The magazine said, if you want to know him better, get to know his other lovers. As Josie, 26, read the block of text, her brow crumpled. Third Wheel was her favorite advice column. Her boyfriend, Mark, had suggested it to her. After he came out, and she was having trouble accepting him. I just want you to know me better, he said, and texted her the link to Third Wheel.
Mark was polyamorous. Where Josie grew up, in Ohio, that was called cheating, but Portland and everything about it was different from Findlay. She felt awkward and vanilla here. The people were different. The rules she was used to didn’t apply. Dating, which she did with the help of a few apps, felt like a series of interviews where she was either hiring and nobody was qualified, or she was answering questions that made her feel profoundly old-fashioned. Everyone was poly here, except for Josie. At least, that’s what Mark told her. She believed him.
His other lovers, Third Wheel said. The column called these outside people “metamours.” The lover of your lover. Even dating was a way to network, to polyamorous people. You slept with someone, and they slept with someone, and you built a community on your willingness to fuck each other. A metamour was also called a co-husband or co-wife, or a familiar. Josie wondered what it would be like to be married to someone who had another wife. She decided she would probably kill both of them.
“What are you reading? Your cheeks are pink,” Mark said.
“I got hot all of a sudden.”
He smiled. He was 33. He looked older to her—laugh lines around his eyes—and even though she knew that theoretically they were both young, and that when she was 33 she’d see herself as a child and other 33-year-olds as normal people, she wondered what he really knew that she didn’t, aside from how to love more than one person at a time.
“You’re pretty when you blush.”
She smiled, but he went back to his crossword puzzle. “I wasn’t blushing,” she muttered. There was nothing in Third Wheel about how to tell if you were too grown up, or not grown up enough.
After breakfast, Mark wanted to go back to his place and fuck, but Josie made up a story about how she needed to help her roommate with a really important project. It was hard to say no to Mark’s bed, but it was summer and she didn’t want to get all sweaty, and besides, once they started fucking it was so hard for her to stop, she’d spend all day in his bed in the loft of the carriage house, with the skylight open to let the fresh air in and her happy sounds out. Mark kissed her for a long time after she unlocked her bike from his house’s front fence.
“I wish you’d stay.”
“What will you do instead?”
“I’ll get up to something,” he told her. “Kate and I have plans tonight.”
“There’s room for one more, if you want to join us. We’re taking a picnic to Overlook Park, to watch the sunset.”
“That sounds romantic.” She tried to keep the sarcastic tone out of her voice, but knew from Mark’s expression that she’d failed.
“We’re dating. I wish you’d just accept her. She’s important to me, too.”
“I hope you have fun.” She swung her leg over the bike’s crossbar.
He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck. He wasn’t from Portland, either, but he wasn’t from a place like Findlay. “Look, Jo. I’ll text you her number. If you were willing to meet—maybe it would put some of this to bed.”
Put it to bed. She knew he fucked Kate in the same bed as her, on the same sheets. In this warm weather, she sometimes smelled the other woman’s oils and her shampoo and soap on the pillows. Kate smelled like geraniums and roses, and lemons softening with mold. When Josie thought that this special combination of scents was Mark’s, she couldn’t get enough of it. Now, it turned her stomach. She wished he would at least do the laundry between Kate’s visits. She wished it was winter. She wished that Kate wasn’t even in the picture.
Her phone buzzed against her hip as she pedaled away. That would be the phone number. Mark did all the things Third Wheel said to do: he told her about Kate, including her last name and where they’d met, and he told Josie when he had a date with her and where they went. He seemed too eager to share the details and frequency of the sex he had with Kate, which made Josie feel even sicker, so sick that she actually almost fainted when he said that Kate gave amazing head and even though Mark didn’t get the point he could at least shut up about how open minded Kate was so that he could bring Josie a glass of water. She was, he said, a little green around the gills.
