"Do not too many of the young persons you know believe that true happiness is to be found in true romantic love? (They may not know how to distinguish true romantic love, but they seek desperately to try it out, so that at last they can become “happy…” )"
Michael Novak, "The Myth of Romantic Love", 2011.
Vasilisa is skeptical about monogamy. The idea that wearing an over-the-top white dress and buying several hundred people dinner can somehow outweigh biology seems rather ridiculous to her. She is notorious for upsetting unmarried girlfriends by trying to reconcile statistics with their unrealistic ("romantic") expectations. Fresh out of her last (open) relationship and warn out by the meaninglessness of the corporate race, she quits her job and takes her savings for a half-year spin around Asia.
Less than anything she is looking for a commitment. Mike appears in her life as a light-hearted vacation fling, whose kind blue eyes and innocent dimples almost offset his obsession with love. With smooth inevitability of global warming, Mike makes his way into Vasilisa's solo trip. Fuck buddies evolve into travel partners, and before she knows it, the conversations about mutual future tangle with feverish jealous fights. Mike's feeling for her is so grand, so overwhelmingly dependent, that guilt-ridden, emphatic Vasilisa gradually brings her unconventional sexuality talk down to bare minimum, not to upset her lover. But who is she trying to fool?
"A handsome dude, substantial and serious as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Perfect marriage material. Am I crazy for not wanting any of this? Or are those the strings, Pinocchio?"
First-person account of a self-imposed vagabonding and inability to say "no" to love, of musings about sex and penguins' flawed publicity which "fucked it all up for us". The trail of emotional mess and meditation leads from Thailand's creepy island of Phuket to northern city of Chiang Mai, to dreamy Mekong banks and French colonial towns, serene villages of South Laos and temples of Angkor.
“See, Joep, it’s not that I’m against relationships. It’s kind of the opposite, actually! I think if you are lucky to meet someone you really click with, it’s irresponsible and infantile to lose it over what is an illusion to begin with. Close connections of mutually interested people are rare and I’m all for saving them, but impossible expectations aren’t the way to go about it. Our idea of life-long sexual exclusivity as a mandatory condition of every marriage is divorced from reality.”
I take a big sip of my Singha. The sun is setting, the street has turned into a human river as Chiang Mai Saturday market picks up the momentum. It’s incredibly pacifying - to observe the bustle of the crowd from outside.
“How does a girl come up with this stuff? I mean, I don’t know many women who would stomach even a discussion about it, leave alone implementation. Have you always leaned to this kind of thinking or is it adopted?”
“Oh, it’s hundred percent adopted.”
I smile at Joep and suddenly feel boundlessly, excruciatingly happy. I’ve missed speaking my mind. Since I've met Mike, all I do is tip-toe around the subject of monogamy.
“I was one jealous little bitch back in the day. I remember when I was fourteen or so, I had a conversation about men and relationships with my mom. At one point she said that she would rather share a cake than have her very own bowl of shit. I was so infuriated. I insisted that my man will be different, that my cake would only belong to me.”
“What has changed?”
“It started with a book.”
Joep breaks the seal of the second can.
“There’s this brilliant Polish dude, a scientist and writer Janusz Wisniewski. He’s mostly famous for a syrupy chick-flick “Loneliness on the Net”, but his biggest achievement is his socio-anthropologic studies. The book in question, “Does Our World Need Men” - my loose translation of the title, I’m not even sure if it’s been published in English, I have a Russian copy - is a real eye-opener. Throughly researched and detailed, it is a systematic, cold-blooded account of gender differences. It has enough science to shut up any romantic nay-sayer, yet it is sensible, humorous and humane. When I put it down, I knew that I’d never be able to fool myself again.
The core idea: men and women have not just different, but opposite evolutionary goals. Our survival instincts are identical, but our reproduction instincts contradict each other. For successful continuation of the species a maximum number of progeny should be achieved. Genders contribute differently.
Men, with virtually limitless supply of spermatozoids, attempt to impregnate as many women as possible - preferably young and good-looking as they provide better genes, but quantity is more essential than quality, as natural selection will right any wrong.
Women, due to one-egg-a-month-one-child-a-year limitation, attract males, evaluate them on all sorts of scales - from health to parenting skills - and select just one to mate with.
Ultimately, men shouldn’t be picky, while women - should. We’ve got ourselves some built-in irreconcilable differences.”
“That sounds so totally sad and... hopeless.”
“Not really. Once you take the habitual glasses of delusion off, the realization that relationships have predetermined inner conflict might come on a bit too strong - as Helen Fisher puts it, human beings have not evolved to be happy, we evolved to reproduce - but eventually brain catches up. It’s a normal process of maturity - accepting the inevitable. Once you understand your innate inclinations, you learn to work with them, not against them.”
“But isn’t it a little easy - to play the instinct card? Haven’t we evolved above animals for a reason? What about will, self-control and all that.”
“Contradicting the nature is like peeing against the wind. Surely, we can subdue some of our instincts - temporarily and at great cost - but to what end? Is ‘conquering the flesh’ an answer to unsatisfying sex life? And is it as easy as we are led to believe?
Consider this: industrial meat production is responsible for more CO2 than all transportation - planes, trains, cars and cargo ships - combined. Why not bind our physical desire for meat and become vegetarians? Or is an idea to never eat another steak too hard to swallow?
Or look at all the overweight people on the planet - they can’t stop eating freaking candy, even if it means diabetes and eventual amputation of their pudgy limbs. Tell them about conquering the flesh! We don’t judge fat people or meat-lovers, but we’re ready to can a president who got some head.”
“So the solution is to cheat?”
“The solution is to grow up, get real and accept men - and women - for who they are. None of us is wired for life-long exclusivity. To insist that monogamy is compulsory to happiness is to deny the majority of human beings.”
“And what does this mean in practice? Polygamy?”
“Whatever works. I seriously doubt that polyamory is easier than monogamy - imagine having to deal with emotions and quirks of several partners. But there are various degrees of openness. Some people embrace swinging, for others “don’t ask - don’t tell” is the maximum amount of tolerable promiscuity. As long as two people agree that their relationship - love, kids, mutual interests, memories - is more important than a hypocritical demand of perpetual fidelity.”
“Ok, I do understand your logic, but how do you deal with jealousy in practice? How do you live with the idea that someone you love, whose every bodily feature is so familiar to you, is doing somethings as intimate as sex - with somebody else?”
“When the whole theory part of monogamy-contradicts-biology settled in my head, I tried to imagine emotional aspects. It wasn’t easy, it just didn’t fit into anything I’ve ever experienced. Then I started to read Dan Savage’s column and ran across an interesting thought. People find sex arousing - say, watching two strangers fuck on youporn is a turn on for most. People usually find their own sexual partners attractive, too. Yet somehow the combination of these two evidently erotic stimuli generates nothing but jealousy, resentment and regret.
And then it hit me: it's not our partner having sex that repulses us - it's fear of losing control. It's the despair that we don't own another human being.
But here's the good news: if sex itself isn't the problem, we can consciously choose whether to be bitter or to be horny. Similarly, adrenaline can scare or thrill. Folks who are into extreme sports don’t overcome their fear, they mold it into pleasure. So I took my jealousy and molded it into a fetish. I started fantasizing about my boyfriend having sex with other girls - in details. I would visualize a girl's face, distorted with pleasure, her velvety bare skin, discarded underwear, wrinkled bed sheets... I grew to like these images in no time. I was actually the one who brought the subject up.”
“Oh really? You told your man that you don’t mind him having sex with other women?”
“I said that I’d love to join.”
“Ha... how did he take that?”
“He thought that he died and went to heaven.”
Joep chuckles at his empty can. After a while he lifts his eyes.
“So basically you’re saying that you can meditate your way out of jealousy?”
“Without a doubt. But it’s a choice. You have to will to overcome possessiveness - then it’ll work.”
“Vasilisa, I wish I’ve heard all this ten years ago... Things in my life might have been very different now.”
The darkness has settled in without spooking the hustle-bustle of the Saturday market. The horns, the shouts, the laughter are all around us. Our empty cans and a faint smell of curry are urging us to join the festivities.
“Why don’t we grab couple more beers?” I suggest.
Joep’s face lights up: “Yay them beers!”
We follow the crowd into the thick of fun.