“I’m more of a sucker than a fucker,” remarks the impish woman standing beside me in the breakfast line.
It is my first encounter with this diminutive Parisian, out of whose heart-shaped mouth flow revelations that leave me reeling. “We have the same hair, darling,” she quips and darts a child-like hand toward my curls—save that my locks are an overgrown and sun-burnished brown, while hers, close cropped, are dyed a shade of fire engine. Half aghast, half disbelieving, I watch as that same little set of fingers makes a surreptitious dash beneath the flounces of her skirt and then reappears to dab a moist substance across the soft flesh of her upper lip. “Got me!” she offers a conspiratorial grin. “Just reapplying my perfume.”
With those same fingers she picks at the health-conscious buffet. She lights a cigarette, and exhales a clipped recital of facts (polyamorous, polyglot, name: Bernadette*); assumptions (“It’s so much easier for women than men to enjoy open love”), and hopes (“I just want to be worshipped, darling”). It’s 9 a.m. and I’m preoccupied with coffee. But another set of fingers tap my shoulder.
A slender wrist, a sculpted clavicle, a face that is sweet but unsmiling. “I just wanted to introduce myself, and tell you that it’s fine with me about you and Thomas.” Her name is Anna. She holds my eyes with such intensity that I feel I’ve immediately failed some register of earnestness. I’m distracted by her eyebrows: they’re enormous, sculptural, and dominate the contours of her thin, pretty face. “We don’t need words,” she continues. “It’s just important that we make contact.”
Anna and her partner Thomas are members of this community, based not far outside of Berlin, where I and some three hundred other people have decided to vacation. I met Thomas moments after I had hauled my bag up the steep and curving driveway: a tall, ponytailed figure, beating the dust of baking flour from his hands so that he could light a cigarette. Thomas had apparently informed his girlfriend of his intention to seduce me. Over breakfast, Anna looks at me, I think with resignation, and I realize I’ve entered a very fragile space.
It wasn’t always so. This unassuming place carved out of the forest was once a Stasi training camp, one where spies learned how to lay the “honey trap,” and wrest secrets through sex. Today it is the Centre for Experimental Culture Design (Zentrum für Experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung), or ZEGG for short—a radical community devoted to “consciousness in love.”
ZEGG began as an experiment in 1978, when the social sciences were more closely aligned with revolutionary acts. A German sociologist, Dieter Duhm, believed his discipline could resolve questions concerning no less than the essence of the human condition, and in the name of research, he set out on a tour of alternative communities in search of social harmony. His travels eventually took him to the settlement of the Austrian artist Otto Muehl, where residents were engaged in wild experiments in sexuality, based on the notion that large-scale social change was contingent on liberating sex from the trappings of power. Viewing the family as the handmaiden to bourgeois culture, Muehl’s commune, at its height home to about seven hundred people, espoused free love, collective resources, and the destruction of private property. Though the experiment was dismantled in 1990, owing to growing conflicts between the members and Muehl’s arrest on charges of “criminal acts against morality,” Duhm saw in the project the seeds of promise. He shared the artist’s view that monogamy was repressive, and drew from it his enduring principle that there can be no peace on earth until there is first and foremost harmony among the sexes. And the central impediment to harmony? The inalienable desire to have sex with people other than your partner.
“You must trim your toenails, darling,” Bernadette comments to Bo, as she exhales a pungent cloud.
“My toenails?” Bo, a handsome man from Stockholm, has been involved with ZEGG on and off for two years. He was introduced to the community by his young girlfriend and her polyamorous family. “Our local Adonis.” He laughs indulgently when men and women paw at his muscled frame, but when he thinks no one is looking, his smiles fall away to frowns, and deep furrows claim his brow. He is, by profession, a gambler, and prone to episodes of mania, which find him swollen with the assurance of his good looks and good luck. But that tends, with little warning, to carry him promptly back down into sinkholes of bleak emotion. Sitting glumly beside Bernadette and her lover, Simon, Bo surveys his shadowed feet. “My toenails?” he asks again.
“Yes, darling, those jagged things on your filthy feet. How could I rub my beautiful breasts against feet like that? They’d end up looking as though they’d been attacked by razors.”
“You want to rub your breasts on my feet?” Bo’s spirits lighten.
