William, part 2
The morning after my impromptu sleepover at William's house, I wake up groggy but happy. I don't even mind that he has to rush off to work early, leaving me to take the bus home. I suppose this is what people call the walk of shame, but I don't feel ashamed at all. I feel proud and excited to be with such an amazing guy.
Over the next day, though, the little hamster wheel in my mind starts spinning like crazy. Yes, William is smart and gorgeous and I want to marry him and have his children. But my life right now is...complicated. He knows I'm about to move overseas for six months, but we haven't really discussed what that means in practical terms. If we're really dating seriously, we need to think about that. And there's also the fact that I'm seeing these other guys. I really should be honest with him about that. If William wants to be exclusive, I'll drop Atom and Warren in a heartbeat. And The Mantis...well...if I have to...I don't know. Would I actually dump a sexy para for an able-bodied guy? But then, The Mantis is married. I'd be crazy to give up a real relationship for a married guy, no matter how sexy. Maybe it would be for the best! But I should talk to William about it before doing anything. I really don't want to stop seeing The Mantis before our Mistress/slave contract is up at the end of September.
I go around and around like this, feeling guilty for not telling William that I've been seeing other people, wanting an exclusive relationship with him, but not wanting to stop seeing other people, then feeling guilty for that too. By the time William calls me to see how I'm doing and ask me out again, I've worked myself up to a fever pitch and it all comes flowing out in a rush.
"You know, I have to let you know that I've been seeing other people, but it's all very casual, I swear. I really am single. These other guys are not boyfriends. I'm going to stop seeing them. I'll stop. We can be monogamous. That is what I really want. But I also have to remind you that I'm leaving for Taiwan in October. It's just six months though. You could come visit me! It doesn't have to be that big a deal, and I am coming back afterwards."
When I pause to take a breath, he says, "Um...what?"
"I just want to make sure we're on the same page," I say, still kind of oblivious to his reaction.
"Yeah...ok...I think we should have this conversation in person. Do you have plans for this evening? Do you mind if I come over?"
This sounds slightly ominous, but I'm too excited by the idea of William coming over to get really worried.
An hour later William is in my living room, making the ceiling feel lower and the room smaller with his giant physical presence. He greets me with a kiss then sits down on the couch, seating me on his knees like a child.
"I have to tell you something," he says solemnly, looking me straight in the eye.
"Ok." I have no idea where this is going.
"I have herpes."
"Oh." I try to play it cool on the outside, but inside I'm reeling. Of all the things he could have possibly said, this is not what I was expecting to hear. Like not even in the top ten. I have no idea how to react.
"I didn't do anything that would be unsafe for you," he quickly assures me, as I sit on his lap staring at him blankly with my mouth open.
"I know..." So that's why he didn't want to have sex. I thought he was just old-fashioned, but no. I think back to two nights ago and realize he never even took off his underwear.
"I got it about two years ago," he volunteers in response to my unasked question. "It was a 'gift' from my ex-girlfriend. She'd had it for a long time but didn't realize it because she was a long-distance runner. She thought she was just getting chafed. It was over a year before she was diagnosed and by then she'd passed it to me." He recounts this matter-of-factly but with a trace of bitterness in his voice.
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Yeah. You said you wanted to make sure we're on the same page, but you're like fifty or a hundred pages ahead."
I feel mortified, and it doesn't help that I'm sitting on his knees like a little kid. I want to get down but I don't want him to think I'm fleeing from him as if he's unclean.
"I'm sorry," I say again. "I shouldn't have made so many assumptions. I guess neither of us is in a position to start up a serious relationship right now."
"Yeah. But I've really enjoyed getting to know you," he says. "I'd like to keep spending time together, but I'm not ready for anything serious. Maybe we can just take it all really slow."
So that's how I fall into yet another friends with benefits kind of arrangement. That night William sleeps over. We decide that mutual masturbation is probably the safest way to go, so that's what we do. I try not to be too awkward in bed but it's hard to relax and feel sexy.
It's actually kind of crazy that this is the first time I have ever had to deal with an STD, given how many people I've had sex with. I mean, statistically speaking, maybe some of them did have an STD but this is the first time anyone has ever admitted it to me. I'm of the generation that got told all through high school that if we ever had sex, we would immediately get AIDS and die. I've always been hyper aware of the risks. I try to be safe--I actually don't have p-in-v intercourse that often, and I always use condoms. I get tested pretty frequently, but I still think it's kind of a miracle I haven't caught anything.
