Thursday, July 17, 2014

What I Did Before I Knew Better

by Annabeth Leong

I walked into the smoky, after-hours cafe I'd just discovered and encountered the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. He was lanky and careless, the way I like, with dark skin and honest-to-God golden eyes and a way of smiling with only half his face at a time. Sleeping with him felt like a need, not a want.

Back then, in the 90s, I was so good at setting that sort of thing up. In a matter of days, we were listening to Radiohead and Mazzy Star while making out in the back room (where he also slept in exchange for working the counter). We were making out on the floor in the front room after the cafe locked the door, when only the special people got to stay. We were taking midnight walks in the park behind the cafe and climbing from there onto the tops of official city buildings, where we were also making out.

Then I met his girlfriend. She had periwinkle eyes, a feline throat, and beauty spots everywhere. She had a way of laughing that was both rough and girlish, and when she was in the room, I could never stop looking at her. She gave me a ride somewhere, and my hand crept onto her thigh. It was another need.

I wasn't as cool with her as I'd learned to be with men. With her, I was desperate, all too aware of how badly I wanted her, terribly afraid that she might only be tolerating me. Still, I kissed her every chance she gave me. I would take her foot into my lap and stroke her ankle, then slyly and patiently work my way up her leg to the lower edge of her shorts. Sometimes, we played with boys together, trading kisses in combinations that made me dizzy, or going driving and pulling over so I could lick my way down her neck. She was so fucking beautiful to me that the shape of her name still makes me shiver.

He explained the deal to me one night while walking me home, after this thing had been going on for a while. The two of them were together, and their main loyalties were to each other, but they were both okay if I spent an occasional night with one or the other of them. I didn't know words for polyamory, or the concept of primaries and secondaries, but I got what he was saying, and I didn't mind.

It's not just that I didn't mind. It was perfect to me, even if everything I'd ever heard told me that I ought to be upset by the arrangement. The script I knew said I ought to demand to be his exclusive girlfriend. I'd just opened my eyes to the possibility that I might also be her girlfriend, but again, monogamy was the only story I'd been told. I liked having a boyfriend and a girlfriend, though. I'd spent the last couple years cheating on lovers all the time, until finally I swore off making promises of exclusivity. Our deal gave me the freedom I wanted, but also the right to spend time with what seemed like the hottest two people in the world.

For a while, it worked, and I was happy. Then he came to talk to me again. They were worried, he said, that this thing we had going was too imbalanced. They thought I ought to get a boyfriend who was cool with joining our arrangement. The number three was unstable, and they thought a fourth would even things out. We could go on double dates together without looking weird.

They had a guy picked out for me, a friend of his, and they wanted me to meet him.

It's hard to believe now that I was really this casual about things, but I said sure, whatever they wanted, and agreed on a time to go out as a group of four. I was excited, too. I liked the mathematical possibilities of what they had proposed. The whole thing possessed a beautiful symmetry. I drew lines in my head, connecting the dots in different combinations, and I fantasized about our future together.

There was just one problem. When I met the guy they'd picked, I hated him on sight. He was a good-looking man, if you were into a cold, Aryan beauty, but his smell turned me off in a deep, primal way, and I didn't like the way his skin felt. He'd apparently been told I was a sure thing. Within minutes of our meeting, he took my hand and introduced it to his cock. If I'd wanted him, I would have been thrilled, but as it was, my stomach dropped. I knew this beautiful arrangement was about to end.

The three of them played together without me that night and for several nights after. I'd never been jealous before, but I was then. I gritted my teeth and smiled through their descriptions of the satisfaction delivered at the hands of the man I didn't want.

A few weeks later, I got another visit. The two of them were going to try being exclusive with each other, he said. In my heart, I'd known it was over the night I'd met their friend, so I was ready for this. I gave him a hug and told him I loved him. I don't think I ever really got to say goodbye to her.

There's a reason this is the story I'm telling for my post on the 90s, and it's not just that this is when these events took place. This version of me, so absolutely unconventional, formed at that time, and came as a product of listening to Ani DiFranco and reading The Sandman and having friends who went to Lilith Fair. It came out of reading sourcebooks for White Wolf Games, which stunned me with their easy portrayal of various queer identities and relationships, not to mention other people at the margins of society.

