It’s now been three months since Lucy first met Charlie, who is in an Open Relationship and just got engaged.
As time’s passed Lucy and Charlie have settled into a routine. Once a week, sometimes twice, Charlie comes over to Lucy’s place after work. At lunchtime, she goes to the M&S near her office and stocks up on just-shove-in-the-oven food for dinner (no bloody way is she doing actual proper cooking – that’d absorb too much of their rare and precious naked time and besides, being cooked for is a boyfriend privilege that Charlie definitely hasn’t earned). They have sex while the food is in the oven, eat, have more sex, and then enjoy that delicious post-orgasmic quiet time together, during which Lucy snuggles up to Charlie, her face pressed against his skin, inhaling his scent, feeling, just briefly, loved-up and happy. And then it gets late, and he kisses her goodbye and goes home to his fiancée, leaving Lucy lying tangled in sheets that smell of sex and him, heartsick and bereft.
Occasionally they go out for a meal or a drink, like a real couple. Once, out in Charlie’s part of town, they bump into Lucy’s friend Amy. They’re holding hands, and Lucy can see the question marks in Amy’s eyes as she sheepishly introduces this mystery man. She’s going to have some explaining to do later, and she doesn’t even know where she’s going to begin, nor how she’s going to face the inevitable questioning and well-meaning but judgy concern that will no doubt follow when Amy learns the truth about Charlie’s lifestyle.
“She’s very pretty,” Charlie says as they walk away, and Lucy immediately feels her guts twist with jealousy.
“She lives round here, so you might bump into her again. But you’re not allowed to fuck her, even though she’s single.”
“Don’t worry, I put that thought out of my mind before it even entered it.”
But still she feels anxiety clawing at her insides. What kind of a fucked up relationship is this where I have to specifically ask the guy I’m dating not to try to bone any of my friends? What the actual fuck am I doing, for Chrissakes?
Lucy’s not normally the jealous type – at least she wasn’t with The Ex – but with Charlie it’s a whole different ballgame. When they’re not together he could be doing just about anything with anyone and there’s not a fucking thing she can do about it. Sometimes she goes on Facebook and sees him chatting to other women, and she has no idea if they’re just friends or if he’s fucked or is still fucking any or all of them. Because why wouldn’t he be? She gets the impression that Charlie, raging ball of sexual energy that he is, is only too happy to shag any moderately attractive woman who’s up for it, and although logically Lucy knows that not all of them will be, she can’t help feeling that with his charm and confidence, the odds are pretty high that about 90% of the women he meets who are not already in a committed monogamous relationship will fall for his charms just as swiftly as she did.
Far worse than the Facebook friends list full of attractive women, however, is the fact that he regularly updates his timeline with loved-up photos of himself and his fiancée. And even though Lucy knows she shouldn’t look, even though doing so makes her stomach plummet faster than it did that time she made the mistake of going skydiving, somehow she’s physically unable to keep from torturing herself. So she does it anyway, hating herself for putting up with the mental torment, for enabling his behaviour, for tacitly endorsing the continued erosion of the values so important to her.
But much as she despises the hurt and heartache, in many ways this is also a relationship that works for her. A skilled lover, who turns up at her house once a week to give her some of the best sex of her life but also gives her plenty of time to get on with other things? An intelligent, outward-looking, interested partner who’s reliably on the end of WhatsApp to bounce ideas off or vent about her day? A secret admirer who thinks she’s brilliant and regularly showers her with compliments? Well, there’s an awful lot to be said for all of that. Of course she’d give her right arm to have Charlie all to herself, but surely a part-time lover is better than no lover at all? It’s certainly better than the horrors of Bumble and Tinder, that’s for damn sure.
Three weeks later, and Lucy’s just got back from a work trip to the USA. She’s tired and horny AF, not helped by the fact that during their three-week separation Charlie made damn sure she didn’t forget about him.
Lucy wishes Charlie wouldn’t be quite so laid back about the idea of her ending this relationship and getting together with someone else. Surely a little bit of sadness, even a twinge of jealousy, would be in order? But of course not, he’s probably got plenty of other women on the go; in all likelihood he wouldn’t even notice she’d gone, TBF.
And so they make a plan to meet up as soon as she gets back from her work trip. Lucy has the day off, and because Charlie’s able to work from home, she suggests he comes over during the day to work from her place, with plenty of screen breaks to ‘catch up’.
It’s a warm day, so she throws open all the windows and puts on a jersey sundress. She decides against any underwear at all this time – it’s too hot for a bra, and he never looks at her lingerie anyway. Besides, he might be excited to discover she’s commando, and the thought of him getting excited for her makes Lucy go all tingly in her, um, special place.
Charlie arrives at lunchtime, takes the stairs two at a time and kisses her the way she’s been dreaming of being kissed for the entirety of the last three weeks. He’s a bit sweaty after his walk from the tube but Lucy doesn’t care: after such an achingly long period of abstinence she’s not going to let a little bit of sweat stand in her way. There is, however, a rather more pressing problem.
“You’re going to have to wait a little bit longer,” she tells him. “My car needs its MOT and won’t start, and the man from the garage is on his way over to pick it up. So clothes stay on for now, I’m afraid!”
They sit on the sofa, laptops out, working in pleasant silence. It feels comfortable, companionable, like the proper relationship Lucy still dreams will one day be hers again. Charlie trails a hand idly along her bare leg, and Lucy feels her heart quicken and warmth rush to her unclothed lady parts. Unable to concentrate now, she scooches closer, and although Charlie’s still focused on his screen his hand wanders higher, up under her dress and higher still, where finding no resistance, he finally glances up at her with an intrigued smile, closes his laptop and pulls her in for a kiss.
Charlie doesn’t seem remotely bothered that the man from the garage will be here any second; instead, he grabs Lucy’s hips, hoicks up her dress round her waist and pulls her forward to the edge of the sofa, where he puts his expert tongue to long-overdue use and soon has Lucy forgetting whatever objections she may have had about the wisdom of this relationship. Then, when that mission has been well and truly accomplished, he drops his trousers, sits down, and instructs a now well-lubricated Lucy to reacquaint herself with the part of him that’s jutting invitingly from his lap. Which of course she’s only too happy to do, straddling him and rubbing herself against the hard tip while Charlie grabs her buttocks and laughingly urges her to sink all the way down onto him, which of course she’d be delighted to do except that with exquisitely painful timing, at that precise moment her phone rings.
It’s the man from the garage and he’s two minutes away. Fuck.
“Make him wait,” breathes Charlie, jumping up to grab a condom from Lucy’s bedside stash – and Lucy feels a flash of annoyance because why can’t he bring his own? – but she puts that thought aside because now he’s pulling her back onto him, no game-playing this time, and they fuck quickly and hard with all the gasping urgency of three weeks apart, while Charlie whispers in her ear about how he wants to see her go down to the mechanic all disheveled and freshly fucked with the smell of sex exuding from every pore.
“If I wasn’t wearing a condom,” he breathes, ”I’d send you down to him with my cum inside you and trickling down your legs.” But of course he is, so when he comes, with great loud gasps, everything is caught tidily which is just as well because (a) Lucy doesn’t want to get knocked up and (b) she doesn’t want him to make a mess on her sofa.
With impeccable timing her phone rings again. An impatient-sounding garage man tells her he’s waiting outside, so Lucy reluctantly throws her dress back on and makes a vague attempt to tidy her haystack hair and glowing face so she doesn’t look quite so much like she’s just been enthusiastically fucked. Which it turns out is an entirely futile exercise, because when she gets downstairs she discovers the garage man is waiting not outside the front gates of the building as she expected, but directly outside her stairwell door, underneath her open windows, where he no doubt heard absolutely every last moan and gasp and knows with pinpoint precision exactly why he’s been made to wait.
He gives her a hard Paddington stare, and Lucy, mortified, almost throws the car keys at him and scurries back inside.
The Facebook problem
Over lunch of Tesco Finest pizza, Charlie tells her about his recent weekend away with his girlfriend, which Lucy actually already knows all about because she saw the nauseating happy photos on Facebook and felt so wretched she wanted to throw herself off Westminster Bridge.
“Yes, I saw,” she tells him bitterly. “I really must learn to stop looking at your Facebook.”
Does this sound pathetic and needy? Yeah, probably, but Lucy doesn’t give a fuck. She’s always been someone who wears her heart firmly on her sleeve, she can’t pretend to be anything other than she is, and if Charlie doesn’t like it, then so be it. This thing won’t last for ever anyway, so what’s the point in pretending?
“I think it’d be best if I unfriend you,” she continues. “Though that won’t help with Instagram. I can still see those photos even if I don’t follow you.”
“Just don’t look at it,” says Charlie simply, but it’s not as easy as that. She’s human and weak, and as long as she knows that Charlie’s posting on social media, she’s going to be unable to stop herself from being curious about what he’s up to when they’re not together, no matter how much agony it brings her.
“I wish you just wouldn’t post them,” she says hopefully, but she knows it’s an impossible request. Charlie’s happy and in love, he’s getting married, and of course he wants to share that. And who the hell is she to stop him? Just some random girl he’s currently fucking? Why should he censor himself just because she doesn’t have the stomach for facing the truth about his lifestyle? She knew what she was signing up for, and she has to either get used to it or walk away.
Lucy wonders about The Girlfriend. Does she know who Lucy is? Has she Facestalked her right back? How much has Charlie even told her?
“Of course she knows who you are,” he tells her. “And that I’m seeing you. She knows I’m here right now. But we don’t talk about the details.”
Lucy still can’t get her head round it. It might be one thing to be able to tolerate your partner occasionally having a meaningless fuck with a random, but a full-on second relationship? How does it even work?
“We’re still figuring it out,” he tells her. “But ultimately it’s all about communication and scheduling. Lots of non-monogamous people have more than one. Some have a primary partner, some don’t. You just make it work.”
“But I just can’t compute how she can be not bothered by this. If it was only about sex then yeah, maybe, to keep you from pestering her when she’s not in the mood. But this is more than that now… right?”
“It is,” he says, and in spite of the grotesque ridiculousness of the situation Lucy still feels a small thrill that he agrees, that she’s not making this up or getting overexcited, that this really is more than just a fuck, it’s an actual relationship, her first in nearly four years since The Ex fucked off.
Again she wonders about people who share their partners with others. Are all of them really happy about the situation, or have some of them simply learned to tolerate it over time, deciding that it’s better than being alone, and knowing it’s the only way to keep their loved ones in their lives. If Lucy had met Charlie first, if she could have been his primary, would she have done the same? She’s not sure she’d have been able to. Sharing him would have eaten her up inside, little by little, just as it is now. In the end, it would have destroyed their relationship.
“I don’t know what to do,” she tells him with a sigh of frustration. “It seems like, with minimal effort, you get to have your cake and eat it, and then have another cake and eat that too. It’s not fair, frankly. It’s obscene. Plenty of lovely people can’t even find just one person to call their own. What makes you so special that you get to have women queuing up for you?”
He looks at her sadly. “If this doesn’t work for you then we should stop.”
“It doesn’t work for me,” she shrugs. “But not seeing you at all doesn’t work for me either. So what can I do?”
There is silence for a moment.
“I don’t want this to end,” he tells her. “I know I’m not your boyfriend, but if you weren’t so determinedly monogamous I would really like us to be, I dunno, something.” He tails off.
Again Lucy feels her heart leap at the thought that, for the first time in almost a decade, a man she has All The Feels for has caught feels back. This literally never happens!
She takes his hand across the table. “We already are something. But you can’t be my boyfriend, because you’re engaged. For you to be my boyfriend, we would have to do things other than just meet up and have sex. We would have to do couple things, like…”
“Like going out for a drink as we are doing tomorrow?” he chimes in. “Like going to the cinema as we doing next week, you mean like that?”
“Ok, yes we’re doing that stuff. But we can’t go on holiday together, or even for weekends away. I can’t introduce you to my family. My mum might like to think she’s open-minded but I don’t think saying ‘Hi Mum, meet my boyfriend who I will never be able to marry because he’s engaged to someone else’ would go down very well.” She laughs bitterly.
No, of course it’s not fucking possible. He can never be her boyfriend, at least not in the way that she’d like. But what, then, is he? This is definitely more than just sex – it’s a relationship now. And while it’s not the kind of capital-R Relationship Lucy’d ever pictured, it’s certainly, well, something. Something that, while far from perfect, has value. Something that’s certainly better than the heavy drudgery of dating apps and the hollow loneliness of being single. And so for all of the anxiety she feels, for all the stress and misery, there are things about Charlie that she can’t easily walk away from: that connection, that chemistry, that sense of confidence that comes with belonging to someone, if only part-time.
The question is: is the trade-off worth it?
Next time: Lucy takes a risk and gets into an awkward situation. To carry on reading, go to Part 9 – Unprotected.
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