But Bernadette responds with a deep laugh. “No, darling, not tonight, thank you. Tonight I am going to be with Simon and his wonderful feet.” She dangles an arm in my direction and purrs. “And perhaps our Katie angel, too, if she’ll let me scrub those calluses off her soles. Did you know, sweetheart, about my love of feet?”
Simon, across whose lap Bernadette is sprawled, silently accepts the proffered joint. He speaks little English, his look caught between serene incomprehension and horrified understanding.
“Here, look at these pictures of my beautiful lover.” Bernadette gropes in the dark for her phone, her impish face cast in a faint blue glow. “He’s always telling me that we’re going to get arrested for doing what I want, but the other day it was just too hot to not take our clothes off. And it was siesta time in the village where we ran into the fountain. See? See my lover here?” She passes me the phone so that I can see a wet and sheepish Simon trying in vain to preserve his modesty behind a Renaissance spout. “My husband was a bit surprised to see that I put these pictures on Facebook. He thought that I was going to be discrete about this relationship, but I only said, Here is my friend, in a fountain.”
“You put this picture on the Internet?” Simon stirs, eyes agog.
“Yes, my love, but you are not on Facebook.”
“But my children are.”
“Yes, they love the picture. They told me they were happy to see you being so cool.”
“You mean, my children have seen this picture?”
“Yes, they love it. You know how they think that you’re not so very cool; well, here you are, being very cool.”
“You really shouldn’t have done that, Bernadette,” his voice lurches.
“It’s the first time my husband has seen what you look like. Which is good, because he’ll be meeting all of you very soon.” Bernadette begins rolling another joint, as Bo fiddles with his watch, and Simon closes his eyes and sighs.
“It’s so funny,” she continues, “because Simon’s oldest son is not so much younger than my husband.”
Bernadette, who is thirty-seven, is the senior partner in her marriage by a good decade, having once been her husband’s nanny over twenty years before. Laughingly, she confides, “But back then we didn’t play doctor.”
And she has decided to set her probes on me. Bernadette, in whom friendship mingles with risk, has set out, it seems, to seduce me, but it is a seduction lacking any sense of security or niceness. She’s building up an idol—so beautiful, so intelligent, so kind—but for the purposes of scrutiny, for her own appraisal.
“You’re a seducer, darling. Verführerlein,” she is fond of saying to me. This term, she reminds me, was ascribed to Hitler, a seducer of psychotic proportion. “And what are you doing with your seductions darling? What are you trying to get?” Every trait and inclination must have its basis in some tortured psychological history, whose dimensions she must know. She sees the world in terms of symptom, and it is not instinct but pathos that reigns.
I am talking with a young man named Marcus when Bernadette approaches, her arms laden with her daily midday pilgrimage. The food at ZEGG, she declares to anyone listening, makes her cry. So rather than join in the community’s various talks and workshops, she spends her mornings shopping, buying breads and meats and cheeses, which she then distributes round to the coterie of those, like me, in whom she has tapped a vein of horrified fascination. “Because I’m a provider,” she explains. “My mother was anorexic and didn’t feed us. When my parents got divorced the judge asked her, ‘Do you love your children?’ She said no. And I realize here in this place of love how important it is for me to love myself with food. My mouth and my cunt are the same thing. I’m so careful with who I take with me to bed. I only put love into my cunt. So why would I suffer from having to eat bad food? It’s like having sex with a terrible lover. It’s worse. It’s like rape.”
Marcus, who is pursuing a PhD in robotics but is actually more intrigued by paranormal psychology, stops telling me about the current state of past lives research and stares openly at Bernadette. The two had tussled a few days back, when Marcus declined the advances of a young woman and Bernadette had felt compelled to intervene, publicly calling Marcus cold and immune to human feeling.
I like Marcus. Tall and rather brutish looking, he carries himself defiantly, but his voice is soft and his eyes are like two generous cups. He has come to ZEGG in order to satisfy curiosities that are far more philosophical than physical, and we discover a shared tendency toward playing witness and ruminating from the sidelines. He tells me that he doesn’t need much; he says he’s never suffered from a desire to belong. His ideal love affair, he tells me, would be one conducted over adjacent mountain peaks. Bernadette once accosted him as heartless, not accusing him with those terms directly, but rather in her manner by asking him, “Why is it, do you think, that you are so incapable of emotion?”
