Was My Life Worth His Love?
A TRIAD NOT A TRIANGLE
[Content warning: this story contains mention of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.]
Written by Steve Alexander
I was standing after midnight on the upstream railing of the Arlington Memorial Bridge in D.C. in precisely the same position and state of mind that I had been for an hour, glaring down at the dark, cold Potomac waters swiftly flowing by and wondering why I was not already in them.
It was the wee hours of a Sunday in early winter 1973. I had lost with undeniable finality one of my partners in our four-year triad, Tommy. Of course, Michael, the other partner who had been with Tommy for the eleven years since their first meeting, in their second year at Harvard Law School, had lost him too. But the immediacy and magnitude of my soul’s destruction blinded me to his incomparable loss.
In the afternoon of the Saturday gone by, Michael and I had planned an intimate dinner with Tommy and our three best friends, Mike Smith, Gill, and Conner. It was the first gathering of friends we had proposed since Tommy’s remote announcement three weeks earlier from Minneapolis, where he was trying a case, that he had fallen in love with another man.
In those intervening three weeks, Michael and I had taken four days off work and flown to Minneapolis, not to confront Tommy, but to gently remind him of how much we loved him and how much there was between us—the three of us—binding us one to the other. We did not meet the other man; we did not care to even though Tommy wanted it. We had taken him back when the trial ended. And we had abided the other man’s proximity when, without notice to or consultation with us, Tommy flew him to D.C. and ensconced him in a vacant apartment on the floor above.
Perhaps he thought he could bring that specter of destruction into our triad as an equal partner whom we would welcome and treasure, as we did Tommy himself. But if that’s what he had intended, he had gone about it in an entirely wrong and flawed way.
Perhaps he was feeling a delayed seven-year itch. The night I met them, four years earlier, was their seventh anniversary. They had brought each other out in law school and been a committed, monogamous couple for those seven years. When they invited me to be with them that night, it was the first time either would be with any man other than themselves. For me, that night was love at first sight, the realization of a lifetime’s longing for requited love and a deeply fulfilling emotional and spiritual attachment to another man. Except, I had found two men to satisfy that hankering need. Not in my most fervid imagination could I have conceived of such a thing happening to me.
In the intervening four years, we had been a committed and rapt triad strengthening and reinforcing itself with every evening reading from some book one or the other of us had chosen, every jaunt about D.C., every adventure in the world beyond D.C., every romp in the king-size bed, and every dram of love three people could amass between and among themselves.
Or so I had thought. Tommy’s abrupt and casual announcement from Minneapolis, and subsequent installation of the other man above us had taken a truncheon to that dream state and beaten it from my chest, leaving a pulpy mass the size of Manhattan, splayed at my feet.
When we planned that Saturday dinner, Michael and I were trying to introduce some semblance of normality into the emotional hurricane that had become our lives. Tommy understood that it was to be the three of us, the triad, together with the three of them at dinner. Michael and I had told Tommy that we would try to accommodate the new dynamic he was bent on establishing, but that we needed some time with just him first. The dinner was to be a first step for the three of us in that pursuit.
Mike, Gill, and Conner knew, to some extent, what had happened. Graciously, but with perhaps some trepidation, they had agreed to the dinner. When they arrived, Michael was nearly finished preparing Julia Child’s beef bourguignon. I was prepping the salad and Tommy was setting the table. Just as Michael was ready to serve, Tommy disappeared. He reappeared with the other man trailing, an uninvited and undesired seventh for dinner. Mike, Gill, and Conner were dumbfounded and nervous. Michael stood stock still, stone-faced with the steaming Dutch oven in hand. I’m afraid all the anger and hurt of the prior three weeks showed on my face — throwing lightning bolts that could kill, at the speed of javelins thrown by an Olympian, from my eyes to the two of them.
Michael recovered first and motioned Mike, Gill, and Conner to be seated. With their consternation showing plainly on their faces but knowing nothing else to do, they obliged. I sat, surly and angry, and with no less a fierce stare. But before Michael could plate the first serving, I stood and marched to the entry hall where I withdrew my coat from the closet and opened the door. I was about to close it behind me when Michael caught it. In as soft and quiet a voice as I had ever heard from him, he begged me not to go. Why? I couldn’t fathom, but I could not deny him. So, I took off my coat, replaced it in the closet, and returned to the table. I lasted less than half an hour when, pleading a migraine, I excused myself to our bedroom.
In the bedroom, at the head of the king-size bed, on either side and on the wall at its foot, stood three enormous bookshelves stocked with books accumulated over years of bibliophily. In my anger and hurt, I quietly but with steel intent, took one down and ripped it asunder. Then another, then another. In twenty minutes, I destroyed a fifth of the collection, which lay in torn heaps strewn about the room. I was working on perhaps the twenty-fifth book when Tommy opened the door and saw the ruination.
First surprise, then horror, then abject fear crossed his face. He had never seen me in such a rage. Books were sacred to the three of us. He understood then, for the first time, the magnitude of the wreck he had made of my emotional stability.
He fled. He returned to the dining room, grabbed the other man by the arm, and dragged him up from the table and quickly out the door. Mike, Gill, and Conner left with Michael’s apology ringing hollow in their ears. Then Michael came back to the bedroom and opened the door. The sight of the tornadic destruction I had wrought stunned him. But unlike Tommy, he showed no fear, rather wretched sorrow. Moving the book parts aside as he stepped, he came to the foot of the bed, sat, and wept.
I didn’t see Tommy again. The next day, he retrieved his clothes and a few memorabilia when I wasn’t there. One day, there were reminders all about the place of his presence in my life; a day later, there were none.
Unthinking and unfeeling, I left Michael in his wretchedness and drove away as I had intended when he begged me to stay. I drove mindlessly and aimlessly around D.C. for hours until around eleven. I found myself parked at the Virginia end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Feeling nothing and thinking nothing, I walked along the bridge.
And that’s how I came an hour later to be standing on the railing, looking down, wondering why I wasn’t already in the water. Only then did it occur to me there was a reason I was not and would not be. Like a thunderclap in a super-cell cloud, the realization hit me for the first time that Michael had lost immeasurably more than I, and he needed me. I couldn’t and wouldn’t leave him alone, doubly bereft.
I climbed down. I found him alone at home in the dark, staring out the huge, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall living-room window, not seeing the city’s lights dancing on the Potomac in the distance. Sitting beside him, I put my arm around his shoulders and wept with him for our broken triad.
That is the story of my first great love and the loss of it. In the forty-nine years following, there have been several loves, some greater, some lesser, had and lost, but that first was the greatest blissfulness ruined so titanically. The memory of those shining years in Camelot and the hideous loss of the wonder remains with me today, diminished by interposing time and distance, but not forgotten.
For four short years, I had the enormous good fortune to have been immersed in and awash with a love so heavenly and so majestic as never to have been realized again in the intervening five decades. But the time for such was short, all too short.
I came away from the events with the conviction that happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in depth and breadth — a life lesson hard learned but from the pain of which I would not turn if again offered the opportunity.
Read more writing from Steve Alexander here.