EXAND YOUR SEMIOLOGY
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Anatomy of a Polyam Man
Memoirs of a Weird Life
by Joseph Daylover
Since we started the podcast, we’ve gotten many interesting and profound pieces of feedback. Among those responses, some listeners wanted to hear more from me, my story, where I’m coming from. Jes, being the producer, gave me the writing prompt. Find the right angle and make it happen.
And so, as an enneagram 5, I thought it over, and over, and over again. What exactly, might I share, focus on, highlight? Well, I love storytelling, a fine piece of fiction. I dig character development, the arc of change humans experience across the years. I’ve talked about meeting Jes and becoming polyamorous, but what about the backstory? Surely there must have been earlier events that groomed me to become polyamorous. I’m talking about the pre-Jes era…
...was there ever such a time?
Reflecting on that period, I started making connections I wouldn’t have suspected right off. I want to take you back to my childhood in the Philly burbs, Las Vegas for my early twenties, and then Reno pre-Jes. I met her at 28, and up until then I never had a serious relationship. I spent most of my younger life quite unpartnered. The more I looked back, the more I found things uncommon, strange, and weird, not to mention a staggering aversion to tradition. And so with that I present to you “Anatomy of a Polyam Man” in 3 acts.
Before we dive in, a Disclaimer. I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, able bodied male. My experience always comes with acknowledging that privilege hugely factors into how the dice rolls out for me. The more we normalize acknowledging our privileges, the easier we might surrender them.
>> Act One: The East Coast
I grew up about twenty minutes down the freeway from Center City Philly. Norristown, P.A., where the row homes and twin houses populate the tight streets with cars parked on both sides. The ashy gray skies, the almost constant rain, the rolling green fields, the endless forests wrapping up the scattered urban grids--this was my world. My father worked as a middle manager for Pepperidge Farm while my Mom stayed at home and did odd jobs. We were the quintessential picture of domestication and the middle class. As the fifth of six kids, I learned early on how easy you get lost in the crowd. John, Matt, Paul, Joey! my mom would often mutter, forgetting which kid she happened to be disciplining.
As a true child of the 80s, I learned of sex from Madonna’s music videos. Borderline, Like a Virgin, Open your Heart, Like a Prayer, Papa Don’t Preach--each look of hers brought something equally different, provocative. I didn’t know what sex was, but I knew Madonna represented some kind of gateway. You had to be lucky to catch a few of these videos air, when no parents were around. My Mom had banned MTV after Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video.
I went to Catholic school through eighth grade and remember talking to friends on the bus about sex. They spoke like it was all normal, and I was freaked out. Maybe it was Catholic guilt. Maybe I just lacked confidence. Maybe I was scared of rejection and was scared of what my parents would think. Maybe I was afraid of sex. I don’t know. My older siblings had girlfriends and boyfriends with seemingly no problems, but something blocked me. Had there been language about asexuality and non-partnered people back then--that this was a legitimate thing to be--I might not have felt so weird. Not that I was those things, but I might have claimed them and felt more confident. Having a name for what you are or think you are matters, whether it’s accurate or not.
In high school I was the angsty introvert, and unfortunately not an interesting one with talents or passions. I wore band tee shirts and ripped jeans and listened to head banger music. I worked, played a little baseball, and hung out with different groups of friends. I got decent grades and mostly stayed out of trouble. Terribly self conscious, I stayed sexually inactive. I was the likeable but weird dude who didn’t date. Every one of my older siblings had more rebellious streaks. I remember each of them at some point storming outta the house in a heated argument with my parents. Sadly, I never reached that level of subversion. Like many themes of my adult life, my disruptive tendencies would peak late.
Outside of my world, I recognized this cultural backdrop, people following a similar, traditional script. Maybe they were wild teenagers, but eventually they settled down for the comforts of career and family. Tradition declared you should marry young, and that you were certain of where your life should end up before you were thirty. I wouldn’t have to shake up that script, though. Life would do that for me and all of us.
In ‘97 my mother died suddenly in her sleep of an arrhythmia. You don’t think things like this can happen to you until they do. My mother’s passing devastated my family, sent shock waves through the Church community where she was active. All of this forced me to confront the realities of this world at an early age. A year after my mother’s death, I had to face that question of what to do with my life.
