Inflight

by KRISTINE ESSER SLENTZ

                                                                                       Art by Arizona Smith

The thing about flying across the country is that the time change never helps you. You’re either tripping backward or forward in hours, exhausted or confused. It was New Year’s Day and I was hungover on a packed airplane going from New York City to Los Angeles to retrieve one of my closest friends, Anna. She was getting a divorce from her husband and needed a road trip buddy for the ride back to our shared home state of Indiana. Trying to be a good friend and being an intense road trip lover, I, of course, said yes.

Anna’s marriage ended for many reasons, but what accelerated the demise was deciding to have an open marriage. I am also in an open marriage, and immediately felt hurt that this was the reason she gave for her marriage’s death. Like many woman with a particularly strict Catholic upbringing, Anna believed that she is only as valuable as the strength of her devotion to her relationship.

Meanwhile, in the bliss of escaping a hangover and gnarly loved ones, I sat as far back as I could in my non-reclining middle seat, to make an attempt at contemplating the events of the previous night’s so-called celebrations. The shitty thing about leaning on my old coping mechanism of drinking heavily to deal with upsetting surroundings is that it led me to not just to foggy memories but gaping grief.

Early in the evening on New Year’s Eve, I had plans to meet up with a favorite cousin who was in New York City visiting for the holiday. She became my favorite when my pops and stepmom married. She was the first real family I had that accepted me into their life. I didn’t really have any present blood family on either my mother or father’s side, so her love was something I had only seen, and then subsequently craved, as if on an after-school TV special. We were only a couple years apart in age so we fussed over things like making out with boys, learning to smoke cigarettes, dealing with the death of family members – growing up. Our long-distance connection was a space in which I could feel emotionally comprehended, since I seemed to be lacking it with the humans in my immediate familial circle.

On this visit, over cheap red wine from the corner store at her holiday rental, we discussed our work, immediate family, and dating lives. It was the last topic that got us tumbling through an attack on my life that I couldn’t fully react to or at this point remember clearly. I told her that while my husband and I had experienced some real rough moments in our marriage the previous year, we were getting back to a good place, and, that we were in an open marriage now. I was polyamorous and he came out as bisexual. With this given information, she returned readily with a battery of inquiries: How could I or my husband be okay with us seeing other people? How could we commit ourselves to each other and other people, even if it was just sex? My soft fumble of language between gulps of air and wine in response only seemed to strengthen her criticism. Why did we even get married? Why had I taken his last name? How is it possible for of us to be bisexual? Is bisexuality even a real thing? Staring at my empty wine glass, I lost my words completely. Flustered, I tried again to answer the questions the best I could but knew I was failing to make her understand that I loved who I loved and could be in love with more than one person at a time regardless of their gender — that to me, loyalty, commitment, and support were not exclusive to monogamy.

Mid messed up discussion, my boyfriend called. He wanted to know about our New Year’s plans and how I was going to get ready for our night out at his best friend’s girlfriend’s party. Originally, I had wanted him to meet my favorite cousin. When you’re in love with someone, you want them to meet the important people in your life, and yes, I was in love with my boyfriend—as well as my husband. Astounded by my cousin’s unexpected assault on my love life, I didn’t feel like putting on a shiny party dress and applying iridescent eye shadow. I told my boyfriend I was fine and didn’t need anything from my previously packed and delivered to his apartment suitcase. He insisted on bringing over my outfit anyway; he felt I would want it.

Soon enough, my boyfriend and I were sitting at the kitchen bar after my cousin and her friend left for their New Year’s Eve concert. Fiddling once again with my fake crystal stemware and trying to finish up the rest of the wine left in the seamed-glass bottle, I told him about the conversation with my cousin. Looking away, but still trying to smile at him with the cabernet staining my teeth and tongue, I said that I didn’t really want to be around people tonight and that I would be happy with bringing in 2019 with him at his place, making love to each other. He promised me we could leave the party right after midnight.

The rain was coming down so thick that night that even with umbrellas we got soaked. Upon arrival, it was clearly a standard privileged kid party consisting of mostly white late-20-somethings who only wished to know the other kids they went to elite east coast private schools with as they chased bodega beers with copious amounts of cocaine. Chatter of liberal politics about helping the underprivileged were being discussed alongside regaling the most recent trips they had taken overseas to their family estates. Growing up in a small factory town in Indiana, I found it difficult to relate to people whose worldview was approving of sweeping socialism to help the same people they ignored while serving them at their yacht clubs. Most of this friend group didn’t know what to talk to me about, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to talk to them about, either. Further, I was a married, polyamorous, bisexual woman—realms of a person relegated to being the subject of closed-door jokes to these folks, which would become even more evident in the following months.