It's not that I didn't suffer for my sins. I got my heart broken a lot, and I hurt people, and people in my small Southern town thought I was a (no-lie) devil worshipper even though I went to church, and I got called a slut in whispers and people screamed that I was a slut from car windows.

But I miss that version of myself, even though for a lot of my life it got a bad rap. See, when the end of the 90s came, that person ended, too, for a long time. I got convinced to stop listening to "negative" music, stop wearing black, stop playing devil games, stop kissing girls, and stop sleeping around like a slut. My journey into a socially conservative life can't be blamed on religion, though the fundamentalist Christian values floating around where I was living were certainly part of where these ideas were coming from.

I was depressed at the time, and I got hooked up with a group of people who convinced me that social acceptability (though they weren't calling it that) was the way out of my problems. In fact, I got brought into that group by that beautiful man I mentioned right at the top of this post. We were in a band together, but he'd decided to settle down. He and his girlfriend had broken up, he'd always remembered me fondly, and this was our chance to be together and make a better life for ourselves.

And I did feel better for a while—it's amazing how good it can feel to give in and stop fighting. And this is why, for a long time, I couldn't understand the "born this way" arguments for gay rights (I still prefer arguments based on personal freedom). In response to the idea that it's some sort of choice to be queer, I've heard the rejoinder, "Well, when did you choose to be straight?" But I had an answer for that. In the year 2000. And it made my life a whole lot more comfortable.

Until it didn't. It wasn't long before that man was telling me he missed "the way I used to be." And my relationships with women became lousy with unspoken desires and weirdness (and I am only just starting to sort that bit out).

In the 90s, I didn't know how to conform, and I wore my pain raw, and I did things the only way I felt I could, and it hurt sometimes but I also love that brave past version of myself. I didn't know much of anything about how to protect myself, and I didn't know the words for half of what I wanted to do, and that hurt, too.

I've learned a lot since then, though, and I've come to see the person I was in the 90s as an important indication of what I was growing into being. I can't just rewind to that, and maybe I wouldn't want to, but if not for that person, I wouldn't be here writing erotica now. In all my confusion, when I ask myself what I honestly want, or what my identity actually is, it doesn't hurt to think back to how I acted then, when I didn't yet know better than to be myself.


  1. Annabeth:
    One thing jumps out at me about your truly amazing (I know writers aren't supposed to use that word)... your truly amazing confession is:
    I got convinced to stop listening to "negative" music, stop wearing black, stop playing devil games, stop kissing girls, and stop sleeping around like a slut.
    I'm wondering who convinced you to make these changes Or how that change happened. I spent some years hanging about with born again Christians. I met plenty of people who had dramatic life conversions. Your story reads like the script for a conversion where Rev Billy Bob lays hands on you to drive out Satan and then nearly drowns you in the baptismal pool.

    This part is so vulnerable:I didn't know much of anything about how to protect myself, and I didn't know the words for half of what I wanted to do, and that hurt, too.
    That line makes my heart ache. I went though my life conforming because I never had the tools to negotiate my way in the adult world.

    I like to distinguish between happiness and joy. Happiness to me is a temporary feeling, joy is more like a state of being where your suffering has meaning. Have you found joy?
    In all my confusion, when I ask myself what I honestly want, or what my identity actually is, it doesn't hurt to think back to how I acted then, when I didn't yet know better than to be myself.

    Thanks for this engaging memoir

    1. Hi Spencer,

      "I'm wondering who convinced you to make these changes"
      Some of it came from the idea of "maturity" that I and many others get from somewhere. There's a lot of stuff that's so pervasive, it's as if it's in the air we breathe. But really, most of this came from me attempting to get help for depression, and joining groups in the course of that (which is why I'm really cautious of groups now—believe it or not, my brand of religion gives me a lot more mental privacy than those groups used to). I think the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, basically. Also, I think there's a self-help trend to see oneself as the source of all of one's problems—if you're not happy, it's because you're choosing not to be. And I really tried that, for more than a decade. Conformity helped on the surface and in the short-term, but in the long-term, I found myself deeper down than I'd ever been. I see it differently now. It's really not easy to do things differently from the approved mainstream way, and there were plenty of terrible things that happened in my life that make sadness a rational response. So far, I deal with things a lot better from that perspective, and as a bonus, I get to act more like myself. Your Rev Billy Bob example is about right, except imagine that taking about 12 years... So, the short answer is, supposedly non-religious self-help groups (that were still rife with fundamentalist values).