“Aha,” Bernadette laughs as she sits down beside us and begins unpacking the goods from her sacks. “You two! Now that makes sense!” She busily assembles her feast, all the while smoking, jabbering to us, and calling out to whomever is passing by to come and sample the fine cheeses she’s just purchased.
“Simon says I eat like a pig,” she laughs with a mouth full of food. Sauces run down her chin and crumbs fly everywhere. It’s like a parody of poor manners. “Try this, try this,” she proffers little bits to all.
“Now, Marcoos,” she says, “our handsome, f-f-f-frigid intellectual. Loving you must be like walking across Siberia. Serves you right to sit with this one,” she points to me. “Whatever you do, make sure you don’t fall in love with her. This sweet schlampe (slut), our angel verführerlein (seductress). She’ll break the heart that you don’t even have. You poor, little man. Little man hiding inside the giant that you are. She’ll be nothing but sweetness and smiles, and she’ll look at you with those big, blue eyes, but she doesn’t need you at all. And she never will. Not any of us.”
Marcus smiles. I smile. Queer expressions that neither of us can seem to unfix.
“Oh god, you’re so gorgeous,” Bernadette groans through her full mouth, and sprawls across my lap. “And you just smile. You must have experienced so much pain in your life. You must have had some really horrible suffering, otherwise how could you just sit there and smile—you need to have come from the other side. But you don’t really need any of us, darling. You smile, and the stupid ones think that they’ve gotten inside and all the rest of us feel that you are unreachable. Maybe even that all you are is a snob.” She strokes my face with that little hand. “It must be hard for you, because you’re all alone.”
Marcus offers, “That could also just mean that she’s a monster.”
“True,” Bernadette murmurs, her head in my lap. “True.”
But Howard and Lynda are leaving. They had come to ZEGG all the way from Tel Aviv, and have now arranged a flight post haste from Berlin to get out.
A wealthy Jewish couple, the money-bellied doctor and his dainty wife, they’ve been married for nearly thirty years, and now that they’ve ushered their children into adulthood face the common predicament of romantic uncertainty. “We told the kids that we were coming to an environmental center, to learn about ecology,” Lynda tells me. “We’ve been so desperate to resurrect the passion in our relationship, we needed something new.” Her soft prettiness is bullied by so many loud jewels. “And then, Howard was having these affairs. He doesn’t love me any less, I know, but it’s obvious he needs something else.” Lynda came here with hope. “Maybe by opening our relationship we’ll be more satisfied.” But within five days, nerves won out.
“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” Lynda gnashes. “None of this makes any sense. It’s not right. This isn’t the way, this is just pain,” she weeps openly and screams at her husband when he reaches out to stroke her head.
“I’m very surprised by this,” he says. “I thought that we were in this together.”
“We knew that this was going to be a big risk for both of us—”
“But it’s not a risk for you. I think that this whole idea—this openness—really just benefits men. It’s designed for your sexual appetites. It’s just an excuse for you to do what you want without the guilt of betrayal. Women aren’t like this, we don’t just want to waltz off to bed with strangers. I don’t want to just fuck someone.” She expels the word ferociously, as though purging poison from her mouth.
“But darling,” he gropes. “This is a risk for me. I risk losing you.”
“Well, you better ask yourself if it’s worth it! You can fuck all these loose girls, and tell yourself that you’re liberated, and feed me some bullshit about free sex—not free love, don’t you dare use that word—and how your libido is really an extension of your soul. Or you can be a man and remember that I’m your wife! And you made a commitment to love me forever!”
Ina, who shepherds the internationals in her community, says they came here too soon. “Our way is too much for them right now,” she says. “One day, they may be prepared, but for now they’re still too caught up in what they think is right, what they think a relationship should be like, and openness is too challenging for them.”
Listening to Ina explain this sudden departure, I am struck anew by the logic that holds this course of love as an ideal, as intimacy’s moral center. It’s as though open love is granted the same ethical prominence that marriage typically receives. It inverts the customary barometer: in place of counting the years accumulating between faithful partners bound faithfully together, romantic health here is measured in degrees of separation.
