By Kimberly Saunders
In sixth grade, my best friend started dating the boy she had been obsessed with since elementary school. I was equal parts happy and jealous. Then she told me he had asked her to keep it a secret. I thought that was strange. They were friends. They’d known each other for years. Why didn’t he want anyone to know they liked each other?
There could only be one reason: He was embarrassed. They didn’t exactly hang out in the same circles, and by middle school standards she was lower on the popularity scale than he was, but did that really matter? Apparently, for him, it did. After a few days of keeping it hush-hush, we convinced her that wasn’t how a real relationship worked. So, with all the flair of a late 90s rom-com, she broke up with him.
I made a vow to myself that if a boy was too ashamed to tell people I was his girlfriend, then he wasn’t worth dating. For ten years I kept that promise. But in my senior year in college I gave in and let myself become someone’s secret.
The boy I’d been in love with for three years came to me one night and said he’d finally found a way to end my unyielding longing. “Have you ever heard of polyamory?” he asked. Being the exact kind of desperate he was attracted to, I couldn’t wait to hear the details. Originally, I wasn’t interested. He didn’t even seem that interested in the idea. His face didn’t light up at the prospect of being together. He plus a girlfriend equaled me sad. So how could he remedy this unfortunate dilemma? By being with both of us. It was a formula and we were all just factors in the equation to end my suffering.
I wasn’t surprised that the guy who had dedicated his life to the tortured souls of under-appreciated women would latch on to the concept of a multitasking salvation. I don’t think his girlfriend was surprised, either. She knew who I was—the girl he couldn’t get rid of. From the moment I met him, I’d been waiting for him to realize I was the one he was supposed to be with. But apparently my life wasn’t horrible enough to warrant his attention. So, I settled for being a friend—until he found a loophole, and I jumped right through.
It wasn’t a secret—but I probably shouldn’t tell anyone, he said, even though there was nothing to hide.
Half of the people we knew had no idea what was going on, while the other half were trying to sort out who they pitied more: me or the girlfriend. But they weren’t the only ones struggling to take sides.
“I can’t lose her,” he would say during our late-night drives. He went on and on about his hesitations, about the unforeseen challenges that occur when multiple are involved. And then he would pause.
And wait—for me to say something, anything to give him an out of this unorthodox relationship. Except it didn’t feel like a relationship at all. Winter break went by without a single phone call; however, I did receive an obligatory text message on Christmas morning. There was no exchange of valentines. He barely even acknowledged my birthday. If this was a relationship, then he was the worst boyfriend ever. Or maybe I was just a terrible girlfriend. Maybe I was expecting too much. After all, I knew the situation. I knew there would be struggles and uncertainties, but those uncertainties were starting to outweigh any foolish hope I had that we could make polyamory work.
He always found a reason to be somewhere else. Even when she wasn’t around, I had to beg him to brave the lakeshore snowfall at two a.m. so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone. He was my first thought, my ideal Friday night. But he only acknowledged me out of convenience.
My friends, who had started off intrigued, quickly became concerned. My roommate witnessed more than one emotional meltdown. I was not a rational person. I was a romantic—and that kept me hopelessly attached. I said I never intended for it to last; I knew it would end. Even with all the second-guessing, I really started to think this could be my future. I could spend the rest of my life being an afterthought.
The last time we spent the night together we had a fight about the sex he wouldn’t have, and then he drove two days to pick up his girlfriend in Georgia. When we talked after that, it was brief and heavy, with subtle comments about the feelings we couldn’t figure out. Eventually he just stopped talking to me altogether.
Then I reconnected with an old friend from high school. One October night we met for dinner and a movie. He offered to pay. He asked if I wanted to get ice cream. He admitted later how much he wanted to hold my hand. A month after that he asked me to be his girlfriend. His only girlfriend.
I posted it on Facebook and that was okay. I told my friends, my family, and even the waitress serving us pancakes. He made my favorite cookies for our first Christmas and bought me yellow roses on Valentine’s Day. For my birthday, he made it all about me and the things I liked to do. Finally, I was the center of someone’s attention, and that was more than okay. I had a boyfriend who adored me and I didn’t have to share him with anyone.
Kimberly Saunders is an English instructor at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. Previous publications can be found on her website: www.kimberlyannsaunders.com.
Photo credit: “Arguments in Motion” by Guian Bolisay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.