Reciprocity

(Author Note: I wrote this short story was originally part of the Quotidian Project, but people seemed to like it, so I thought I would share it here.)

The early morning emptiness of the streets made way for the thin breeze drifting up from the ocean. That cool sensation was welcome, as she knew it wouldn’t last for long. The sun was already well into its task of turning the black asphalt into a dangerous area. She silently wished that she had applied enough sunblock for the day.

She’d been looking forward to seeing him again. Unlike the heat of the Summer, their relationship had cooled over the past month, as space was taken and explored. Sometimes he explored his space with other people, an arrangement that she felt comfortable in, although she’d not found additional partners who interested her. They were each permitted to explore as many connects as each party wanted, with no fear of wrong-doing. People prone to labels slapped “open relationship” on this arrangement.

Some people didn’t understand their system, which made it hard to talk to incredulous people, or even answer seemingly simple questions, such as “are you seeing anyone?” If she tried to explain that yes, she was seeing someone, but was also free to see others, people immediately thought she was looking to cheat on her lover. Occasionally men thought she was playing a game, and were only attracted to the possibility of being “found out” by her “boyfriend,” as though his knowing would create a rivalry that the men wanted to win out of principle. They lost interest as soon as she mentioned that she told him everything. It was no longer a game of dominance and this made her less appealing.

On principle, this sorting system didn’t really bother her. She wasn’t interested in short-term connections primarily experienced during coitus. She craved a deeper connection, and if men were threatened by not being the only love or lust in her life, she knew that kinship wouldn’t last, nor would it be fulfilling.

They met at the waterfront, having planned to sprawl on the grass beneath a small tree to block the worst of the sun’s rays. He hugged her tight, and she molded to his body. She’d missed him.

“How are you?” he asked, settling onto a blanket she’d stowed in her bag.

“A lot of the same old,” she started, knowing the answer to this question wouldn’t have much originality. “Work, work, work, but things are good. I enjoy my down time as much as possible. You?”

She’d always found his ability to recount past time surpassed hers. He spoke of crushes and dates, both past and to come. It had become his mission to meet more people recently, and he was excited to be on track. She smiled, delighted by his passion. People were always skeptical when she said she was happy for him, but it was the truth.

They’d spoken of jealousy early in the process of being allies. Neither of them were strangers to the tugging sensation of a partner being pulled away, even though most jealous impulses were ultimately unfounded. A different connection does not sever theirs, and having a competition of hierarchy of importance in partners felt degrading. They agreed to speak up, address concerns whenever they felt insecure, and talk through those feelings. If only the people who judged their connection as immature knew the depths at which they discussed their feelings… but she didn’t feel the need to justify her lifestyle.

He’d finished recounting various interactions with girls who struck his fancy, and his gaze settled back to hers. Her skin always tingled slightly when his attention shifted from pouring his passion outward into the universe to directing his eyes at mine. His freedom of words always drew her in, and he could listen, and had listened, to him talk for hours.

She shifted slightly to kiss the lips that had just regaled her with tales of adventure. His question froze her midway.

“Are you satisfied with the amount of love in your life?” He had sunk back slightly, making a return to her pre-kiss position a much more comfortable trajectory than the path to his lips. She chided herself for momentarily forgetting his opposition to kissing in public; she’d gotten caught up and forgot that they weren’t in a more intimate setting.

“Of course,” she replied. She was.

“You know that if you find someone else who you feel drawn to, I want you to follow that, right?” His fingers picked at a loose thread in the blanket. He’d said this before, and she was well aware that she was free to love anyone she wanted.

“I do know that. I’ve known that since the beginning.” She was getting tired of feeling pushed. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t feel satisfied with the amount of love in my life?”

“It’s just that you never talk about seeing anyone else. It’s like you aren’t even trying.” His gaze was directed squarely at her now. He was firmly planted in a topic when he looked like this.

Her mind raced, but continuously stumbled. Is there a quota of love that I missed the memo on? Should I feel badly that I don’t have several admirers? What about my life screams that I should be unhappy with the amount of love in it? Does he have far less love for me than I thought?

Fragments of these thoughts twisted wildly in her mind, as tragic as trapeze artists missing their mark and plummeting without support from their partners.

She started slow. She needed to be very deliberate in order to focus her injured thoughts into communicable sentences. “Is there a competition about which I was not informed?” Her voice was quiet, but deep. Her eyes clasped a speck on his shoulder, knowing his eyes would make her voice waver.

“Well, no, but -”

She smacked her lips, inhaling quickly so she could continue. “Do you love me less than I have been led to believe?” This time her eyes caught his, and she could feel her chin shake microscopically. She was risking tears to search for the truth in his answer.

His eyes reflected her pain. “Of course not,” he said. He wasn’t lying.

“Please stop inferring that I am below the quota of people who love me, thus restricting me from being happy.” She held his eyes just long enough to ensure her point was made, and then rolled away. The maneuver was clumsy, but she was on her feet quickly. “I need to go for a walk. I’ll be back.”

She’d turned and was a considerable distance before she remembered to breathe. Her sunglasses shielded strangers from knowing she was crying, and she kept her head low.

She couldn’t have wagered a guess as to the duration of her trip if asked. She just walked until her legs protested; they wouldn’t be able to work off the boulder of hurt she was carrying in her chest. At some point she had wrapped around the waterfront, and plopped back down on her blanket behind him. Spooked, he turned and sighed upon seeing her.

“You were right,” he started. “And I’m not just saying that because I want you to stop being upset with me.”

“We have different priorities,” I stated.

“Exactly,” he replied. “I was wrapped up in how great I’ve felt recently, and was scared that I was keeping you from feeling the same.”

“We don’t stand in each other’s way,” she said, rubbing at her eyes beneath the sun glasses. She knew her eyes would likely be red, but the glasses made her vision too dark in the shade. She pushed them onto her head and rubbed her face once more before her hand fell back down to her lap.

Her put tentative fingertips on her knee. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We are alike in so many ways and I just wanted you to be happy.”

She gripped his fingers tightly. “We have differences. Sometimes I remind you of how meek you used to be before we got together. I think you misinterpreted my inaction as being at a standstill – as though our relationship has put me in a cage. The biggest difference here is I am happy, whereas you were miserable when you felt trapped. I’m not trapped. And I don’t need to prove my freedom by making connections with other people.”

His eyes clouded over in thought. “Thank you.”

“For what?” she asked.

“Showing me my ‘good intention’ was full of shit.” He giggled tentatively, unsure if he was being distasteful by expressing vague amusement. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she replied, tucking into a ball at his side. “I’m here for the adventure – good parts and bad – for as long as we both want the journey.”