“I want both: marriage and lovers, freedom and security. I want my husband to say yes to this.”
Illustration by Jason Arias.
I never do what I’m supposed to do.
For instance, one summer when I was ten, I declared to my mother at the dinner table, “I’m never getting married.” She promptly replied, “Oh, that’s not true. Of course you’ll be married someday.” I looked to the palm trees shivering out back, to my teenage brother sulking into his plate, and argued, “No, I’ll never get married.” She waved her hand, brushing aside my disagreement in the way she often did when she thought I was being silly, childish. At the time, my father didn’t live at home but in a penthouse apartment near the beach with a lean woman whose name I can’t remember. It’s puzzling, maybe illogical, to think that even then, even in abandonment, my mother would encourage me to marry.
I was a bride for Halloween when I was not yet five. I look at the picture of myself now with a sort of confused curiosity: I see a white train with a crown of fake pink flowers atop my head, a plastic bouquet in my hands, my small body buried under layers of polyester with tennis shoes instead of white slippers to match. In the photo, a parade of costumed children spiral around the neighborhood, frightened by the vampires and ghosts and tall boys with guns. The sun is as high as it should be at four in the afternoon. I’m not sure why I wanted to be a bride for Halloween. Perhaps because I thought brides were beautiful, elegant, and that’s just what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Swans mate for years. Sometimes for life. It’s an image of true love: swans happily gliding through still water. They stay together through it all—breeding, migration, death.
I believed in monogamy for the fourteen years I remained faithful to one man. I believed because I was in love and thought love would always stay the same, that I’d stay the same. I believed because I wanted to belong. I believed because everyone else did.
My parents divorced not long after my dinner table declaration. The day they gave us the news, my brother and I sat on identical couches. A precise light came through the window, into the awkward silence, the blue carpet. I remember wishing to escape, to slip out the door, dip into the pool out back and swim its length in laps, back and forth, back and forth, find a rhythm that might comfort me, with the palm trees flapping shade, the bougainvillea in bloom, the agapanthus unfolding in bushy purple clumps, their blossoms like open petticoats.
After fourteen years, I want to shed the illusion of safety. Instead, I want to feel the sensation of new desire, infuse my sexual life with experiment and attention. I don’t want to follow the rules of marriage, of monogamy. A friend, over lunch, flippantly suggests polyamory. I tell my husband. He’s not sure what to think. He muses over my idea that maybe we aren’t meant for one person. He doesn’t agree. He wants only me. I tell him we could stay married, take lovers, add more depth to our marriage. I say, “Don’t you remember the Doug Fir Lounge on our anniversary? The conversation we had in the bar? Who we’d sleep with if we could? Don’t you remember the sex afterwards? Remember how you left me panting on the bed?” He says, “I do remember, but I don’t care.” He looks away, sad, aloof. I’m thinking of the promise of an open marriage. The possibility. Not the risk. He asks me what I’m thinking. I don’t reply. He says, “You are so secretive.”
I create a radio show for a small station tucked into our tumbling range of peaks and hills. I’m one woman playing music in a lonely trailer. One man listens. Others too, but there is only one I play for. He is not my husband. I think of this as my way to flirt. This man, his eyes reveal a distance I can’t seem to reach. His hair is messy, his nature attentive and cautious, slow and subdued. He’ll listen to my voice over the radio from a distance sipping whiskey or beer. I pick music just for him. I don’t tell my husband.
I wonder about the stories we are told as children. I wonder why no one revealed what marriage would be like: how passion would fade, how domesticity might drown your identity, how money would always be an argument. I remember thinking, I’ll be different than my parents. Love would always go right.
Gibbons exhibit monogamous patterns though the males tend to wander, fool around, find other females. But despite the drama, most stay, care for the children. The males sing for the females.
I want a man to sing to me like the gibbon, a melody unlike any I’ve heard. Or, a man who’ll write me letters, tender or violent or both, of longing, of lyric tongue. Something to sway to, to put underneath my pillow and read after dark. I know this: I’m consumed by fantasy, by fairy tales, even though I deny their false truths, their moral messaging.
I look to animals for proof that monogamy is an unnatural arrangement. I want their stories to align with mine, to find that they wander and digress so I can say, “See, I’m not wrong! All animals like to screw around.” It’s difficult to work out this complicated mess of biology, emotion, sexual freedom. There must be some kind of instinctive or innate justification that what’s real and true is our fundamental nature to roam and multi-partner.
