Keep the Friendship or Try for Romance?

Song of the moment: Satellite Lena Meyer-Landrut (so… goddamn… catchy)

Hey, guess what, galleons? For the second day in a row, I am going to shut up and let you read the words of someone else. This was a five-piece series entitled Keep the Friendship or Try For Romance by Gina Barreca, Ph.D., a professor of English at UConn. It’s poignant and very honest and, sadly, as much my story as it isn’t. And you can probably say the same.

This is a secret love story that has a little bit to do with secrets and slightly less, maybe, to do with love.

It’s about heading through the night with the radio on, moving a big old car towards another country, but only incidentally a story about crossing borders, or erasing boundaries.

It’s about deciding whether or not to let a friendship become a romance.

This happened a long time ago for me, but it happens every minute for somebody else.

He was a year ahead of me in college, and had ushered me into the ways of the place when I first arrived. He was always helping me choose the best professors, encouraging me to learn the words to the songs, and teaching me the ways of this particular world. Being both protective of me and defensive of the place meant he had a tough position to play.

Even though we got to know each other well, we knew only those things you learn from classes and meetings; we knew one another casually and intimately at the same time. I knew how much milk to put in his coffee, for example, and he knew I didn’t like to call him at his fraternity house for fear of hearing one of the brothers bellow my name up the stairs to him, but I didn’t know whether he snored and he didn’t know whether I slept in a t-shirt, a nightgown, or nothing at all.

I had occasionally tousled his hair as I passed by him, half reading in the library, and he bought me flowers on my birthday once when everyone else seemed to have forgotten. Knocking on his door late one night, ignoring the noise, I cried to him over the loss of some other man, and he held me at arm’s length.

And I wondered whether to focus on the fact that I was held, or that I was held at a distance.

We didn’t kiss. We didn’t date. Did we want to? Maybe. Yes.

But we weren’t like that. We were friends.

We liked each other, and looked forward to random meetings at the snack bar where we both worked. We were competitive, and each hoped the other would do very well but maybe not better, wincing slightly at being given an A- if the other received an A, and yet we were happy for each other’s happinesses.

We became better friends after he got a girlfriend at another college, oddly enough,  because now we were on a level playing field. I had a somebody else, he had somebody else, and now everything was fine.

It made us feel safer.

I smiled more deeply into his eyes, and he permitted himself the occasional compliment about my clothes or expression. Safe.

His relationship made everything that much easier. He to be able to say “My girlfriend and I. . .” in reply to a phrase that included “My boyfriend and I.” It was easier for me to hear the possessiveness in the words “my girlfriend” than it had been for me to hear a series of names which I had to memorize and keep steady in my head, like a little ensemble of beauty queens waltzing through my imagination. I was fond of his girlfriend.

Secretly, though? I thought he preferred me.

I didn’t admit this to myself–and wouldn’t have believed it if somebody told me that one of the reasons I liked her was because, in a comparison between us, I felt as if I had a reasonable edge. His girlfriend was adorable, but not quick. She was enthralled by him and devoted to him; this meant she lacked the appeal of emotional distance as well as appeal of independence.

But of course the girlfriend was amply compensated: she knew more about him in some ways than I would ever know. She would know whether he snored when he’d had too much to drink, and only she knew how often he had too much to drink. He’d drink a lot, for example, when the four of us went to a bar called The Bull’s Eye every few weeks, although he’d rarely drink too much at those times. She was grateful for his warmth in her bed every night, having loved him for more than two years and having known him for three; he and her sister graduated the same year from a small high school in Rhode Island. She decided not to mind me, I think, and to make a point of encouraging us all to enjoy one another’s company.

His girlfriend liked me and seemed mildly attracted to my boyfriend, making it easier for them to talk; if paired off by default in a social situation or by a seating arrangement, they were not unhappy. Older by two years or so, handsome, witty, and relaxed into his well- deserved sense of pleasure at being in graduate school, my boyfriend appreciated women with the same delight as he appreciated expensive and contraband cigars: they had been out of reach when he was an undergraduate and would not now pass him by without his admiration.

So we figured we were all right–up to a point.

It was late April, the day of the first big spring picnic before the real parties started at the end of the term. There was still some sneaky snow on the ground, in the shadows, but there were games, lakes, lunches, drinks, laughter, conversation, all making up for the cold. Friendly dogs buzzed knee- high like small planes, wheeling and spinning around people they had never met, confident of approval. The groomed and polished woods by the river sang with invented warmth, and as groups arrived the others made room, expanding into the shade or the sun. We arrived early, packing a picnic basket full of shareable goods: pate, wine, exotic cheeses, and British biscuits. My boyfriend and I each held one handle, carrying the burden between us. The other two arrived later with a cooler full of imported beer in each hand, laughing at the fact that they had to pack them in paper bags in order to disguise it from those acquaintances who had been circling around the bottles like pygmies around a kill.

I sat next to my male friend. Wearing a striped t-shirt and shorts, his battered Converse sneakers made him look even more like a cartoon character than usual. His long fingers were wrapped around a cold beer on this hot day. Dark hair, collar length, was just too long or just right, depending where you stood and I was standing right next to him.

I started having those conversations with myself. “I’m sitting too close to him. Will this make everybody nervous?” I wondered.

I didn’t move.

I listened to the conversation with less than half my attention.

“I’ve been afraid that I’d been overdoing it lately,” I was telling myself, “I’ve been calling too much or leaving too many messages on his door, telling him too many stories and laughing too hard at his jokes,” I calculated, drinking a glass of wine (beer was like skiing, something I knew everybody else liked but the pleasures of which escaped me) and smiling.

