Polyamory in the Age of Epidemics

Christine Ma-Kellams

This past June, my husband said, “My goal this summer is to get you laid. You need a wingman. Otherwise you’re too awkward by yourself.”

A few things we need to get out of the way, in no particular order:

  1. Twelve years into this thing called marriage, my husband and I have the kind of sex—with each other—that threatens nerve damage in our outermost limbs, so toe-curling it is. 
  2. I was a virgin when I met my husband, although the same cannot be said of him, not by a long, long shot. 
  3. We are the type of church-going Christian that believes Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said all the crazy stuff about not coveting your neighbor’s wife. 

Of course, one of these things needs to give, in one way or another. 

I can’t remember when the aspirations for cuckoldry—is polyamory by any other name just as sweet?—first started. It was obvious from the start that my husband was not the jealous type. As a psychologist, I wondered if his lack of jealousy might have bordered upon pathological, assuming there is such a thing. If anything, he appeared to relish my fleeting interest in other men: a brief preoccupation with an artist-turned-stay-at-home dad from meetup.com, whose receding hairline gave him an endearing, harmless quality as he gunned for my child’s heart during playdates while staring at me; a prolonged and waylaid emotional affair with a former olive-skinned history teacher who still called me by my maiden name whenever he emails me at risqué hours of the night, complaining that none of his current students resembled me; a sporadic, on-again, off-again, casual experiment in how much flirting is acceptable during lunches with my work-husband, who was Korean enough to post his motherland’s flag on his faculty webpage but not Korean enough to consider me off-limits, despite my Han bloodline. Even when there was no one, my husband would ask whether I’d met any attractive strangers in elevators during recent conference trips or had any interested in the browsing the “Looking For” section from Craigslist. Competition was always his greatest source of arousal. For the first couple of years, this bothered me; being a supremely jealous person myself, possessiveness always seemed to be love’s right-hand man. But going into year #12, I couldn’t help but wonder if a forgiving husband incapable of jealousy was perhaps, just maybe, some divinity’s personal gift to me.  Whether it was from God or the devil remained an open question.

Polyamory is harder than it looks, even harder to pull off. The stay-at-home dad, the history teacher, the work husband—they were all married, albeit with varying degrees of happiness. But as my husband says: “I want a slut, not a cheat.” Between those two types of women lies a vast chasm of collateral damage. 

Then, a miracle: a pair of our friends divorced. The husband: a hapa assistant DA whose socially awkward silences could not interfere with his supreme sex appeal. The wife: the kind of girlfriend who will offer to babysit her friend’s kids and arrange playdates for the entirety of our children’s youth yet refuse to reveal anything of her personal life, including her uncoupling, unless forced. In other words, the kind of popular woman who gives much and trusts little. Said differently, the kind of person impossible to pledge allegiance to. 

I had met the DA seven Halloweens ago when he still had the kind of trimmed hair reminiscent of pre-pandemic times and I still believed the holiday to be an excuse for attached women everywhere to don the sluttiest costume possible and get away with it. His wife introduced us at the trick-or-treating festivities set up in our town’s train depot, where our kids performed tosses and jumps and throws in exchange for organic fruit peels and plastic trinkets. One glance at his military haircut and amber eyes and I was done for: he looked exceedingly like someone I wanted to know in the most Biblical sense possible. He looked back at me that day and nodded, as if in agreement. As my husband tells me: deep inside me is a pubescent boy who has just discovered his dick. 

It didn’t help that a few weeks later, the DA and my husband went on a man-date—set up by their wives—prolonged by cigars and IPAs. When my man came home, the first thing out of his mouth was:

“Do you know what this guy said about you?”

“What?” I asked.

“He confessed to whacking off while thinking about you.”

“Very funny,” I replied, hoping it wasn’t a joke. “How did this even come up?”