I’d like to invent a myth of my own, a story of a new woman. This is what she would do: She’d be kind and compassionate. She’d live without fear. Maybe she’d take walks to the pond where she’d swim with the frogs. Maybe the children would go with her, and they’d swim too or watch or laugh while smashing their faces with berries, all of their lips colored in purple juice. This woman, she’d never do anyone wrong, would never have to apologize. She’d wave at the clouds, listen to loud music, make love to a thousand men. She would be a story told around the fire even after her grandchildren were gone. Her name would be Freya, Norse goddess of sex and beauty, or Selene, Greek goddess of the moon.
French angelfish are monogamous. It’s believed that both members of the couple become jealous when another comes into their territory.
I know very little about radio, how to work a soundboard, what applications transmit sound through the Internet, how to talk like a radio host. What I do know is that music has the potential to communicate over a distance the thing that cannot be said.
I read fairy tales to my daughter and I want to change the endings, but my daughter already believes in princesses. She imagines her marriage to a future husband, a knight that doesn’t exist.
The morning I was to be married, I ate bacon, eggs, toast. I drank too much coffee and worried alone in my room that I wouldn’t look pretty. I thought maybe my husband would change his mind about me, realize I wasn’t all that agreeable. I thought maybe I’d sweat all over the dress my mother had purchased, the cream silk with lace that was too expensive. I thought everyone would notice how the seamstress cut it too short, short enough to show my toes. I had never liked my feet and didn’t want anyone to see them.
I drink bourbon on an eight-degree night and it burns my throat, but then warms me, makes me dizzy with desire and love, and I dream about the radio man in my bed at night, imagine what he could do to me while I lay there and let him. It’s more than a frozen night. It’s a dead night. Everything is dead, the moon barely a glimpse, the ice astral.
I met my husband in a beach town in California. I was nineteen. He had hair of two colors: one side blonde, the other brown. He liked to wear shorts he sewed with patches. He was sweet, and for a long time we were friends, though one summer I secretly loved him. He didn’t love me back. Many years later, we fell into bed one night after taking lines of cocaine and throwing back beers. We dragged blankets up into the woods to a platform perched in a meadow with trees. The moon was full and he took off my shirt, kissed me tenderly on my chest and shoulders, told me I was beautiful. The sex was awkward, hurried, but there were no expectations. We fell asleep close to dawn, shivering under the down comforter wet with fog, naked, and uncertain as to what we’d done, what would now change, how we would be different. I scrambled off the platform when the sun went high, raced to the kitchen for coffee and cigarettes and my best friend who would listen to my doubts.
I read novels and essays and poems about women who teemed with desire, who followed their passions. I read everything I can possibly devour: The Mirror in the Well, A Spy in the House of Love, Simple Passion, Unmastered. I want validation from women in literature, like the animals. I want to be allowed to tell lies.
Wolves are monogamous, but alpha males have been known to stray.
Does Nature favor promiscuity? Humans can be socially monogamous, caring for our children, but also searching out other sexual partners. Same with animals: only a small percentage actually remain monogamous, if at all. John Berger, in his essay “Why Look at Animals?,” wrote, “Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Through them, we see the passage of our human selves from nature to culture. I wonder if I’m just looking for excuses.
I think about stripping my skin, stepping into someone else. One night, I go alone to a bar to drink margaritas and eat tacos. I don’t want to return home. I’m stalling. I know my husband, the loyal and steadfast man, always working, always accommodating, is waiting for me. Salsa music plays on the radio. One of the waitresses juices limes. The other shuffles food around the cafe, a gorgeous beauty with cropped hair. I greet her, smile shyly. I take off my wedding ring, imagine the bed with her, what it could be like to drink her body.
My husband and I make love in the morning with bad breath and warm skin and ice on the window. It happens too fast, but then we want coffee, so we leave the bedroom for our cups. I am at my computer on the couch where my fingers are so cold they can barely type the message to someone he doesn’t know, someone I don’t really know, but who I want to know.
One of my father’s longtime lovers wore red heels. I noticed the heels at dinner as we twirled spaghetti on our forks. I watched as she crossed her legs underneath the tablecloth, my father’s hand moving to her knee while he sipped rosé. I noticed the heels in the car as she climbed out to post an envelope or grab a bottle of vodka from the corner store. I noticed the heels splayed on the floor of the penthouse apartment she shared with my father, the sharp focus of the stilettos waiting for me as I entered from another lonely week at school. A warning. She would slip into them even to go outside to the pool or the garage. Everything about them was full of impulse and inclination, a desire reserved only for my father, for late at night in their bedroom by the beach, along the sea, where they twisted in their sheets. Or maybe I’ve invented the red stilettos. Maybe they’re a way to reduce this woman my father loved to a disgraceful object. This must be it.