I drank more – still spinning from who I considered my closest and coolest member of my family seeing me as an optional creation of my own mind and surrounded by others who could only fantasize and oftentimes fetishize, my background. In my attempt to push myself outside of my mind and join the party, I playfully palm pushed one of his friends in the shoulder, and teased him about having to take our shoes off at the door. He was insulted. It was his girlfriend who a couple of weeks previously, and then again in a few short months, would twist the explanations I have of my current home life to her questions into dramatic assertions to not only gossip about but to corner my boyfriend with. She asked him how he could be ok with me having a husband who has a boyfriend – what if I wanted to be a surrogate for them? A sentiment she took wildly out of context when I told her that my husband and his boyfriend were more family-oriented than myself, and if one day they choose to have a family together we could figure it out.

I told my boyfriend I was ready to leave whenever he was. He reminded me that one minute after midnight we would leave, two more hours from now. Still working on keeping him comfortable because I wasn’t completely with my untraditional relationship, I nodded. So, I killed time playing with a fluffy and friendly cat and eventually locked myself in the bathroom. I sat on the cramped, cold floor trying to regulate my breathing and wondering how I ended up in a place where I couldn’t talk to or be seen by anyone? I felt like I had worked hard to keep positive and accepting of people in my life over the last few years but it seemed that wasn’t being reciprocated now.

Moments after the New Year’s countdown, my boyfriend and I were in a dark car heading back to his apartment in even deeper Brooklyn. Upon arrival, I threw up and passed out in his bed. A few hours later, but still a couple more before my alarm was to go off for my flight, I woke up to the sound of his hurt feelings. He had planned on us making love once we got home, but to him I had chosen to sleep in its place; he had plans for sending me off, his way of pushing me off on a journey to my ultimate homeland, that I was unaware of. I again tried to explain how deeply hurt I was by my cousin’s words, what they made me feel on several levels – how losing this bond and the general lack of understanding was now destroying me, so I needed to destroy those feelings of a lost emotional home I apparently never had. I wanted him to know I felt the same coming from others in my life I thought would support me because they did in other areas of my sexuality, but the words weren’t coming together – or he just wasn’t empathetic. I cried, but he couldn’t see through his delayed gratification. He was fixated on our time together that night. We spent over an hour of half-still-drunk/half-hungover explanation: my plight and his feelings of being split in two: sad to miss me and furious for my decision to sleep. We exhausted ourselves long enough for me to feel his pulsing prick explode inside of me before my alarm went off.

In the lull of dawn, I finished packing my carry-on baggage before I ordered a car to take me to JFK airport. It was in this car ride I started to receive and send many messages of forgiveness. Traversing across parts of New York I hadn’t seen yet even though I had called this metropolis home for over a year and a half, I felt my eyes collapsing into the cried out squish pockets of my sockets and my chest filling in raspy breath. This is fascinating to me because I didn’t expect to have this feeling again after leaving middle-America and to feel it again here in the best city in the world – one of the most liberal and intellectual. Yet, here I was—traveling to go travel to travel some more—a place where this feeling for me was originally created but now feels less tragic, only familiar.

The plane descended into Los Angeles in coordination with my deepening depression and stomachache. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong to anyone. Maybe to myself by allowing myself to be consumed with alcohol and hypocrites. There was so much to unpack in my life and I still had to comfort and transport my best friend away from her ending a decade-long relationship. Her marriage was so different than mine, but both of us were wallowing in different ways for different reasons. We were both determined to find a way to that place of home, whatever that meant to us.

I called my husband at the airport. I tried to express my evening’s events and the erratic emotional state I was in. He instantly understood my spaced-out shock and internal fight. He reassured me through his own pretentious party story of mean-spirited men casting doubt on his marriage and sexuality while eating crappy frozen cake-pops. We ended our phone call with telling each other how much we loved one another and how this was a journey we would continue together even if the people of our people didn’t want to recognize our relationships.

Anna picked me up at the airport. When I first saw her, I was expecting only strict sadness from her, but we were both so instantly happy – as if we hadn’t just been in homes with people who made us question ourselves and our relationships. We embraced for a second and quickly started speaking about how much we missed each other with all the small inside jokes close friends have. As I lifted my carry-on bag into her trunk, I felt my boyfriend’s semen fall out of me. From there I knew I had to live in this uncomfortable state sitting at my center and try to deal with it until we reached what some call Sin City later that day. I had to hold onto what this was, only for now.