That summer, our whole family took a trip to Vegas, Utah, the Grand Canyon, and then Phoenix. I had never been West and the desert’s empty mysteriousness spoke to me. It felt like the antidote to the green dampness I knew growing up. I remember the golden landscape of the desert stretching for miles uninterrupted. Oddly, it felt full of promise. It offered a mysterious sense of potential that I couldn’t describe. My father, brothers and sisters and me smoked cigarettes at rest stops and gazed at the long horizon. It called me to explore it.
Before I graduated high school, I found myself enjoying what I read for English class, things like Shakespeare and J. D. Salinger. I actually dug writing papers. I started to notice and develop a taste for TV shows and films that shot for social commentary--like the Twilight Zone, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty. I started noticing the art of storytelling and felt like I should be a writer. Studying English--the most impractical of majors, therefore made sense. On my Dad’s suggestion, I applied to UNLV and thought Las Vegas the most intriguing place to move for school.
I headed West in 2000. Unfortunately, the vibe of UNLV proved stale. Turns out I had chosen a commuter school. I had trouble making friends. The desert also provided a stark, noticeably more intense feeling of isolation. I went for long walks, trekking the 2 miles from the campus to the Strip. I liked my classes but I was still alone, still self conscious. Having made no real connections, I considered this experiment a failure and returned to the east coast.
I struggled being alone, but it offered me the space to find out who I really was. A newer version of me started to brew. I started writing a book. I bought a keyboard and taught myself piano. I worked out and began cultivating a stronger sense of self. I kept up with classes at the community college, and after three semesters, I decided to give Vegas another try, uncertain of where everything would lead but knowing this was the correct path.
>> Act Two: Vegas, baby.
My first sexual experience was a polyamorous one, and it taught me a lot about myself, perhaps especially so as a late bloomer. Her name was Steph. She had dark eyes and pasty white skin, a bleached pixie cut, and piercings in her ears, tongue, and nipples and clit--I would later find out. We met while applying for a job selling alarm systems that we would both end up quitting. We bonded over the absurdity of this venture and wanting to get high instead. I wound up at her place buying some weed, where I met her 3 year old son and partner/baby daddy, who seemed cool enough. At one point he spoke rather casually of some other chick he was talking to online. Steph never said the words open relationship or polyamory. I gathered that for her it didn’t need defining. It was just the natural way to be.
I didn’t question anything when we started hanging out, going for drives, and making out in my hot-boxed car. We had long talks. This girl had trauma, and I’ve always been blessed and cursed with an ability to listen without judgement. I was an inexperienced academic, and here was this quintessentially gritty Vegas chick, a former stripper who had had all kinds of crazy sex. She’d lived a lifetime already at twenty two. One time, dropping her off, she told me she wanted to spend the night at my place. Fuck yeah, this was it.
I was as excited as I was nervous. I didn’t tell her this was my first time. She came over and we got high, started making out, but once we got into the bedroom something happened. Main Generator failure. Don’t get me wrong, I was into everything but couldn’t power up my warp drive. We tried all kinds of things but nothing worked. Steph was totally cool about it. “Hey sometimes dudes get nervous. It happens,” she said.
So we slowed it down, smoked some more and talked. We were naked in bed, sitting up against the wall. She told me she used to live in this house where pretty much everyone was fucking each other and out in the open. She talked about how she loved eating pussy. Tell me more about that, I said. She described it in great detail and it was the hottest thing I had ever heard. As she talked about her last girlfriend and the sex they had I found myself with hugest hard-on of my life. I asked how she liked her pussy eaten, and while she tells me this, she’s stroking me slowly, in no rush. Soon, we started making out again, and I worked my way down there, remembering everything she said. She ended up squirting in my face, and from there we proceeded to fuck her for four hours. It was amazing. Turns out sex wasn’t so scary after all. After that I knew three things for certain:
So the last two things seemed like uncommon lessons for your first time getting laid. But then again, nothing in my life ever happened by the book, so why should this?
Group sex wouldn’t happen with Steph, but we had a causal relationship lasting a year. We didn’t go on dates. We smoked bowls, I listened to her vent about all kinds of crazy shit, and then we had sex. She wanted a relationship and I strung her along while developing some feelings. I realized I couldn’t be with her. We were too different. Eventually it fizzled. My first girlfriend wasn’t really a girlfriend, my first relationship a shadow of one. I was fine with that, though, as something committed kinda freaked me out even though the loneliness was worse.
