The Man in the Middle

by Michael Foster for Nerve magazine, 1997

Letha and I were naked in the mineral water Jacuzzi when Charlie knocked at the glass door.  He couldn’t see in but he was carrying a cordless phone. This is a small hotel in the hills above Palm Springs. Not much English spoken, which is why we were hiding out here. I wondered if my wife Barbara was calling from Marrakech. No, it was my publicist, and he was asking me to explain my menage a trois–living with two women–for over a dozen years. The ups, downs, little dramas and large contentment–in no more than 1,500 words.

For me the three-style in love affairs started in Brooklyn when I was four. I had two little girlfriends and the three of us would play doctor, nurse and patient. We learned what we could about each other’s anatomy. The prepubescent affair was terminated when my dad moved us way out to Long Island, but I never forgot the feeling of two females fussing over me. When I started to read novels, I would get upset if the hero had to choose between his two loves. Why couldn’t he keep them both? I figured I could because of my karma, though I didn’t know the word then. Once you hear the siren song of a threesome, you’ll know why it beats any other intimate arrangement–at least for the man in the middle.

The dictionary defines menage-a-trois as “a relationship in which three people live together, usually consisting of a husband, his wife, and the lover of one of these.” This is old-hat–why not “the lover of both”? While we were writing Three in Love: Menages a Trois From Ancient To Modern Times, I found dictionaries as useless as psychologists or sexologists in understanding the oldest but still current form of alternative family–the term’s literal meaning in French. In the beginning was the menage. Adam and Eve didn’t do a thing until the Serpent gave them a hiss–made each see what the other had. Throughout history, threesomes have birthed art, poetry, books and movies, even cultural movements such as Existentialism or the Beats. At the beginning of rock and roll, the look and sound of the Beatles was invented by buddies John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe and their joint love Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg in the 1960s.

One day, barely past my own Beatlemania, I walked away from Harvard Law School. The Wellesley girls I had been dating became brusk on the phone. I dimly realized I had exited not only from the career my parents expected but their sort of marriage. That summer, working as a waiter in Provincetown, I met Barbara on the beach. I was attracted by her explosion of bushy red hair. She was with a girlfriend, both of them relentlessly arty, and I could have had both. But I was still too much my mama’s “nice Jewish boy,” half under the spell of monogamy, so I courted Barbara.

Winning a well-bred young Philadelphia girl (AKA Jewish princess) takes romance. The soft sands and moon-filled coves of Provincetown’s beaches provided the backdrop, and its hectic nightlife the charge. I read poetry to Barbara, and we both recall e.e. cummings’ line, “Not even the rain has such small hands”–which is an accurate description of her childlike hands. Our lovemaking was innocent and frequent. This was the first deep love affair for us both. That its outcome would be marriage was never in doubt. From the start we were staunch allies against convention but too close for the excitement to last.

I went back to the university to take a Ph.D. and teach. I allowed a few of my prettier students to seduce me. It’s natural for a young woman to want to sleep with her slightly older, idolized professor–he’s daddy, mentor and lover in one. Once Barbara found out, after some agonizing we agreed on a “tolerant” marriage–neither wide open or closed shut. That played out fairly well for a while but left us dissatisfied. An ever-changing domestic situation can eat up time and emotion. So guys, stay single or get married, but don’t mix the two. And don’t cheat. Because she will always find out.

A menage a trois is a real alternative because it’s relatively stable and close-knit. We met Letha in Paris when Barbara and I were writing our first biography of Alexandra David-Neel, the intrepid explorer of Tibet. We all clicked fast, and karma is the reason. Letha is a blonde Hungarian whose family was ennobled in the 16th century under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My forebears were among the downtrodden of that empire. As D. H. Lawrence understood in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the noblewoman and her retainer make a sexy duo. But why did Barbara and Letha take to each other? Or did they? Ask them. I didn’t look a gift shiksa in the mouth.

At the time Letha was married, and while we four did the Left Bank cafés together her husband grew fond of Barbara’s legs. We felt like Henry and June Miller and Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugo. But foursomes don’t work. Either the fourth gets sloughed off–like Hugo–or the group devolves into two couples–remember the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? Or the couples do a switch, like in Addicted to Love. It’s some rule of human nature, or maybe even math, that the number three is the turn-on. Back in the USA I heard that Letha had divorced Jack. I flew to her hometown of Albuquerque. We had a torrid affair but our future remained literally up in the air until Letha, who in a moment of desperation had enlisted, resigned from the Air Force. She arrived in New York unannounced on a Greyhound bus with a few bucks in her pocket on New Year’s Day, 1983. I put her up in a friend’s closet–it was a large closet that we hardly left for a couple of weeks.

What about the relationship between the two women? It never has been sexually defined in a narrow way. A menage is always erotic all round, which doesn’t rule out jealousy. When Letha first called Barbara to talk, the legal wife hung up. But the menage gradually evolved step by step as we learned to support each other in significant ways. In 1986 when Barbara and I were completing the David-Neel biography, Forbidden Journey, Letha went to Tibet to gather facts and take photos for the book. She illustrated the book and has gone on to illustrate her own books. As a practitioner of Asian medicine–dubbed “the best known blonde in Chinatown”–she has taken care of our health. Good times and bad, celebrations or wakes, she has been there for and with us. Jealousy never entirely disappears but it won’t break up a menage in which the three help and appreciate one another.

You might like to know, who sleeps where? Barbara owns a co-op apartment on a quaint street in Greenwich Village and Letha has an apartment a comfortable walk away in Chelsea. For years I bounced back and forth. We haven’t the space to live together. But summers we rent a big ski house in Vermont and we three live under the same roof, while Barbara visits. We have never sleep a trios. If you’re a guy who wants to sleep with both your women at once, find a bisexual pair who are attracted to each other. It’s great to watch your women caress each other, an interesting version of foreplay. The mystery writer Georges Simenon claimed to have bedded 10,000 women–two at a time!

Here are a few more tips for would-be menagers. First, be an artist, and if you can’t manage that, a billionaire. Avoid becoming President. Nobody questioned Picasso’s right to two or three women at a time, and no Congressional committee is going to investigate Warren Buffet’s arrangement with his wife and substitute wife, or why the women get on well. Especially, learn to give freely and to take with both hands. Loving two women will spend and try you, but you won’t be bored.

Barbara returned to New York from Marrakech after having broken up with her longtime boyfriend. She’ll tell us the story when she wants to. Letha and I met her at LAX and brought her out to our little Shangri-La. We pampered her, all got a little tipsy together, stripped, and holding hands we dunked into the steamy water at our favorite spa. The menage likes to look at its troubles from a jacuzzi in the hills above Palm Springs.

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