This article first appeared in Attitude issue 279, January 2017
There was a thunderstorm in Tuscany and the taxi skidded through fist-deep puddles as we snaked up the hills around Palaia, parting the rain. The car bucked into the air like a bronco and it was frantic and soupy outside. I could see more of my own face in the window than anything beyond.
I watched Luc* in the front passenger seat, his angular face in relief, a little piece of paper with guitar chords sketched out on his knee. With head craned forward, his fingers winded up and down them as if it really was a guitar; it was at once baffling and sad, a sign of obsession. A stone flicked up at the windscreen and I knew I was in love, a sensation that surprised friends when I told them back in London.
I was, after all, sitting next to my boyfriend Sam on the back seat, my feelings for whom were unchanged by this sudden jolt. An hour late, tired and hungry, we parked outside the house at half past midnight, gravel scattering like birds as we came to a stop. It was October and we were staying at an artist-retreat-cum-self-catering set-up called Villa Lena on a big hill outside Pisa.
It was the first holiday me and my two boyfriends took together, and one we went on despite worrying about what my parents or mine and Luc’s mutual model agent might think. It was also the start of something wonderful that was to end very badly.
At this point you might be thinking: Three people. One relationship. Can it work? Short answer: yes; long answer: only with the right people (something that OkCupid have clearly recognised as they now have a polyamory function on their site). It was my second ‘throuple’, although the first was not as serious as this. We three had lived together for a month and a half by then, disproving the first misconception about three-ways, namely that they are all just about shagging.
Now, of course, they can be. I know a few people who also have threesomes and the general comment from them when they found out we had moved in was horror: “How CAN you move in together? We don’t even let ours stay the night.” Ours. Something about that word makes me come out in goose bumps. It implies a sense of ownership.
Perhaps in some senses, I am both modern in what I do, but old-fashioned in my views: I like sex but if I like someone enough to have their pants off, I want to know who they are, and I want to know them more after we’ve shagged. Each to their own, but a fuck and an Uber doesn’t really do it for me. I prefer to stick around. So what is it all about then if not sex? Is it about making up for something missing between the original couple? If there is something lacking, a hole, another person naked between you in bed isn’t likely to remedy it; it can surely only tear the net a little more?
We, such as we were, happened by accident. Our mutual friend Florian (also French, also a model, quelle surprise) introduced us during fashion week in the summer of 2015. Sam, who worked as a magazine editor then, was away, but I fancied Luc almost immediately, with those frayed Bernini looks and his quicksilver mind that seemed to skip from topic to topic like he was flicking through a book. That night, after dancing until dawn we kissed, pressed up against the fridge in the flat in Hackney. I told Sam. He jumped on a train, curious, interested, perhaps, and we went out again the next night — and then it happened.
Hungover, strung out and feeling moderately sexy, the next day Sam asked Luc to move in with us. In hindsight it was probably a warning sign that he so readily accepted — “There’s no reason it can’t work as a three, right?” — but we live frivolously, and was it not worth the gamble? A wager of current happiness for a greater prize? Well, yes and no.
What I experienced during our year together was a bigger, multiplied love. And once you’ve tried that you want it again. Because, a bigger love, from more than one person, feels so encompassing, so incandescent — it feels like you’ve been cheated by life when it goes away. Luc moved in and left France. We quickly slotted into each other’s lives. In a couple, it is wise to surrender part of yourself to your partner. In a throuple, it’s essential. So, we all gave up that 33.3 per cent of our identity that is necessary; yielded 33.3 per cent to a greater whole. It felt good, and so did the fucking.
There’s a scale of reliance in relationships people don’t talk about openly. In any relationship you might talk to your family, or your friends when you need reassurance or support. In a three-way, you rely on each other, rather than on people outside. You begin to be a little clique, away from the world, which is both a great privilege and a danger. It felt comfortable, warm and cosy in our clique, but now I look back, it made us more introverted and that was to lead to disaster. Three-ways involve the careful tessellation of not just three bodies, but three minds, pasts and desires, which is complex. But if you manage it, what is interesting is that you feel no jealousy of each other.
If you feel that your paths and lives are aligned, really aligned, and you go to sleep in the same bed, who cares if two of you are fucking in the afternoon and the other has to wait until after work? To me, a couple balances on stilts. They rely on other people to support them. Three-ways can work so well because they’re tripods. Each leg supports the others. Me, Sam and Luc would sleep in the same (kingsize) bed, go to parties together, and belly-laugh together. Even 15 years ago our ménage may have seemed inconceivable. We made no secret of it — everyone from our colleagues to our neighbours knew. But sexuality for millennials differs greatly from that of the previous generation. People are less scared to not be “normal”. Even what passes as the heterosexual world is becoming more fluid.
One friend, who is now straight, used to get with boys. He made no secret of it. His friends knew about the guys he went to bed with and he’s internationally good-looking. Eventually, he decided it wasn’t what he wanted and he switched back to girls again. His girlfriend also used to like girls, and is now straight, too.
The thing is it’s not about experimentation or having a phase — these are people who like people for who they are, no matter their gender, and in so doing defy categorisation. Millennial sexuality takes as its starting point a declaration: I don’t want to live like my parents’ generation. In a world where our opportunities are being endlessly crushed, and the young are trampled, it may be that sexuality is the last place where we can truly feel any security — our sense of self is impervious to the economic mood or the travails of politics.
So why not do what we want to do? In a world where Trump can be carried to the Presidency on a flood of lies, it’s important not to shy away from the truth. Or to box yourself away in another closet. My straight friends often wondered why we had invited someone else into our lives and our heads. “When is it going to go back to just being you and Sam, Max?” one once said, a little plaintively, perhaps sensing something we hadn’t noticed in Luc. A three-way brings extra potential for love, but it also brings extra potential for disaster.
And so it was in Paris in July, in the baking heat, that the third boyfriend decided that two boyfriends wasn’t quite enough, packed a bag, said he was off to a singing lesson and ran off with an American who was small on personality, but who had a rather big watch with an even bigger two words on it: ‘Patek’, being the first, ‘Philippe’ being the second.
After much shouting, and pain, and lack of explanation, that was the end of us. Or at least, the three of us. Two now merrily remain. What I learned in that year were three things:
1) Extra people can mean extra love, but it depends who’s doing the loving — if they are kind and wise, you will be fine, but if they’re not, you’re in for a wild ride.
2) The more people in a relationship the more conversations about feelings are needed.
3) Don’t trust an American who wears a big watch. Applications are now open for a new Luc. Reply within.
*Names have been changed.
Max Wallis’s first book Modern Love was shortlisted for the prestigious Polari Prize. His new art book, Everything Everything, draws back the curtain on millennial sexuality in a world populated by swimming pools, piss and cum. It can be bought at www.max-wallis.com. ‘Read this book.’ — Russell T Davies