William does not explicitly swear me to secrecy, probably because he trusts my basic decency not to spread gossip about him. I'm dying to tell someone, but I realize I can never tell Lulu. She can't help herself--if I tell her, eventually the entire opera company will find out. I think of all the women in the chorus, lusting after William and jealous of me. If they only knew the truth, but I won't be the one to tell them, not even indirectly. I can't do that to him.
But I can't keep it entirely to myself, so instead I compromise and tell Sarah. She isn't friends with anyone in the opera company besides me and unlike Lulu I can trust her to keep a secret. Actually her social circle is becoming so small she's nearly a shut-in.
Sarah is as shocked by the news as I was, but it does go a long way to assuaging her jealousy over the fact that she once went on a single date with William and he never called her again. Actually I think most of her jealousy stems from the idea that I could be dating anyone seriously. She's still worried that I'm going to marry the next guy who comes along and stop watching reruns of Star Trek: Voyager with her three times a week.
But there's also another reason I choose to confide in Sarah, and it's that she recently went through a herpes scare herself. After a one-night stand with a guy from Match.com, she discovered something she was certain was a herpes sore. Endless late night internet searching seemed to confirm it. Unfortunately for her, this happened right as she was being kicked out of our grad program and before she got her current admin job on campus, so she had no health insurance. She went to the free clinic next to the university, which mostly serves the local homeless and drug addicted population. There a young volunteer of questionable medical training confirmed that it was herpes, which triggered two solid months of panic and soul-searching. But then she got a real job with benefits, and went to see a real doctor at last who said no, it was not herpes, only a pimple.
So she has some sympathy for William, but at the same time now seems to consider his lack of interest in her a bullet dodged.
"Did you know that if you give birth while having an outbreak you can pass it on to the baby?" she asks anxiously.
"I'll be careful," I assure her. Now I feel like she's the one who's a hundred pages ahead.
I feel conflicted about William. On the one hand, I still really like him a lot. On the other, I don't want to get infected, and he's made it clear he's not ready for a relationship yet. On the other other hand, we're going to be spending a lot of time together as the performance date of Rusalka gets closer.
In any case, now I don't have to feel guilty about still seeing other people, so when Warren asks me if I want to go to a sex party, I say yes. It's an invitation-only party at the home of a Sub Rosa Society member, but it's on a week night and I have to work the next day, so I warn him that I'm not going to stay late. That's fine, he says.
The house is an old Victorian, tastefully updated, in a swanky neighborhood. Marty greets me at the door, saying that Warren will arrive soon.
"Don't look so nervous," Marty says, greeting me jovially with a big hug.
"Uh, this isn't really my thing," I reply.
"Relax. You don't have to do anything you don't want to," he assures me. "It's ok just to watch. Here, I'll show you around."
It's just like a cocktail party at someone's house, with drinks and canapés in the kitchen, but all the other rooms on the ground floor are filled with bondage equipment and the guests are in various states of undress or fetish gear. In the front room, with its Persian carpets, leather sofa and bookshelves of New York Times bestseller books in hardcover, is a medieval torture rack, and by the big bay window looking out into the street is an oversize wooden chair with built in ankle and wrist restraints, kind of like an old-timey electric chair.
Marty nudges me. "What do you think of putting Warren in that?"
I agree, it does look like fun.
But Warren still hasn't shown up so I drift to the kitchen and nibble on cheese and crackers while making awkward small talk with the other guests, all of whom seem to be in their forties and fifties.
Beyond the kitchen is another room that was probably once the maid's room, or perhaps in a normal house would be a home office. But here it's clearly been redone as the play room. The walls are painted an eye-searing shade of red, and the room is absolutely crammed with high end fetish gear, all gleaming steel and black latex and black leather. Floggers and whips hang from hooks on the walls, and a pair of cuffs dangle from chains affixed to the ceiling. In the middle of the room is an enormous steel cage with someone kneeling inside.
As I peer in through the doorway, without thinking I put my hand on the doorframe, and it comes away sticky.
"Eeeew! Aaaah! Yuuuuck!" I hastily retreat to the kitchen to wash my hands in the sink, making a mental note to never, ever touch any surface at a sex party.
As I turn around to dry my hands, Warren materializes in front of me.
"Oh hi," he says, with his usual lack of emotion, as if I were a passerby on the street, and not someone who has been waiting for him for nearly an hour.
"What the hell! I touched the doorframe over there and it was sticky!"
He shrugs. "The lube does tend to get everywhere. It's on your hands, then it goes anywhere you touch."
"Yeah, I guess so," I mumble, blushing. I was imagining something far worse, although I couldn't quite work out the physics. His explanation makes a lot more sense. I feel like such a noob.
