Water’s pooling everywhere. A week of summer rain: tomato vines have doubled length and the wood chips are bursting into mushroom. He and I become one pendulum, sweating into one another’s clothes. His sixteen pounds, all belly, brain and bone, lift away from my chest at each inflection. Hot, the tiny head rolls back and forth over my collar. One meaty little fist finds the chain. The rain comes back on pale and sweet, caressing everything– my arms, the naked head beneath my chin, the little girl who throws her face into the spray, eyes closed, singing, I’m in wonderland! The babe falls silent, surrenders to the sway and lift, the sway and lift, the water. His sisters swing beside us, shouting, Look how high! Look how high!
I thought I was a masochist, but I just joined Twitter, and I’m starting to rethink.
Really, please. I’m not too proud to beg.
(Last week I was too proud to beg. A week on Twitter will knock the pride right out of you.)
Twittering feels like giving an open-access blowjob to 3 million people all at once. My jaw hurts and my brain screams like! follow! retweet! all night long.
Do you use Twitter to promote your writing? Do you find it effective? How do you manage its impact on your brain?
In conclusion, please go follow the Twitter page for me, your friend @Pauli_Atomic. Your support is greatly appreciated as it is now the crux of my self-worth.
As a reward, you’ll get to see a picture of my real face. I used a filter, though. Just a heads up.
1998: Marisol at 7
From the back of her mother’s minivan, she makes her announcement:
“When I grow up, my husband’s gonna take my last name.”
The words must hit her mother like a slap.
The 25-year-old woman in the driver’s seat knows what it means to fear for her children. She has known that fear since the day that Mari, her eldest, was born.
But today she comes face-to-face with that other, additional reason that she fears for the future. Mari is her ace, her mini-me. What does she already understand about her little daughter? The pair have been fighting over dresses and jerseys, Mary Janes and sneakers since Mari was a toddler. Mari’s mother must know, in that moment, that the fighting over how Mari will dress, how she will speak, how she will play with her brothers, has barely begun.
“You might change your mind about that when you’re older.”
“No,” says Mari. Innocence is clarity. “I won’t.”
2004: Pauli at 12
I don’t understand why I am no longer welcome at the lunch table.
I hadn’t been afraid. I’d realized I was bisexual, and then I’d told my friends. I don’t think it’s any big deal, and neither do they.
Except for one, that is. Her name is Amy.
First Amy tries to convince the friend-group that a bisexual girl does not belong among them. When that doesn’t work she starts to maneuver them against me, one-by-one. She gauges into each girl’s insecurity with precision. She tells one that I ridicule her weight behind her back. She tells another that I call her poor, mock her for the size of her house.
On it goes until she’s worked her way around the table. Within a week, not one of them will speak to me. Not one of them will look me in the eye.
Suddenly friendless, I retreat into the closet. I claim to have been confused, seeking attention. I am not into girls.
I will never admit to being into girls again. The next time I assert my homosexual attraction, it’s to women.
2005: Marisol at 15
She opens her history notebook to a blank page deep in the middle. She begins to write.
I’m gay, she writes. I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay, until her revelation covers the page.
She looks it over.
The terror of seeing it ignites behind her eyes. She flips the page. Conceals the evidence.
She glances to her left, to her right. The kids in the adjacent desks are attending to the lecture or staring into space. No one is looking at her. What to do? How to get out of this?
The trash can is no good. Her handwriting is too identifiable. Even the sound of tearing out the page could draw notice. Could incriminate her, sitting with her truth splayed out before her in blue ink.
When class ends she shoves the notebook in her backpack, hustling it out the door like a live bomb.
She will go home, shred the guilty page into a slew of tiny pieces, and flush them down the drain.
2011: Marisol at 20
“I’m gay,” she tells her boyfriend.
They look at one another.
“Okay. Cool,” he answers.
They look at one another.
“So…” he asks. “What does this mean for us?”
He looks at her, eyes pleading. He’s in love with her. She’s the girl he wants to marry.
She looks back.
2013: Pauli at 20
My father picks me up in his white car in the dark. My 98-year-old grandfather rides in the passenger. We’ve barely gone a block when my Dad asks me if I’m seeing anybody.
“Uh huh. Yeah. I am. A basketball player.”
“Oh no kidding! Is he tall?”
“No, not really. She’s a point guard.”
My Dad taps the brake in the middle of the traffic, then accelerates. My head knocks forward, then knocks back. “She?! You’re dating a woman?!”