Josie’s older self, who was 33 and way more open minded than Kate and Mark put together, would probably look back on this period of her life and sigh wistfully. Wistfully, or whimsically? She always mixed those words up. Mark didn’t ask for her help with the crossword, because of it. She turned down Albina and then took a left. The bike lane went all the way into Sellwood, the other end of Portland’s universe, where she rented a room on the first floor of a house near the college. It was a long ride, at least 30 minutes, which gave her time to think about nothing. North Portland’s industrial, glass fronted shops and gentrified store facades turned into green spaces. She rode along the Springwater Corridor, inhaling the sweet scent of grass and the vague, brackish scent of the Willamette River just down the low bank. Some of the trees here were the same, and some of the birds, but on days like this Josie felt her new city’s foreignness, as though she was on another planet entirely, hearing sounds and smelling smells that were reminiscent of the place she grew up but on closer examination were only similar enough to Findlay to compel her senses and lull her into a feeling of familiarity. No matter which way she looked, she couldn’t quite convince herself that she was home.
She lived with Ashley, 26, Caitlin, 25, and Jenna, 29. Jenna seemed at times impossibly old and mysterious, and spent most of her time off in her room reading about crystals and testing various plant emulsions. She was an aesthetician who spent her days ripping hair out of women’s bodies with hot wax and tweezers. Her boyfriend was a bartender who drove a motorcycle. Ashley and Caitlin, who worked at the same nonprofit, were uncoupled but sometimes brought strange men back to the house and had loud, enthusiastic sex with them. Josie, at home, felt her white-breaded-ness. Even at home, she felt out of place.
She parked her bike on the house’s front porch and went in, as though entering a temple. It smelled like basil and popcorn—cooking. She dodged into her room before anyone could see her and closed the door. Sat on her bed. Took out her phone and set it, screen up, on the bed. She folded her legs and stared down into its flickering face, as though consulting an oracle.
Kate Hutton. And a phone number. She typed the name into Facebook and thumbed down the scroll of faces, wondering which one was Mark’s other girlfriend. He explained one time that it wasn’t infidelity, because what he did with Kate didn’t change how he felt or what he did with Josie. And he said that it couldn’t be a betrayal, because he’d been honest with both of them the whole time—he hadn’t gotten bored, changed the rules in the middle of the game, decided to switch ponies. Josie’s stomach clenched. He had not gotten bored with her, true, but having another girlfriend in the picture, or even saving a space for someone else, seemed to mean that he had no intention of really letting her in, either. He had room on his plate a dab of each partner, mayonnaise and mustard, and that was enough for him. He said all the time that Josie was free to see other people, but she didn’t want that. She was afraid to move any further from Mark, give up more of him than she already had. She was as close as he would let her be, and it wasn’t enough.
Of course all the Kates were very pretty. She hated that she was this kind of girl, who got jealous. She hated that she was the kind of girl who did the things she did, and felt how she felt. She wished to be older, wiser, grander, but seemed unable to change or be anything other than what she was: too young, too self aware, too naive. She felt like she was surrounded by girls, but still without friends. Nobody loved her brand of vulnerability here.
Her first text was designed to be innocuous, a wrong number kind of text that could be read and deleted without comment.
Hi, how’s it going?
She sent it and then put the phone down. She could tell Mark she’d gotten in touch, like he wanted. Then maybe he’d stop bringing it up. In the kitchen on the other side of her bedroom wall, one of her house mates turned the water on. There was singing, indistinct. Outside, a lawn mower, someone doing yard work before the heat of the day came on too hard.
The text window flickered. Kate had read receipts. Josie watched the speech bubble, three percolating dots, appear on the left side. Then: Hi, Josie! I’m getting ready for work, then my date with Mark.
Next line: Nice to hear from you. It had a weird finality to it. Kate already knew her name—that meant Mark gave her Josie’s number first. Why hadn’t she been the one to reach out? Josie turned her phone’s screen to the quilt and lay back, arms crossed. She felt that she was playing a game she didn’t know the rules to. Was Kate his favorite? The primary? How exactly did you talk to your metamour, when you didn’t want to?
