I wrote this story over 3 and a half years ago for Vice. It was the first piece I ever wrote for Vice and it started me down this strange and gorgeous journey.
Along the way a lot has happened. February 9th will mark the one year anniversary since Jon Nelson went missing. February 19th is the one year anniversary from when we found out Jon had died.
And while there is so much sadness and loss, there is also all this love and hope and beauty. Because Jon was all of those things for Alex and I.
So I wanted to share this story. To celebrate Jon. To celebrate the three of us. And even though things have changed, and Jon is no longer here, and Alex and I are no longer together in the same way, we are still family, brothers and best friends, which is proof of the love that I write about in this piece.
I love everything this story stands for. And I will forever be grateful for the life Jon gave me.
For the life he gave Us.
I hope it still holds up.
THE CHALLENGES AND JOYS OF A THREE-WAY RELATIONSHIP
Recently, while I was at lunch with a friend, she asked me about intimacy. She did it in such a way that it was clear she wasn’t really asking me, she was telling me what she thought about intimacy. More specifically, what she thought about the intimacy involved in my relationship with my husband, Alex, and our boyfriend, Jon.
“I just don’t understand,” she said, picking at her salad as if meaning might be buried under her kale. “If you give 40 percent to Jon, then you only have 60 percent left for Alex, your husband, and I guess… Marriage is hard. Relationships are hard. Can a relationship survive on just 60 percent?”
The implications were clear: Somehow my intimacy with Alex was being diminished because of our relationship to Jon. According to my friend’s theory, love was finite: There was only so much, and if you tapped into it for another then you were ultimately taking some away. I was robbing Alex of my love to give to Jon.
“I know that Daniel is my soulmate,” she said, speaking of her husband. “He is my true love. I know that I was meant for him.”
I believe in soulmates, I wanted to tell her. And I believe in love. I just don’t believe that love is limited to one person, or that we are meant to live only one life dedicated 100 percent to someone else.
I thought about her kids. How when her son was born she told me he was everything, the love of her life. And when she was pregnant a second time, she worried she would never love another child as much as she did her firstborn. But then her daughter was born and she fell in love. Completely. She loved them both infinitely and separately and the love of one didn’t jeopardize or diminish the love of the other.
When you are in a triad you get used to these questions, though. People always want to know if we really love Jon. If there was some problem between Alex and me. Is it about the sex? What is it that made this happen? Why? I am often shocked by the intensely personal questions people ask, mostly about our sex lives, the kind of questions they would be appalled at if someone were to ask them.
“Doesn’t it bother Jon?” my friend continued. “Knowing that you and Alex are married? That in the end, he has no legal rights? That the two of you are so legitimate?”
And Jon isn’t legitimate is the not-so-subtle subtext. How could he be?
When I met Alex I knew I had met my soulmate. We met on Scruff, a gay hookup app—his username was Spy in the Cab, a Bauhaus reference, that was a throwback to my youth. He was supposed to be a trick. Just a fuck. He was working on a movie and suggested we go to dinner. I was disappointed; I didn’t want to go to dinner, I wanted to get straight to the fucking, but I conceded.
I remember the moment Alex walked into my house. Stunned is the only word I can think of. He was so handsome it was breathtaking.
He couldn’t look me in the eye. Later he told me it was because he was sure I hadn’t seen him right, that at any moment I was going to realize how ugly he was. Which is idiotic because Alex is gorgeous. He is huge and muscular and Dominican, with the most beautiful, innocent, wondrous eyes I have ever seen on a man.
We went for Thai food in Hollywood. He told me about going to film school in Vancouver, and we talked about the movie he was working on, Sharknado. He did special effects makeup. He loved horror movies. I was recently sober after a four-year relapse. I was broke and jobless and living off my father’s financial kindness. After dinner we went back home and did all the things we talked about on Scruff.
Alex is my lover and my travel buddy and my best friend. He is my partner in adventure. I obsessed over him and longed for him and fell madly in love with him. He likes to tell people I gave him the keys to my house after two weeks. I’m pretty sure I made him wait seven, but either way, we moved fast. After six months he was moving out of his mom’s place in Huntington Beach and in with me. Two years later I proposed to him in Laguna.
Alex and I were not open. We had no interest in being “poly.” We had what we called a kind of “monogamy-ish” arrangement. Whatever we did together was allowed. If there was a guy we both wanted, fine. We had three-ways and four-ways with other couples. We picked up guys and went out flirting together. I loved watching Alex fuck another guy. He was so sexy and strong, such a stud. It just made me want him more. These adventures enhanced our sexuality and our relationship.
None of this is to say I didn’t get jealous. I can be an extremely jealous and possessive person. I can be dark and moody, stormy and unpredictable. There were times when what I wanted (and sometimes still do) was that fantasy of one love, that idea that he wants me and no one else, that I can satisfy all of him—but that came up against the hard reality of my own needs and wants. I wanted him to want only me, but I also wanted the freedom to go out and do whatever I wanted.
Jon was supposed to be just another three-way. A fuck and nothing more. We met him on Scruff. He was living with his ex in Orange County; it was complicated. We chatted for a few days before we all decided to meet. It was going to be brief. He was driving back from his mom’s house in Bakersfield, and I was working the door at the Faultline, a gay leather bar. He was going to stop by on his way home.
It was a Sunday beer bust, busy and chaotic. We were going to meet at the bar for a quick kiss and to check each other out. Jon pulled up in his silver Volkswagen Beetle. I still remember watching him walk over to me, his hunched old man gait, kind of awkward and shockingly handsome. He smiled his crooked smile. His nose was off center from being broken, his eyes serious and vulnerable, his hands at his sides, fists clenched. He was so beautiful and lost in that moment, so perfectly himself without pretense.
Alex and I took him into the green room where the strippers go to get into costume. We all took turns kissing. It was strange and magical. I knew that something different was happening. I knew that this was not going to be just a hook-up. It was in my heartbeat, in my nervousness. Hook-up Jeff would have thrown Jon down on the couch and said sexy, dirty things to him because hook-up Jeff can be aggressive. But this felt different, slower, easier, more meaningful and natural. It didn’t need to be forced or turned into a porn. This moment had a life all its own.
So we agreed to meet another night. We made a plan to watch David Bowie’s Cracked Actor and eat pizza and then fuck around. Then we invited him back again. And suddenly we were texting him every day: “Good morning” and “How are you?” and “We miss you” and “Goodnight.” Sexy chats and romantic chats and banal chats.
Alex and I would go on long walks and have endless discussions about what this meant. We were supposed to be getting married in six months. We both knew where things were headed: The question was, did we want to be moving in that direction? We had always been disdainful of triads, thinking the idea silly and overly complicated. I bought books, like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up, but none of the people in those books felt like me. Like us. I didn’t want to join poly groups. I wasn’t looking for a lifestyle.
I was jealous. Jealous of Alex. Jealous of Jon. I wanted them to love me, but I didn’t know how I felt about them loving each other.
What became clear to me is that there is no map here. No guide to how this is done. We weren’t new-ageists or vegans looking for some new tantric style of love. Alex and I weren’t looking to open up. We weren’t struggling in our relationship or our sex life. Things were good. We fucked a lot. We had fun. We were happy with how things were.
So then why? Why were we heading down this road? We had a choice. We could stop. We were getting married; we had our hands full. The TV show Alex was working on got picked up for a second season. We were busy. And the answer was simple: Jon. And it was fun. It felt right. The road seemed clear and open and easy.
It was strange watching Alex fall in love with someone else. Seeing the process, sharing in it, being a part of their experience while having my own. In the beginning, when Jon started sleeping over, I couldn’t sleep. The bed was too crowded. The room too hot: It was January, and we had the AC on high. Three big guys in one queen-size bed. We were drenched in sweat.
And I was jealous. Jealous of Alex. Jealous of Jon. I wanted them to love me, but I didn’t know how I felt about them loving each other. And all the books and web sites said that while jealousy was normal it was dangerous: ugly, bad, wrong. I watched myself becoming someone I didn’t understand. Someone who would lie awake at night counting affections: Where did Alex put his hands? How was Jon curled up against him? I’d count the minutes he curled up against me. Could I divine, in their sleep, their love for each other? Their love for me?
There were nights of high drama. Nights when I would storm out of the room, knocking things over, purposely trying to wake them, because I was mad. They had spent too much time wrapped around each other, leaving me out, on the far edges of the crowded bed, alone. Once, while on vacation in Vancouver, I pretended to fall out of the bed and then stormed around the room yelling, “This isn’t working! Nothing is working!”
A lot of these fights involved Alex and I going into a room and whispering furiously to each other, leaving Jon to sit alone on the couch. Or we would text each other madly through out dinner, believing naively that Jon didn’t know what was going on. During this period Jon felt left out of the decisions and the fights. We had a rule about texting: Alex and I could have our own texts, but all texts with Jon went through a group three-way chat. Alex and I were trying to maintain our relationship while building one with Jon. In the beginning we liked the idea that Jon thought of us as a Unit, one entity, but the truth is, that isn’t sustainable. In the end, each side of the triangle has to be equal or it falls apart. Without equality there is no actual relationship.
But what did that mean? Did it mean dissolving what Alex and I had built? Did it mean losing what I loved so much? Again I went back to the books, googling “throuple” and “triad” and “poly relationships.” But there was no clear rule. Many couples maintained their autonomy, regulating their third to a kind of second-class station. Some tried for unity.
We came to realize that each relationship has to stand on its own, and that the idea of equality isn’t always going to work out in a perfectly balanced way. Jon can never have the three years Alex and I had. We can’t change that, and I wouldn’t want to. We were still getting married. We were going to be who we were. And it would go like that for all of us. Sometimes they would bond without me, sometimes Jon and I would bond without Alex. Each relationship: Alex and Jon, Alex and Jeff, Jeff and Jon, Jeff and Jon and Alex, had to survive independently.
Now we keep a three-way chat, but we all get to have our own private chats as well. Jon is included. If we fight or get jealous we tell him, we work it out as a team. Or at least we try.
Our first official three-way fight occurred in Spokane, Washington, when Jon and I had gone to visit Alex while he was working on season two of his show. I don’t even know how it began, but somewhere along the way Alex was threatening to divorce me, break up with Jon, and kick us out. I have a lot of experience fighting with Alex. He and I are similar. We are passionate and volatile. Jon is different; he isn’t used to that kind of fighting. So without saying anything he booked us a room at a hotel, sure that this was over. The fight lasted close to six hours and cost us $200. It felt endless. Once two of us were OK, the third was mad. It kept going. On and on. We took turns forming alliances, ganging up on the other, switching back and forth, until finally it just kind of broke, like any fight, just a little more complicated. Some of it was related to the fact that Jon and I were alone for six months while Alex was away working. Some of it was related to the fact that we were all tired and Jon and I missed Alex. And some of it was just learning how to communicate with each other, learning how to relate.
Because this is all new.
I have had to learn a lot about myself. I’ve learned that I am afraid of being abandoned, of being left. I had dark fantasies of the two of them running off together and leaving me alone. I am 17 years older than Alex and 15 years older than Jon. I played games in my head, horrible, movies about when I was 60 and they weren’t even the age I am now, an old man with nothing left to offer his two young lovers.
And that is the thing: I am afraid, I am insecure and anxious, terrified of being left, of being alone, of growing old, having no one, nothing. These feelings occur in a normal dyad relationship and they become magnified in a triad. And what you are left with is yourself. I have learned to trust myself, to be secure in who I am and in what I have to offer. I have learned to be secure in the fact that they love me, even as they love each other. I have learned that just because they might want to fuck someone else doesn’t mean they don’t want to fuck me. This learning curve is sharp, and it has often been painful, but through it I have some how come out stronger, happier, maybe even braver.
I can’t legitimize Jon or his experience of this. All I can do is try to be honest and try to be supportive. We talk about his feelings and concerns about being in a relationship with two married guys. There are no legal protections for him. And I can’t imagine they will be coming any time soon. He doesn’t get to be on Alex’s union insurance. My father doesn’t offer to buy his ticket home for Thanksgiving. There is no simple solution to these things, so we come together, we split the extra ticket three ways, we agree to help Jon with his insurance and to all take care of each other the best we can. But still, is it enough? Does it appease that feeling of being left out? Sometimes. And I’m sure sometimes not. There is a price for the choices we have made.
Jon is like a perfect mixture of the two of us. He shares things with each of us. Sometimes he and Alex will be going off on some tangent about something they saw on Tumblr that has nothing to do with me. Sometimes Jon and I will be talking about some book we loved that has nothing to do with Alex. That’s the thing we each have to accept: Sometimes you aren’t a part of it. Sometimes you have to learn to love them for loving each other. To enjoy their enjoyment, even when it doesn’t involve you.
We decided to introduce Jon, officially, to our families and friends at our wedding. This might have been a flawed decision, but it seemed like the only time everyone would be at one place at the same time. My 13-year-old nephew, Eli, probably handled it better than anyone. He didn’t seem to really care. He just called it an “alternative relationship” that made his Uncle Jeff happy.
I have put my family through a lot. I was a heroin addict for 13 years. There isn’t much I could do to surprise them. My father mostly wanted to know if I was happy. If I was happy he was happy. He’s 78. I think a certain zen comes over you by that point in life.
Not everyone gets it. I don’t get it half the time. Most people think it is a phase, but if you look at the divorce rates, it would seem most relationships are phases.
Alex and I got married in our small craftsman-style house in Hollywood. Our friends, mostly people from LA and New York City, welcomed Jon. Triads seem to be a thing that is happening now. I still remember someone saying to Jon, “So how do you know Alex and Jeff?” and Jon replying in his bookish, quiet way, “Oh, I’m their boyfriend.”
There were moments when I would find him hiding with the cats and dog in our bedroom, overwhelmed by everyone and everything. He had suffered family rehearsal dinners and brunches and endless explanations of who he was. Everyone knows who Alex and I are. We’re the married guys. But who is that Jon?
Two weeks later he moved in.
People always ask about the sex. They imagine constant nights of three-ways and orgies, and to some extent they are right.
People always ask about the sex. They imagine constant nights of three-ways and orgies, and to some extent they are right. Every night in my house is a three-way. Our rule of monogamy-ish still exists: What we all want we can all have, together. Sometimes there are four-ways and five-ways, we talk about finding another triad, but the truth is that there is a normalcy to it as well.
I am in a relationship with two guys, each having his own insecurities and needs and goals. Each of us is a complete universe unto ourselves. Three-way sex is hot. Three-way fights suck. Sometimes they annoy me. Sometimes they charm me. Sometimes I want to run away and hide, be alone. We are lucky because we have a three-bedroom house and a back house that we can escape to if we need it. It’s nice knowing there’s a place I can go to that is all mine. It’s important. It’s hard not to get lost with all these people around. It is important to me that we are each given the opportunity to maintain our selves, to have our own lives and our own experiences inside all of this. That isn’t always easy. It is something we work at very hard.
Recently we were in Seattle meeting Alex, who was on a break. I had booked a room for us with a king-size bed. The woman at the desk said that the hotel had a strict no guest policy, only couples allowed in the room. When I tried to explain to her that we are a couple(-ish) and that Alex was not our guest, she just looked at me like I was crazy. “You aren’t allowed guests, sir,” she kept insisting. No explanation was going to change her mind. Eventually I had to upgrade to a room with two queen-size beds that we ended up pushing together into one bed.
Beds are a really big deal for us. A queen doesn’t really do it. A California king can be a stretch sometimes. We’ve discussed getting three king mattresses and turning our bedroom into one giant bed.
When we were flying to Vancouver we all fell asleep with our heads and hands all over each other. I woke up to find people staring, not sure what was going on. A woman in the aisle next to us shook her head at me, like I had slapped her. The stewardess had the exact opposite reaction: She kept saying how adorable we were. Both reactions made me feel like a strange museum piece or an exotic animal at the zoo.
When trying to find a place to go for Valentine’s Day, we ran into all the pre-fixe menus for couples. Nowhere was willing, even when I said I didn’t care about the cost, to do a pre-fixe throuple menu. We ended up ordering pizza and watching My Bloody Valentine.
Nothing ever comes in threes. Everything is set up for two people. Finding three seats on the plane, renting an Airbnb room, shopping, navigating other people’s perceptions, all these things are challenges. But then, in the end, any relationship—whether with yourself, another, two others, or 20 others—is complicated and full of challenges. The question is: Is it worth it?
Sometimes I will be sitting at my desk, writing or reading, and I will look over at the two of them on the couch, giggling at stupid cat .GIFs, or holding hands quietly, and I will think, I am lucky. I am loved and safe. And together we will face the world, the three of us.
What I wish I had said to my friend over lunch is that life isn’t easy, and things have a way of going terribly wrong, but love, love is huge and it is a gift and I don’t think it’s about percentages. I think love is something expansive, something that grows if you let it.
Because that is the one thing I know for certain: Our ability to love is not limited. It is not small. It is vast and huge and ever-expanding, and if we allow ourselves we might even find ourselves growing and expanding with it because we are huge and vast and capable of anything. I believe that now. I see it. When I am lying there at night, drenched in sweat, bodies wrapped around me, surrounded by them, listening to them breathe as they sleep, I know that there is a magic in this life, a gift, and it is buried deep inside the love I have.
Thank you for taking the time to read this piece. It’s been a long and amazing three and a half years since this first appeared in the world and I’m grateful to all of you who have stuck with me, with all of us, through it.
Take a moment and check out my book, Accidental Warlocks, on Amazon. Your support keeps all of this going.