“Yes, Dad. Her name is Marisol.”
“Huh! A woman. Wow! Is she Jewish?”
“No, Dad. Her name is Marisol.”
My father reaches to his side, taps his father on the leg. “Did you hear that, Dad? Pauli has a girlfriend. She isn’t Jewish.”
“Ha!” my Grandpa answers. That’s the end of it.
I tell my little brother next. We are passing a bong between us in the grunge of our mother’s basement. I mention my girl. He tips back his head, eyes closing to the fluorescent light as if to bask in sun. He raises up a fist in triumph.
“I knew it! I KNEW it. I can’t WAIT to tell all my friends.”
And that’s that. I tell my mother last.
“How long have you known?” she asks me.
“That I’m bi? I’ve known for a long time. Since I was a kid.”
She stiffens. Her eyes open like wounds. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. We’ve always been so close.”
I am sorry. I am so, so sorry. She deserved my trust. I have kept her out for too many years.
I am arriving late. But I am here.
2018: Marisol and Pauli at the Altar
It is a celebration that extends outside of us.
We marry outdoors in the heart of downtown, as the sun is setting on a crisp September night. We are so spelled by one another that we don’t even notice it– our relatives and friends will tell us later. All around us, strangers gather. What is this scene they have happened across? Wedding guests, white and Black intermingled in the aisles. Two women in stilettos underneath the Chuppa, an old white Rabbi and a young Black minister standing sentinel behind.
Before, we were nervous. Ours was the first gay wedding in either family. We braced for the pushback, the tearful phone calls, the slew of no-shows.
But the pushback doesn’t come.
The family shows out in force for us. One hundred on her mother’s side alone. They sparkle in their finery. They radiate their joy.
Her father, stoic as always, walks her down the aisle to me, then sits down in the front row, fighting tears. By the end of the night, he and I will exchange our first “I love you.”
In the end, there is only one no-show. Mari’s uncle will have to stand in for him on the altar, at her side.
It is her brother who does not show up.
2020: Marisol at Home
She swears it: her family will never know.
I dropped it on my own family more than a year ago. Surrounded by my cousins, my brothers and their girlfriends, my wife at my side, I casually mentioned my boyfriend. Titters and grins made their way around the circle. My brother’s lady socked him in the arm, saying “Why don’t we do that?!” He shot me a glare, and that was that.
But my wife has no intention of revealing it to her family. They’ve come so far since we met, struggled against their Catholic ethics to accept her marriage as equal to any straight one. Why push our luck by telling them that marriage is non-monogamous, too?
For years, she holds the line. Then she meets a girl.
She falls in love, and it changes. First she tells her brother, the one who did stand beside us at our wedding. He laughs. “Yeah, no shit,” he says. He knows. He clocked us years ago, but had the grace to keep it quiet. “I knew you’d tell me when you felt like it,” he says. Simple as that.
Then she decides to tell her Mom. She asks her out on a walk just the two of them, saying she’s got something to talk to her about. And they talk about it.
“It’s strange to me, my daughter,” Mommy says. “I just hope that you protect your marriage. What you and Pauli have is sacred.”
“It is, Mom. I know. But this is a part of what we have. This is who we are.”
“Well my daughter. Whatever makes you happy.”
And that’s that.
And yet — a new poem by Melita White about control, power and privilege.And yet —
She has been roiling about it since the news dropped on Thursday: Juneteenth is now a federal holiday.
“So white people get a day off? White people are gonna be throwing Juneteenth barbecues now?” she steams over and over, to me in our apartment, on the phone, on social media. “When we were kids the cops used to bust up the Juneteenth parties. White people didn’t even know about it. They just called the cops on us.”
She’s right, of course. I support her, agree with her, but don’t know how to meet her in her rage.
“White people need to spend Juneteenth in an all-day anti-Racist seminar. Let this be Juneteenth for us, and Juneteenth Awareness Day for the rest of America.”
I want to stand up and applaud her at that. She is brilliant and wise and crackling with power. She is witnessing the days leading up to a Black celebration, co-opted. Gone away to white America. This year marks the first time. The inauguration of the shift.
When the day arrives, she sleeps through half of it. I’m not sure how to greet her when she wakes. “Happy Juneteenth,” I say, holding back a tumble of regrets. In the pause before she answers, I swallowing down a litany of weak disclaimers: I’m sorry they, I’m sorry we, stole this one from you too. I’m sorry nothing’s changed. I’m sorry for the vultures who come, and come again to feed on the creativity of Black America. Sorry that I’m, sorry if I’m, sorry to be one of them. “Happy Juneteenth,” she answers, before I crack into saying some stupid shit and ruining the first moment of a day that should be hers to celebrate, not mourn. A day that can never be the same again.