As the sun set, Josie knew, Mark and Kate were sitting down next to each other on a picnic blanket at Overlook Park. She imagined Kate in a pretty sundress, the kind she saw in the window at Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie, totally out of her price range. They’d have a picnic basket with separate compartments inside, a chilled bottle of champagne, and no mosquitoes.
Josie lay on her bed, watching the sun move in pinkening stripes down the wall. The stars would come out, and they would hold hands, counting them, making wishes. The love Mark had with someone else was always a little better than whatever he had with Josie. The lighting was better, the makeup and even the script—as though her little slice of relationship was merely a dress rehearsal for what he was doing with her metamour. She wondered, not for the first time, what he said to Kate, and if they were the same words he used with Josie. Did he hold the other girl’s face the same way? Did he put his lips against her ear when he fucked her, whispering, urging her to cum? By the time she’d thought it all through, she was too sad to masturbate and fell asleep with her clothes on.
When she woke up, it was maybe 4 in the morning. Her phone vibrated next to her ear.
It was Mark. She picked up the phone, stared at it. She didn’t have read receipts.
He must be alone, then. Or he wanted a threesome. Fuck him. She turned the phone off and rolled over. When she woke up again, the birds were singing and Jenna was running the coffee grinder.
“Wow, you’re up early.”
“I can’t sleep. It’s too hot.”
Jenna nodded sagely. Her bedroom was pretty much the whole basement, the coolest room in the house in the summer. The unfinished ceiling was hung with dreamcatchers, hides, horns, and dried flowers. A witch’s bower.
“My boyfriend is dating someone else,” Josie blurted.
“I mean, obviously I know about it. But I’ve never done this on purpose before. You know?”
“So he’s poly.”
“Everyone is here.”
Jenna poured two mugs, passed Josie the carton of cream. “I’m not. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Is he really that great?”
The coffee tasted slightly of cardamom. It was the perfect temperature. The kitchen window was open, to let in the few hours of cooler, fresh air. The pale yellow curtains, which belonged to Jenna and were embroidered with small golden stars, waved in the barely there breeze. Josie sighed.
“He’s your first real one, huh,” Jenna said. “Have you met this other bitch?”
“I don’t even know her.” She didn’t know why Jenna, whose whole witch thing was built on a neo feminist ideal of radical sisterhood—the label witch itself, Jenna once explained, stood for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell—would call Kate a bitch. The word floated in the air, green as swamp gas, and its presence made Josie feel just a tiny bit better. Even Jenna saw it. Kate was a bitch. They didn’t have to know her to decide they didn’t like her.
“Meet her. You’ll see that whatever you’re up against isn’t much.” Jenna topped off her mug, which was painted with red capped mushrooms. “That guy you’re dating has got to be a moron.”
Yes, Jenna, please tell me why he is a moron, because I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“He must be. Otherwise, how could he think you’d stick around for this game? You’re young, you’re new, but you’re smart, too. This is the thing about men,” she said. “Once you stop giving them what they want, they change what they ask for. No man has a hard limit. But we do, women do. We’re the ones who set the boundaries in relationships. That’s our power.”
“Shouldn’t men and women do that equally? Like, an egalitarian relationship?”
Jenna raised a perfect eyebrow. “There’s no such thing as an equal relationship, because men and women are not equal in love and never will be. Balance is key. Not equality.”
She went downstairs and Josie heard her put on a record, then close the door that separated her bedroom from the rest of the basement. She finished her coffee, rinsed the cup, left it clean and upside down on the rack. She felt strange and empty. Jenna’s words rattled around in her brain. Bitch. Moron. Game. No such thing. She picked up her phone and typed Kate’s name into the message screen.
Wanna get coffee today?
