“Gay relationships are usually open relationships,” my first girlfriend declared a few weeks after we started dating. “Only straight people get caught up with monogamy.” She said this the way she says everything: with complete certainty. I had only known her a few weeks, but that was long enough to know that pointing out an exception — Ellen and Portia seem pretty exclusive — would be deemed pedantic. I accepted this as truth, more or less, filing it under “Stereotypes, Gay.”
It didn’t occur to me that this conversation was an agreement of sorts until months later when we walked into a bar to find a nymph of a 23-year-old perched atop a piano bench playing to a room that didn’t deserve her. “If she’s not at least a little gay, I know nothing,” my girlfriend determined, the look of conquest forming in her eyes. The night took on purpose it had lacked minutes earlier, and I cast myself in the unlikely role of wingwoman.
I tell you this because it’s important to know how I came to be in an open relationship for the first time. I did not choose it as much as I did not stop it. While that may sound like the plaintive mutterings of codependency, I assure you I checked in with myself every step of the way. Jealousy? No. Discomfort? No. Intrigue? Plenty. I knew I didn’t have to go along with it — I could say something — but I didn’t want to. I wasn’t bothered by it. In fact, I was entertained.
It didn’t bother me when I left the bar alone that night, too tired for a flirtatious game I wasn’t playing, or when my girlfriend and the pianist started texting and hanging out. I even enjoyed the extra alone time. But when the 23-year-old musician became a 30-something novelist, and the 30-something novelist became a very girlfriend-material journalist, I began to wonder if I was less chill, open-minded girlfriend and more sad, modern-day cuckold.
I asked my girlfriend to be just friends with the journalist, and I began to consider my role in all this. Was it pathetic for me to date no one else while my partner engaged in her adventures? Would I regret it later? Would the relationship become lopsided? And once it did, would it be too late to fix it? Until then I resisted the idea of dating outside our relationship, believing one of the great virtues of being coupled was that you did not have to suffer the indignity of first dates. But considering I had never dated a woman who wasn’t my girlfriend and she was encouraging me to do it, I decided to see this as the opportunity it was. And so that’s how I entered the world of ethical nonmonogamy.
Date No. 1
After the briefest and most uneventful Tinder exchange, Angela asked me to meet up, and because I was nothing if not committed to checking “go on one date” off my to-do list for the week, I accepted. I didn’t think about it much in the three days before we went out, something that’s essential to avoiding a downward anxious spiral, but I found myself walking the five blocks from my apartment to the cocktail bar with the enthusiasm of a death march. With the basics in common — adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods along with knowing some of the same people — we found enough to say to fill the space between two cocktails each. We made plans we never ended up keeping, and I experienced the true introvert joy of being home by nine.
Date No. 2
After our A+ Tinder banter, I was excited to meet Michelle at a West Village wine bar of her choosing. It was clear she’d been there before — too clear, as every single server said hi to her. They all but high-fived her, did a secret handshake, and asked how her how her parents were. This was all done without any acknowledgement of me, and I got the distinct, and I believe, correct impression that I was one of many first dates she’d brought here.
Despite hating every single thing about this setup, I enjoyed talking to Michelle for a solid 30 minutes. Then I mentioned my girlfriend while recounting a fall trip upstate.
“You have a girlfriend?” she asked disapprovingly.
“Yeah, sorry. I thought you knew.”
“How would I know that?”
“My profile,” I said, hating myself before I could get all three syllables out. I had put my open relationship status in my profile to avoid this very situation.
“Oh, I mean it’s fine. It’s just not my thing.”
And with that, the date ended. Well, first she said she had a lot to do, including her laundry that night, and then she made eye contact with one of her BFF waiters. He nodded back, she gave him the shaka or hang loose sign — whatever you call it, it was a more horrifying surprise for me than me being in a relationship could possibly have been for her — and he brought the check. We split it, lied and said it was nice to meet one another, and I was, once again, happy to be home by nine.
Date No. 3
Knowing I did not have another full-on date in me — at least not so soon after little miss hang loose — I considered my options. Meeting someone in real life? Unlikely anytime soon. Being set up? Possible, but that still would involve one-on-one time in a restaurant where waiters could double as co-conspirators. Dying? Don’t tempt me.
This is how, with having done zero research beyond reading an Eventbrite invite, I signed up for lesbian speed-dating. I didn’t know what I was expecting. No, I did. I imagined the Lower East Side bar would be filled with Brooklyn queers, and that the person I would be most likely to meet would be a soft butch from Bed-Stuy whose style icon is Ira Glass. Instead I walked into some kind straight cis men’s fantasy of lesbianism, and despite showing up 90 minutes after the start time, I had to hide in the bathroom to avoid a pre-speed-dating game of Truth or Dare.
One round, and I can leave, I told myself. One round lasts 90 minutes, but whatever hypersexualized beginnings the event had disappeared as people were forced to relate as human beings. I relied heavily on the jar of generic questions at each table, but I had something akin to fun, or as much fun as you can have while watching the clock. I was home by 10, and I felt not unlike you do after a new tortuous workout: glad you did it, but even more glad it’s over.
I know what you’re thinking: Why are you doing this? Why are you going on dates when you hate it so much? And let me tell you: I don’t know. To try something different? To keep up with my girlfriend? To see if I have somehow become a magically different person since the last time I checked?
For my girlfriend, dating is fun; for me, it is torture unless it’s with the absolute right person. Yet as I was writing this, a Tinder notification popped up on my phone. It was a new match from a girl whose profile actually made me laugh. We haven’t spoken, but I like knowing she’s there, that it’s an option. Besides, if the best part about being in a relationship is that you don’t have to go on first dates, maybe the best part about being in open relationship is not that you do date other people, but that you can.