With polyamory and open marriages being scintillating evergreen media fodder, and really in the news recently with a whopping 5 articles about open marriages in major news outlets just in the past week (NYM, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, NY Post), each of which has set Twitter/X ablaze, author Frank Santo asked if I'd share his playful, time-bending, and hilarious polyamory story, Opening My Heart to Genghis Khan, that I had the pleasure of publishing in 2023, in the sold-out Issue 12 of Stanchion Magazine. So here you go! Please enjoy this short story and be sure to pick up a copy of Frank Santo's novel, The Birthparents, today!
Photo from Flickr by Marco Fieber
Opening My Heart To Genghis Khan by Frank Santo
(originally published in print in Issue 12 of Stanchion Magazine)
When my wife and her therapist first suggested we should open up our marriage, one rainy afternoon towards the end of our weekly couples’ session, it ripped a hole in my reality so deep that a portal opened up in space-time. One night, I was lying in bed, staring at two loose strands of hair escaping from my sleeping wife’s hair-bun, when a gust of wind chattered through the blinds, and the sound of two jangling boots clomped on the floorboards outside our bedroom. I sat upright. The door swung open. A broad, shadowy figure entered, heralded forth by the sounds of a million tortured lamentations, the sizzling crackle of burning straw, clanging swords, and the blood-curdling neighs of demon-horses chasing screaming peasants to their doom. He had eyes like spinning hurricanes, silver-green and flashing lightning, a wolf’s pelt across his shoulders, bloodied ram’s horns jolting from his studded helmet.
“So, what are you going to tell her?” he asked.
“Are you…” I said, squinting through the darkness. “Genghis Khan?” I pronounced it like Jengis – the correct pronunciation according to the book I’d bought about him at the airport bookstore on my last business trip to Phoenix.
He pulled a jagged cutlass from his scabbard and pointed it at me.
“Open marriages require a lot of trust. It’s not a decision you should be jumping into without making sure you have really strong communication.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“But that’s not why I came,” he said. “Get dressed. My rival, Onda-Dan, has invited my party for a ceremonial feast tonight. I suspect a trap. I need your help.”
“Your LinkedIn says ‘Organizational Strategist…?”
It didn’t seem prudent to tell him that I’d made this skill up to sound important. Instead, I threw on a T-shirt and sweats and followed him through the bedroom door, out onto the wind-whipped grassy steppe. The night sky was expansive. The moon an ominous shade of pink. Fires glittered all across the sloped horizon. As we entered the Mongol encampment, we passed rotting human heads on slanted spikes, jaws frozen in mid-moan, wild hogs skinned and roasting over open fires, splayed and drunken soldiers playing ancient games of chance in the dirt, a one-eyed, no-legged woman lustily rubbing a greasy drumstick on her cleavage. At last, we reached the entrance of the Golden Yurt. Genghis nodded to the guards, and they proceeded to pat me down.
“You don’t trust me?” I said.
“I can’t trust anyone,” he said, apologetically.
“I know the feeling,” I said.
Inside the yurt, the airy scents of perfume and incense intermingled with those of fetid sex and stewed horsemeat. The walls were draped in lambskin, silk and stolen treasures. We sat down on an elaborate carpet strewn with naked, dozing concubines, limbs decadently intertwined. Genghis explained to me the strategic problem at hand. Onda-Dan, a powerful regional warlord, had gotten wind of Genghis’s rapidly spreading influence and so had invited him and his burgeoning horde for a banquet to discuss the terms of an alliance.
“Well, if you show up to the banquet, you’re at risk for ambush,” I said, thinking this sounded both reasonable and sage.
“What, like Game of Thrones?”
“Oh, I haven’t seen that,” I lied. “Is it any good?”
Genghis crossed his arms.
“If I decline the invitation, Onda-Dan will spread word of the insult. I will be shamed, weakened in the eyes of all. Plus, he might be a powerful ally in the greater battle.”
“That is…” I began. “Yeah. That’s…Wow. That’s a pickle.”
The truth was, I was having trouble thinking through Genghis’s problem. Every time I’d try to analyze the circumstance, I’d see my wife’s face, that day in the therapist’s session – that anxious, apologetic look in her eyes as I processed what she’d told me. Since then, I‘d been putting off making a decision about whether to go along with her request. What did it mean, that my wife of twelve years, the mother of my children, the only person that I’ve ever truly understood and been understood by, now wanted to sleep with other people? Did she have anyone specific in mind? Is it Kyle? I hadn’t said more than a few words to her since the day she’d brought it up. Now, I wondered, How can I help Genghis Khan grow his empire when my own fortress is collapsing? I turned my face away, not wanting the greatest conqueror known to human history to see that I was crying. For a moment, I thought that he might add my head to his collection. But suddenly, his gaze softened. He moved his chair next to mine. From a previously unnoticed cooler, he took out two Miller Lites, popped the tab to mine and handed it to me. I’ve never liked Miller Lite, since it’s what my father used to drink. But I could make an exception in these circumstances. “Hey, man,” said Genghis, rubbing my shoulders. “Hey. Hey. Do you want to talk about it?”
With a great manly effort, I forced down my tears.
“No, no. It’s ok. It’s the incense. The smoke got in my eyes.”
“You’re not fooling me, buddy. It’s ok. You can talk to me.”
Something about the way he said it. The yurt felt like a safe space. My emotions started flowing.
“Ever since I started working from home and she took on this big job, it’s like our roles completely flipped. Suddenly I was with the kids all the time. Cleaning up their crayons. Eating chicken nuggets every night. Of course I said that I was fine with it. How could I not be? One of us had to do it. But I wasn’t prepared for the ego hit. I never thought I’d be a stay-at-home kind of guy, you know? I think of my Dad – he was a Boston cop, a homicide detective. A real man’s man. And I’m at home all day playing with dolls, singing along to the same three Cocomelon songs. I’ve got no real career. No self-worth. Gradually, I just sort of lost my purpose, you know? My drive. We stopped having sex. It’s not that we fell out of love, I don’t think. We just fell out of excitement. Out of energy, I guess. Now, Tasha says that she needs more than I seem to want to give her. She says she doesn’t want to end the marriage, but she can’t go on this way. She needs more than the guy that I’ve become.”
Genghis picked his teeth with the tip of his jagged cutlass contemplatively.
“Do you still want to be with her?”
“Yes! Yes, of course. I mean. I think so. But on the other hand, I became this guy because of her, in a way. You know? I stayed home so that she could accomplish all she wanted to. I became this passive, aimless person so that she wouldn’t have to. Now I’m just supposed to accept that she no longer wants the person that she made me into? Is that fair? Is that right? I’m supposed to sit here and watch the children while she goes to see the Killers with some asshole from her gym?”
“What about divorce?”
“I don’t want to put my kids through that.”
“Of course not.”
We sat like that for a while in silence, sipping on our Miller Lites. They tasted like cold piss – but not in a bad way, necessarily. You can’t say they don’t go down easy. Genghis crossed one leg over the other, surveying my marital problems like the amassed forces of a rival clan. I actually did feel better, saying all of this out loud. Back home, I had no one I could talk to about any of this. We don’t do open-marriages in Massachusetts – or at least we don’t discuss them. I’m not some California sex-Dad. I’m not some hippy-dippy. On the brass-bed, a concubine sighed peacefully in her sleep while another played idly with her braided hair.
“I have to be honest,” said Genghis, at last. “I’m hearing a lot of self-pity coming from you right now.”
“Every time I come upon a new clan, fiefdom, empire, what have you, I always give the leaders the same choice. They can either join my horde and reap all the benefits of the new order that I’m offering. Or, they can decline, and I’ll flay them alive, fry their skinless bodies in vats of boiling fat and feed them to their starving children. Now, if you ask me, it seems like a pretty easy choice that I present them with. And yet, you’d be shocked by how many of these so called ‘wise men’ choose annihilation over change.”
I was taken aback by this sudden frankness. I’d thought Genghis was on my side. I calmed myself with a pull of Miller Lite. Genghis laughed heartily.