We live in a stark-white town. Most of the Black community that she once had here have moved away for good, or are living elsewhere temporarily as long as work remains remote. We are far away from family. There are no barbecue invitations.
She spends the day alone. “I’m luxuriating with the ancestors,” she tells me before folding herself away into a sequence of yoga and journaling and revising the blurbs on her vision board.
And as for me, well– I can claim no righteousness for my first Juneteenth Awareness Day. I do not spend the day educating myself about racism. Instead I bike around the town, thinking. Somewhere in the most rural reaches of this small, white town I smell barbecue, and cannabis burning. They are having cookouts. White people are having Juneteenth cookouts. She was right. She always is.
She’s on the phone with her favorite cousin when I get back in, sharing a libation over video chat. After blowing my kisses into the phone and wishing her Happy Juneteenth, I settle in out of frame and they pick up where they were.
My wife says, “It’s going to go the way of Saint Patrick’s Day. Of Pride. We didn’t ask for this.”
“They just Americanize it,” her cousin answers. “Same as this country does with everything. Think about it. How many people even know what Cinco de Mayo is about? But every year, out come the sombreros and the Mexican beer… That’s what this country does. Turns a profit off of everything.”
She goes on, picking up steam. “They knew they had to give us something. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not been passed. Our voting rights are slipping away. So they give us Juneteenth off and they think, maybe this will shut them up for a while.”
“But it won’t,” says my wife.
“No, it won’t,” her cousin continues. “We won’t shut up. We never will. And as for Juneteenth going mainstream– if it makes more white people aware of the truth about this country, then I say it’s a good thing. Because they need to think about their ancestors, too. To think about what their ancestors created. People are so ignorant. They’ll try to re-write history. But America needs to remember what it is capable of.”
My wife sighs. “I guess you’re right. I’m just grieving it, is all.”
Reader, I have no answers I can offer to anyone for any of this. There is nothing I can say that should guide any white American to anywhere the mind can rest. The vertigo of my discomfort tips and spirals and swells. By next year it will likely be even worse.
Darkness comes. At the window, I look out over the pristine loveliness of the small, white town that daily finds new ways to alienate this woman, this regal spirit who I’m lucky enough to get to love.
“Happy first Juneteenth, non-Black America,” I whisper. “May we spend it well.”
Lean your forehead into mine. Encircle me in arms and snare one fist at the nape of my neck. Then, scream. Unleash a window-cracking pterodactyl screech right in my face as you spew a gutload of hot, curdled breastmilk down my shirt. Then, smile. Throw your gums wide open to display the milk-chunks clinging to your tongue. Rip that fistful of hair from the base of my scalp as your laugh breaks over me. Ouch! Fuck! Little angel– no one else can love me like you do.
Shabbat Shalom, y’all. 😁
Better hunger over
is the stopping at
the limit of
Let us need
like the early dark,
will hurry us to sleep,
will open us to
We meet them at a dance party in Provincetown, in between the hoards of boys, boys boys– a lesbian couple. Val and Rachel. 31 and 25, respectively. Absurdly cute, and here for the weekend.
Standing with Val, I watch as Rachel shimmies away into the dance floor. She’s following Blaire, another queer cutie who introduced herself to the group of us with hugs and exclamations of excitement. “I turned 21 during the pandemic so this is all new to me!” she’d gushed, before bobbing away into the bumping crowd.
Rachel soon returns alone, leaving Blaire to gyrate happily with the party boys. I take the opportunity to sate my curiosity. Casually, I ask them,
“So, I take it you two are open?”
The pair exchange a sweet, secretive grin. Without breaking the eye contact between them, they respond in two voices, still grinning:
“It’s been a conversation.”
Clearly, whatever conversation they’ve been having lately has them both excited. For many couples– for my wife and I, when we were younger– talking about opening up is a torment, an ongoing fight. It’s a pleasure to see them emanating joy as they confess their fledgling secret to two strangers.
When we divulge our own truth, that we’ve been actively poly for some years now, their eyes spark with intrigue.
“What advice do you have?” Val asks. “What are your top three tips for couples like us?”
