dating about two months, I meet his girlfriend Erica for the first time. It’s also her first time meeting someone he’s been seeing. She’s nervous. I’m nervous.

There is also some guilt. A mutual friend shares while the two of us are out drinking that she worries a bit for Erica, because I’m the first person Cory has been seeing regularly since the two of them became a couple. She’s worried for Erica, who doesn’t have a new partner at that time, about whether this signals an imbalance. I ask her to let me know if Erica ever tells her she’s worried. I don’t want to cause any problems.

“Nope,” says my poly friend Naomi. “Respect Erica’s agency. If she wants you to know something, she’ll either find a way to tell you or she will talk to Cory. You’re not responsible for Erica, Cory is.”


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The only thing I need to do, I learn from Naomi and from lots of material on polyamory that I read, is ensure that the equation between Cory and me stays healthy, and that we are both on the same page. I’m only responsible for myself.

***

Cory and I introduce each other to some of our respective friends. We hang out with common friends, a couple of times with Erica too. We decide to have discussions before occasions like these to decide what level of PDA is okay. Erica is getting more and more comfortable with Cory and me being physically affectionate with each other in front of her. It’s the same with me when she’s there.

But I’m up for these group dinners only very occasionally, because I begin realizing it’s not good for me emotionally to see the man I… um…really like…be physically affectionate with another woman. Even if Cory ensures I get the same amount of hugs and kisses and attention as Erica does. It’s too fraught a territory. It’s too risky. Too much can go wrong too quickly. I come to realize that the idea of him being in love with his girlfriend, and his wife, is starting to make me sad. I realize I crave the same from him. I deny it all. I’m depressed for days and pretend I’m chipper. Then it finally sinks in: I’m so completely in love with him.

Making the feelings more potent, it’s my first real love. I’ve never even been in love before. At the grand old age of 28. I’ve felt fiery, potent, all-consuming emotions, of course I have, but it’s never felt quite right with anyone else. Those feelings have always burned out. This time they sit warm and gentle in my belly. They refuse to go away.

I refuse to believe it. I cross-question myself for days. How can I trust that this is what it is? I mock the idea of people just being able to know these things. But I know I have literally no other way to describe it.

I’m terrified.

He is leaving for the US in another few months to finish the next semester of his program. He might be back again or might not be. He means too much to me now. Telling him will ruin everything. He had mentioned once at the beginning that a third relationship wasn’t something he’d have the time for at this point in his life. Geez, even the idea of one seems to be sapping all my strength now. No, no, I tell myself — telling him this will scare him off.

But then, the agony of not telling him grows bigger than the fear of telling. And so it is that I find myself before him on that warm Beijing afternoon, anxiously ripping up a paper napkin into many tiny shreds, stumbling through a speech about having needed to tell him something for weeks now. I do not need him to feel or say it back, I swear. I don’t want to make things awkward. I just desperately need the words to be out there, out of me.

And then suddenly, just like that, they are.

***

This is a rather unexpected first love. It tickles me to think about what Aaji — my grandmother — might say. Or mum and dad. Or my high school friends.

“This doesn’t count.”

“He’s cheating and you’re cheating with him.”

“White guys have no morals.”

“What is wrong with your head?”

We turn into an interracial cliché — he picks up Hindi and some Marathi (my mother tongue) and I adopt weird Americanisms. We eat paneer butter masala and garlic naan and samosas with the mint-green chutney I love so much. We eat southern barbecue and cheesy grits and fried okra. We spend hours seriously dissecting what linguistic quirks make our respective accents sound different. I call him my perfect samosa princess. He calls me, uh, “babe.”

***

How does it feel like to be in love with someone who at that any given moment might be with his girlfriend at the veterinarian’s, caring for the sick kittens they’ve adopted? Might be spending time doing anything with this woman he also loves, whom he met and loved way before he met me. Who he is building a life together with. Someone he plans to move to a different country with soon, maybe have babies with. Maybe with her, maybe with his wife. Not me.

To ensure no one feels left out, we plan everything. We talk. I learn to ask — firmly, openly, clearly — for what I want. I no longer bottle my feelings, only to explode later, as has been my pattern with past relationships.

It’s different being in love with a poly guy. His time is split among other partners. In the early days we have fights. We have misunderstandings. A-year-and-two-months in, we still do, of course. But now we have learned to communicate better. To ensure no one feels left out, we plan everything. We talk. I learn to ask — firmly, openly, clearly — for what I want. I no longer bottle my feelings, only to explode later, as has been my pattern with past relationships.

There are insecurities and jealousies and fears. I see them. I recognize them. They don’t always go away when I ask them to. They march in on my pretty bedroom carpet that I’m so paranoid about spoiling, with their shoes on, and stress me out.

“Is it going to be okay?” I ask him.

“It is okay,” he says. “It also will be.”

It tickles me sometimes that this completely wrong-seeming relationship has in ways been my healthiest, most communicative one yet.

How does it feel to be in love with this beautiful, beautiful boy who makes me feel so beautiful and safe and loved and cared for, like no boy ever has before? Who makes me feel like he’s gently cracked me open and laid me out in the sun?

That’s exactly what it feels like.

***

I cry and cry in his arms the August weekend before he is supposed to leave for the US. He will be back in January. And then leave again in May. After that, it’s uncertain when or where I’ll see him next.

I’m in Vietnam with friends a couple of nights before he leaves. His leaving date has been pushed back at the last minute and it’s too late for me to change my bookings. I cry in a Hanoi cafe the night he’s boarding his flight. My amazing friends let me keep my nose in my phone for the entirety of the evening and comfort me with beer and more beer after he’s finally switched to airplane mode.

I’m afraid of us drifting apart. A couple of months later, however, we will find ourselves having grown closer. We will become each other’s “partners,” and then, officially boyfriend and girlfriend — which, in the non-hierarchical relationship structure we follow means that I’m as equal a partner as the other two.

I’ll go out with other people too, and find myself drawn to a lovely boy from California who gets all my Seinfeld jokes, and takes me hiking on the Great Wall. It’s a personal milestone when I realise that my affection for him doesn’t take away anything from what I feel for Cory. I’m so happily relieved, and deeply grateful. I can’t wait to tell Cory. My family, thousands of miles away, doesn’t know I share him, or that he shares me, but perhaps there might come a day I’ll try to make them understand.

We will go on trips, we will live together his last month in Beijing. We will fall into that delicious, elusive sense of routine that only the comfort of utter familiarity can bring. We will have the Big Fight. We will have the smaller ones. We will make up. We will be in this for the long haul.

***

I am tidying up my room the morning after I get back from Vietnam. It’s early September and starting to get colder already. I’ve returned to a Cory-less Beijing and I wonder how I’ll ever get used to it. I’m shaking out my duvet and there it is. A lost sock I had given up on days and days ago. I reach out, pick it up and find myself feeling rather disproportionately happy because if socks can come back to you, people can, too.

* * *

Mithila Phadke is a journalist from Mumbai, currently living in Beijing.

Editor: Sari Botton