Traci Foust hated herself for not being able to accept a man who loved both women and men, but in the process learned that it’s OK to want more than what one person can give.
Christian and I started our love affair in a chat room about religious studies. He was living in a small town outside Paris, France. I lived in California. We were both in our 20s, which meant the allure of these impossibilities was the only thing we needed to make this work.
We met in Real Time in an airport with just enough foreign smells inside and snow falling outside to make everything seem like a movie. Christian was taller than his pictures, pale, sharp-faced, and beautiful. Before I could even say his name he lifted me into his arms and kissed both my cheeks. I knew no one else in France and barely spoke the language, but none of this matters when you are standing under a 200-year-old cathedral waiting for a street car and feeling as if you could spend every waking moment on this corner with this man who hasn’t let go of your hand since baggage claim. Christian holds me, rubs my back for warmth, and tries to quote Kahlil Gibran. “Do you say it like, ‘Love is licking honey from a thorn or away from a thorn?’” He laughs and pulls me to him. “Oh my God,” he says, “I am so nervous.”
There was simply nothing left for me to do but fall in love.
It wasn’t my first time in a country where the men sit with their legs crossed like women, where they stumble through British phrases like “How do you do?” forgetting (or not knowing) that men in the States would never ask a woman if she is feeling “cheeky.” American machismo doesn’t appeal much to me, so when this elegant creature lights my cigarette and calls me “Darling” I almost lose my breath. I’m also a little embarrassed because as Christian talks about the museums we will visit all I want is for the damn bus to come so I can get this strange and wonderful gentlemen into bed.
I had already established via semi-sexy Internet chats that Christian wasn’t very experienced with women. He told me he’d had only one serious relationship and to not be disappointed if he couldn’t live up to his country’s romanticism. In a freezing bedroom no bigger than my bathroom at home I decided I would help him with his insecurities. I declined his offer to watch a movie and began unbuttoning my blouse. Christian smiled nervously. He put on a Smith’s CD then asked me to forgive him for being so virginal.
Sex with someone you’ve never actually met can feel a bit weird. But as soon as it was time for us to lie on separate pillows, not as sweaty and breathless as I would have liked, I couldn’t help feeling something more was wrong that just an awkward first time. When he got dressed and said he needed to get some milk for our morning coffee, I asked if I could come along.
“I am mostly taking late night walks by myself,” he said. “To clear my head, also.”
Though he was doting and personable, holding me while we strolled the charming streets of Compiegne, kissing my neck and telling me how thankful he was that I was finally in his life, there were definitely limits to Christian’s affections in bed. And each day I found more reasons to be worried.
One night while I searched through cupboards looking for an extra apron to help him cook his signature beef burgundy, I found some pictures he had taken for a professional portfolio. When I asked him about these full-lipped, shirtless young men, Christian told me he had once considered becoming a photographer. All of his pictures definitely proved his talent with a camera. They also proved he wasn’t very interested in photographing women.
Two months after my trip to Europe, Christian got a Ph.D fellowship to the mathematics program at a university 70 miles away from my house. He was all set to stay with friends when I suggested he move in with me. “He’s going to brave that commute every day so you can live together?” A close girlfriend remarked. “He must really have it bad.”
“Yeah, I think he does,” I answered. But it felt like a lie.
Christian thrived in his new American life. He made friends easily and was a natural at all things domestic, spending every bit of his money on groceries, fixing my car, and planting a flower garden in the backyard. He took an insane amount of pictures of the life we were building together and hung them in frames all over the house.
Even as wildly affectionate as he was with me our sex life had not improved much from that first time in his apartment. At night I’d find him asleep on the floor in the living room with a book on his chest, or studying at the kitchen table, avoiding me and the bed we shared. If I voiced my worries about us not sleeping together he’d turn them into me not understanding our cultural differences. “Americans are obsessed with sex,” he would say. “Why should a relationship be built on the way things work in the bedroom?”
Sometimes I felt like a shallow idiot, a Western whore raised in a superficial land of fashion magazines and beauty pageants. I hated myself for having doubts about Christian’s sexuality, then I’d lie in bed, alone and confused, hating myself even more for not having the courage to come right out and ask him.
When we passed our six month stretch of zero lovemaking I decided something had to change.
We were driving home from a dinner with my Russian friend Nick who happens to be gay. Christian spoke fluent Russian and though he insisted they were chatting about nothing more than trashy Eastern techno groups, it wasn’t until I saw his arm around Nick’s shoulder, laughing and pulling him close, that I decided if I wanted all these insecurities to stop, I was going to have to put an end to them myself. “You want to hear something weird?” I asked. “I have a feeling you might be gay.”
Christian squeezed my hand. “Certainly not,” was his answer. Yet when I asked him if he was bisexual he was anything but quick to tell me no. “It’s different there than it is here,” he said, meaning America versus his country. Meaning yes.
I told myself I was prepared for this, but when I was alone I cried and thought, I fucking knew it.
We never spoke again about Christian’s bisexuality. But instead of getting angry at him for lying (technically, he never did) an odd ease began to fall over us. Things felt different. Better. We even began making love regularly—though nothing overly passionate. For a while I gloated in my ability to accept that the man who loved me was interested in men. As a heterosexual woman, bisexual had always meant sex only. One night stands with strangers. Secret encounters I would never know about. As long as Christian didn’t fall in love with someone else I had nothing to worry about.
I joined an online support group and found comfort in chatting with women who were involved with bisexual men. Then a recently divorced member posted this warning: If your boyfriend has the desire to make love to another man, what makes you think he’s incapable of falling in love with one? I couldn’t imagine that. Not Christian. Not a man who constantly said, “I love you,” and made picture collages of almost everything we did together. You seem jaded, I wrote back to the divorcee. Maybe you didn’t give your husband enough space to be the man he needed to be. That’s the nice thing about the lies we tell ourselves. They’re the safest places to stand above our realities.
Shortly after our four-year anniversary, a man showed up at our door to take my boyfriend to a concert. Christian said they’d met at school, that he hadn’t meant to exclude me from their plans but he knew crowds made me anxious. I told myself it was good for him to get out, that he needed to take a break from studying. Still, all I could hear in my head were the words, their plans.
It wasn’t the idea of Christian and that stranger having sex that hurt me. It was everything else I wasn’t willing to share: The times we cooked together, us kissing in the grocery store, him laughing at my French because it sounded like “an angry Portuguese.” The thought of Christian building these gentle memories with someone else made me crazy. I tried to remind myself that love had nothing to do with sex. But what about boundaries? What about me being a woman who felt she was no longer receiving mutual respect from the man she loved?
When I told him I didn’t think I could give him what he needed, he reminded me that our definitions of love were different. “If you could just see that,” he said, “you’d understand we were meant to be together.”
Whether Christian wanted extra relations with a man or a woman, it was still someone who wasn’t me. Exclusion from the life of a good man happens slowly because they are genuinely nice. But it still happens. Helping Christian pack to leave was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. He had taught me about patience and kindness, how a bond between two people can be achieved in a way I had never thought possible. Most importantly, my time with Christian showed me what I was worth, and that it’s OK to want more than what one person can give.
It’s been almost 12 years since Christian and I broke up. I still have the cheesy décor collage where we taped the pictures of our trip to Santa Cruz into the spaces behind the word LOVE. The black and white photo of me smiling while Christian looks up at the seagulls sits right inside the O. It’s my favorite one of us, but I had to cut myself out of the picture to fit the whole of him into the frame.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.