Jessie Sherman is the pseudonym for a writer who has been trying to find a way to write about her open marriage for the last seven years. Because explaining and understanding the whole thing has been so hard, The Archeology of Open Marriage is her attempt to pick up some of the pieces, turn them upside down and tell the story that way.
My husband's new girlfriend brought him flowers the other day when she came to visit him. I was at the gym, but when I got home it was hard not to notice the fresh bouquet of purple and brown blossoms sitting in a vase on the dining room table. "Are those from Jill?" I asked. My husband smiled -- still glowing from the couple of hours they'd had alone together at the house with the kids at school and me gone.
"You know," I said, eyeing the flowers, "I think those are for me. This is her way of thanking me for letting her spend time with you. It shows respect for your wife and who's who in this whole open marriage arrangement."
"Well, that's one way to interpret those flowers," said my pal Jones on the phone later that day. "That's very healed of you."
Jones, like me, has done a lot of personal work over the last 20 years in an attempt to kick up some rocks in the quarry of our wounded souls. Between us we've been on 60 day-silent retreats, worked with Shamans, spent time with Byron Katie, Werner Erhard and god knows how many therapists.
"Or," I add, "She's leaving the flowers to let me know that she's arrived. Kind of like a dog peeing on your stuff. She's marking her territory."
"Exactly," says Jones.
"So I think I'll stick with the first interpretation," I say.
"Man, I could not do this," says Jones, who has known me since the first day of college over 30 years ago, and who remembers me running into our dorm at midnight to get my diaphragm because I'd just met some cute boys at a dance and was about to go spur of the moment snow camping with them.
The truth is, I didn't think I could do it either seven years ago when we met Peter and Jenny, who would go on to become our first lovers. After 16 years together, hubby and I had certainly traversed some tough territory, but taking lovers wasn't a solution we'd even considered. Peter and Jenny had. They told us a story about going to a Sting concert with another couple from their kid's school. "It was wild," said Jenny laughing, "I'm sitting there in the limo and this hand comes from behind my seat and slips right under my dress."
"Wow," I'm sure I said obligingly at the time. "Sounds fun." But it didn't sound fun. It sounded weird and complicated and maybe something you'd need to be drunk for. I just couldn't see it for myself. I mean, how do you do that? How do you have casual sex with someone else when you're married?
Apparently Peter was about to show me, because a couple of weeks later he pushed me up against the wall outside of a Chinese restaurant we'd just had dinner in and he kissed me. Not just a peck, but one of those long, deep wet ones. I was 44, I'd been monogamous for 16 years, hubby and I had been slugging it out in the domestic trenches with carpools, a mortgage, laundry, kids. My whole sexual vibe had dulled to barley a tingle, orgasms were harder to come by and I'd just begun to accept it. Middle age. Who cared about sex? The kiss from Peter was a gift, and like Sleeping Beauty, I woke up to a part of myself that was only lying dormant, but definitely not dead.
That was seven years ago and a lot has happened since then.
For hubby and I, meeting Jenny and Peter turned out to be one of those very rare, magical, karmic connections. Jenny and my husband are still lovers -- though now there is a new girlfriend on the scene -- which adds some complication. When Jenny was upset about it a couple of weeks ago she called me to talk her through it. Peter and I turned out to be better friends than lovers -- though we do still see each other sexually every now and again. My lover of five years was in that early limo ride with them. He was the one with his hands up Jenny's dress.
Sometimes I want to make a family tree just to explain to people the ins and outs of who's who and what we've all discovered over the years about being married, having lovers, raising kids and getting older. The bottom line is this: All three of the involved couples like being married -- in fact we like it a lot more than some of the monogamous people we know. We know we're looking the romantic ideal of long-term marriage straight in the eye and choosing to maintain the parts we like, while opening up to the parts that need a good airing out.
And while it will take many more stories to understand this whole open marriage business -- why we do it, what it says about our marriages, what kinds of lies we're telling ourselves as well as the healing that's taking place for us individually, I'm just going to try and knock over a few pieces at a time and see what's under those rocks -- the archeology of open marriage -- my attempt to look at the thing from the remnants of what each day kicks up.
Today it's those flowers left by my husband's new lover. She's a grown up -- has a couple of kids and a husband. You've got to think she knew I'd see them. I wonder what she's thinking? I'm sure we'll know in time.