Nadya Rousseau reflects on the complexities of her 10-year relationship with a woman, their attempt at an open experience, and what it brought to the surface.
I shuffled back and forth in the airplane seat, hoping the one-hour plane ride from LAX to SFO could be extended another half hour by a magic mist or rainstorm. I was engrossed in Spent, a memoir written by my now-friend Antonia Crane, an eloquent interweaving of the painful loss of her mother and evolution of her sexuality through different relationships and sex-work. I listened to melancholic rock—the Cranberries I think—and glanced over at my girlfriend, Lauren, who listened to her own music beside me. She wore her usual outfit, a marriage of darkwave style and young contemporary: A Jimmie Hendrix t-shirt, black sweats, and high top sneakers.. Her long arms and legs sprawled out as if she was in a deep sleep, yet her eyelashes continued to flutter; her dark hair pushed back into her seat like a ballooning cloud, her honey-brown skin appearing softer than usual. I wondered if she had opted for extra self-care in advance of this trip, knowing she would be meeting a girl she had spoken to online for two weeks, a girl that wasn’t supposed to know about me until just the “right” moment to ensure optimum timing.
If our open relationship were to be described as a break in the ground’s surface, it would be asymmetrical, narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. A wideness so open, overt and rule-bending that it could only turn back on its creators to create a stifling rigidity that had never even existed before its creation. In that moment, I wanted to kiss her, hug her, and cry a simultaneous apology and accusation. Why the fuck do you need to meet this stupid girl, this generic, basic, girl?? I had just finished a chapter in Antonia’s book where she detailed a few foul customers at a strip club, their misogyny front and center of their identities. It made me feel guilty, and reinforced my decision to be “okay” with Lauren meeting this girl on our vacation for some fun.
It was May 2014, and we were one month away from our 10-year anniversary, and a month away from a year in an open relationship governed by forever-evolving, pseudo rules. Gay marriage was set to be legalized on a national scale. Like many other committed same-sex couples, settling down was becoming less of a dream floating in the ether and more a tangible possibility. We had met online over ten years prior, on a website called Face the Jury. She grew up outside of Los Angeles, California in Pomona, and in an abusive household. I on the other hand, grew up in Hagerstown, Maryland, inside an academic bubble co-led by my professor parents, an only childhood comprised by late nights of book reading, internet surfing, and my favorite band, Kittie, playing on repeat. In high school, I got my jollies by people-watching at 24-Hour Walmart or mall gothing it up at the Hagerstown Valley Mall; Lauren got hers anytime she could escape her household’s toxicity, even just for a half hour at a local diner with friends. We both had a love of dark novels, alternative music, and an absurd, dry humor. Unlike me, her childhood was often spent cleaning after her parents’ messes, or caring for her Autistic brother. Outside her window were palm trees arching above and beyond bright blue skies, outside mine were maple trees and my neighbors’ racism externalized by their flying Confederate flags.
Ten years in a relationship is a significant feat. Coming of age with that person is an even bigger feat. Doing both while in a same-sex interracial relationship? Well that’s another thing entirely. Our families fed us cocktails of resentment mixed with denial. People stared at us on the street—especially guys. Both of us are femme, so, there’s no way we could * really * not want a dick just because, right? The fact that Lauren and I both identified as bisexual, rather than lesbian, added yet another layer of confusion for those on the “outside.” I don’t think my mother ever referred to Lauren as my girlfriend once—we remained “roommates” for over ten years that we were together. People’s opinions of us were harder on her than they were for me. Lauren always conveyed to me that she felt harshly judged just for being black. And for the longest time I didn’t want to acknowledge that; seeing others want to serve me before her or ignore her entirely is painful. But the pain was and will always be bigger for her.
I felt guilty a lot while we were together. Guilty because of Lauren’s childhood being what it was—or what it wasn’t. Guilty because I had privileges she didn’t. Guilty because she grew to hate Los Angeles while I grew to love it, even in the face of difficulties as an actor, a writer, and later a social media marketing consultant. I felt guilty that she had been laid off from a day job we both worked. I felt guilty that she couldn’t find photography opportunities in the city, in spite of being showcased at the Louvre and established galleries in New York City.
We were flying to San Francisco for a vacation that had more to do with Lauren meeting this internet chick than anything else. I told her in a passive aggressive style that I was down for a three-way, when in reailty, I hated the whole thing. I resented that it took an open relationship to be open about our relationship, period. The reality was, we were hardly open before we began dabbling with the idea of seeing other people for fun. There was always a fear of being attacked, belittled, or ignored by people. We were only open in confinement, in the safety of our apartment or in the open environment of West Hollywood, the great gay enclave of the Los Angeles area. Confined yet open. Open yet confined.
Our weekend in San Francisco ended with me in tears in a Macy’s fitting room, where I waited for her to finish on a coffee date with the internet girl.
Identity is as complex as it is weird, and as fluid as it is confining. I have always been a person that craves control, yet finds solace within chaotic, often unhealthy scenarios. And the thing is, the scenarios don’t always start as unhealthy; usually they’re based on some type of pointed choice to be healthier or more “free” either physically, mentally or economically.
I thought I was doing the right thing by letting Lauren have fun, by being in an open relationship. I thought it would make everything else about us more open too. Instead, it just created more confusion but also a heightened awareness about what was needed in my relationship. Even more importantly, what I craved within myself: my own identity.
Relationships, whether open, monogamous, heterosexual, same-sex or a variation thereof require a unique transparency to work. Relationships with ourselves, however, require intense introspection and time. My problem ultimately wasn’t with the open relationship. It was with not understanding myself. I ended it six months after the San Francisco debacle when I met someone the complete opposite of Lauren—a guy. I thought that’s what I needed to center myself—a monogamous heterosexual relationship. It would prove my bisexuality, it would prove I was better than the chaos of a same-sex open relationship. What I failed to recognize is how I contributed to that chaos. I failed to recognize a lot of things. The heterosexual relationship, with Joel, was an abusive nightmare—an essay for another day. We lasted nine months.
Nadya Rousseau U.S. Director, Organizein | Creator & Host Nadya’s Identity Files.
Learn more at: https://angel.co/nadya-rousseau
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition.