Wild Woman – The Day After

“Can I come in?” asked Claire, my beloved sister-in-law. I beckoned her inside once I peeled myself off the ceiling.

Claire was a sister beyond marital formality; she and I were soul sisters in humor, spirit, and heart. I had the privilege of watching her grow from a silly, gangly 12-year-old girl to a graceful, self-assured and still quite silly 25-year-old woman.

Our memories spanned a hilariously pitfall-ridden trip to Hawaii, finding out I was pregnant with her brother in a pirate ship-themed motel room in Disney World, and bonding in tears over what could be described as a traumatic breastfeeding experience. We were so close that she was a major part of the package deal when I married Mark, my soon-to-be ex-husband. And, Claire was one of the biggest reasons I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on separating from her brother.

Ending a marriage in the world we live in today is synonymous with catastrophic emotional and financial hardship. This was top of mind for me for years as I contemplated whether to continue my matrimonial obligations. However, nothing was more terrifying about the idea of divorce than the unraveling of my family tapestry.

Divorce today typically means clumsily dragging a metaphorical Exacto knife down the middle of your family’s life. No more family holidays together. Awkward or strained exchanges with in-laws. The need to take one side and stonewall the other. I was convinced this was the eventuality I was sure to face if I separated from Mark. And I couldn’t do it; I valued my family portrait more than my own happiness. Luckily, my relationship coaches shone a brilliant light on a different path: conscious uncoupling.

Brought to the mainstream by the public separation of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, the process of conscious uncoupling is growing in popularity and holds promise to prevent families from becoming divorce casualties. A Women’s Mag article thoroughly describes this concept:

“According to relationship therapist Rachel Sussman, author of The Breakup Bible, conscious uncoupling takes place when a couple believes that they have both tried to work through problems in their relationship to no avail. And together, they decide that it’s best to end the relationship or marriage in a way that causes the least possible damage to themselves, their integrity, and their children.

Conscious uncoupling also refers to the way in which a couple goes about getting divorced. “It is a conscious choice to avoid adversarial attorneys,” explains Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., a licensed relationship therapist and author of The New Monogamy. “Choosing instead mediation, where both parties meet with a mediator to work through a parenting plan, a financial agreement and any details that need to be settled before going to court for the final divorce.” Essentially, everyone involved is committed to getting through this experience as a better, more complete person—without the fighting and drama that can often come with divorce.”

I often thought fondly of one of the moments where I felt all of my relationship coaching into conscious uncoupling had paid off. Claire was driving me home from our Father’s Day celebration, and I was already overwhelmed with gratitude that I was still able to share in her family’s presence despite no longer being committed to their son. It was the first time she and I had been alone since our marital split in St. Kitts, and she broke our tentative silence so poignantly as she pulled up to her house.

“You know that no matter what happens with you guys, I will always love you,” she said tearfully. “You’ll always be my sister. Nothing will ever change that.” Her declaration put to rest all of the fears I’d allowed to encroach upon my mind for years, and we embraced in the dark driveway for what seemed like hours.

When my coaches lauded my work as the shining example of what conscious uncoupling could look like to other potential students, I reflected in bemusement. Representing an ideal divorce was never my intention when I bestowed my bejeweled Kleinfeld wedding gown. But, as my coaches often told their students, things don’t always look the way you think they will. And that can be a beautiful thing.

The idea of conscious uncoupling first popped on my radar a year earlier with a fateful email from Jennifer Bianchi, a Tony-Robbins certified powerhouse of relationship hacking wisdom. It arrived the exact date of my deep rupture with Mark, and yet I had no recollection of opting into her list. But her message was potent enough to bypass any emotional spam filter I had created to protect myself from the truth. The email demanded to know, point blank, had I done the work to heal my relationship before walking away from my marriage? Am I prepared to bring all of that baggage to my next relationship? And, do I understand that if we don’t stay married but do have children, we will still be co-parents for life?

