“I want adventure, potential. The only thing that’s ever sustained me, that’s ever made up for the degree to which everything otherwise seems pointless and mean and wrong, are intense and mysterious emotional experiences that stick in my soul until I can work them into something beautiful. Without that irritant, there’s nothing— no activity. The wind stops blowing, the sails go slack.” —Charlotte Shane, Prostitute Laundry
“Are you still mad that I had an emotional affair?” —Alanis Morisette, Are You Still Mad
“Matthew: Oh! He’s funny, right?
Jessi: I mean, sure, yeah. If you’re attracted to him, he’s very funny.”
—Big Mouth, S3E3: Cellsea
I have a lot of different relationships with different people. For example, I have a friend I have to hold tight every time I see him. We met via app hookup years ago, and later on I started seeing him at all the same bars and parties I liked. I was more involved in nightlife then, and we’d work together here and there. For a few months we’d get drunk and disappear to my apartment together at the end of the night, but we got less committal to sex every time until we just made out and slept together, which was more satisfying to both of us anyway. He’s never asked for more than this from me, although I see him a lot less when I don’t go out.
Once or twice, I told myself I wouldn’t make him my last resort or make myself his, and danced around him awhile before disappearing to my apartment by myself. When he has problems with his love life, I feign jealousy, and long ago made it a running gag that he belonged to me before anyone else. To some strange degree, I let myself believe this, not because I ever wanted to enforce it, but because I felt that our love, and all the freedom and support we offered each other without ever demanding it, should be the standard against which he measures anybody else’s. But I already have a boyfriend, a good one, and sometimes he rolls his eyes and reminds me about this. I see you as much as I see him, I say, and pull him close.
In spite of these cruelties, our friendship deepened. One time his boyfriend cheated on him, and I asked why our hookups didn’t count. He said we’re different, and he didn’t hesitate or say more. I knew what he meant, that we fit uniquely into each other’s lives, and that it doesn’t make sense for that to threaten how anyone else fits into his. I see him less when he’s involved with somebody, but I always know where to find him and never worry about how I touch him when I do. I marvel sometimes at how simple this is, loving somebody on terms so generous and so organic that they often go unspoken.
In my adult life, I’ve traversed so many intimacies under so many circumstances that I gave up on trying to classify them. I have a boyfriend, and close friends, and distant friends, and lovers, and trade; the boundaries of these are so porous that these are mostly terms of convenience, not science. I can tell you who I prioritize, who I rely upon, and how I prioritize and rely upon them. A taxonomy of intimacy has never served me, because I think every meaningful relationship is an intrinsically erotic one, whether we make each other cum or not.
The thresholds between sexual and platonic and romantic and emotional vary to the point of incoherence, and seem to matter most when we are setting the terms for either infidelity or rejection. Strange how we have to renegotiate the meaning of friendship just to pacify a partner or justify not wanting to have sex with someone. In practice, these are terms for which we find ourselves making constant revisions and exceptions, or worse, wanting to. In practice, these boundaries destroy as much as they claim to protect. Sometimes we want to fuck our friends and sometimes we want to fuck people we don’t like and sometimes we love people just by looking them in the eye. Whether we foreclose these connections or fulfill them, they come to us initially without names and without guarantees.
We care for each other in ways that mutually feel right, and these ways tend to change over time. And because they’re all unique, and they all are, they don’t intrinsically interfere with each other. I cannot be expected by one relationship to repress the ways I care for another, not when they don’t compromise the time and attention I devote to either. We can talk about it, but speaking from experience, doing so usually doesn’t make anyone feel any better.
I hate to sound like some duplicitous free-love burner, I’ve just grown so tired of being told to communicate upon every doubt when all this has ever done is facilitate manipulation and delay the inevitable. My most toxic relationships have always been my most self-reflexive. Love should be obvious. It usually is. I communicate when I feel that I’ve been misunderstood, but I’ve stopped hoping that a conversation will make me feel any less insecure or resentful or entitled to rooms I haven’t been given a key to, that anybody can do that for me except myself.
There’s a lot more to it, of course. It’s not lost on me that my approach comes more naturally to me because I’m a faggot in a big city and a long-term sex worker. I still consider it not simply the most preferable to me, but the most ethical.
But I wonder all the time why the obscure and fluid intimacies I’ve described tend to quaver along the fault line of gender. I know straight women who cannot disentangle non-monogamy from subjugation, and I know queer femmes who cannot access the casual sexuality of gay culture. We find other ways to connect physically with people we care for but cannot fuck, and these ways are no less erotic— e.g. legs piled on top of each other, held hands, forehead temperature checks, foot rubs, brushed and braided hair— but they are still patterned suspiciously by difference. I suppose I’m done debating what I cannot do with the people I care about. I’m growing frustrated by what I can.