It's Valentine's Day again, which, because I'm a florist, means that I've been running my ass off at work all week on a minimum of sleep and a maximum of braindead. I'm breathing a sigh of relief because we've reached the weekend and now the hard part--the flower preparation, which involves stripping the leaves and thorns off of hundreds of flowers, clipping the tip of every single stem, and plunging them into icy water--is over; from here on, I mostly just have to help people and occasionally sweep the floor. Yesterday I got to make a vulva arrangement for the Vagina Monologues, thereby fulfilling one of my most cherished floral goals; as you might imagine, I used a peony.
Every Valentine's Day since I became a florist and the holiday grew in prominence in my worldview has been different: a different relationship, a different vibe to the day, a different place in my own head that I'm coming from. Last year was lovely, with homemade pie and lentil soup from my favorite hole-in-the-wall Lebanese place; the year before that was hellish, and included doing dishes in my bathtub and nasty phone messages. This year I'm in a polyamorous triad relationship, half (a third? the math, among other things, is interesting) of which is long-distance, which means that in a lot of ways I feel like I'm in at least two and probably three different relationships all at the same time--if you want to count girlfriend, boyfriend, and triad as all separate entities, which seems like at least a somewhat legitimate way of looking at things much of the time. I feel good about life and the future. I like that, a lot. I'm pretty confident that, at least relationship-wise, tomorrow is going to be just fine, but the obsessive emphasis on relationships that this holiday embodies has been making me realize how relatively unusual the situation I'm in is, and how much I'm learning from it.
I've heard it said that triads are the grad school of relationships, and while I don't know about that I do know now that it's a completely different beast from anything I've been a part of before; a lot of it's pretty amusing, which is giving me a really great backlog of stories to draw from. Early on, I was talking to a straight male friend about my relationship and he leaned forward and said "So, do you all..." and I thought, oh god, here's the threesome question, and he finished "...spoon? How does that work?" I laughed and told him we'd been considering writing a how-to manual on that one, which is true, because it's unexpectedly hard to cuddle with three people without feeling clumsy at best and claustrophobic at worst. (There are too many arms, or something.) There are other issues: beds aren't designed to sleep three, not really, and sidewalks aren't wide enough to easily accommodate three people walking abreast and holding hands without taking up the whole damn thing. Cutesy romantic gestures, like these pillowcases my girlfriend sent me a link to recently, are designed for two, not three, which means a future full of DIY add-ons to virtually anything pre-made. (The only thing that is fitting is these underwear, which I've already supplied to many friends and lovers, because, well, yeah.) Romantic cliches are also funny (although, granted, they are already used mostly in jest); "I love you with... half of my heart" and "You're my one-of-two-and-only" just don't have the same ring, although they do provoke laughter. Valentine's Day cards are practically impossible to find.
But there are serious aspects of all of this too. I like to think that I've learned from every relationship I've been in, new and better insights and higher self-confidence and different ways of thinking through problems, and it's a damn good thing because this whole triad thing requires some mad skills. It's the same, but it's also so different. Things that are important for two-person relationships--things like communication, negotiation, lovingkindness, and attention to detail--are not necessarily any more important in a triad, but to me they are much more visible. I think often in relationships we begin to take these building blocks for granted--I know I have been guilty of this—to just assume that they will continue to function without our attention and we and our partners will be just fine. Often, I have found out too late that this isn’t true at all; now, finally, I try to take nothing for granted. In a triad, there's simply not time and energy for much bullshit, and if I want this to work I have to be able to communicate my needs and wants as clearly and as immediately as I can or the waters get muddied very quickly. I'm not perfect, and sometimes I fail to do this, and it doesn't end in me feeling awesome. I'm still working on that.
There's still so much I'm just barely learning to negotiate, and much of the time I feel like I'm having to learn how to be in a relationship for the first time all over again, just with a measure of prior knowledge that (hopefully) makes the way a little smoother. I’m hopeful, though. With three people, or at least with these particular three people, there’s a much stronger sense that the complex web of emotion and responsibility and genuine affection that is holding us all together can't survive without dedicated and compassionate care. Maybe it sounds like work, but the feeling that my partners are there with me, that they’re willing to keep an eye on the foundational aspects of what exists between us, is incredibly comforting. I think really that this is just a meta-degree of what goes into every good relationship, and it makes me feel safe and lucky to be learning this with such good and caring people by my side(s).
I sometimes think the whole thing is summed up in this single story, inside of a metaphor which I swear I didn't even come up with on my own. But here it is: a few weeks ago, my boyfriend--who is taking sign language--went to class, realized that they were learning the words for "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" and saw clearly that this was going to be a confusing day for his classmates. As they split up and began practicing their new language skills on each other, his first partner signed to him "Do you have a boyfriend?" J pondered this for a minute, considering the lack of vocabulary for terms like "triad", and then attempted to explain, signaling towards two imaginary people and signing girlfriend towards and between each before forming a triangle with his thumbs and forefingers and then shrugging and giving a thumbs-up. His partner looked baffled. They switched to new partners and the exact same exchange took place, including the boyfriend question and the puzzled end result. Finally, J went to his teacher and tried to explain, finally resorting to spelling the word "triad", at which point the teacher told him that the vocabulary he needed was "way complicated".
Indeed. I, at the very least, am looking for the right words to explain this and to place myself firmly and unequivocally within this new framework. Much of this applies to how I explain things to others--'I have a boyfriend and a girlfriend' is my terminology of choice so far--but it applies to my internal self as well. This is still new, and it is still someplace I never expected to be, and I'm still searching a little bit for my narrative. But just because I don't quite have that down yet doesn't mean anything, because really, I'm learning more every day. Easy is bullshit; give me hard and new and confusing most any day of the week and I'll do my damndest to rise to the challenge. This is all new, and we’re all learning, and even though there aren’t always words or concepts or physical practicalities for us to work with I think it’s going to be okay and I am so glad to be where I am. And so, happy Valentine’s Day; much love to you and yours, and I hope that we can all be so lucky this year.