This resonated throughout my entire body upon reading, and I knew that I had much work ahead of me before entertaining visions of running off to a crunchy granola commune in Boulder, whiling away my days fermenting crocks of spiced carrots and distilling flower remedies. Mark and I were going to be “together” forever no matter what happened with our relationship, and we would need to co-parent harmoniously to ensure the emotional safety of Sean, my ebullient and highly sensitive 3-year-old son.

I subscribed to Jennifer’s self-guided LoveWell Fast Track program on the spot, and proceeded to tear through hour after hour of mind-blowing videos. I realized we had made every relationship mistake in the book and were neck deep in trigger and resentment quicksand. After attending Jennifer’s LoveWell breakthrough healing retreat, I realized that I needed to call in heavy-duty reinforcements to fight for my marriage. Despite Mark’s heated objections, I signed away $10,000 and a year of my spare time to join her elite LoveSchool mastermind group, and my passion for relationship hacking was born. After diligently applying every tool, framework, and rubric in the program to our relationship, Mark and I were laughing and enjoying each other’s companionate company within several months.

Our healing process was right on track, until I reached the modules regarding intimacy. No matter what new adventure we created to reignite our spark, I just couldn’t bring myself to feel that deep yearning to meld with him, body and soul. After a tense, sexless retreat week in St. Kitts, we both knew it was over. When I tearfully apologized to Jennifer and John at “failing” their mission to save our marriage on that beautiful island morning, she simply replied, “We didn’t come into your life to save your marriage, sweetie. It wasn’t meant to be saved. All we did was empower you to heal your relationship to co-parent as friends and bring your best self to your true love.” With that single sentence, I felt my entire financial and time sacrifice transmute into the most important investment I’d ever made.

I was about to spend an entire day with the coaches responsible for that emotional kick in the pantaloons. It was a private live event with my fellow relationship-hackers, my original reason for being in Princeton that day. As I got ready for a marathon session packed with emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs, Claire and I chatted and giggled about work, health, and Sean. I decided to keep my date a secret for the moment since I was still in such an early phase of my separation. It was so hard to withhold my excitement from someone so dear, and I was afraid that my secretive buzz was lifting its skirt.

I hustled out of my in-law’s aging Colonial home under a dreary rain-soaked sky and flung myself into my car. I was just a short thirty minutes away from joining up with my very special LoveSchool tribe, and my body was flushed with excitement. This private group meeting would be the first time seeing the tribe after the emotionally wrenching retreat, but they wouldn’t be seeing the old me today. The gloomy weather was no match for the newfound high of Ella getting her groove back.

The morning breakfast was a flurry of zealous hugs and excited squees; no awkward or restrained handshakes in this crowd. Gasps of delight ensued when the lord and lady of the hour, John and Jennifer Bianchi, sauntered into the room hand-in-hand. Jennifer, donning her signature watercolor shoulder cut-out blouse and crisp white jeans, welcomed the group in her typical effervescent, my-unicorn-ate-your-rainbow-for-breakfast aura. I was instantly transfixed by her charisma, passion, and brilliance. The incredibly passionate and loving dynamic between Jennifer and John were the main selling point of the school, and I reveled in their playful exchanges.

Mid-morning, Jennifer commenced a deep dive into a of one of the most profound learning paradigms I’d encountered during my group enrollment: The Six Human Needs Framework. Every human being in existence has six basic needs that they must fill in some capacity every single day:

  • Significance – Make me feel special!
  • Certainty / Safety – Never leave me!
  • Uncertainty / Variety – Let’s get hitched in Vegas tonight!
  • Love / Connection – There ain’t nothing wrong with a little…
  • Growth – You make me want to be a better person!
  • Contribution – Let’s serve the world.