I read Rilke’s love letters. I wish for my radio man to send me a letter. I want words like Rilke wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé, a Russian intellectual, in 1897. “I’ve never seen you without wanting to pray to you. I’ve never heard you without wanting to place my faith in you. I’ve never longed for you without wanting to suffer for your sake. I’ve never desired you without wanting to be able to kneel before you.” Do men write like this anymore? Salomé and Rilke blurred the boundaries of love, moving between lover, colleague, protégé, exchanging letters for over twenty-five years, their intimacy changing over time, deepening and widening. I want this to be a model for my affairs: keep a distant lover in another country who writes to me letters I don’t share with my husband. I wonder what kinds of intimacy I might cultivate with other men, if it’s possible to explore that depth of feeling in any number of relationships.
An albatross will cover thousands of miles just to return to the same bird. They even dance for each other.
I don’t want to be domestic. I find this out fourteen years into a relationship, eight years into a marriage. I don’t like doing dishes. I’m not interested in how a vacuum works. I had a plan: marry at twenty-eight, first baby at thirty, second at thirty-four, and now I’m thirty-seven with desires that don’t fit the domestic template. Instead, I want to talk late into the night over jars of beer with men whose rules aren’t ordinary or conventional, men who are anarchic.
Patterns, I tell myself, are for breaking.
Andreas-Salomé’s lovers included Rilke, Nietzsche, Freud. She wasn’t beautiful, but she captivated brilliant men. She rejected Rilke over and over again, but he continued to write to her, love her. I think, What men will do for love. How women make them weak. How was she strong? I can be strong too. I think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who loved men and women, refused to be compliant in her marriage. Anaïs Nin’s affairs defined her identity, her literature, the way she lived. I hope to learn something from these women. I want to know how they lived, if it scared them, if it hurt.
After college, my husband and I traveled through Europe. On the coast of Italy, we escaped late at night from hotel rooms to love in bathroom stalls and concrete streets, in between museums and beaches. Maybe it was the air or the Italians, the wine or pot, but we eyed each other over drinks and food and conversation, waiting for the moment we could be alone. This passion exists now only in memory.
I stop eating except for nuts, cauliflower, turkey, so the fat drops off me, so I can feel the radio man’s hands up the side of my body, over the fleshy but flat skin of my stomach. He’s the only thing I can think about. I see him rarely, but I want him to think about me the way I think about him.
When my husband stops talking to me, when I’ve angered him once again, I shelter in the rural cemetery, sit with Minnie and Richard Cunningham, long buried, their headstones wild with peas. I take with me a six-pack of beer, which feels so illicit and extraordinary. As I drink, I shape out the detail of all the angels and stones, think how a cemetery doesn’t provide any logic to our being in the world, none, but how we embrace the place anyway, knowing we’ll be in the ground ourselves someday. It comes to me then, that maybe I’ll take multiple lovers as a strategy to avoid death, boredom. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but still, I create a map of how I’ll quietly upset my domestic life. I check my phone for signs of my husband—a text, an email, a missed call. Nothing. I look around; the stillness of the place unsettles me. No one here but me, the dead, the crickets in the grass, a single bird. I think, Tonight, this is okay—this discomfort, this avoidance of marital obligation.
Mahimahi mate for life. When one is caught, the other waits for their partner to return.
I become convinced I should live as other famous women have lived, that I should construct a marriage in which I can come and go as I like, pursue the interests of many men, maybe women, all the while keeping my husband there to chase off loneliness, insecurity. To maintain a family but to live independently. I want both: marriage and lovers, freedom and security. I want my husband to say yes to this. Everywhere I go, I wonder about the men I encounter. I judge the nature of married couples, believe they aren’t subversive enough, their lives too ordinary. I want to stretch what is acceptable. I circle around the idea that to be a writer, an artist, a real woman, strong and fierce and smart, I must live in a fashion that subverts expectations, that experience can only enhance my life. I don’t want to admit this, but this too is a platitude, ordinary in itself.
At ten, I was all breasts and folds of fat. I bled, early and profusely, while my body betrayed me with its readiness to swell with babies. I remember the ache of my first period, the surprise of finding my underwear stained red. My skin stretched and my hormones flushed through me, their debut an astonishing mystery. Everywhere I went, I faced the terror that breasts and extra weight brought with them—at the bus stop in the morning, at school, at recess playing tetherball, or at lunch, the long wait in line for pizza until I could slump to the table and hide under the layers of clothing I draped over me to cover my changing form. All around me, other girls with tiny frames, small backpacks flush with straight backs, training bras stretched over their flat chests, bored, chewing gum, unaware of their luck, their clear faces and narrow hips.
