Two years ago, while I was in Vermont for a yoga teacher training, I had my first threesome with a married, cis-het, white couple. I found them on Tinder, as you do. My profile was simple. Me backstage in a tube top dress with a smirky smile. A swimsuit selfie in my friend’s pool. A Down Dog to show my full shape. “Hey yourself,” it read. Theresa. Age 35. Single.
I wasn’t looking for a threesome—I didn’t even consider myself to be bisexual at the time—but I was open to anything. I already had a consistent hook-up buddy back home in Boston, and since I was going to be in Vermont a few times that summer for trainings, I figured it would be fun to have something out there, too. I was driving down I-89 listening to Kid Cudi and feeling just as free as he was in his lyrics. I was in love with my body. Fully owning, for maybe the first time in my life, that I can do whatever I want with it. With whomever (consenting, of course) I want. Summer 2018 was a time when anything I wanted could happen.
She had a septum piercing. Floral tattoos across her breast plate. Chunky glasses that reminded me of mine. He was tall. Bald and kind faced with spacers in his earlobes. Tattoos across his knuckles. “Well, I guess we shouldn’t just say Hey,” they first messaged. We met up for a cocktail.
“Make sure their marriage seems stable!” my friends warned me. Because that is the thing. In the world of online dating, married couples are notorious for bringing in a third person to heal something that is broken within their relationship; we “thirds”—single people interested in joining an existing couple—are often called “unicorns” for a reason. Like a magical, mythical creature, we’re two things at once, here for him and for her. We are filled with glitter. Sparkle and smoke.
After drinks, she and I drove back to their place together. We listened to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer on my Toyota’s Bluetooth speaker. “I love this song,” we said in unison, over and over again.
This was my first time, and their first time, but I had thought it through. I knew my boundaries. “What is off limits for your body?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.
“And what is off limits for you to witness me do with your husband?” I asked, measuring my breath, choosing my words carefully.
“Only the things that he doesn’t want,” she said.
What I didn’t know yet was that I was getting myself into an entanglement.
Last week, after August Alsina’s interview with the Breakfast Club’s Angela Yee, Jada Pinkett-Smith brought herself to The Red Table with her husband Will. August claimed in the interview that, over the course of a several years long relationship, he’d been deeply in love with Jada. A kind of romantic love he’d never before experienced. And he claimed he had Will’s blessing, that the Smiths had agreed their marriage as a romantic partnership was over.
“The only person that can give permission in that particular circumstance is myself,” Jada said, sitting cross legged in her chair, looking comfortable and refreshed in her denim shirt, as Will took measured breaths.
I was pipe-dreaming that this might be a conversation about an intentionally open, non-monogamous relationship.
I was pipe-dreaming that this might be a conversation about an intentionally open, non-monogamous relationship. Summer 2020 has been a whirlwind: A global pandemic. The City of New York painting BLACK LIVES MATTER in front of Trump Tower. Murder hornets. A couple of Hollywood sweethearts speaking honestly about how monogamy just doesn’t work for them, and how they found the key to health and happiness in their marriage was in opening it up? Why not?! Summer 2020. The year of the Unicorn.
“So what happened, Jada?” Will asked across the red table.
“[August] just needed some help, you know?” Jada replied, “Me wanting to help his health. His mental state.”
“He was really sick” they said in unison. “Really, really sick,” Jada went on.
Was August actually sick? Sure. I don’t know him and I don’t know his life. But what I do know, is he wasn’t the only one who needed healing.
The couple and I started a WhatsApp chat with a unicorn for the group photo, and conversation flowed easily. After our second time together, he asked if I would consider dating them, an emotional enhancement from the purely-sexual relationship we’d already established. “We could go bowling. And out to dinner. Karaoke,” he offered, when I asked what that might look like. “I think about you when you’re not here,” he went on, “and not just in a sexual way. We want to spend more time with you.”
“I feel like that would be a shift in terms of the parameters we have here,” I messaged back. I was good at this. They had been married for nearly a decade; she’d never done more than kiss anyone other than him, until me. They seemed happy, secure, stable. But, I knew to tread lightly. Some couples figure out that a two person monogamous relationship isn’t what makes the most sense for them. And some couples figure out that temporarily bringing in a third can spice things up for them. Fill a void that has somehow formed between them. Mend a wound they can’t quite heal on their own. But I knew they weren’t ready to come out publicly as having opened their marriage to me.
“And what if I want to hold your hand?” I asked. “Or hers. What if she says something funny and I want to kiss her? What if I bowl a strike and you want to hug me?” Vermont is filled with small towns, and theirs was no exception. We were sure to see their friends at the bowling alley, the pub, the karaoke bar.
It was always unclear to me where they saw the relationship going. I knew they wanted to have kids. So then what? I would move to Vermont and we would raise the children together? I would be the Black “auntie” who came over and had dinner with this all white family, and then spent the night with Mommy and Daddy?
“Cuz this is your red table, and you brought yourself to The Red Table—I think you need to say clearly what happened,” Will asked Jada.
“I got into an entanglement with August,” Jada replied.
“An entanglement??” Will asked laughing, “A relationship!”
“Yes! A relationship, absolutely” Jada admitted. “I was in a lot of pain. And I was very broken.” Will was leaving her, and she was questioning the life she thought they were building together, unsure if the plans they’d had would ever come to fruition.
In the end, it was August who left. The would-be unicorn who finally wisened up, and remembered his role. Unicorns give magic. We don’t get it back.
“Walking away,” August told Angela Yee, “it butchered me.” That’s the difference between me and August; I think he imagined Jada would walk away with him. Hold his hand across a shared table. I think he imagined she would love him the way he loved her. I’m sure he imagined he was more than just their Divorce Doula, a conduit for Jada’s transition between married life and separation. But I didn’t.
Like most humans, I desire a committed relationship, one that is fun and friendly and loving and supportive; one that is sexually satisfying. In the Summer of 2018, I didn’t have that. But they did. They had each other, and while they wanted more of me, they hadn’t thought through what it would be like for me when it ended, or even what it would be like for me as it was happening. She would say something funny, and he would kiss her. He would bowl a strike, and she would hug him. And what would I get?
Tangled up in the sheets of their bed, we were equal thirds with equal goals. I was there for my pleasure, and for theirs. I was their special guest star: they saw to it that I always came first. “Whether you intend it or not,” I told them, “us going on dates would be inherently uneven for me.”
I’d like to say I stayed strong. Gave them a no and stuck to it. But I didn’t. I gave in and we went on a date and I watched their fingers intertwine across the table, as I held nothing but my chopsticks. They were questioning the life they’d built together, unsure if their plans to grow their family would ever come to fruition. I listened, but it wasn’t my job to fix them, or even to guide them through it. Unicorns are great. Our magic lingers. We float in your thoughts even after we’re gone. We can help. But we cannot actually heal you. That’s only gonna come from within.
The couple and I stayed in touch via WhatsApp, saying hello and sharing major life events if we remembered. I’d asked them how they’d feel if I wrote about our experience one day. She gave me their blessing. Last summer, I reached out one last time.
“Things are good with us, Theresa. We had fun times with you, but we are in a different place in our lives now,” she replied.
“Bye, Theresa,” he wrote moments later, “Live and be well.”
I imagined them sitting together in the bed we had briefly shared. I imagined them holding hands. Deciding together what they would say, how they would present a united front. And then I watched as one at a time, they left the group chat. And I was alone, every corner of the virtual room filled with sparkle and smoke. My hands empty.
“Bad marriage for life,” Jada and Will said in unison, as though they’d said it a million times before. They fist bumped across the table. And I imagined August watching this. “The definition of entanglement,” he’d later sing, “It’s when you’re entangled in the sheets.”