How we fill those buckets of needs are as unique as our fingerprints, and even more unique is our priority of buckets. And, that a truly healthy relationship is built around partners who work to understand the other’s needs, and also work to fill their own. Understanding these needs was a crucial first step in decoding Mark’s triggery behavior, and moving us towards a newfound platonic appreciation. The world could possibly be a more harmonious place if the Six Human Needs framework could replace Home Economics in school curricula.

A knowing smirk formed on my face as I steeped mint, chamomile and hibiscus teabags together in a single cup. My newfound adventure had thrown into spotlight a lifelong and extremely pronounced need for variety. Peering back through time, I fondly recalled combining five breakfast cereals in one bowl. A peek in my shower would reveal at least two body washes (for different parts of the body), three shampoos and four to five conditioners. I could never do the same workout more than twice in a row, and it took enrollment in 3 universities before landing on my final collegiate destination. How I never came to terms with the fact that this need for variety clearly translated to my love life will remain one of my life’s great mysteries.

And then along came a Kai, the solution to this unrequited need. Yes, there would be mountains of work to do to release the possessive and jealous tendencies so deeply ingrained into me by family, friends and Hollywood. But the idea that I would never again have to ask myself, “is this all there is?” because of the freedom in this love style…the possibilities were heady. Possibilities, not limitations. It felt like I was rewinding my clock of love back to its first ticks, with no limit to the romantic adventure I could experience.

As I listened to my relationship coach deliver mindgasm after mindgasm, I found myself orbiting around a niggling fear that I was avoiding facing. What am I so afraid of? Deep down, I knew the answer. The prior evening had been intoxicating, arousing, indulgent, exhilarating, healing, and, terrifying. I had felt many of these intense sensations before with another, at great cost.

Adam.

Adam Friedman represented the most untamed ecstasy and vicious heartbreak I had experienced in my brief human life.

A typhoon of seduction, he tore through my nascent ports of love and intimacy without mercy. And he shared far too many seductive characteristics with Kai for my comfort. My indiscretions with Adam had long haunted me, and I was beginning to wonder if my undeniable attraction to Kai was my penance. Or, that Kai was a karmic cautionary tale to warn me that successful, charismatic, intellectual, and intensely passionate men were my downfall. Men that stoked my radiant goddess hearth. Men not like my ex-husband: safe, even-keeled, friendly, dispassionate, and emotionally blocked.

It was for these reasons I chose Mark as my betrothed; he was safe. He wasn’t interested in exploring my emotional depths or penetrating through my hardened sensual exterior, and I never had to worry about what past wounding he would inadvertently unleash. But the cost of this choice came with time, stagnation, and mismatches in passion and a ravenous love of growth. In the end, my real wounding came from opening my body over and over to him without truly opening; losing all connection to my sensual hearth, its half-lit embers dying out long before our marriage’s finale.

I knew if I didn’t take action to face this demon, I would allow that fear and wounding to permeate every moment with Kai. I wasn’t about to let my own bullshit snuff out our potential for joy. I resolutely opened my whimsically butterfly-and-lavender adorned journal to a fresh page. titled it, “Why Kai is Not Adam” and sketched out two columns with one name in each. Comparative and contrasting words poured from my pen. For every dark characteristic of Adam, I countered with the radiant equivalent of Kai. Under Adam went words like “Manipulative, Sociopath, Domineering”, while across under Kai went “Attachment Parent, Philanthropic, Vulnerable”. I sat back and stared at my assessment.

My heart began to soften in profound realization. Kai wasn’t my cautionary tale. He was my redemption. A tear trickled down my face as I came to terms with the idea that Adam was a razor-sharp yet crucial stepping stone in this epic journey, a karmic relationship designed to exact a harsh lesson only teachable in this lifetime. I had thought Adam’s lesson was that I should be shamed for my act as accomplice in infidelity and that very Alpha, charismatic and sensual men would only spell heartbreak for me.