My wife ducks behind her drink, tipping her head in my direction with a bemused smirk. “All you babe. You start.”
I pause, thinking. I want to offer something they won’t hear, won’t read anywhere else. Some nuggets of wisdom that one could only find along our strange path.
Here’s what I came up with.
1. Keep track of energy– where it moves and how it flows.
You are likely, in your poly journey, to take up relationships with other polyamorous people. That can mean getting involved with people who are nurturing other relationships, building families, negotiating the terms of commitments and marriages.
It can mean exposing yourself to other people’s mess.
In any dating paradigm, people are exchanging energy and impacting one another even outside of the time they spend together. But now that you’re thinking about dating while simultaneously co-creating a stable partnership, you’ve got more than your own energy to think about, and more than your own well-being to protect. Your new lover may thrill you, may fulfill you, but if they also drain your emotional resources and tamper with your mood, your left with that much less resource and that crappy mood to share with your partner.
Be on the lookout for a lover who is willing to share their disappointments about another relationship or partner. If on the second or third date your new love interest begins lamenting that her husband just doesn’t understand her, just doesn’t listen to her the way you do, find the nearest emergency exit and plan a route.
2. Love moves at its own pace.
It’s common to try to control the speed at which feelings and connections develop. But is it ever successful?
Not in my experience. I’ve never seen someone develop a crush more gradually in order to accommodate their partner. Think about it– it’s pretty impossible to control the pace of development of your own romantic feelings, let alone someone else’s. Have you ever successfully talked yourself down from an ill-advised crush, or convinced your heart not to get so excited about your newest prospect?
Attempts to control the development of someone else’s emotions or connections are a recipe for anguish, for yourself and for your partner.
If you are not ready to coexist with your partners new feels, then it’s time to get to work on your own jealousy. Look to your partner for support in the gut-wrenching labor of self-work. Voice your insecurities, seek reassurance– but if you ask your partner to stick to kissing their new sweetie until you’re ready for them to have sex, or to put off falling in love until you’ve wrapped your head around the concept, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
“You’re really just asking her to lie to you,” adds my wife.
She would know.
3. You are accountable to your other lovers, not just each other.
As a member of a couple, you are operating from a position of power on the dating scene.
It’s natural to focus first on yourself and your partner. You don’t want to hurt the person you love most. Sometimes, that means you just have to sideline someone else who you’re talking to, because your relationship comes first.
The only problem with that is that you’re being a dick.
Everyone else who you encounter has feelings and needs, just like you, and just like your partner. You might not be able to prioritize anyone’s needs over yours and your beloved’s, but you don’t get to disregard those other people’s needs, either.
Be aware of your impact, on your own love interests and on your partner’s. Say you change your mind about opening up, and you demand a return to monogamy just as your partner is embarking on a new romance. Now there’s a third person in the mix to consider. Should your insecurities spell that person’s broken heart?
Anyone who shares their time, their body, and their love with you deserves your gentleness. They deserve clear and honest communication around desires, expectations, availability. They deserve to be treated as a whole person, not as an experiment or a practice space for your pre-established relationship.
So, get out there and love freely. Share yourself with the world, unburdened by the conventional constraints of couplehood.
Just try not to be a dick about it.
Do you agree with my advice? What other tips would you offer to couples who are opening up?
This conversation is becoming a weekly ritual. Next month she turns thirty. I’ll be close behind. And we still can’t seem to make up our minds:
Do we want kids?
We trudge through the usual debate points and musings. “We’ll have to eat dinner at 5:30.” “We’ll be broke. We’ve barely got the money for the sperm.” “If we don’t, who will take care of us when we’re old?”
Then, suddenly, she calls up a different kind of trepidation. Says,
“You think I’ll make them hate being Jewish.”
Screeeech! Hit the brakes. Where did that come from?
“Baby,” I say. “No I don’t. You’ll be a wonderful Mom to Jewish kids. You already know the most important blessings…”
“No. I won’t be.” She pauses, considering something. “Maybe it’s just… it’s them having an identity that I won’t have. It’s too much. Being Black is hard enough, but Black AND Jewish… It’s a scary intersection.”
I blink. “It’s our intersection.”
She nods, slowly. “Yeah.”
She’s got a point. Would we be cursing our future children by deciding to have them? Is it fair, to put challenges onto our children that neither of us have faced ourselves?