She saw the read receipt appear, then the response which followed almost at once. Sure! I’m leaving Mark’s right now, headed to Sweetpea Bakery.
Jeez, that’s cutting it close, Josie thought. But she was almost dressed, and the idea of meeting Kate at this moment, with her mind so quiet, was tempting.
I’ll be there in 20.
She put on her favorite t-shirt, the black one with the screenprint of Marilyn Monroe’s face, and made sure her socks matched. She picked out a necklace, a crescent moon on a long silver chain, and when she slipped it over her head she felt some of Jenna’s witchy power transfer into her. Even though she wasn’t the superstitious type she repeated the mantra Jenna had provided, bitch-moron-game and she felt her perspective align with Jenna’s perspective. What was Josie even doing? Was this imbalanced triangle ever going to straighten up and magically deliver her the thing she wished for? She imagined Jenna in her situation and found it impossible. If it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t enough. There wasn’t room in her life for more disappointment.
Sweetpea was a small vegan bakery tucked into the trendy strip on SE 12th and Stark, next to a vegan mini mart, a vegan tattoo parlor, and a vegan owned acupuncture and massage clinic. There was a bike rack out front. Josie locked up, amazed that the steel tubing was already warm from the sun. She didn’t know exactly what Kate looked like, or even what she would say to her, but she was glad she’d come. She felt a little less afraid, just being there. I’m leaving Mark’s right now, Kate had texted. So she spent the night in his bed; so they slept late. But for once Josie did not feel jealous of either of them.
Is he really that great? Jenna said.
“Josie,” someone said when she walked into the bakery, blinking the glare out of her eyes.
The woman was standing by the counter, with a white paper cup in one hand and a small plate in the other. “I’m Kate. I would hug you, but my hands are full.”
Josie looked down into Kate’s face. She was smaller, softer, older than Josie expected. She looked like a kindergarten teacher. “It’s fine. How about you pick a table for us?”
“I didn’t think you’d get here so fast,” Kate said as Josie slid into the chair opposite her. She couldn’t stomach sweets before noon, so she had a bagel, smeared with some kind of imitation vegan cream cheese that actually wasn’t too bad.
“I’m in Sellwood. It’s not far.”
“I love that neighborhood.” Kate sank her teeth into a peanut butter bar that immediately covered her plate in brown sugar crumbles. A kindergarten teacher eating a graham cracker. Josie noticed that her arms were covered in dark hair that was indecently thick. A glance at Kate’s face, which was appealing and plain, showed matching patches on her temples and even on her upper lip. Her black bob had a fading blue streak in it. Her brows were unplucked. A week ago, she would have been intimidated by this woman, her metamour, but now, she saw Kate through Jenna-colored glasses and all she saw was a not-very-attractive woman who made no effort to make herself even a little bit beautiful. Kate was not her competition. Josie looked closely and saw someone who was willing to compromise on what she wanted because she didn’t have enough power, or enough confidence, to barter for it. She was sticking around for the game, had stuck around, and Mark was comfortable keeping her waiting for whatever it was she wanted.
“How was your picnic?”
“So pretty. Mark says that the two of you ride through that part of North Portland a lot.”
“We don’t,” Josie said, without thinking. “I don’t know why he would tell you that.”
Kate put her cookie back down. “He was eager for me to meet you.”
“I don’t know why he would be eager.” Josie laughed, half at how ridiculously good it felt to tell the truth, and half at the look on Kate’s face. Josie’s bluntness was out of place in Portland, just like her need to love only one man, only one at a time, and not share him with anyone ever.
Kate smiled. She was better looking when she smiled, even with her hairy arms.
Josie said, “We can’t just sit here and talk about Mark.”
“No,” Kate agreed.
“I mean, he’s not that great,” Josie said. “And he would like it too much.”