“But his jokes are a narcotic to me, making the day go faster and my life better. All I want to do is to tell him what happens to me everyday. Increasingly, the running commentary in my head is directed towards him.”I admitted this to myself, but myself had no reply.

Okay, maybe I thought something simpler: “What happens when you try to be friends with somebody you find attractive? Can you be just friends or is that idea just a joke?”

When I didn’t see him and he hadn’t returned my phone calls for a few days after the picnic, I started to worry.

I stopped him on the way into the library one night and, touching his arm just briefly, asked him whether he was pissed off at me or annoyed or upset or anything. He looked genuinely and welcomingly horrified; his eyes widened and he said no, no, why did I think that? I told him about the not- returned calls and he said that if he didn’t call back right away it was only because he was busy but not to think that I’d done anything to provoke that–and then he said “Let’s go. We’ve been in this hick town too long. Cabin fever, stir-crazy early spring: Let’s blow this taco stand.”

The 1967 Monte Carlo, always parked behind his house, waited for action.

We got in and headed north.

The signs for towns in northern New Hampshire got brighter as the sun started to set, took on that luminescent quality of unearthly color so that they seemed to shine with their own odd brilliance, white and green in unfamiliar markings. The car had a tape deck, a peculiar piece of luck or else something stolen and installed by a rogue cousin in Providence, and we listened to Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. I sang loudly and off-key but I knew all the words and with the back windows down to blow the smoke out of the car and the volume turned up you could hardly tell I was way off the mark.

He had a voice like traffic, rough and low, and he knew all the words, too. The car had those long slick bench seats and before we were at the border I’d dared myself to slide over, tucking myself under the long arm he had outstretched across the back. He didn’t seem to notice. We kept singing, looking for luck and signals in the songs. We felt like engines that had lost their driving wheels, we knew that the door was open but the ride wasn’t free, and we knew that the night belonged to lovers.

We sang along to the songs on the radio so that we didn’t have to speak.

We didn’t want to speak because anything we would have said, as the white lines moved faster beneath the Monte Carlo’s dark wheels, we would have regretted later.

It was simple between us, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Like knotted string, confused desire complicates what is simple

At the Canadian border we told the skeptical but lazy guard that we were visiting to look at graduate schools the next day, that we had interviews, and that we were engaged. We were happy and good liars; we liked inventing a life. The guard asked no questions, which, in a way, was too bad: the fiction we’d created was an alternative universe, a virtual relationship, a life we could have been living, except for the fact that we weren’t.

We went looking for a place to eat, walking through the cold clear streets of brightly-lit Montreal, a city awake after dark. It was just before midnight. He started singing “Mac the Knife,” but using only the first line of the song, singing the same words over and over again even though he followed the tune. “When the shark bites, oh the shark bites, and that sharks bites, see the shark bites. . . .”

We laughed, and I put my thumb into the belt loop over his hip, feeling a slight limp in his walk from a hockey accident the winter before. We found a Kosher delicatessen and ate huge smoked meat sandwiches, sharp pickles, and knishes that steamed when you broke them open. We sat at the counter, looking at each other out of the corners of our eyes, and talked to the waitresses in bad French, continuing the fiction we started at the border.

We told them we were getting married in June and that we were both applying to graduate school at McGill. They told us which neighborhoods would suit us best. They giggled, conspirators in our elopement plans, and poured coffee into our cups as if it represented their good wishes.

We said good-night to them around two a.m. and walked into the now chest- clenching cold of a star-filled night.

We knew our options. We knew there were hotels, we knew there was the Monte Carlo with its bedroom-sized seats. We knew there was the ease of walking hip to hip, despite the difference in height.

And we knew it wouldn’t work.

Not when we had to face each other in the library, at work, at the Bull’s Eye’s long tables. Not when we still needed to talk about classes, and plans, and a future that included other people.

And so we began the drive back.

It was dawn when the college appeared, Main Street scrubbed white and just waking up. We sat in the car for a few minutes. I intended to leave abruptly, say good-night and go, but instead I sat. I was afraid he wanted me to leave and I was equally afraid he didn’t; I thought of asking him to drive around a little more but I knew I couldn’t. So we sat and I moved, half-consciously, towards him. There was no music now.

He asked, expressionless, “You staying or going?”

Once said, the texture of the air changed, a shift in the cogs of our working together, something unlocking and then quickly relocking in ourselves. I reached over to put my hand on his and he covered it with both his hands, raised it to his warm mouth and kissed me, on the inside of my palm, briefly. There was no better time to go.

I knew, and he knew, I couldn’t have been his girlfriend, couldn’t have been softly sweet or constantly agreeable any more than I could have made little quilted pillows or hit a brilliant backhand; I could not do these things.

My past was too filled with the tensions of choice to let myself be thinned, like paint, in order to be applied more easily to him. He couldn’t have given up skiing and hockey, wouldn’t have wanted to compete all day at school and come home only to continue the battle, exhilarating as it was.

Were we linked by destiny or by circumstance? We had the college in common, but we were afraid to find out if there was more.

The friendship had to be more enduring, we figured, than any other version of ourselves.

But I wonder now whether that was true.

The friendship buckled, finally, under marriages and kids and distance and these grown-up lives of ours; I don’t know where he lives or what he thinks about.

And yet there was something put away during that night trip up north, something in self-storage, kept from the wear-and-tear of everyday life, still keeping the edges of it sharp and clear.

Aaaahhhh, crap on a whole wheat cracker, I made the mistake of reading it again. And now I’m crying. I’m such a woman. And an idiot- I always pick friendship, too.

One response to “Keep the Friendship or Try for Romance?

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