      Thanks so much for your kind words about the post.

      "I went though my life conforming because I never had the tools to negotiate my way in the adult world."
      Agreed. There's a lot of messaging from just about everywhere beating on us all to conform. Sometimes, even if you're not conforming to the mainstream, you're still supposed to conform in some other way (see all the discussions erotica writers have about imposed formulas on our work). I'm sorry it's happened to you, too.

      As far as your last question, I certainly feel that life has meaning (suffering included). I don't know that I'd name that joy (considering the way it works in my own chest). I've felt I'm going through some sort of second adolescence (am I too young for a mid-life crisis?), with all the accompanying emotional ups and downs. So, maybe I don't feel joy, but I do feel fierce, for what that's worth.

      Glad you enjoyed reading this!

  2. I was a positive motivation junkie in the 80's. You name the guy I probably had his tape, his book or went to his seminar. I chuckled recently seeing a Facebook post of Wayne Dyer on the beach with his daughter in wedding attire-both decked out so handsomely. That guy has made a fortune selling me hope but I never got better. What a country. My main man was the late Zig Zeigler. He was a bible thumping born again Christian motivator. Of all the things that didn't work, with all the things I tried, he did have one great piece of wisdom that doesn't require the born again card to benefit from. He said: "You're what you are and where you are because of what's gone into your mind. You can change what your are, you can change where you are by changing what goes into your mind." Looks like you've done that.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, this is definitely the sort of thing I'm talking about. I'm going to have to roll that Zeigler quote around for a while to see how it sits with me. There are a lot of people selling hope these days, as you point out.

  3. A heartfelt post, Annabeth. Thanks for sharing.

    >the shape of her name still makes me shiver.

    What a lovely passage, among many others as good.

    So sad we are expected to define ourselves once and be that person for the rest of our lives. How could that be if we are affected at all by emotions, needs or life experience?

    Conformity can be a quick-fix, but doesn't allow for your own self-worth.

    1. Glad you liked this!

      "So sad we are expected to define ourselves once and be that person for the rest of our lives. How could that be if we are affected at all by emotions, needs or life experience?"
      I've been thinking about this. I tend to feel guilty when I change, but lately I've been wondering, isn't change inevitable?

      "Conformity can be a quick-fix, but doesn't allow for your own self-worth."

    2. When we change, we're simply adapting to a situation. Humans are, if nothing else, the "adaptable" animal. People who refuse to change may wind up stagnating. It's a matter of inertia.

  4. We all spend our lives in a process of "becoming" that ends only when we do. Anyone who insists on being static is living a lie made up of forcing themselves into a rigid pattern. (Not to be confused with the excellent book, "Static" by L.A.Witt about people who can change at will from male to female and back again).

    I'm always amazed at how deeply personal and private are the stories told here, to faceless friends on the internet. I can't let my husband know anything I post here, because he's always accusing me even in "real life" of "not having any sense of decorum about keeping things that are private, private." Even in front of our kids! I'm more of a's how I have kept a few close female and male friends since college. I don't fear that telling someone else about my life's experiences will make me vulnerable, since at our core we are all afraid of that. I think of it as sharing what I am so you feel comfortable to share what you are, and in that exchange, we all grow and change some more.

    Thanks for sharing what the 90s were like for you. That sense of not knowing who/what you are happened for me 20 years earlier. But though the music and the clothing/hairstyles were different, that sense of being adrift in a sea of conformity is the same. It does my heart good to hear that others went through it as well. I only hope you are, perhaps not "happy", but "content" with the many choices you've made along the way.