My sympathies are scattered. I ache for Lynda, but coming from my own background—wherein infidelity is commonplace yet viewed as gross betrayal—I look to the ethos of open love with a mind crossed by discomfort and relief. I have never before so acutely felt the tethers of my partnership, been conscious of the extent to which my own faith in that project sets limits around what I do, with whom, and how. To move through this place, where every conversation is tinged with erotic possibility, I feel at once liberated, stimulated, and frightened, because if I am to embrace this lifestyle I am suddenly the sole accountant of my heart. I can’t take refuge in “but I’m married” as reason to not pursue. And yet, for all the beauty on offer, and the joy of so many guards dismantled, a persistent sadness nags. Feelings remain too raw, too tender; they can’t quite unhinge themselves from the equation that love is fierce possession, and not, though we insist, letting go.
“My name is Heinrich,” he says, “and today I feel sad.” He speaks this line repeatedly until eyes settle on his face. He continues, “I sold my drums and my car and I gave all my money to a guru, who promised he could make me happy. I thought that he could help me get rid of all the pain in my life. And in my life I’ve had a lot of pain. But instead, I went crazy with grief, I went really insane. Kundalini yoga, meditation, sex all the time, and it didn’t bring me closer to anything. Just further from my music and I felt sad. So I left the guru, and today I’m better, but I still feel sad.”
The plump, but pretty-faced woman sitting beside me nods impatiently, as she waits for Heinrich to conclude so she could speak. “I’m really into the whole community thing, you know? It’s one of the most amazing achievements of recent history, maybe it’s the best thing to come out of the twentieth century.” She happily forks the contents of her plate into her mouth, while nearby Bernadette loudly lambastes the bland quality of the food. “I didn’t want to come to lunch,” she wails, “because I didn’t feel like crying today!”
The woman offers that she is from Salt Lake City, “searching for community,” and has been involved with ZEGG for many years. Though recently, she’s felt more inclined toward a “normal life.” “I think maybe that I’m just getting too old for this. It would be so nice to just have a job, like a real job with a salary that would let me pay all my bills. And a monogamous relationship that wasn’t based on constantly exploring our needs and feelings and our sexual inclinations. Isn’t this food just great?”
Bernadette whimpers and petulantly pushes her helping around her plate.
“Anyways,” the woman turns to me. “You could never have this sort of thing in New York. Unless you want to get raped. Too bad for you poor New Yorkers, ’cause community is just so amazing. Really it’s the best invention of our era.”
Statements like this one are common at ZEGG, and at first they struck me with surprise.
Community, it would seem, is hardly new. It’s elemental, but has come undone as history divides and wrenches us apart, consigning each to his own autonomous corner. But this view toward the past is deemed inauthentic: here, time has rushed from an age of indigenousness to the fractured present. Deprived of fellowship, lacking meaning, without the guides of myth or spirit. Community in this millennial form is a novel concept, a creation to save post-modern man—was there ever so beleaguered a figure?—from his progressive states of woe.
“Community is new!”
“Community is an invention!”
A certain logic emerges from repetition. These statements speak loudly to a tremendous sense of alienation, they convey concerns about the lack of collective action and identity, fears of general dispassion and uncaring. Alone, adrift, and unprotected, or nasty, brutish, and short. If community appears as a novel social development, it is because the conditions it endeavors to oppose are so enormous. The Goliath of capital, the taken-for-granted distrust of your neighbors, the casual appetites that ruin cultures and landscapes—these are dismal norms. Therefore, to turn away from these dismal norms becomes transcendent—it transforms the act of washing one another’s dishes and tending shared plots of cabbage into the stuff of revolution.
“Because Mommy is going to a special party.” Martina rolls her eyes and loudly clangs her fork against her plate of untouched food.
Teddy is agitated as well: he is also not attending the evening’s exclusive gathering.
Fifteen women have each been given tickets to invite the man of their choosing to a night in the Blue Saloon, and Lenore, Martina’s mother and Teddy’s long-term partner, is taking someone else. The event was proposed the day before at the women’s meeting—itself a thing of laughter, tears, and ritual foot massages. The Blue Saloon event was introduced with an air of almost grandmotherly sweetness, as the older women in the community encouraged us “to think if there is someone really special with whom you would like to explore a special connection.” Smiles all around, a chorus of meaningful nods.
Lenore is unfazed by Teddy’s distress. “It’ll be good for him,” she tells me as she shaves her long and shapely legs in the communal shower. “It will help him learn that it has nothing to do with him, or with us. There’s no lying or cheating involved. It’s just part of being open and living as we really are.” A woman in her forties, her face is often drawn and serious. She is more than a decade Teddy’s senior, and tells me, “I need his boyishness, his softness. I’m a warrior, and he’s a prince. But sometimes I need a fellow warrior, who’s hard and demanding, and brings out more of that part of me.”