On the coffee table in front of us a copy of The Color of Water by James McBride lies open, near its end. I have almost finished reading McBride’s telling of his mother’s story, in which she flees from her Orthodox Jewish family, marries a Black man, and raises twelve Black children. She overcomes the divide between the two communities that hold her life by destroying the Jew in herself, and never looking back. She changes her name, comes to Jesus, starts a church.
In my own family, I see the same pattern reflected. My eldest auntie married a Black man in the 1960’s and faced the rejection of her family and community for years. Though she never converted to a different religion, though she reconnected with my grandparents before I was born, she did not raise her son Jewish.
I remember my shock when I overheard her on the phone with her grown son in the week leading up to Rosh Hashana, explaining to him, “We eat apples and honey to celebrate a sweet new year.” My forty-year-old cousin didn’t know this simple tradition that was second nature to me by preschool?
One generation later, my aunt sends me pictures of her grandson lighting a menorah for Chanukah and reading picture books with Jewish themes. She is teaching him to take pride in his Jewish roots, and to understand that the history of the Jewish people is his history, too. But embracing one’s Jewish ancestry is not the same as being Jewish. I don’t know how my little cousin will identify as he grows. Will our traditions become his?
My wife and I have long since decided that, should we have children, we will raise them Jewish. They will be Black, of course. That part will most likely be determined by phenotype; it was never a subject of debate. We will raise our babies to be proud of their Blackness, to celebrate their heritage as descendants of the African diaspora. So why, I used to argue in the earlier days of our commitment, should the children we bring up together reflect her culture, her people, and not mine? Over time, she relented. It was a decision we reached before we married, and a condition of the marriage itself.
Our children will be free to reject Judaism if it does not suit them. Up to 70% of Jewish kids outside of the Orthodox community choose not to live a Jewish life when they grow up. And our babies will have more reason to reject the religion than does the average Jew. A wide majority Jewish communities in the US are white-dominated, and they harbor the same diseases as other white enclaves. It is unfortunately likely that the congregants of the synagogue where we enroll our children in Hebrew School will alienate them with racist comments, harassing them with questions like “how are you Jewish?” and “are you adopted?” Maybe our kids will want out of all Jewish spaces by the time they reach B’nai Mitzvah age at around 12, going through the sacred rite of passage into Jewish adulthood only if we force them, and withdrawing from the community immediately after.
And on the other side, how will their Black cousins and friends who are not Jewish shape their views of themselves? Will the same ugly conspiracies that have led me into tearful fights with my inlaws worm their way into my babies’ ears? Who will be the first to tell them that the Nazi Holocaust is a big lie, that their white mother is not a real Jew, that white Jews stole the religion from its Black rightful owners? Will it be family, a cousin they look up to? If those conspiracies don’t erode their sense of connection to their Jewishness, it may be that their Catholic elders will convince them that they are bound for hell until they come to Jesus.
None of these outcomes would surprise me. And there’s not a lot my wife or I could do to prevent them, or to protect our future children from the bone-deep confusion of belonging to two communities and feeling out-of-place in both– not a lot, beyond deciding not to have children at all.
For tonight, we run out of steam for the debate. She heads to bed, and I flop onto the couch to finish The Color of Water. In an afterward included for the 10th anniversary edition, McBride reflects on his family’s story with these words that feel uncannily apt, tonight:
I have met hundreds of mixed-race people of all types, and I’m happy to report that– guess what, folks– they’re happy, normal people! They’re finding a way. … The plain truth is that you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.James McBride, The Color of Water
I want to wake her. To rush into her quiet, shake her, tell her, “See! We won’t be failing our children by raising them. Our children can proud of who they are.”
“We will raise them in love and safety,” I want to tell her. “They’ll know a struggle that’s familiar to neither of us, it’s true. But they will know a peaceful home– they’ll know joy and healthiness that was also unfamiliar to us. We made it through our childhood hurts. They’ll make it through theirs, too.”
“Our children, our Black and Jewish children, if we have them, are gonna be okay.”
Instead, I resolve to show her in the morning. I tuck myself beside her, press my skin against her back, and join her sleep.
You enter your bedroom.
It is dark, and I
am inside, singing
your infant son
against my chest. I
am ten years
than your wife
and my voice is soft
You move quickly
into and out. I
turn my back, eyes
latching on the eyelids
drooping in my arms.
I mean you no harm
and you mean me no harm.
You take your shirt,
go, and I continue,
rocking in the dark room,
(Shalom Bayit is a Jewish value. It translates to “peace in the home”, and describes familial wholeness and healthy connection in a marriage.)