Early last summer I was sat a few tables away from a noisy brood of men at a bar in north-east London. When I started kissing the woman opposite me, the men provided us with some appreciative background cooing, which became more enthusiastic once the woman I’d been kissing shimmied across the bench to kiss her girlfriend. And when her girlfriend completed the circle by taking my face in her hands, the men broke into spontaneous rapturous applause. Their voyeurism didn’t bother me. In that moment I imagine my feelings weren’t too distant from theirs. I was amazed to be playing a part in this encounter, which seemed to have all the trappings of fantasy. I’d never dated a woman. I’d never dated a couple. Now one of them was leaning in to say, “We could go back to ours… but, also, no pressure.” And the other was nodding as she added, “Exactly. We could go back to yours instead.”
The first woman gave her girlfriend a friendly shove. “No, as in I’m saying she can go back on her own. She doesn’t have to do anything.”
“Oh, right. Yeah,” the second woman brought a hand up to her face in mock embarrassment. “Obviously that’s an option, too.”
Then dawn was coming on and I was dazed and flushed, retracing my steps to the bus stop next to their house, a KitKat chunky in one hand, using the other to text a protracted but redacted account of what had just happened to my best friend. “This is classic you,” they replied, from a party across the river. “Such a desperate overachiever, you have to go out with two women for your first lesbian experience!!”
We’d been introduced before at various friends’ parties, but we met in earnest at a tiny lakeside festival last June, dancing close together in an old stone barn while a man in a white robe played acid trance from a raised platform. If you’ve only dated men, and assumed you only would date men, it can render you blind to your desire for anyone who doesn’t immediately fit that category. I thought: there’s something special about this couple; they’re so beautiful; I would like to spend more time with them. Then shrugged the thoughts away before they could turn into anything solid. A few days later I received a text from them, which showed up intriguingly abridged on my home screen: “This might be a bit of a spicy message for your Wednesday afternoon, but–”
For six months now we’ve been dating, or seeing each other, or sleeping together – I’ve struggled to land on terminology that adequately describes the dynamic. I suppose they are polyamorous or in an open relationship, technically, but we’ve never used those words and, for now at least, I’m the only other person they’re sleeping with. Throuple isn’t right either, because they are in the relationship and I am not. And I don’t want to diminish the intricacy of this lovely, shifting thing we’re all involved in by slapping a name over the top of it (although I know rejecting those terms risks reproducing the ways they are made to seem shameful by those who believe anything outside a conventional relationship is worth derision). We took a more pragmatic approach, coming up with the only two rules we thought we needed: 1) I would only go on dates with them if they were both present, and 2) I would never stay over. I worried that waking up beside them, wearing one of their T-shirts as we ate a hungover breakfast together, might fool me into thinking I was in an actual relationship, and I wanted to protect my heart from that, or so I told myself. (I also quite liked the thrill of leaving their house at three in the morning.)
My friends had a lot of questions – mostly about whether I fancied one of them more than the other and what it’s like to have sex with two people at once. But what has surprised me most is how dating has accelerated our friendship. In doing so, it’s required me to reassess the boundaries I had previously drawn between friendship and love – because I do love them now, because they have become two of my closest friends. We talk about our families, what we want from our futures. We call each other in times of need. Treat your friends more like lovers and your lovers more like friends has become a motto for my friendship group. There’s a lot of truth in that. Beginning a romantic relationship with two friends teaches you just how elastic the term friendship can be, the fact it needs no limits (though I’m not actually suggesting we all start kissing our friends, unless you want to). Shattering some of the myths surrounding romantic relationships can release them from the pressures that come with keeping them so separate to, and pedestalled above, other forms of connection.
I keep waiting for it to get harder – for the appearance of jealousy, for my feelings to get the better of me, and for that to then mean things can’t go on as they have – but so far it has remained easy and straightforward in a way I can’t remember any of my previous relationships being. I know this is partly due to the fact I am not all-in. I’m not privy to the whole of their relationship, and they don’t get to see the more abject versions of myself that previous partners were witness to. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges. It makes me sad knowing I can’t really speak to my family about this thing which is making me so happy. I have great, understanding parents, but I wouldn’t even know where to start with explaining this, and wouldn’t want to risk causing simultaneous heart attacks. Getting a ringside view of two people who are so in love, who treat each other so well, makes me more hopeful and determined to find something like that in my own life. It also serves as a reminder, each time I leave their house late at night, that, ultimately, I’m still on my own.
But even as I write the sentence above, I’m not entirely convinced of its veracity. More than anything else, what I’ve gained during these six months is a new set of incredible people in my life. That doesn’t feel like a lonely outcome. What I’ve gained is the possibility of a wider, less bounded future. I don’t know if I’ll have a monogamous or a non-monogamous relationship, but I now have the blueprints for both. I no longer know the kind of person I’ll end up with, but when I told the couple I’d been on some dates with women, their half-joke reply said it all – “We’ve set you free!”
In January we broke one of our rules. After multiple electric blue frozen margaritas I told them I’d like to stay over. Even in winter it is suffocatingly hot to sleep three in a bed. The next morning we showered together, rotating between cramped positions to ensure everyone got some time under the water. I wore one of their t-shirts and we sat at the kitchen table cutting through yolk and albumen. Two other queer couples swerved and ducked around each other making their own breakfasts, and it felt like we were living inside an Alison Bechdel comic strip from Dykes to Watch Out For.
Afterwards we got back into bed and watched Call Me By Your Name on a laptop (why steer close to queer clichés, when you can drive right through them?). I already knew the father’s speech to his lovelorn son by heart, having once spent an afternoon learning it to procrastinate. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new,” he says. “But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” It’s never felt truer.
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak