“I have a proposition,” Jack said, a whiff of Maker’s Mark on his breath as he spoke over the din of the dive bar on a Saturday night. “Maybe tonight, if you see a cute guy, you could bring him back to my place.”
My voice rose, along with a sense of dread. “For a threesome?”
“No, for you — to sleep with,” he said. “I could watch. From the closet. He wouldn’t know I was there.”
I fought a swell of revulsion. Jack wanted me to sleep with other men? And he wanted to watch? It defied the laws of romance.
Jack and I met online four months earlier (although his name isn’t really Jack). He was cute, with blue eyes and dark stubble. Feeling lonely after having recently moved 3,000 miles from Brooklyn to San Francisco, I ignored my initial anxiety about his age (39 to my 29). He was an accomplished artist and musician and, being a sucker for tortured creative types, I invited myself over to his place at the end of our first date, where we finished off a bottle of cheap Cabernet before having hazy sex that I could barely remember the next day.
That wasn’t unusual: As a near-daily drinker since college, I’d had plenty of blackout one-night stands. Vodka had been a way to overcome shyness and depression since my misfit teens. I had long been self-medicating with alcohol and men.
That evening with Jack bled into weekends of Netflix marathons, chocolate in bed, and sex on the kitchen floor while making dinner. Alcohol was almost always involved; we’d go through a bottle or two of wine with dinner, and when we went out to shows or art openings (which we did often), we’d grab a drink or four from the bar. Nothing seemed amiss at first, and I didn’t ask many questions of him, or of myself. I mainly wanted someone to spoon with — though, having been single for a while, having regular sex again wasn’t a bad thing, either. Jack suggested we become exclusive.
Soon, Jack’s sexual appetites … ripened. “Want to check out Power Exchange sometime?” Jack asked one night, glass of Riesling in hand as we shared a blanket on his living room couch. Power Exchange was a local sex club where leather-leaning types could get whipped and fornicate in front of masses of probing-eyed strangers. “Hrrrmm,” I said, my eyes skimming the TV as I changed the subject.
At a bar a couple of weeks later, we ran into Abby, a friend of Jack’s from the art scene. She had long, straight red hair in ponytails, and a perkily upturned nose. He introduced us, then after she swished away, he whispered, “You should hook up with her. She’s bi.”
This again? “I’m not,” I snapped. I didn’t understand this need to bring others into our sex life. Was I not enough for him? Eyes fixed on the exit sign, I reached for my purse. “Jack, if you need to watch me with other people to get off, you should get a new girlfriend.” I stood up, but he tugged me down and hugged me close.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed into my hair.
Jack never outright pressured me, which made his suggestions easier to ignore (as did the merlot). And so I stuck around. A cozy warmth had developed between us. He was the most physically affectionate boyfriend I’d ever had. He treated his cat like a little Buddha. And he was unashamed to admit that he wanted marriage and kids, like, yesterday. I wasn’t ready, but I found that endearing.
About five months into my relationship with Jack, I started seeing a new therapist. (I’d been in therapy since I was 15.) After hearing about some of my drunken misdeeds, she suggested I try a 12-step meeting. She was the third therapist to imply I had a problem with alcohol, but she was the first one I actually listened to. She was an alcoholic herself, but she hadn’t had a drink in 30-something years. For some reason I followed her advice, went to check out a meeting — and then I just kept going. It wasn’t a conscious choice to get sober. One day turned into another, and as I kept with it, I started sleeping better, my head felt clearer, and I lost a few pounds. I could see how destructive my life had been, and how much saner and simpler it was without alcohol in it.
But that put everything else into perspective, too. In those early morning moments in front of the mirror, I couldn’t escape the niggling truth: I wasn’t in love with Jack. How could I be? His desire to watch me with other people made me feel like an old sweat shirt he didn’t mind loaning out.
We were having breakfast, about a month after I stopped drinking, when the subject of our most recent exes came up. “What have your girlfriends been like?” I asked.
Spreading jam on his toast, he said, “Well, a few years ago I was in a triad with two women. Then I dated Tina for a year. We were polyamorous.”
My heart clanged. “Have you ever been in a long-term relationship? Like, a real one? With one person?”
“I’ve tried.” His voice grew strained. “I’m not great at monogamy, sweetie. I was actually sleeping with eight other women when we met.”
I narrowly managed to avoid spitting my coffee across the table. “Eight women? Why? Who needs that many sex partners?!”
Later that morning after he’d gone to work, I took a peek at his email (I know this was sketchy behavior, but hey, he’d left it open). Since I’d failed to meet his fantasies and he was so bad at monogamy, was he getting those needs met elsewhere? I found an email he’d sent a week ago: “CRAIGSLIST – Re: MFM cross-dresser seeking anon hotel f**k.” He was attempting to arrange a hotel tryst with a male prostitute who would be dressed as a woman. I was floored. I didn’t even care that his date would be a guy; it was the secrecy that infuriated me.
When he walked through the door at lunchtime, I let loose a flood of rage. He shuffled his feet, hovered in the doorway, grew teary. He hadn’t cheated, he claimed — he’d never actually met the Craigslist guy, or anyone else, in person — but he had an addiction.
I knew that alcohol and drugs could be addictive, sure. But I’d always seen “sex addiction” as a lame rationalization for men’s inability to keep it in their pants. Still, watching him desperately trying to explain his behavior, he seemed so powerless and scared. I understood how it felt to need something more, something outside yourself, just to get through a day.
“It’s fantasy,” Jack said. He told me he never meant to hook up with the prostitute; he just wanted to imagine it, to get as close to that fire as he could without being burned. He said he wasn’t attracted to guys. “The transvestite thing was just about crossing boundaries.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed him. Still, I couldn’t help but sympathize. I had spent months blinding myself to our situation with alcohol, and now it seemed like we were in the same boat, just with different drugs of choice. I still wasn’t happy about what he’d done or the issues he had, but I caught a glimpse of the pain and fear that was driving all this crazy behavior. Maybe sex really can be a compulsion, I thought.
About a week after that, he started seeing a therapist and going to meetings of his own. I was happy to see him getting what he needed, but I had to get what I needed, too — and leave the relationship.
Hindsight makes it painfully clear: Our relationship was wrong from the start. I was lonely in a new city, drinking heavily to numb my anxiety, and I craved companionship; Jack was there. I’m grateful, though, for what he showed me about addiction: It isn’t limited to substances. There are so many damaging ways to shut up the blistering voice in your head telling you that you’re not enough. I’m lucky I removed the vodka long enough to see how badly I’d been faking it — in my relationships and everywhere else.
A few weeks after we broke up, Jack found another girlfriend. She indulged all his group sex fantasies, and he even propositioned me for a threesome a few months down the road. I turned him down yet again. Only this time I didn’t feel bad. I felt lucky to be free.