Steph brought me out of my shell, though. And though I wouldn’t be sexually active all the time, I did get myself laid and noticed some trends. Most of them were bisexual, and/or single mothers--interesting types to say the least. And none of it went by any normal script. Vegas itself was anything but the standard experience. Nothing closed. In a twenty four town, everyone worked odd schedules and stayed out late, sometimes until the sun came up. Staying out at nightclubs or bars and then going out for breakfast was quite normal. Sometimes I went to class on little to no sleep. I drank like a fish, smoked every day, and loved living in a town with no clocks. In the middle of a desert, you can feel like the outside world doesn’t exist. Weirdly enough, it felt like just the life for me.
This whole time I did well in school and literature and fiction workshops became my sole focus. I wanted to contribute something solid to the literary canon. Looking back, some of my earliest short stories contained polyamorous couples, though I didn’t have the language for it. All I had was the open relationship model handed down from the sexual revolution. After graduation, I stayed another year before heading to Reno for the Master’s. I left Vegas in 2004. On the drive up to Reno, I had a distinct feeling like the rest of my life awaited. So strange, right? I couldn’t explain it, but then again, I couldn’t ever explain much of what happened to me.
>> Act Three: The Biggest Little City
My romantic life sputtered along. I dated but didn’t have any girlfriends lasting longer than a month. I desperately wanted a partner by now and couldn’t figure out why it never happened. Maybe I was afraid to put myself out there, risk rejection. Maybe I didn’t meet the right people. Maybe it had something to do with a path that I could not yet foresee.
I graduated with a Master’s by now and settled into a life of part time teaching Freshman composition and service industry work. I congratulated myself that I had never worked a 40-hour, 9-5 type job. I didn’t want marriage or family, so things like a stable career with benefits mattered little. Besides, I considered all of that an unfair trade off for the majority of my youthful hours. So I took the trade-off of living on a meagre income of stipends and tips for the long stretches of time off to feel like a real human being.
At this point I thought about moving to San Francisco and living the beat writer life. I could just picture it. I’d emerge from my Victorian studio flat, wearing a thrift store sport coat and stylish fedora. I light a cigarette and stroll along Post street in rambling fog. Should I head to the jazz lounge for happy hour or opt for the corner store cafe and people watch while the regulars come and go gassing about their latest art project, their newest short story paraphrased in a dazzling display of impromptu spoken word?
Anyways, I liked Reno but had one foot out of the door. In a few months I would meet Jes and fall in love with her and Reno. But before that could happen, something unforeseen would change everything.
On a sunny afternoon in August, 2008, I sat with my buddy Scott on the patio of the Sierra Tap House overlooking the river. We had beers and riffed about artsy stuff like usual. Out of nowhere, Scott, a fellow writer and actor, said, “I’m thinking of starting a Theatre company, and I want you to be on the board.”
I thought about this before answering. Keep in mind, we’re a few months into the Great recession, and Reno already had a fair number of local theatres for a small city.
“What do you think?” Scott asked again.
“I think you’re crazy,” I told him. “I’m in.”
Now, I had always liked Theatre. I read a ton of play scripts in college and enjoyed a good performance. But I couldn’t tell you why I said yes. What did a board member do, exactly? Something told me to trust it.
Scott had worked out an arrangement with the local pastor of the Methodist church, the oldest in Reno, a stone building with ivy going up the sides and a legit bell tower. We rented an office on the second floor and stored all of our shit there: backdrops and flats, lighting and sound equipment, tools, furniture, and costumes. We performed Fridays and Saturdays in the main sanctuary, hoisted our sets in and out each week for month-long productions.
As a board member, I attended meetings, voted on shit, volunteered box office, and then got drawn into performing, stage managing, lighting--all aspects of the show. I loved the bond between cast and crew. You spend four five nights a week with these people, which sometimes amounted to more than with one’s family. You hung out at bars and greasy spoon diners late at night. Theatre people are weird, but in a way that jibed with me. They speak in foreign accents completely at random, have no problem playing the most ridiculous characters, and are ready to play at a moment’s notice. They’re also super gay, too. I mean this lovingly. They’re completely unreserved and sassy, but also affectionate. They’re cuddly and seem prone to open relationships. I saw versions of polyamory in the theatre, older couples who were open, and the early twenty somethings playing the field. You always sat back and watched with curiosity who might hook up on a given production.
