Monday, July 20, 2009

The Friend Issue

Last week when Katy and I were on the phone, she got a little angry, a little worked up. I’d just told her about Ex-Keith, about how we’d seen him, The Cougar, and their baby at the fireworks, that Amy and I had walked over to hang out with them for a few minutes.

“I’m sorry,” Katy said, “but that’s just weird.”

“What’s weird?” I asked.

“You. Him. Being friends. It’s unnatural.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this, and it’s not the last time I’ll hear it. Some people get fired up when they hear that I am friends with some (most) of my ex-boyfriends. It’s usually girls who have this kind of reaction to the situation. I think they put themselves in The Cougar’s position and think, If I were her, I’d be really pissed that he still spoke to his ex-girlfriend.

And while The Cougar might have gotten bent out of shape by another of Keith’s ex-girlfriends—mainly because Keith had forgotten to change the ring tone he’d given her from “Let’s Get Drunk and Screw,” and when she called one day The Cougar was horrified to hear Jimmy Buffet howling about drunk sex—but I don’t have a special ring tone.

When I call, I just show up normally, no special designation, just this he met when he was twenty-one years-old. Keith is going to be thirty-two next month. We’ve known each other a long time, and while we sometimes have our issues, we are actually pretty good for one another. We’d be even better if we actually listened to the advice we dispense for each other—Keith told me to run, run, RUN away from the Wily Republican; I told him The Big Head had bad eyebrows and an evil soul—but even if we end up saying, “Jesus, why didn’t I BELIEVE YOU?” at least we aren’t surprised by what’s happened because we are uniquely in-tune with what type of person the other person should be with. Because a lot of people don’t stay friends with their exes, I think this is something they don’t know: it’s awfully nice to be friends with someone who knows what kind of person you are in a romantic relationship. They know what you’re good at, what you’re rotten at. Your friends can guess what you’re like in a relationship because they’ve known you for years, but it’s not the same as actually knowing how you communicate in the moment, in the situation, when it’s just you and the other person.

I was ready to tell Katy all this last week, but I didn’t get that far.

“We’re friends,” I said. “That’s all. There’s nothing romantic or sleazy about it. We don’t call each other late at night and breathe into the phone and dirty talk each other. We’re just friends.”

“WHY DOES A PERSON NEED THAT MANY FRIENDS?!” she said. “You don’t need to add him to the mix!”

Later that night I was flipping through the channels and thinking about how worked up Katy had gotten over Keith when I found an episode of Sex and the City and got sucked in. The girls were at brunch, and they were discussing Miranda’s recent interaction with her ex. She’d seen him on the street and, instead of stopping to say hi like an adult, she grabbed Carrie and tore off in the other direction, knocking over flowers and pushing aside old women who were tottering toward the corner store. At brunch the next morning, Carrie wanted to know just exactly what happens to people when they break up. Suddenly two people who were as intimate as can be couldn’t even stand to speak to each other for one single minute. “When you break up,” she said, “where does the love go?”

I guess I’ve still got it, but it’s in a different form. I don’t look at Keith and wistfully think, There’s the one that got away. I don’t sigh and wish he was sleeping next to me at night. I just look at him and think, God, that guy is such an ass. The way I feel when I look at Keith is remarkably similar to the way I feel when I look at my brother, who, just this week, revealed that he and his girlfriend have grand dreams of someday getting a small apartment in their dream city, the place they love more than anything, their heaven on earth: Erie, Pennsylvania. When I am around my brother, my brain is always close to leaking out my ear because he’s just so odd. And in my mind, Keith and Adam are similar asinine but lovable boys who will be tangled up in my life forever.

But some people have trouble understanding that the romantic, sexual side of the relationship is so gone. Last night Josh, who was taking shots of the extra sauce that came with his plate of wings, leaned over and narrowed his eyes at me, like he was suspicious of me. I’d been telling him about the day before, when the girls and I had been at the Italian Fest, and I mentioned that we’d run into Keith and The Cougar and The Baby.

“Keith, huh?” he said. “Tell me the truth. Do you sometimes kind of still want to bone him?”

“No!” I said.

“Not even a little bit?” he asked. “Not even a little uh-uh-uh?” He rolled his eyes up in his head and made a few filthy noises.

“Gross!” I said.

This will sound odd, but I know the exact moment I stopped thinking about Keith in that way. It was the summer before I moved to Minnesota for grad school, and we’d been wearing ourselves out for the last two years trying to make it work again. One night I was over at his house and we were sitting out in the driveway, and we were kissing, and it was doing nothing for me. I kept kissing him back, but I was thinking, I don’t want to do this anymore. This will be the last time I kiss Keith. And it was.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this—exes as friends—lately not only because I occasionally get badgered about it, but also because I am so angry at the Boy From Work. We gave up trying to get back together last month after he called one day to tell me—surprise!—he decided he didn’t ever want to move away from Buffalo and that—super surprise!—he’d spent the weekend making out with some girl he knew from work.

I’m not angry-angry about the girl—we were trying to get it back together, sure, but technically he was single and could do whatever he wanted to do—but I am angry about his sudden resistance to moving. It was one of the reasons we broke up last fall. He kept promising that eventually he’d come out, that he’d move to Maine and get a job so we could have something other than a long distance relationship, but then he told me no, he didn’t want to, he couldn’t, he wasn’t sure if he ever would be able to. But this winter he told me he was over all that. He told me he had plans, a timetable. He was ready. But then all of that changed again and he was kissing new girls.

Last week I saw him for the first time since he had revealed all of this to me. We were at the same restaurant—I was with Josh and his girlfriend; the BFW was with his own friends—and when it was time for me to go, the BFW walked me out to my car.

“This is hard,” he said to me. We were both standing next to my car. I couldn’t figure out where to put my hands or how to stand without looking like an idiot. “I still have feelings for you,” he said.

“Well, you should probably get over that,” I said. “You have a new girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said.

“Well, she will be.”


I narrowed my eyes at him. “What did the two you do this weekend?” I asked.

He looked down at the gravel. “She spent the weekend and camped out with me.”

This week the BFW wanted to have lunch with me, and originally I’d said I would go but as the day came closer I realized I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I’m not ready to be friends with him because I feel a little betrayed, a little unable to hear him say he’s sorry, he still has feelings for me, he’s just so sorry. And I don’t know how this one is going to work out—will I be able to be friends with him like I’m friends with Keith?—but right now I can’t imagine it, can’t see how it’s all going to end up, and right now I’m trying to figure out where the love went because I am so angry it’s hard to remember when I wasn’t mad at him.

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