A guest post from Joycebird. You can check out some of her other writing at The Art of Transgression
Burner Love: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
Burning Man is great for couples; Burning Man is hard on couples.
My fiancé recently posted a picture of the drive home. Our close friend, prone to carsickness, rides shotgun beside him, while I peek out from amidst a ton of crap in the backseat, Waldo-esque. My ego throws its umpteenth tissy fit. I should be beside him. Not her. Me.
We’d gotten off to a strange, unsettling, but ultimately very cathartic start. On Monday night, he stayed by my side while I lost all touch with reality and ran through people’s camps in my fur-kini, celebrating the coming of the First Nirvana. While I had my own personal Mormon-turned-Taoist jubilation, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” and literally rolling on the ground with joy, he followed me, just as high, navigating the google dream network, picking up my belongings as I shed them, and crossing his fingers that no undercover cops would witness what was clearly a hallucinogenic trip, as he was far from sober himself and had more substances on him.
It was a struggle for him not to leave me behind the way he himself was left behind by his father at a very young age. But he didn’t leave me. For the next several days we were on a close and loving high, mine fueled by humility, gratitude, and a sense of security, his by the realization that I am helping him to become the man his father couldn’t be.
Our friend, away from her lover and feeling shy, spent much of the burn with us. Nights huddled against the cold of the desert, she opened up to us about her insecurities, about her troubled relationship with her partner (who was not at the burn), about how hard it was for her to feel desirable anymore. We kissed her and told her she was beautiful. We opened up our abundant love to her.
The morning after one such night of loving conversation and snuggles, I’d retired to my tent for a nap. I expected him to join me at any moment, and when I woke up to find him still missing, I felt a pang of sadness.
I asked another camp friend where he was and was informed somewhat cautiously that he was in her tent. My heart began to pound. I crouched under the tent fly. His face emerged wearing a goofy grin. “What’s up, baby?” I asked, failing to sound casual.
“I just ate her out.”
Everything inside of me constricted. “I don’t think her boyfriend is going to be very happy about this.”
There was a pause. “I didn’t think about that.”
“Yeah, well,” I muttered. I backed out and stumbled to my tent, observing the emotions rolling over me. The tears felt small and petty but I let them come.
I cried my fear that his tenderness towards her and their many commonalities of personality and interest would transform into a love stronger than our own. I cried an imaginary future of being the wife of that particular village hero who is good to everyone at the expense of his own family. I cried the loss of my uncomplicated bliss.
I’d said he could have a Burner girlfriend (a fairly common thing among Burner couples). We’d even talked about the possibility of helping this friend to feel sexy in a more hands-on way. But I was in no way prepared for something to happen without my presence or explicit consent.
She came in and put a hand on my back. She spoke my name gently. I didn’t respond or bother to hide from her the fact that I was crying. After a moment she let me be. Then he was beside me, calmly and gently fielding my hurt. Misunderstandings were unpacked. My lover’s concern was genuine. He hadn’t expected me to react this way. I began to calm down. This kind of thing is hard enough, I told him. It’s something I want to be open to in the right circumstances, and it’s also very hard. “Please don’t ever, ever make assumptions or jump to conclusions again. Please make sure to ask me first.”
“Your feelings are the most important thing to me. I would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship. You’re the most magical thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
“All of the stories that you hear about this kind of thing end in pain and separation.”
“They don’t have to.”
I took some deep breaths. Wiped away my tears. Emerged from the tent into the sun and walked over to our friend. I straddled her, wrapped my arms around her, and hugged her for a long time. She hugged me back. “I love you,” I told her. “I love you,” she said.
Another challenge was put to me on the night of the temple burn, an event we were highly looking forward to. We’d missed it last year, and our experience there together this year had been very poignant. As sad as I was to see the city come down around us, I was feeling particularly close to both my lover and our mutual friend now that I’d mostly taken in stride their unexpected encounter. I was enjoying the afterglow of how rewarding openness and forgiveness can be.
There was another woman in our camp now, someone who’d identified my lover as a kind soul and gravitated toward him and shared her woes. Our friend had bristled at this addition (which I found amusing, considering) and I’d been magnanimous, giving my blessing again for a sexual encounter. He reassured me that his feelings were nurturing and nonsexual. We both celebrated this new development.
One thing led to another and we looked up from our camp to see the smoke of the temple rising. He swore and took off with the new camp mate, accidentally leaving us behind with one bike too few. We searched for him fruitlessly. When we finally made it back to camp, his pack was waiting at the tent, light on, and his headlamp was on the steps of our new friend’s RV. Once again, my heart sank.
We knocked on the door and called out his name. He answered. “Can we come in?”
“…Give me a second.”
Despite having technically given him permission, my feelings this time truly overwhelmed me. I threw my pack on the ground and sank down, shaking and crying. Our close friend told him to hurry; that I needed him.
Our society puts such a lot of weight on sexual indiscretions. We treat physicality as the holy grail of fidelity. Is the sex act ever really the problem? Or is it the violated trust, the lack of consideration? Is it the forced encounter with feelings we hate to experience, with realities of our partner’s otherness we’d prefer not to know?
I asked him repeatedly, shaking him, “How could you? How could you? I don’t understand how this could happen.” It took me a while to listen to his response, but I really did want to know. I didn’t just want to punish him. I didn’t want to wallow in my victimhood.
When he went down on our friend, I knew that it came from a place of wanting to help her heal. I knew it came from a place of affection. I knew he trusted my offer to let such a thing occur. This, it was clear, came from a very different place. He was angry he’d missed the burn, and then upset with himself for leaving us behind. He wondered why we didn’t catch up with him; imagined we had simply wandered off without a care. He felt anxious and self-loathing and maybe a little vengeful.
I could have demonized him for succumbing to these emotions. I could have distanced myself from his weakness. I could have turned away from his pain and focused exclusively on my experience.
But the more I listened to his excuses, the fudged details about who had actually initiated, the attempts to self-exonerate, the closer I felt to him. He sounded exactly like I did when I’d allowed a situation to make a decision for me in order to satisfy some urge or soothe some wound to my ego. As crazy as it may sound to you dedicated monogamists out there, his infidelity made us closer.
The next morning I apologized to the woman involved for letting my negativity affect her experience. I saw that she fully trusted my acceptance of the situation and had no thought of disrupting the sanctity of our relationship, and we became friends. Forging another story of how women interact in such circumstances–not as competitors, but as sisters and friends.
Back at home, I still have some anger to express, I still have fears and doubts, and he meets it all with love, honesty, and patience. I still find myself anxious over our mutual friend, and he reassures me. She and I are closer than ever.
This whole thing has rebooted our too-comfortable sex life. It has offered new perspective. He was surprised and grateful when his new friend asked his consent before giving a blowjob. It had never really occurred to me that men might need and deserve respect for their sexual agency in the same way women do (rather than having their desires taken for granted).
Burning Man offers unique opportunities for exploration, self-growth, and for destroying negative patterns and forging new ones. As scary as new territory can be, safety and comfort are not the same as happiness.
I look at the picture again. Our friend is glowing and transformed. My lover and life partner wears one of his trademark crazy grins. My ego and I sit in the backseat, tired and happy. Soon after the photo was taken he reached his hand over the back of the seat, grasping mine, holding it as he drove, and whispered to me his love and appreciation and admiration.
It’s not for everyone, I understand that. But I wouldn’t trade our Burner love for the status quo version–not in a million burns.