Chapter 222: Laying Down LinesAlexandra Erin on June 30, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 7: Courtly Manners, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Ian’s Ego Is Not Salved
“Oh, you did not,” Steff said.
She was the first one to speak after I’d finished describing my exit from Oberrad House the night before, at breakfast the next morning.
“I did,” I said.
“Could you tell how she took it?” Amaranth asked. “I mean, it would be a bad sign if she reacted poorly to being put off like that… but given her position, it might be a little risky to tweak her nose about it.”
“I didn’t touch her nose… anyway, it’s hard to say because I didn’t stick around, but I’d say probably somewhere between stunned and maybe a little impressed?” I said. “That second part might be wishful thinking, though… I mean, I’d like to think someone was impressed, since I was too busy trying not to freak out during my otherwise triumphant exit to be too impressed with myself.”
“I’m impressed,” Steff said. “I’m not sure I believe it happened and I kind of want to get Dee to verify you’re not possessed if it did, but I’m impressed.”
“I don’t know how I feel about it,” Ian said. “You and her, I mean. Sometimes I think I’m fine with it, and sometimes… mostly late at night… I’m pretty cool with the idea of you and her hooking up. But then I get thinking about how you’re not really the ‘hook-up’ type, and I don’t know if I want to see that change. But I don’t think I’d take it any better if you wound up in a serious relationship with her. ”
“Yeah, well… if it makes you feel any better, part of the reason I did it is because I’m not sure how I feel about all of that, either,” I said. I thought I’d have more time to figure it out before she wanted me for anything more than an occasional errand girl. This gave me some more time and space to figure it out.”
“I guess that’s something,” he said. “I just… I don’t know how I feel about the whole idea. And I don’t know what I’m allowed to feel.”
“Allowed?” I repeated.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I was all excited about asserting dominance over you more, in theory… and in practice, too, I guess, but I don’t understand what that means for day-to-day stuff like this. Do I get a say in this? Should I? Does it say bad things about me if I want a say?”
“Of course I’m interested in what you have to say,” I said. “Which is how I’d rather put it than saying that you have a say in who I date. If you want to say something about something I’m doing that worries you… as my boyfriend, as my dom, as a nice guy who is concerned about me… I want to hear it. Obviously.”
“You say ‘obviously’,” he said. “But you told her to talk to Amaranth, not me.”
“Well, yeah… Amaranth is sort of her point of contact for this stuff,” I said. “That doesn’t mean Amaranth is making the decision for me.”
“Still, I… fuck, I feel like an asshole saying this,” he said. “But I just wish that when you were talking to her, I had some kind of… stamp on you. You know? I want to know that I’m part of the thought process, if not the conversation.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure ‘the conversation’ is this, here and now,” I said. “Like I told you, what I said to her was about putting off any deeper conversation with her a little while longer. And because we’re having this conversation now, I kind of know how you feel about the next conversation about her. Which… is good?”
“I guess,” he said. “Damn it, I’m really not trying to take control of your life… I just… this is so complicated, you know? The whole poly thing.”
“Uh… point of order?” Steff said. “But if Mack were monogamous, you and I wouldn’t be dating her. Or if you were, it would be because you’d wooed her away from Amaranth somehow. And now that there’s another contender on the field, it wouldn’t be a question of whether she starts seeing Glory also, but if she starts seeing her instead. See, going mono doesn’t eliminate the complications posed by the existence of other people, it just magnifies the impact of them… and all of that is assuming that there isn’t any clandestine side action going on.”
“Okay… that actually is a good point,” Ian said. “A surprisingly good point. I mean, on a purely rational level I get all of that. But do I have to pretend that my feelings are only valid if they’re purely rational?”
“Your feelings are valid because they’re yours,” Amaranth said.
“I get that,” Ian said. “I just want to know… what they’re really worth, I guess.”
“What, like, if I would agree to not date Glory if it made you uncomfortable?” I asked.
“It < em>does make me uncomfortable,” he said. “Off and on. But I wouldn’t try to make that a veto, especially since I’m so… wishy-washy about it.”
“Ambivalent feelings aren’t wishy-washy, Ian,” Amaranth said. “If they were, they’d be easier to ignore.”
“Thanks, I guess,” he said. “I just want to know if something did rise to a level that was veto-worthy for me, would you listen? And even if you did, would you hold it against me?”
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” I said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound insulting.”
“No, it’s not… I literally don’t know what to say to that,” I said. “You’re asking me to predict the future.”
“Not really,” he said. “I mean, I’m not asking what things I could safely veto or not. I’m just… I want some idea of how safe it would be.”
“Can we talk about this in some terms other than veto power?” I asked. “It seems so… absolute. Like, do you really think you would need to go as far as laying down some kind of ultimatum before I would take your feelings into account?”
“No, I just… don’t know what ‘taking into account’ means,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a literal veto or anything, it’s just… that’s something concrete and simple that we can all understand. And if we ever get to a point where you’re doing something I can’t live with…”
“I’ll want to know about it,” I said. “Every time. I promise you.”
“Can you really promise that, though?” he said. “I think a lot of people probably make promises like that, and end up breaking them.”
“Then why are you asking me for one?” I asked.
“I just… I want you to take a moment and answer honestly,” he said.
“I don’t know how much more honest I can be,” I said. “I’m telling you how I feel.”
“Ian… think about it this way,” Amaranth said. “If you had to, could you come up with a list of things that you would veto?”
“Probably… if I thought about it,” he said. “Are you saying I should? Do you think that’s a good idea? I mean, I know we’ve come up with things we’re not comfortable about doing, but I’ve never thought about taking that to things each other is doing that don’t involve us.”