“Come, brother,” he said. “My men are getting ready. And our date with Onda-Dan awaits. Let us go for a walk beneath the night sky. It has a way of clearing minds.”
Torches in hand, we left behind the encampment and walked out across the vastness of the steppe, just me and Genghis, two men beneath the endless sky, beneath the same stars my wife and I once camped out beneath for three weeks straight on our cross-country road trip to San Francisco, before we had the kids. God, she was so fun back then. So easy to spend time with. So game. Genghis and I climbed a low hill, wading through the grass as thick as a lion’s mane, the wind whistling across the plains, the darkness a black robe draped over the world, smothering our meager torchlight only inches from the flame. Genghis crumpled up his empty beer can and hucked it onto the plain.
“In a lot of ways,” he said. “I envy you.”
“Me?” I said.
Genghis looked up into the pinkish moonlight, wistful and a little bitter. A few black bangs fell out from beneath the crown of his helmet and swept across his forehead.
“I’ve razed empires to the ground. I’ve murdered and raped and enslaved millions of people. Sired thousands of children. I’m going to build the largest empire the world has ever seen. But when I look upon my life, I can’t help but wonder. What was it all for, if I don’t have anyone to share it with?”
“I thought that you had many wives?”
“I have six, actually. But it’s like they say. If you have six wives, do you even have one?”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
“My point is – appreciate what you do have, my friend. And find a way to make it work. Because you should hear the way your wife talks about you. She loves you enough to try and change your marriage for the better, instead of just allowing it to die. And yeah, maybe you’re not exactly comfortable with the arrangement she’s proposing. But what has being ‘comfortable’ done for your marriage so far? Are you that afraid of change? The way I see it, she’s not doing this for her, she’s doing it for both of you. She’s fighting to save your marriage, by whatever means she has available. And sometimes in life, my friend, if you really want something, you have to fight a little dirty.”
From the top of the hill, we looked down upon the steppe. His forces had begun to gather beneath us, spreading like a stormfront across the plain. Rows of mounted hordesmen stood stock still, cutlasses glinting in the moonlight, the eyes of their horses glowing blood red. An emissary cantered his demon-horse up the hill to stand before us.
“Great Khan,” he said. “The men await your orders.”
“Wait –“ I said, suddenly processing what Genghis had just told me. “How do you know my wife loves me? When did you talk to Tasha?”
“When did you speak to her?”
“Did you two…?”
His hand was on my shoulder again, friendly still, but firm.
“It’s time to leave these matters behind us, brother. I’ve said my piece. Now, I need your guidance. Do we attend the banquet as agreed to, and forge an alliance with my nemesis? Or can you think of any other way?”
A light snow began to fall. The moon had turned a deep ruby red, a premonition of the blood to come. Genghis’s swirling eyes narrowed on me. His lips curled into a smile as I gave the advice that he’d been hoping for.
“Tonight,” I said. “We kill them all.”
Later, as we stormed Onda-Dan’s golden palace, massacring his wives, children and concubines, I felt a sense of peace coming over me. Well, maybe not peace so much as acceptance. I’d loved my wife since the moment I first saw her, half-a-lifetime ago, at a coffee shop on campus. The way her messy brown hair spiked out of her hair-bun. How she kept trying to put the strands back in place with one hand, so delicate, so precise, as I’d asked her stupid questions about her major, her family, the kind of music that she liked. Together, we’d withstood the strain of graduate school on opposite sides of the country, four moves, two children, my father’s cancer, all her sister’s problems. And what is marriage, other than having someone else to change with? To walk hand-in-hand along this long and crazy road with, and see where it might lead? As Genghis raised Onda-Dan’s head onto his pike and poked out the eyeballs as a joke for his men’s amusement, I thanked him for his advice, said my goodbyes, and walked back through the space-time portal back into my messy cape, stepping over children’s toys and scattered clothes back into our bedroom. My Tasha curled sleepily into my arms. I’m sorry for how I’ve been, I whispered. What’s that, she said? I kissed her on the temple. Nothing, I said. Everything is going to be ok. Go back to sleep, my love.