    1. Thanks! When I was writing this post, I was thinking about how the 90s:me::70s:people a bit older than me. I had never thought of those times as similar, but I think they were both times where there was a greater sense of exploration in mainstream culture, and there were significant, vibrant countercultural movements.

  5. Oh, and I also experienced meeting someone and knowing immediately that I didn't want to have sex with him...ever. Glad you followed your instincts on that one. Instincts are given too little attention these days, in my opinion. They're trying to protect us so we all survive another day. There must have been a reason for it, and you were right to listen

    1. Every time that has happened to me, it's had to do with smell (and I've also had the opposite, where the smell immediately made me want someone). I've always taken both of those as primal information coming from my animal brain, and therefore very important.

  6. Annabeth - Your posts tend to leave me speechless. They are simultaneously raw with honesty and glowing with poetry.

    We can't stop changing - even if we wanted to. Even when we think we've discovered "who we really are", that truth (or illusion) is only valid for a certain period of time.

    I used to be an extremely sexual woman. Now I haven't had sex in months, and miss it far less than I ever would have guessed.

    Your comments about conformity made me reflect on my own path. I'd always been incredibly obedient, the ultimate good girl, the one everybody approved of. Yet in my twenties somehow I found myself becoming a sexual outlaw (this is perhaps an overstatement, but I do love the way it sounds), following the lure of desire despite the dictates of society. I'm really not sure how that happened, though I do remember one critical moment, which I wrote about years ago here on the Grip.

    Of course, I didn't have the religious crap to contend with. So perhaps my conformity was less overlaid with primal guilt.

    1. Thanks so much for the link! That post of yours is beautiful, and full of that poetry and honesty you were talking about.

      Thanks also for your kind words about my posts. I like writing in the personal essay format I tend to use here, and it's wonderful to have supportive readers such as yourself.

      My sex life has been absolutely characterized by change. (I often feel as if it's where I express other changes that are preparing to come out of me). I guess there are common themes, but part of why I tend to feel bad about it is that I feel as if I'm changing "out from under" my lovers. I don't want to abandon or bewilder people.

      And I can't give religion a total pass because, as I think I said in the post, Christian fundamentalism is sort of in the air in places like that town where I used to live. But for me personally, religion (as I practice it) was a relief compared with the policing I'd been getting elsewhere. I think there's some sort of bad group dynamic where people feel free to tell you what they think of what you're doing (in a supposedly caring but actually invasive and punishing way), and I've had that experience in a number of groups. Many people have had that experience in religious groups. Part of the trouble is that it's hard to distinguish between that and actually caring behavior (because sometimes I do need a person to challenge me about something I'm doing). Chalk that one up as another thing that's hard for me to figure out.

  7. This is such a beautiful piece of writing!

  8. I can say from long experience that "maturity" is strictly subjective, and can be avoided in most of its forms for many, many years. I suppose it's maturity that makes one face up to responsibilities for those who have a right to depend on us, but that doesn't mean that other aspects of ourselves can't remain flexible and even frivolous. At least I hope so. My life is pretty heavy on the maturity side just now.

    1. This makes me grin. I like your take on all this a great deal.

  9. Annabeth, your life sounds amazing so far. I've never seriously tried polyamory (as distinct from the odd one-time multiple-body pileup, heh), and I'm always interested in hearing how it works -- or doesn't. I'm also glad you trusted your instincts and didn't take on a man who turned you off simply to make your friends feel comfortable.

    1. Thank you! I think it would have helped if I'd been educated about polyamory at the time. Back then, I thought I was inventing it.

  10. Hi Annabeth!

    That's pretty raw stuff, very honest. Like Fiona says, some of the confessions here can be pretty startling.

    I know what you mean about southern towns because I live in one.

    I'm trying to resist the male impulse to give you advice when I should know better. It is what it is. I've found my natural home in the Unitarian Universalist church where I live because it gives so much lattitude to the individual to simply be their best self without a lot of conformity. Just sayin' is all. You would be a really interesting perso nto have coffee with.

    There's an interesting article in Atlantic Monthly online this month about polyamory. You should look at it. I suspect that I may know at least two polyamorous couples in my church but I'm scared to ask.



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