"Did you see the cage?" Warren asks, gesturing toward the room. "Frank said I could borrow it when he goes out of town next month."
Frank must be the host, who I have yet to meet. Was that him in the cage?
"So whaddayeh think, do you still want to lock me in the cage for a weekend?" Warren proposes.
"Sure, as long as I don't have rehearsal."
"It probably won't be until next month, then. I'm going to a wedding in Edmonton next weekend."
We wander back into the front room. Marty is there, and he has some random chick I've never seen before half naked on the rack. He leers up at me, then leans over and touches her clit with a vibrator.
I turn away quickly, wishing I could scrub that image from my brain. Lulu and Marty have been broken up for a while, and she's already seeing other people, so it's not for her sake. It's just that I've never been the slightest bit attracted to Marty, and watching a platonic friend have sex feels gross and wrong.
Trying very hard not to get another glimpse of Marty, I turn towards the bondage chair in the bay window, but a middle aged woman in a dog collar is already sitting in it, with a man kneeling in front of her.
"They just started. You'll have to wait your turn," Marty calls out from behind me.
Yeah, no. I've seen enough to realize that this is not for me. I really don't like watching other people have sex, even kinky bondage sex.
"I'm sorry, it's getting late and I have work tomorrow. I really should get home," I apologize to Warren, keeping my eyes on him and not anything else.
He shrugs. "No worries. I undehstend it's a hard limit for you." I hate the way he always uses that term "hard limit." I know he means to be understanding but somehow it still feels like I'm being judged for not wanting certain things. I'm so sick of all these Sub Rosa people telling me I have to be ok with polyamory and public sex and whatever else to be cool. The hell with him. I don't care what Warren thinks of me.
"Yeah, it's really not my scene here. I don't feel like playing tonight."
"It's ok, I can find someone else to play with. I'll call you when I get back from Edmonton."
I leave without a backward glance.
The performance of Rusalka is now only a few weeks away, and the rehearsals are getting more intense. We all have fittings for our costumes, on loan from another company. The women, both leads and chorus, are all dressed as fairies, in gauzy tunic dresses with chiffon attached at the wrist and shoulder to suggest wings.
Ariel, one of my friends in the women's chorus, is also in charge of wigs. Each fairy is supposed to have a lush fall of curls, but she's given twenty ratty, matted old nylon wigs. After despairing momentarily at the monumental task of making them in anything remotely presentable, Ariel recruits all the women of the chorus to help her style them at a slumber party at her house.
I used to love sleepover parties as a kid, and it's even more fun as an adult. We all camp out in Ariel's living room and watch old musicals all evening, Mary Poppins and West Side Story, and sing along at top volume. Ariel gives each of us a wig to comb then curl with a hot iron as we watch. Lulu is there, of course, and also the young soprano who sang Suzanna in The Marriage of Figaro. She's the princess in Rusalka. I'm impressed by how down to earth and friendly she is even though she's a lead. None of the other leading women have come to the party.
After midnight, we all lay sleeping bags down on the floor, and once the lights go out, the talk turns to gossip. Ariel grills Lulu about the latest guy she met on J-Date, who is ten years older than she is and seems nice enough but a little lukewarm about a relationship.
"Stop wasting your time with these guys who are so hung up on their mothers," Ariel tells Lulu flatly. "You're way too awesome for these tepid assholes. If he's not all in, throw him back."
"But I liiiiiiiiiike him," Lulu insists. I can practically hear Ariel rolling her eyes.
The conversation wanders over to me, and again I detect the undercurrent of jealousy about William. If they only knew. But I don't say anything, except that we have been on a few dates but we're not dating. To deflect any more questions about him, I recount the story of the sex party I just went to. They all seem horrified but amused, especially Suzanna. I also leave out the part about seeing Marty with another woman. Lulu has moved on but there's no reason to rub her face in it.
I'm relieved when the conversation moves on before I can say the wrong thing about either William or Marty. Suzanna tells us a little about her boyfriend, a handsome young tenor. They've been flying around the country auditioning for bigger companies and residencies, but since tenors are in high demand and sopranos are a dime a dozen, he's been getting callbacks and she gets nothing. She's trying not to be jealous but it's wearing on the relationship.
Next is Gretchen, a soprano who's new to the company this show, and I don't really know her at all. She's in her mid thirties, just a few years older than I am, soft and curvy with reddish hair. Ariel asks how she met her current partner.