Perhaps the true lesson was that my voracious sensual goddess and delicate heart needed a true Alpha warrior to allow her to surrender into her power, not to submit into his. Not one who would be “faithful” in dogmatic standard narrative, but one who could still be devoted, dedicated, and loyal. Was devotion even possible in polyamory? I shook my head trying to divine the answer. But now, there no question in my mind that Kai’s incredibly present masculine energy was precisely what my radiant feminine needed to flourish, and I would have never known that had it not been for Adam’s emotional wrecking ball.

Hours later, my tribe was diving into grub at a warmly lit Princeton gastropub, rain softly pelting on the windows. I was deep into conversation with my two closest tribal sisters, Luna and Rachel. These two women were a my lighthouse in a year of marriage squalls, holding my trembling, unsure hands every step of the way toward and through my uncoupling. They were listening with rapt attention to my riveting account of my Ayahuasca experience, my “dance with the dark”. It felt liberating to share the profound awakening and downloads I’d received during that ordeal to openminded women who sincerely believed I’d encountered my source energy. But could I tell them…everything? Would they still love me if they knew just how far off the love reservation I was steering?

The answer came when my phone buzzed with an incoming message during dessert. It was Kai. “I’m driving back through Princeton this evening…tell me how I’m going to see you again,” he implored. My heart raced. Unprepared thoughts swirled through my head. I look exhausted and puffy! My hair hasn’t been defrizzed from this humidity! I’m wearing the same jeans as yesterday!! But most importantly…could my nervous system handle another round in the ring with Muhammad Kai this soon?

I replied, “Tell me where and when.”

“Really?? The Last Drop coffeehouse in Princeton. 7:30.” It defied logic how even his simplest text messages conveyed an irresistible sensual magnetism. Damn him. I checked the clock. 6:45pm. It was now or never; I was going to have to explain the reason for my sudden exit to someone. Rachel was my “accountability buddy” and soul sister; a radiant doula, reiki master and devoted mother of 3, she was an endless source of loving energy with an endearing Tri-State Area sass. But, she was very much in a traditionally committed relationship, and I couldn’t bear the thought of her looking at me any differently because of my unusual choice.

Luna however, I didn’t know as well yet. A stunning and brilliant Latina spitfire, she had a spirit that felt freer, less contained by convention. She was divorced and navigating finding her radiant love affair, and a vivacious storyteller. She divulged to me about a recent spiritual retreat she attended with a good girlfriend where they had spontaneously engaged in a passionate kiss. Hearing her describe her mind opening to a new sensation like this gave me a fresh confidence: I decided she would be my first confidante.

“Luna…there’s a part of the story I haven’t told you,” I confessed. Ears perking, she pressed me to continue. I relayed every minute detail of the last two weeks up to that moment and awaited her reprimand. It never came.

She only shook her head in amazement. “Ella…I am so proud of you, girl. So proud. Do you realize how fucking brave you are? This world is so fucked up in judging each other in how they should love. You are giving that world the finger right now, and I’m so happy for you.” My jaw dropped in disbelief. She thinks I’m brave, and not bat shit crazy? Perhaps the judgments I was expecting from the outside world were really projections sourced from my own sinister fears and doubts.

The clock flashed 7:15pm. It was time for my second date with destiny. Luna sensed my hesitation.

“Ella, go. Now. Get the fuck out of here. And…,” she continued in a low, intense voice, “welcome to the world of the living.” My eyes welled up at Luna’s acceptance, her love, her encouragement. This was wildcrafted sisterhood, and I wasn’t going to deny her the chance to push me off this cliff. I embraced her, nearly squeezing the air out of her petite body. “Thank you, Luna,” I whispered, and darted out of the pub after hurriedly bidding goodbye to my puzzled tribe.

Minutes later, I parked my car outside the coffee-shop, steadied my nerves once again, and pushed inside.

 

Our eyes met across the coffee-shop instantly, my heart instantly racing.