I want to pursue the radio man, but I know this is the most dangerous thing I could ever do.
I feel at home in my body now, more comfortable with my sexuality than ever before. I’ve never thought of myself as a beautiful woman, never took care of myself so men would think so, but here I was, a woman, post-pregnancy, post-breastfeeding, intellectual, and lean, smart, who men desired. This truth: new and intoxicating. Men never wanted me except for my husband, whose love isn’t the same as the desire of a stranger.
The day we were to be married, I thought no one would show up, that we would be standing there just the two of us, no one presiding over the ceremony. We married each other near the sea, the scent of Monterey pine in the air, the discarded needles cushioning the pathways around the hotel grounds. I walked to the garden after breakfast and saw it dressed in flowers and the warm grass wet with sprinkler mist. Everyone kept asking me if I was ready. I didn’t know what to say. I nodded, “Sure, I guess so.”
I’ve always wanted to be exceptional, to attract attentions like Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was promiscuous for many years, failing to settle, never wanting to calm into marital life, devoting herself to poetry instead, to experience, to love. She did marry, but to a husband who catered to her dangerous and glamorous life. She was full of posture and strut, utterly beautiful in both physique and language, women and men swooning over her heartbreaks, but ultimately sad. She was desperately dependent on alcohol and died alone at the base of her stairs with three lines of a poem by her head: “I will control myself, or go inside/I will not flaw perfection with my grief/Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.” A lonely and ironic death, her fall from poise and poetry steeped in liters of wine.
Prairie voles mate forever, breaking the trend of fickle rodents who prefer promiscuity.
It’s a temporary tension between freedom and being alone. Caught between two extremes. What’s in the middle: buds of a flower, the warp of age in a river tooth, the belly button, a nose, doorways between two walls, Kansas, the hummingbird’s beak. The middle is the stronghold, never the temporary. It fortifies its sides, keeps them taut, bearing, and complete. But being in the middle is a lonely place. It’s a place where the world, at night, won’t come to your rescue.
In Italy, before we were married, we travelled to the five hills of the Liguria region where villages built on rugged terraces of earth perch over the blue sea. These villages are of the sky, afloat and drifting with vineyards and farms on rock, the fruit of tomatoes and grapes drooping over water and boulder. In the village of Riomaggiore, we emptied bottles of thick red wine while sitting on the blue path, the walk of love that led from one village to the next, the road fringed by rue and dusty miller. I embraced my future husband, the sea, the cliffs. We made love, late into the night, under a dark sky mottled with stars and a big round moon, no one but us and our yearning, and in the morning, our bruises and scraped knees, raw and painful sores on our bodies, the marks of our love, the village ground into us.
My father’s lover had short hair, thin skin, a smile with no heart. She always called me fat. She rolled her eyes at me. She loved my brother more. He played baseball. Was tall. She whined to my father behind the doors of their bedroom. I would stand outside their room, put my ear to the wood, push my feet against the plush carpet, and listen for her complaints. “But you spend all of your time with them,” she’d say. “She doesn’t like me. She doesn’t even talk to me.”
At night, when the quiet comes and the crickets rub and sail their chitters, my husband and I walk outside to the stars, take out the trash, stand in the road taking in the still and hush of our home. He tells me of his work, how tired he is, how farming ages him, turns him gray. We remember how we built this place, the breaking down, the rebuilding. He’s so kind: before we were married he built a deck for me off the tiny trailer I lived in. He worked all day and when he finished, he carved our initials into the wood. My husband: defined by his work, his devotion. I think of something I read in passing: that searching for another partner when you are married is actually a search for another self. I think of my husband’s identity, unwavering in his love, his steady focus on work, on pleasing everyone but himself. I think, He’s selfless. And I’m not. I look around, to the dying grass, the greenhouses glimmering in the field. We stand there together for a long time. He tells me a funny story of our daughter, the way she dressed herself that morning in mismatched patterns. He’s laughing easily. I smile, laugh too. It’s easy, this way of being together, but far away, down the road, coming quickly now, I hear the rumble of a truck, and then the headlights—they are flashing through the trees, and we move to the side just before it rounds the corner, and I tremble as the truck passes me in the night. I’m scared, but I can’t see then the way my choices will affect our home, our family. As my husband politely takes my hand, there’s no way to know how I’ll destroy his heart. Or why that’s even necessary.
Male mute swans have been known to mess around on the side, even if they do stay to protect the nest.