I was here for all of this. I always thought of myself as kinda gay, not sexually, but in all the other ways just mentioned. The Theatre gave it expression, made it normal, suggested it was the rest of the world that was weird, not me. I also loved the productions, too, how they mirrored society and critiqued it. I felt fulfilled in all aspects: creatively, socially, and communally, with how the community grew around you.
The second show we ever did was “Waiting for Godot”. I loved its dark existentialism, its ridicule of institutions like the Church. The pastor of the Methodist Church where we performed found this amusing, us performing Waiting for Godot in his sanctuary. He had been an actor in his day and generally supported us with a good, curious attitude. One morning, though, I got a call from Scott.
“Hey man, the church wants to have a meeting about the play.”
“Oh, like now?” I said, groggy from a night of partying.
“Yeah, meet me there in an hour.”
An hour later, I walked into a packed Church. I found Scott, asked him what the hell was going on.
“They want to talk about the play,” he said. I gave him a startled look, realizing this wasn’t a meeting with just the Pastor, but before the eyes of the populace. “Fuck.” I started getting nervous. Eventually we took the stage with the Pastor and a few board members. We fielded questions from a nervous crowd who didn’t like that we were doing an anti-Christian play in their house of worship. The pastor backed us up, assured the masses we had only artistic intentions, but the whole thing felt like art itself was on trial. Godot--a character who arguably didn’t exist and represented God--rather ironically, was on trial.
We defended ourselves as best we could, and eventually did two more productions there. Seascape, an Edward Albee play about Evolution, eventually earned us the boot. My first foray into the performing arts brought everything in my life full circle: the conformity of the Church up against the artistic freedom to express oneself. Clearly I had taken a side, a side that confirmed my love for what’s weird over what’s standard, an affinity for the bizarre over the everyday.
The Theatre found another venue and we kept it going. Eventually I presided over the board when Scott moved to New York. I wrote grants, produced donation campaigns, performed occasionally, ran the bar, and became a constant gardener of the arts. In this time, we built our own Theatre and moved three times in ten years, each time to a bigger, more legitimate space. Throughout all the fundraisers, the constructions of venues, the parties, the constant stream of about six productions per year, I was amazed how everyone rallied to keep the place going. We survived the recession, gentrification, and now the pandemic. It was a total communal effort and from all of this, I learned how to believe. In myself. In a tribe. A community. When we nailed sets together late into the evening hours, or toasted with shots after opening night, we testified to a belief in something greater. We believed in the show, but in order to keep the show going, you need a greater driving force. I’m not saying it’s a spiritual thing necessarily, but rather an impulse that prompts humans to do zany but thoughtful shit that bonds them together.
The Theatre seemed to unite the strange, disparate threads of my life. I can’t imagine my world without the dry rumblings of Mass, the tradition of my youth and early wayward years, the reflective tendency that comes from being alone, the hedonistic Vegas life, the vastly creative potential of the stage, my wonderfully open and accepting and very queer tribe, my adopted state of Nevada--the strangest of homes, the extended time off afforded by academics allowing me to build real things like community, and of course, the soul opening potential of polyamory. It all gelled together into a weirdly, decidedly not traditional tapestry. Looking back, I don’t regret the loneliness of my youth. Those years made me who I was. They set me up just right for the dream life I would live. It’s tempting to think about what I would do differently, but I resist, not wanting to risk having a different life now. Always better peak late, anyway.
All of this isn’t to say that tradition’s bad. It just wasn’t for me. And I don’t think conventional ways and the polyamorous life are mutually exclusive. I speak only for myself and anyone who connects with my weird ways. When I talk to others about the early realizations of their own polyamory, they often report feeling weird or strange because they didn’t know it was a thing. This was how I felt my entire life, and so the polyam way makes all the more sense.
Throughout all of the confusion and doubt, sometimes you know right away what your path is, without thinking. I said yes to the Theatre. It eventually led me to my tribe, to my mistress of the stage, to a family. Before Jes I hadn’t imagined getting married or having kids, but our version of it made perfect sense. So I would come back to some version of a traditional life, but in my own way, my own time. I married at 33 and became a first time Dad at 38 in true late bloomer fashion. Early into our relationship, Jes spoke of building a sanctuary for our growing tribe, a piece of land where we could all live, house senior dogs, grow our own food and live sustainably. Does that sound like the life for you? She said.
I didn’t hesitate to shake my head slowly in agreement.