At the dinner table, Lenore kisses her daughter and touches Teddy tenderly on the cheek.
“Have a good time,” he says, avoiding her gaze.
“Love you!” she calls, humming as she traipses down the path, perfume floating from her dress.
The Blue Saloon is the community’s love motel. A small and unassuming house—drab architecture befitting its former Stasi purposes—with a collection of rooms each boasting no more than a bed and a box of assorted protection. It is ZEGG’s “temple to Eros,” the god of lust, but as the community members like to point out, he was born to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This elaboration of Olympian kinship is an oft-repeated lesson. “Lust was born of love. There is always love behind desire. We cannot separate them.”
The night that Lenore took to bed with Hugh, her rugged warrior, Teddy made his own connection. Ada is a stunning woman, whose brilliant smile is set against a disposition of almost devastating sweetness, and whose voluptuousness is hard to reconcile with the fact that she is sixty-three. Her age is apparent only in the white of her long, thick hair and the deep-set laugh lines around her mouth. She spent years living in the free love commune of Otto Muehl, Dieter Duhm’s inspirations, and is a highly sensuous woman, in the literal sense of the word: she engages the world through touch, through smell. Of humanity she believes, “We must enjoy our bodies.”
Teddy and Ada fell in love. Abundantly, freely, and quite physically. “It was really his eyes that got me,” she confides. “He feels self-conscious about them, but I think they’re just magical.” Teddy is extremely cross-eyed. “I told him it was like his gaze was searching the heavens, like he can see something that the rest of us can’t.” Their tenderness unfolded like two adolescents, cooing little noises of affection, fingers searching, utterly enthralled. Ada shrugs at the mention that Teddy is thirty years her junior. “I’ve always had younger lovers,” she says. “For years I lived with a man around Teddy’s age.” She speaks his name softly, like a sacred incantation. “But we split up because he wanted to have children. That was a real lament, and I really long for partnership now. Even if I don’t have a boyfriend—not a husband,” she laughs. “I’ve done that enough times already—but just somebody, or a few people I could be close to. That would be nice. A community of lovers. That would be nice. No possession or jealousy, just caring and tenderness. And ahhh, Teddy is so tender.” She sighs, but winces when she sees Teddy seated with Lenore and her daughter. “Of course, Teddy loves Lenore. She’s such a tough woman, but Teddy and I, we’re both more gentle people. I hoped that he would come to me again last night, but Lenore didn’t want for him to leave her.”
One of the most remarkable—though certainly also one of the most trying—aspects of ZEGG is the privileged place it affords dialogue. Emotional transparency, while easily a euphemism for free love, is also taken with complete seriousness to mean unflinching honesty. There is no sympathy for hiding out behind pretty words or evasions. There is instead unrelenting self-appraisal, unrelenting scrutiny. Thus, heeding the norms of prevailing culture, Ada, Teddy, Lenore, and Hugh decide to meet for an earnest chat, and as a new friend and neutral witness, I’m invited to come along.
“Lenore is a gorgeous woman,” states Hugh, who is seated cross-legged on the narrow picnic bench beside Lenore. His long, tanned legs unfold like a flower from the sarong that he wears loosely around his mid-section. “But I don’t claim to have any feelings for her that go beyond what we’re doing now.”
“Well, what is it that we’re doing now?” challenges Lenore, turning to her lover with narrow eyes. “You’re just taking me to bed? That’s it?”
“Sweetie,” Ada begins, tilting her head gently from side to side. “There’s no need to get heated up over what Hugh is saying. You also know in your heart that you don’t really want anything more than a lover for a few days; it’s just your ego wanting to hear that he loves you, that he cares for you.”
“Well,” Hugh shifts uncomfortably. Though seated beside his lover, arms touching, knees knocking, he might well have been removed by a gulf of miles. “I do care about her—you,” he smiles awkwardly into Lenore’s scowl. “In a way. But in a way that I know, and she knows, is just a thing of the moment.” Like reading from a primer, he adds: “There’s nothing wrong with lust.”
“But that’s not what you have,” Lenore speaks loudly at Teddy, who is sitting beside Ada and contently receiving her petting ministrations. “This certainly isn’t just lust, I mean, please. No offense, Ada, you’re a very beautiful woman, but—”
“But I’m too old?” Ada smiles brightly rather than succumb to antagonism, and reaches, unsuccessfully, for Lenore’s hand. “I’m not trying to steal your man, Lenore. But it is important that you understand that Teddy and I have found a real connection. Maybe there are parts of him that you don’t always satisfy—”
Teddy, who has been sitting quietly through much of this exchange, interjects: “Wait, it’s not a matter of being unsatisfied. It’s simply different.”
“I’ll say!” Lenore blurts.
“Honey,” Teddy begins, “I’m so new to all this. You’ve been doing this sort of thing for years, and I always felt, OK, this is what you need, but we’ve also talked about how there are risks involved, feeling insecure, feeling jealous, not being certain… But I love you, and I feel totally fine with whatever happens between you and Hugh.”
“But that’s because we all know that this thing with Hugh is nothing!” her voice escalates, and chokes.
“It’s not always equal in love,” Ada ventures, her voice calm and sage. “Or so they say.” She reaches out again, but Lenore’s hand is occupied with rolling a cigarette. Ada quells her stroking urge by grasping instead for both Hugh and Teddy, smiling warmly all around. “I am going to revise that statement. It is equal in love, even though it may not appear that way on the surface of things. Because we are love, ourselves, and it’s just a matter of how we choose to use it. So maybe, Lenore, you feel that it’s unfair because you are having just a fling, as you call it, and Teddy and I have found some sweetness. But that’s just what we all need right now. No damage. No broken hearts.” Ada gives a little tearful sniff. “Except mine, maybe, because in the end I know that you’ll take Teddy away. I can’t keep him.”
Some modicum of power restored, Lenore softens and opens her clenched fist to Ada. “That’s true,” she agrees, her voice restored to calm. “It’s hard for me, yes. But I find it really touching that of all the women here, you’re the one he’s chosen. It’s hard for me not because you two have real and evident feelings for one another, but because you and I are so different. It makes me question that maybe someone like you—softer, gentler—is what Teddy really wants. But it’s good, too, because now I get to learn more about my partner. So thank you for that.”
“Thank you,” smiles Ada, her eyes now moist, “for being so understanding.”
“Ok, then!” Hugh claps his hands impatiently on the tabletop. “So we’re all wrapped up then?” Without waiting for a response, he casts his bright white grin all round the table, and, as if in flight, strides away, lean muscles flexing beneath his flapping sarong.
There seems no surer way to kill off seduction than to bring it under scrutiny: this conversation marked the abrupt end of Hugh and Lenore’s affair.
“These have been some of the most terrible and most beautiful weeks of my life,” he tells me. “Every day is more amazing and more painful than the next. I’m just looking forward to when I can look back at this time and see it just as a precious gift, without all this pain.”
Their predicament, the young man’s roving heart and the young mother’s grief, grips at the group’s attention. At ZEGG, attraction is the power of creation working through you, and so it must be pursued. But does there come a point when the price is too great? The murmured sympathies suggest not. Lust is sacred, desire is divine, to temper instinct, amorous or otherwise, is to foreclose on your own soul. The young mother circulates through open arms, and the repeated wisdom that real love is letting go. Abandon your illusions of ownership, resist the mind’s tyrannical search for security.
Bernadette and Simon are among the many whose sympathies to the heartbroken woman take the shape of cuddly condolences and whispers that pain is growth and suffering is a sign of change. They are, themselves, deep in the throes of personal tumult: her marriage on tenterhooks; his boundaries affronted.
From across the room, Bernadette and Simon beckon noisily. “Katie! Katie! Come!” He is slumped across a bench, while she is sprawled at his feet. I pick my way over to where they are huddled, rocking as they moan.
“Oh, it’s terrible,” Simon heaves.
“It’s awful,” Bernadette whimpers. “My heart! I feel like it’s been devoured by wolves.”
“Where have you been?” they ask. “We needed you. Why didn’t you come last night?”
“You would have prevented this cruelty,” says Bernadette. “Simon is such a broken man. A broken angel. He doesn’t realize what a monster he is in his weakness.”
“I’m a monster. Help make me better. I love Bernadette, but I wanted you, and told her that she would suffer if you joined us, because she would realize how hideous she is.”
“He calls me hideous, and then speaks of love! A broken, broken man!”