I felt that gossamer thread fasten between us again, my momentum succumbing to the tether’s pull. As I approached, Kai lunged forward to unceremoniously remove my backpack and sweep me into a bear hug, burying his face into my neck and fiercely gripping my back. His beard wafted of that familiar spiced essentials oil blend, sending my olfactory senses into a tailspin. I turned to kiss his neck, and instantly our lips were locked. We broke what felt like hours later and he whispered into my lips, “Welcome back.” I lightheadedly giggled at his devious nature and we stood on line to purchase tea. Once again, he looked down at me with amused and studying eyes.

“You’re nervous,” Kai evenly observed. “You’re not feeling totally confident because you don’t have all your makeup on and you’re in more casual clothes.” Jesus, what the fuck?? Was this guy some sort of clairvoyant? And is he always this blunt with his observations?

“Uh…OK, yes. I do wish I looked…prettier for you right now. I feel caught off guard looking a bit like a scrub at the moment.” Hell, why not meet brutal honesty with brutal honesty?

“You should know that I actually think you’re more beautiful like this. Natural, nervous, a bit tired. You’re perfect.” He delivered this sweet sentiment while swiftly paying for my golden milk tea. God, he made it look so easy to string a few words together to cut right to what my heart was asking for. It was unnerving.

Upon returning to our table, Kai lunged to pull out my chair for me. This chivalry was not getting old anytime soon. He performed his requisite gazing when we sat down, prompting me to nervously search my brown Bendel backpack for my eye drops since I had suddenly developed very dry lids. Taking my hands, Kai grinned widely and asked, “How was your day, honey?”

Oh lord, he’s delightfully presumptuous.”It was wonderful…darling,” I replied with a shy giggle. Why can’t I calm down around this person??

“Seriously though, I want to hear all about the mind-blowing breakthroughs you experienced with your group today. What’s one of the big takeaways?” My heart swelled at the genuinely interested questions he always asked. Such a stark contrast from my past relationships…aside from Adam. Those questions were asked for ill intent, and Kai’s intentions were so clearly pure. Well…mostly pure, my inner vixen smirked while licking her lips.

I proceeded to relay my day’s journey through concepts like the six needs framework, masculine and feminine polarity, and self-love exercises. “…the most beautiful moment came when my friend talked about how over-complicated she is, and that she’s simply too much for a guy to want to handle. Jennifer took her hand and said, ‘You are not too much. And, you are also enough.’ It was a really special moment for the group.” I took a sip of my tea, neglecting to share with Kai that upon saying that to my friend, Jennifer shifted her gaze directly at me. It was as though she could hear me questioning that truth for myself, and I didn’t want to reveal that vulnerability.

“You know you are enough, right Ella?” I almost choked on my tea. Did he have some invisible view port into my mind? I cleared my throat to answer.

“Thank you, and, to be honest,” I carefully replied, “your love style has made me question whether anyone is enough. And whether asking if we’re enough is entirely missing the point. Isn’t the purpose of polyamory to creatively get your needs met by different people so that no one person shoulders the burden of meeting all of your needs?”

“Yes, that is a benefit of poly,” he replied. “In my past experiences, I’ve been able to enjoy different facets of people and grow in different ways having multiple partners. But more importantly, our lovers are like mirrors; if we have just one mirror, we are only seeing one view of ourselves reflected back. But with multiple mirrors, we are seeing all different sides of our character. I’ve had encounters and relationships with over thirty beautiful and conscious women in the last three years, and my growth curve has been exponential. Do you see the possibility in that?” he asked so earnestly.

I nodded my head in deep appreciation. All of this was gelling in my mind, and at the same time scaring the living daylights out of me. How far was I willing to push myself to gain access to the magic of these multiple mirrors? Kai’s gaze moved past me and he went deep in thought.

“What is it?” I queried.

“That worker has been schlepping these huge boxes back and forth for almost an hour. He’s the hardest working man in here, and no one even acknowledges him.”