“Well, maybe we should,” she said. “I’m a big believer in communicating about boundaries and expectations… but the reason I ask is this. Imagine that you did that, and then Mack gets involved with someone that doesn’t transgress any of the boundaries you laid out, but you’re still not comfortable with it, and at a level where you feel the need to put your foot down. Do you think that having laid out a bunch of things and saying ‘these are the things I can’t tolerate’ without including the specific thing should take away your right to object now?”
“Well… no,” he said. “It’s not like I could foresee every possible thing, or my reaction to it… I mean, if there’s anything I’ve learned from hanging out with this group, it’s that there are things I would have been sure I would never put up with that are actually okay, and things I might have sworn I’d love that are anything but. And if I was arrogant enough to think that life is done surprising me, I wouldn’t be worried about this.”
“Okay,” Amaranth said, nodding. “I agree with you completely. But think about this: what if Mack searched her soul and told you in all honesty that she can’t imagine ever resenting you for using your veto…”
“I kind of can’t imagine saying that,” I said.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t believe she’d given it much honest thought if she did,” Ian said.
“Okay,” Amaranth said. “So, imagine that she gives you a list of things that she wouldn’t appreciate being vetoed on, and it all seems reasonable… does this take away her future right to feel unexpected ways about unexpected things?”
“…well, no,” Ian said.
“So, it’s not fair to judge her honesty based on the idea that she might promise something that later turns out not to be true,” Amaranth asked.
“Fuck fairness,” Steff said. “You know? That’s such a bullshit term to begin with. It’s not helpful, is what it’s not. It doesn’t do anything for anybody.”
“Okay, so forget fairness and forget promises,” Ian said. “I think we can agree to not be shitty about it, though. Right?”
“What?” he said.
“Oh, hon,” she said. “You were just talking about how your emotions aren’t rational. If you go into this thinking that she can just choose not to resent you for saying whatever, then you’ll wind up resenting her for going back on her word. And vice-versa. The bottom line is that what we’re talking about is how most relationships end up falling apart, when people are too tightly entangled in each other’s lives to just… gently drift apart. Irreconcilable differences, Ian… I learned what that phrase means when I was super little. It’s not just a disagreement that you can’t resolve, because no one disagrees about everything. It’s when you can’t get past how the disagreement makes you feel about the other person.”
“So that’s it,” Ian said. “We’re doomed?”
“Maybe,” Steff said. “Maybe everyone’s doomed. The thing about relationships is they’re ultimately the same as everything else: in the end, they end. And more of them tend to end badly than happily. But… and this is the big but… you haven’t even come to the disagreement yet. You’re out there looking for it, thinking that if you can see it coming then you can somehow head it off… agree to disagree, agree not to be shitty, however you want to put it. But if it’s out there, it’s out there… and all looking for it is going to do is help you find it faster.”
“Or make it happen,” Amaranth said, but Ian wasn’t looking at either of them. He was looking at me.
“I don’t think we’re doomed,” I said. “And while I can’t promise not to be shitty about some unspecified future disagreement, I can promise that I’ll try to work through it, just like I’ve done… just like we’ve done… every single other time that we’ve been shitty to each other, since the first time I lit you on fire and you called me a slut.”
“I’m being stupid, aren’t I?” he asked.
“You’re being emotional,” I said. “But here’s the thing: if it bothers you this much… even if you’re going back and forth on it… let’s just say no to it. If we keep going down the path I’m on now and a time comes when you feel the need to say ‘no more’, I can’t promise you that I won’t resent that, Ian. I can’t promise you that I wouldn’t feel angry or disappointed. But I know how I feel now, and it’s… well, I love you and I’m somewhat excited by the thought that she likes me. It’s not a contest, but you win anyway.”
“That just makes me feel like more of an asshole for being insecure about it,” he said. “I don’t want to stop you from being excited, Mackenzie… and the more I think about this, the more I think that the solution really is for both of us to have more of a life outside each other and our same friends. No offense.”
“You know, we all do have other friends, too,” Steff said. “There are a lot of hours between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m just saying.”
“And between dinner and breakfast,” Amaranth said.
“Okay, well… all the more reason,” Ian said.
“How about this, then,” I said. “Let’s say: no serious relationship… which might amount to the same thing as a flat no, because I’m really not sure how far I could go with a casual relationship, never mind a… hook-up. But the last thing I need is another partner in the same way that you guys are my partners, and I especially don’t need to wind up defaulting into that because I don’t know how to do casual.”
“I could live with that,” he said. “I’m not asking you to swear an oath and I know the future’s up in the air, but… I feel like that gives me some protected status. You know? Not that I’m going to get cocky about it, or anything…”
“Don’t get complacent, anyway,” I said. “But… be as cocky as you want.”
“Yeah,” I said. I blushed and lowered my head, but I pushed on with what I’d meant to say anyway. “I like you cocky, remember?”
“Oh,” he said.
“You know, you two probably have time to run back to the tower, if you leave now,” Amaranth said. “I mean, if you wanted some alone time.”
Obviously we both did want that, or else Amaranth wouldn’t have said anything, but I looked at Ian and he shook his head.
“Nah,” he said. “Soon, probably… but there are only so many times I can wind up in your room with a hard-on after a case of wounded ego before it starts to feel… I don’t know…”
“Like a consolation prize?” Steff suggested.
“Something like that,” Ian said.
“It’s never about soothing your wounded ego to me,” I said. “Just… these conversations tend to be what reminds me when it’s been a while.”
“Yeah, but the thing is, I don’t need a reminder of that,” he said. “And it’s nobody’s fault but mine if I don’t do something about it. So I will. And soon… but some time when I know what it means.”
“Well, I guess I’ve got that to look forward to,” I said.