The previous evening, the couple had propositioned me: “When, darling, are you coming to join us in our tent?” I declined, and dismissed the offer with no thought that my refusal might have a greater impact than my participation.
Their situation, both singly and jointly, can only be described as complicated. Bernadette is at ZEGG with Simon and his three adolescents, who will all be traveling with her back to Paris to meet her husband and see her life in France. Simon has been coming to ZEGG in the summers for years—“for the children.” He is a social worker, and inclined to pensiveness and frequent tears. He, too, is both fascinated and appalled by Bernadette: she clearly overwhelms him, with her crudeness, her convictions, her body of rushed movements and cat-like stretching. She is recovering from having once been very fat, and now wears her skin like something to which she is not quite accustomed.
Bernadette and her young husband had been monogamously partnered until just last year, when a series of miscarriages led her to conclude that if they were not going to have children then it was perfectly acceptable to return to her former freedoms in love. Her husband, whose picture she wears in microfilm embedded in her silver wedding band, hates this decision, she admits. “It scares him,” she tells me. “Because for me, for a woman, open love leads only to more pleasure. Whereas for him, a man, open love simply results in vulnerability and rejection.” Like the others at ZEGG, Bernadette views erotic freedom as a higher calling, a more sophisticated form of intimacy that, once achieved, trumps all alternatives.
“I’ve been trying to encourage my husband to find other lovers. And so I’m so happy to hear he just went on a date. They went swimming together, and as they were leaving the pool, he couldn’t find his ring. He looked everywhere and then she found it. How incredibly beautiful is that? My husband opens his heart to greater love, and then this girl places the ring back on his finger. I told him that this was the perfect metaphor for how open love can only strengthen our partnership.”
However, a few days after Bernadette shares this happy report, I find her with a face bunched up in pain and her little hands in fists. “So this new girl told my husband that she hates the fact that he is married,” she sniffs and puffs meekly at a cigarette. “She told him that if he ever wanted to see her again, to sleep with her again, he would have to choose between her or me.” She shakes her head and stares at me. Her mouth is slack. “And he said OK. He just asked me for a divorce.”
Partnered for over a decade, Elke and Leon were, for years, in an open relationship based principally on Tantra—a practice that deserves some remark, as it is so besotted with misconceptions. Tantra, at least in the way that it’s understood at ZEGG, is far more than a mode of sexual union: it is a lifestyle, a philosophy, a way of being in the world. Based on the idea that each man and woman represent a universal energy, Tantric practices aim to tap into the cosmic soup of connection. (A Tantric master once encouraged me to imagine that the world we inhabit is brimming with love and the possibility of enlightenment. “We’re swimming in the milk of the soul. It’s everywhere. Just suck the tit, Katie. Suck the tit!”) Tantra involves disarming the body and relinquishing the power struggles that can dictate the course of passion. It regards sex and intimacy as channels by which to tread closer to the divine that resides in all and everywhere. Or so it has been explained to me by the various members of ZEGG engaged in ritualized lovemaking.
Elke and Leon’s Tantric explorations took them to a point where they were involved with a rotating circle of twenty-seven other lovers, and for years committed the majority of their time and energy to their adventures in intimacy.
“But I began to feel depleted,” Elke says. “It was so easy to just rush into all these relationships and just keep going and going like there was an endless supply of love. But after a while, it wasn’t helping me to grow, and so I also wasn’t giving back. It started to become just sex. Lots of sex. And no longer this magical discovery.” Elke looks to Leon, who nods, before continuing, “We both realized that true Tantra is union with ourselves, and we had been so busy with loving all these other people that we had stopped loving ourselves. So we came way back.”
“For a little bit, we decided to have sex with no one,” Leon speaks gravely, before relenting to a smile. “But that didn’t last so very long.”
“And so,” Elke speaks with precision, as though rehearsed in delivering this defense of monogamy, “we closed our relationship. We needed to build our Tantric union again.”
“But this is just a phase. It’s another step on the path,” Leon explains, and I am struck again by the logic of the place, where here one has to justify the decision to love not many but one. I can’t help from blurting out: “A path to where?”
They fall silent; here is my outsider-ness affirmed. But they proceed gently.
“A path to where?” Elke reflects. “To greater love. We’ll do this for as long as we feel like it’s what we need to do, but eventually we’ll open our relationship again. That’s where the road leads.”
*Names have been changed.