I turned around to see.  The worker in question was a tall, lean and muscular man of African descent with beads of sweat dotting his forehead. Kai was right, not even I would have noticed him, being so swept up in our conversation. Another facet to Kai’s diamond revealed itself, and I stared at him with growing appreciation.

“That is amazing that you recognized him,” I stated in admiration. “He’d be invisible to most people, but not to you. That is a very special quality, Kai.”

He smiled at me. “Thank you for seeing me see him, Ella. You have many special qualities as well, and I see you.” He leaned forward, gently taking my head in his hand and pulling me into a lush kiss.

Before getting too enveloped in our alchemical haze, I broke the kiss to broach a bothersome question. “You said something that concerned me yesterday.”

“Oh? Do tell,” he probed, his head cocked in concerned curiosity.

“You said your instinct was to contain me. Of course, a tiny part of me wants to find that cute and endearing, and my instinct is to contain you and possess this…combustible feeling that our combined energy creates. But that isn’t even a remote possibility, and I understand the reasons why that’s a good thing. But I want to know that in return for the freedom to love other women so deeply, and I believe you should have that freedom, that you’ll give me the freedom to experience other men the way I was never able to in my monogamous relationships. This doesn’t work for me if I don’t believe we’re both committed to each other’s freedom.” I breathed a sigh a relief at voicing my ultimate concern over entering into a relationship without a concealed power dynamic.

Kai nodded in understanding. “I hear everything you’re saying. You want to know that you are free as well since you’ll be doing a lot of personal growth work to accommodate my lovestyle.” I relaxed around hearing my concern mirrored back so compassionately, a truly remarkable gift. He continued, “You might find this hard to believe, Ella, but I’m a feminist. I’m not trying to build a harem, like a lot of people think. I want women to rule the world. I believe this world is failing because of the patriarchal construct we’re all born into.

“Now, I don’t want to be emasculated by women, I’m a very masculine man. I want to serve women, to protect them, and also be free to love them. To take care of the little girl inside. That’s what I ask in return for my devotion. And, I have a phrase I strongly believe in: ‘tu alegria es mi alegria’. It means ‘your joy is my joy’. If your joy was receiving love from another conscious man who accepts and embraces me as a brother, then that gives me joy. To me, this is the definition of unconditional love. Not ‘I love you unconditionally, except if you love someone else.’ That <i>is</i> a condition. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, that is beautiful,” I replied in awe. I was looking at a man who would actually derive joy from me receiving pleasure from another man. I was playing in a entirely alien sandbox now. Inspired to throw down in that sandbox, I asked a question that would push my own comfort levels.

“Tell me what you love about Olivia.” I braced myself.

“Olivia? Hmm…I love her heart. She has so much sweetness. She’s so grounded and non-materialistic. She loves nature and the environment, horses, the list goes on.”  I fought a twinge of jealousy as he described her so affectionately, and also smiled at the beauty of his share. And yet as he finished, his expression changed. I sensed that there was something missing from his words. He continued,”And, she’s different from you. I want you to really understand that. She is unique from you, and the connection I have with her is uniquely beautiful from my amazing connection with you. There’s no competition here, understand?”

I didn’t understand. “How can there be no competition? You must be developing preferences, we aren’t equal or going to match you in the same ways. I’d hate knowing if I was with someone who preferred being with someone else.”

Kai thoughtfully replied, “That is the exact illusion of the collective consciousness that we need to climb out of. That developing preferences means we’re competing for a finite resource. I didn’t have a second child thinking, ‘How am I going to save up enough love for my first child now?’ I see my lovers as I see my children; they allowed my universe of love to expand, not to be divvied up like food rations.”

I sighed. Everything he said made sense on paper, but I simply had no idea how to integrate it into my model of the world.

“You do realize that as a possessive, competitive, fiery Scorpio, only child, daughter of an only child, and mother of an only child, that I am genetically AND astrologically the WORST possible choice for you to take on in this path, yes?”