My husband and I fight in a restaurant when I tell him I’ve written about leaving our marriage, so he leaves me with beet salad and scallops on the way and a half-drunk glass of wine. He sits in the car crying until I ask for a to-go container and grab my teal coat with big pockets, the patrons all looking at me with regret or confusion. Later, after we apologize, he tells me he is overwhelmed by the hurt but that he can’t keep his hands away from my folds.
On a friend’s porch, someone has left behind a deer skull, beautifully intact, antlers and all, inside a wood crate set up against the wall. I consider the dead skull, the solid antlers, which won’t age for ages, which won’t die. The hollow sockets where eyes once looked for grass, the empty caves where a nose once bent to dirt. This deer must have lived in the woods behind here, in the fir and madrone, on the hillside taking a bed for its children, laying down in nights cold and rainy like this one. It makes me think about the wild in us all, how it stays tight, how we manage it or don’t, how we are animal in our marrow, our depth, our desire for sex as natural as the instinct to build a home, to shelter, to protect.
I think about the radio man’s cabin in the rain, laying with him, letting him feel my hips, the light of the blurry day extending its grip on our senses. I want him to tell me his story while we smell the earth. I want him to know what it means for me to lay there with him.
I remember the bar the night before the wedding when the margaritas were too sweet and the DJ called me out as the bride. I remember the day of the wedding hearing people play volleyball outside my window just moments before I was to dress then take photographs and pose. Oh, isn’t she just beautiful? You look lovely. I remember the woman who would do my hair, take the mess of curls and push it to the top of my head with too much hairspray. I swore to my husband I wouldn’t wear makeup because he loved my face without it, but I did, just a slight gray at the eyelid, a sparkle on the cheek with some gloss to shine the lips.
After the children go to bed, we make popcorn we grew ourselves and eat the salty kernels while I drink red wine and stretch my legs onto his lap. We read the first chapter of a novel out loud, my suggestion, the first time we’ve done something like this. I want to say this moment is significant, but I’m not sure. He looks bored a little way through, so I say, “Okay, this description is going on too long.” I close the book and go to bed.
I speak to him on the phone when I’m away. He says, “The kids miss you.” I reply, “I know.” And then the distance between us widens. There isn’t much to say. We have fought again on the phone. About the bills. About money. About chores. He misses me so I say, “You’ll have to love me fiercer when I return.” And he—quiet now on the phone. A sigh. Small and insignificant. He doesn’t reply.
I want the radio man to grab my hair in the dark and tell me I’m beautiful.
When I return home from the trip, my husband won’t touch me. He won’t look at me. There is an awkward silence. I tell him, “I’m confined by the construction of marriage.” He shakes his head, doesn’t understand. I tell him again, “I want experience. I want something different than this farm, this home, these children. I want the world. And that world is other relationships beyond you.” He asks, “What’s wrong with being married to me?” I say as tenderly as I can, “It isn’t you. It’s marriage. It’s the way it holds me back. I want to feel less guilt in my choices.” He’s so unhappy. He replies, “But I give you the freedom you desire. What about our vows? Don’t those mean anything to you?” I think to myself, Why hasn’t he gone the extra distance for us, for our marriage? It’s been years of negotiations, a constant tug and nag of requests and pleads: less work, more fun, less fighting, more love, less routine, more adventure. I think, Have I gone the extra distance? What have I done? Am I pulling away because he never gave enough? I go to him at night because it’s what I know. The touch is familiar, the embrace like it has always been, tender when it is, and unfortunate when it’s not.
Turtle doves are monogamous. Shakespeare wrote about them like I’m writing this to convince myself that monogamy is something I should believe in. And still, I don’t know. Still, I’m riddled with uncertainty. Is this all just a curiosity, a questioning, the way I am in the world—always pushing for something new, some sort of drama to get lost in? It exhausts my husband, this continual upheaval. I want to dismantle all we’ve created and with urgency. How can I live with this contradiction? Can these desires and needs survive together, coexist?
And it’s not that I don’t love him. This isn’t about love or not love. It’s about wanting and desire, to push experience, to know myself through other people, to refashion a new woman, or come back to what I once wanted to be. I believe it’s not possible to stay married without this kind of endeavoring.
There is only one true sexually monogamous animal: the flatworm, who attaches itself to its partner for life. But this isn’t a solution. So I look to the queen honey bee, whose attraction increases with promiscuity, or the dolphin, whose joy in playful sex isn’t limited by gender or species, or perhaps the hedge sparrow, whose polyandry defines her sexual life—by courting multiple partners, the bird broadens her range, enabling expansion, expression, possibility.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She recently completed a fragmented memoir of lyric essays about marriage, farming, desire, and identity, of which this essay is a part. She teaches writing and literature at Southern Oregon University. Find her at melissamatthewson.com.