"So I've probably mentioned it before, but I used to be married to someone else," Gretchen says evenly, in a tone that suggests she's told this story many times before. "We got married young. My mom always put a lot of stock in appearances, and he was on the outside the perfect guy, and we had a perfect life together. His family had a lot of money, and we lived in a big house. But on the inside it was rotten. He never raised a hand to me but psychologically he was abusive. It was when my dad died and he didn't even show me an ounce of sympathy that I realized I had to leave. Even then my mom wanted me to stay with him because what would the ladies at church say.
"So I walked out the front door and never went back. I didn't have anywhere else to go so I stayed with my best friend Jen and slept on her couch for a year while my divorce was finalized and I looked for work. Eventually I was ready to start dating again, and because I'm an organized kind of person, I made a long list of all the ideal traits I wanted in a man. Then I looked at Jen and realized that everything on the list described her perfectly, and she was the one for me. It's been five years now and we've been together ever since."
Gretchen's story is sweet but somehow perplexing. I find myself thinking it over even after the conversation finally peters out and we all fall into an exhausted sleep far into the night. It's nice for her that she found a happy relationship after such a bad one, but the way she tells it is not like coming out stories I have heard from other queer people. Does she think of herself as a lesbian or bisexual who previously suppressed her true self? Or does she consider herself straight but just fell for a friend? Is she attracted to women in general or just Jen?
These are personal questions so I don't ask Gretchen directly, but the next time I visit Sarah for a tv viewing session, I tell her the whole story.
"Interesting," Sarah says, not taking her eyes away from Voyager. "But what does it matter how she identifies?"
"I don't know, I guess not really. But we have this idea that sexual orientation is set in stone from the time you're little, you're either straight or gay, but what if it isn't like that?"
"She could just be bi."
"Well, yeah, of course. But it's like she found the perfect solution to her problem. If men are letting you down and you're not meeting the right one, why not just marry your best friend instead?"
Sarah slides a suspicious look at me from the other end of the sofa. "I'm not marrying you, if that's what you're asking."
"Why not?" I tease her, laughing. "You're missing out!"
We both laugh then drop the subject. I was only joking with her. Sarah is pretty, with her long curly red hair, but I'm not actually attracted to her, and while we are close friends, she can also be a judgy, moody pain in the butt.
But while Sarah is not my perfect match, I do have a tendency to fall for my female friends, and unlike Gretchen, I've known I'm bi since I was a teenager. Most of the time I never tell them. The one time I did, in college with Margaleet, she rejected me and it was so humiliating. The idea that a best friend could also become a partner is so seductive. If men are letting you down, why not go for women, and even better, someone you're already close to? Gretchen's story makes me feel like this could be somehow possible.
William invites me over to his place again after rehearsal on Friday night. I'm pleased that he still wants to spend time with me, but things with him feel less fairy tale perfect than before. His apartment feels slightly less inviting, like I don't quite belong there.
But I still like him a lot so I try to power through the awkwardness. He has a piano, so we pick out a few notes and sing some duets together. I'm surprised to learn that he only started taking voice lessons a few years ago. Suzanna is right, men really do have an easier time getting parts.
It's already past eleven by the time we even get to his place, so it's not long before he suggests getting in bed. Like before, we just do some kissing and mutual masturbation. As we're lying in bed after, relaxed and sleepy but not yet ready for sleep, we chat some more and I bring up Gretchen's story. It turns out she's already told William herself, maybe in even more detail.
"So what do you think?" I ask him.
"Obviously, she was always a lesbian and was just closeted at first," he declares confidently.
"Really? What makes you say that?"
"Have you met her partner, Jen?"
"No, not yet."
"She's always been out, and she's pretty butch. Also remember Gretchen comes from a very conservative Christian family."
"So you think she just couldn't admit she's a lesbian until she got to be friends with Jen?"
Well that is a bit different from the fantasy I have of falling in love with your best friend. I drop the subject, and we fall asleep.
The next morning, I suggest going for brunch at a nearby bakery, but William already has plans to go running. Like in five minutes. As he throws on his clothes, he generously offers to let me stay behind to take a shower and get dressed at my own pace.
"Careful in the shower though, I have a plantar wart on my foot," he says as he dashes out the door.
Great. I had a plantar wart once as a child and it was not an experience I'm eager to repeat. I take a quick uncomfortable shower, giving the soles of my feet an extra rinse at the end, but then realize the futility of that as I step onto the tile floor, which could also be a source of contagion.
Ugh, this sucks. I want to get closer to William, but he's always running off, and now I feel like everything about him is infectious. What am I even doing here, alone in his apartment? I get dressed quickly and leave, letting the door lock automatically behind me as I head to the bus stop for the long ride home.