That made Kate actually laugh, and then she was pretty, but Josie didn’t mind, because as of this moment she didn’t give a fuck about Mark and honestly Kate could fucking have him, since it was clear that on some level Mark and his half baked theory of polyamory was the best she could do, and if that was what Kate wanted to settle for, then who was Josie to stand in her way? She imagined Kate, waking up next to Mark under the carriage house’s skylight and hugging him while he checked his dating app messages and texts from Josie and tried to confirm a happy hour date with some other bitch for later that day. And it wasn’t pure imagination because he’d done exactly all of those things in the presence of Josie, even while she pressed the length of her sleep-softened body against him, waiting impatiently for him to put the phone down and turn to her and give her the attention she desired. If Kate wanted all of that, all that non-affection that Mark had to offer, it was hers.
“I see why he likes you,” Kate said.
“I see why he likes you,” Josie said. “I’m glad he gave you my number.”
“I mean, I hope we stay in touch, is what I’m saying.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m breaking up with him,” Josie said. “Like, effective today. He wasn’t giving me what I needed. But I would love to have coffee or something again.”
“Are you serious?”
“I should probably let him know, huh?” Josie said.
Kate blushed, picked up her cookie, put it back down, picked it up. “This isn’t how I expected this to go.”
“I don’t even like the word metamour,” Josie said. “I don’t like this arrangement. But that’s not on you. It’s just not enough.”
“Do you want me to tell him? You’re going to tell him.”
Josie shrugged. Third Wheel didn’t give instructions for how to leave a poly situation. In the column, these relationships seemed to live on indefinitely, under the constant attention and nudging of the people in them. But she didn’t want to be friends with Mark, or slowly transition away from being his girlfriend while he fucked other people, shopping for a suitable replacement. She didn’t want to talk about labels and names. She wanted a love that was simple, and worthy.
“I’ll let him know. Just pretend it’s a surprise, okay?”
Kate smiled. “You seem a little surprised yourself.”
“I had a change of heart, is all. Plus, meeting you. I think it’s the best choice for everyone.”
“Why would meeting me change that?” Another small sprinkling of brown sugar on the plate. But her eyes were not composed, and with a delicacy that did not come naturally to her but was undoubtedly the gift of Jenna’s powers, Josie saw Kate’s excitement, her eagerness. Josie was granting Kate’s wish. The only thing Josie had to do was make sure that Kate was in a position to enjoy it.
“You’re so much better for him than I am,” she said. “I have no idea how to do this kind of relationship. He’s happy when he’s with you, and I think that once I’m out of the picture you’ll get to see more of each other. He needs someone like you, for the long term.”
And Kate’s smile was glittering now, and she was beautiful, really, wearing her hope all over her face. “I feel the same way,” she said.
And then they changed the subject, and talked about movies instead.
Mark called a lot over the next few days, and texted too, but Jenna gave her a crystal to put on top of her phone to filter out negativity and after about a week, Josie stopped hearing from him. It was a relief, honestly. She rode her bike in the sun until she got freckles on her shoulders and her nose, and she ate sandwiches in the park and went to bed alone and whenever she felt like it.
At night, before sleep, she lay back in the dark, her hands traveling over her warm belly, sheets kicked off. Outside, she heard a car start, and then the hazards and red brake lights flashed in gentle pulses through the blinds. She was not lonely, here in the dark with herself. She was alone, a network of one, a single dot connected to nobody.
When she touched herself she saw not Mark’s face but a swirling void full of fingers and tongues that thrust into one another, licking and pulling, and this vision was what made her cum so hard that her bed shook, knocking her phone to the floor and sending the borrowed rose quartz skittering under the bed. She picked it up, her hands still sticky with lube, and the screen blinked on.
Best week of my life, Kate said. I hope you’re enjoying it, too.
Josie typed a flower, then a heart. Yes, she said. Actually, I think I’m in love again.
Claire is the author of "I've Never Done This Before." She reads, writes, and edits in Portland, Oregon.