A smile slowly spread across his beautiful face. “I’m willing to take a chance that I can reform you of your sinister ways.” He stopped to gently stroke my forearms and interlace his elegant fingers with mine, creating a ripple of gooseflesh. He continued, placing his hand on my sternum, “I’m willing to take that chance because of this heart. And because…I love you.”

My gut clenched in alarm. Why does he have to keep saying that?? I would buy into all of this so much more easily if he would just check in with what that’s actually supposed to mean!

He peered at me curiously and asked, “How did that land for you?” I stared for a moment. What an…interesting thing to ask. I can’t remember anyone I’ve dated ever asking me how something they said “landed” with me. Despite feeling completely thrown off-kilter, I also felt incredibly seen.

“I…don’t know. It’s…making me question if we define love the same way. Or give it the same…importance?” I gulped, praying this answer didn’t cause a rift during this beautiful moment. Could I communicate to him how scary those words were for me to hear when spoken even a moment too soon? No, I resolved. You can never tell him why.

He cocked his head to the side, studying me for a moment. I knew he could tell I was holding something back. “Love is one of those words I’ve never quite understood. Love can grow over time with many interactions, and it can be felt in those first electrifying moments. How I feel love isn’t something for anyone to assess or criticize, and I want to be free to express it when I feel it.” I detected a whiff of resentment building in his words, and I immediately grabbed his hands.

“Please, I’m no one to judge how you feel and give love. I’m sorry if I offended you, please forgive me!” I implored. “It’s just that- I have reasons to be on my guard.”

Kai’s hardened gaze softened in understanding. Cupping my chin, he replied, “One day I would like to know those reasons, and heal them for you.” My walls continued to crumble in the presence of this terrifying spectre of love. I held on to the resolution I’d arrived at during the live event and took a deep breath to speak.

“I journaled about you today. About you and…someone from my past.”

“Oh? And what did you learn in your journaling process?”

I paused for a moment. “That you are not…him.” I stared at him, my courage wavering. “You are not him, and, I won’t be afraid of you any longer. I’m going to give this a real shot and do my best not to succumb to my fears.”

“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” he said enthusiastically, and to my relief, didn’t press on. Kai’s face spread in an epic ear-to-ear grin and then silently locked my eyes in a gaze once again while stroking my hands. This time, I held his gaze with emboldened confidence. I felt a tether begin to tie between us as I watched his stark black pupils expand and contract in his endless hazel irises. I quashed the sudden urge to break free and run from the intensity. Not this time, young lady. Show him what Aya showed you’re made of. Surprisingly, Kai smiled and broke the gaze first. I gathered a sense that he was caught off guard by my newfound bravery.

Suddenly, Kai checked his watch. “Oh shit! I’m so late. Olivia is watching the kids and I’d promised I’d be home in thirty minutes. ”

Surprised, I responded, “Wow, that’s amazing that she’s willing to babysit while you’re on a date?” That was a level of generosity that defied even my own instincts.

“She…doesn’t know I’m here,” he reluctantly confessed.

Confused, I asked, “But, I thought you’re supposed to disclose everything. Are we doing something wrong?” The last thing I wanted to do was enter into this without full integrity.

As Kai gathered his things, he explained, “It’s a bit less cut-and-dry than that. Timing is everything. A new relationship coming in is an extremely delicate process, and I really want to set us all up for success. I’m going to tell her tonight. And I love that you care so much.” He stood up to face me, closing the gap between us with fast precision.

Standing over me, he whispered, “I want this to work so badly, Ella. That means taking very careful baby steps. I’m so grateful for your patience in understanding and adapting to this situation. You don’t know what that means to me,” he finished with a deep, sensuous kiss. My body lit up like a Douglas fir on a snowy Christmas evening. The fact that he was taking such careful measures to integrate me for her comfort spoke volumes about his character and commitment.

But a piece of me wondered why this was so challenging for Olivia. Hadn’t she experienced his new relationships before, and wasn’t she also poly? Didn’t that mean she was cool with this? I pushed those thoughts aside and explored his mouth more urgently with my tongue, prompting a soft moan from his lips.