Turns out, the two men were taking turns complaining about their respective ball and chains when my husband decided to take this opportunity to reveal the real reason I always have a scrunchie on one of my wrists: to tie my hair up at a moment’s notice in case I need to dole out a propitiatory blowjob to put a quick end to one of our fights. Apparently this revelation was enough to prompt the DA to reveal his own endorsement of me as a 30-some year old woman still worthy of objectification. 

“What did you say?” I demanded, trying to sound offended, if only because that seemed like the most appropriate response.

“I just laughed.”

“Were you mad he said that?”

“Why would I be mad?” he asked. “I’d rather have friends who wish they could sleep with my wife than not. It’s a good sign.”

I forgot to ask him, “Of what?”

When news of the divorce broke after an awkward Christmas party wherein the DA and his wife showed up separately and he, at one point, told the men in the room of his future plans to have more children with anyone but the woman he used to call wife, I said nothing to my husband. But several months later, a global pandemic forced hubby and I into each other’s constant daily orbits for such a prolonged period of time that we were forced to come up with more creative ways to stay married. 

So I emailed the DA. “Can I pick your brain?” I said. It was my pick up line of choice for no other reason than the observation that mansplaining appears to be an aphrodisiac for every male I know. I told him I was writing a novel about a DA and left out the part about the infidelity, the two marriages on the brink of something at least one of them could never recover from. I declined to mention that it might be auto fiction—or not—depending on how things turned out with him and me. 

It took him two days to write back, “Hey, yes sure.” We settled on a Saturday and decided on the menu: tri-tip, bruschetta, biscuits, brownies. My mother never told me but I figured it out anyway: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, unless you get to his head first. Although the real question is: which head are we talking about?

When I told my husband, he asked me, “So what are you going to say?”

“You tell me,” I told him. 

“Tell him that several moons ago, you heard a rumor that he jerked off thinking about you.”

“And then?”

“Ask him, ‘Was I any good?’”

I laughed, he laughed—both of us unclear of the other person’s sobriety, or lack thereof. 

Still, I told one of my girlfriends—a fellow academic I grew up with from church— about the impending hall pass, and she spent the rest of happy hour grilling me about what the catch was, so insurmountable was her disbelief. My husband was convinced that she must’ve told her husband, who likely demanded she never hang out with us again, so unused he must be to our tolerance for depravity. That was six months ago and I have not heard from her since. My husband took this as evidence that he has a gift for being right. 

But then, the switch: the night before the DA showed up to our house, my husband changed his mind. “I don’t think our marriage would ever be the same,” he said, suddenly a man of nuance. 

“You would hold it over me forever?” I asked.

“It’d come up every time we have a fight,” he predicted. 

I reminded him it was his idea, one he nursed for over the past decade because lust is easy to maintain in every context except marriage, where suddenly it becomes something you have to work at and plan for and schedule. He did not tell me I was wrong, but since when did being right ever dictate the outcome of any debate? 

At one point he said, “You know how I never want to eat the cookie until the cookie is right in front of me? Then I never say no.”

“You do yell at me every time I bring treats into the house but then happily eat half the box,” I tell him.

“Exactly,” he said. “Remember that tomorrow.”

I looked at him. He looked at me. If I only knew then what I know now. 

That Saturday, the DA showed up with his steaks and White Claw, plus both children in tow. We talked in code about his sex life and the twenty-three-year-old he recently broke up with for the fifth time. I told him there must be nothing quite like a twenty-three-year-old vagina. He looked back at me and told me I was wrong. I doubt I will ever enjoy being corrected quite as much as I did then. He went on to regale us with stories about his crazy ex-wife. Other women’s insanity has always been my prize for reasons I am too ashamed to unpack. 

I never did ask him about that rumor. But then again, the plan is to invite him back next month. 

Christine Ma-Kellams is an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University. Her other short stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Catapult, the Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, THE BAND, is forthcoming from Atria. Follow her on Twitter at @makellams.

Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

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