“Mmm…”, he murmured dreamily. “I’m feeling more come through from your kiss today.”

“Like I said, I’m not afraid of you anymore,” I whispered breathlessly. He took my face in his hands, looked me dead in the eye and asked, “Do you believe I’m real now?”

I searched his eyes and replied, “Mmm…the jury’s still out. I’m not convinced you aren’t a serial killer.” He chuckled and gently placed a kiss on my forehead.

We walked hand-in-hand to my car in the gentle evening drizzle, the antique Princeton streetlights glowing and dancing in the puddles. The moist air felt fresh and dense, with the promise of summer suspended in the dew. Settling into my car, I let the realization wash over me that I wasn’t going to see this new force of nature in my life for almost three weeks. Kai sensed my wavering and pulled me into a sweeping kiss. After what seemed like an eternity, he pulled back from my face and whispered, “I love you, Ella.”

My inner skeptic winced. In response, I did the only thing I could think of to not hurt his feelings in case he was actually being genuine.

“I…love you too.” I said tenuously. At first I was wracked with guilt about responding this way and not feeling what I thought it was supposed to. And who knows? When do you actually love someone? What does that even mean? Is there a universal love timer that goes Bing! when some arbitrary length of time passes? Or is it when they’ve already seen through your outer shell and gained access to the delicate nectar inside, drinking from you in worship as from the holy cup of Communion?

Almost in answer to my internal debate, Kai leaned forward into the car and whispered softly in my ear, “I will call you so often, it will be like I haven’t left. Sweet dreams, my love.”

I shivered in response to his nuzzling. “Unlikely,” I chuckled back, knowing full well my dreams would be anything but sweet. “The plants are still having their way with me.”

“Lucky them,” he replied with an impish grin. He darted forward for one last passionate liplock.

And with that, he gracefully leapt into the street and crossed to the other side. I stared to take in one final view of how his lean, powerful limbs moved with such self-assured elegance. His athleticism was hypnotic and continued to creep under my skin. Why is it that when men display such mastery of their body, it was like a bell ringing in my sacral chakra, the energetic wheel of sensuality? The answer to this question wouldn’t elude me for much longer.

As I made my way home in the pouring rain, poisonous whispers seeped into my consciousness. How is this possibly going to work? Are you in your driver’s seat right now? You barely know this man!! I acknowledged these sinister thoughts and realized many of them were voiced in my head by well-meaning yet overbearing friends and family. It occurred to me that much of the fear-based code in my decision-making software was programmed by outsiders, and Aya had exposed the Trojan horses.

This time apart will be good for us, Helga reasoned. If he can go on a romantic three-week getaway with his love, be surrounded by alluring, successful women, and still come home to me with this level of passion, we just might have a shot at this thing. I resolved to make our time apart high-quality and depthful, giving me opportunity to better understand his role in my life and allowing our connection to unfurl in the absence of hedonic indulgence.

I hustled into my weathered split-level home and upstairs to kiss my angelic toddler goodnight, waving a protective bubble of motherly love over his huddled body. A wave of guilt washed through my body; for the first time since his birth, I felt alive. I felt like an abandoned mound of clay now being lovingly sculpted into a masterpiece, with tender lips breathing new life into my body. And the guilt of allowing something so exhilarating to enter my life felt self-centered and overindulgent. I would need to work hard to accept the idea that even a lonely divorced mother deserves an existential love affair.

As I nestled in my plush gray pintucked comforter and allowed my eyes to droop in exhaustion, I worked to reassure myself: it all unfolds as it should. There are no wrong decisions here. I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s just love. And with that, I reluctantly surrendered to the fates and furies of my dreamscape, from which a dark form materialized from the black ether.

A form whose influence had inflicted over a decade of guilt, rejection, and self-loathing…

 

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