by Annabeth Leong
There are things I'm proud to understand about romance, won by hard experience. I know now that relationships shouldn't be judged by longevity. If I eventually leave my lover, or my lover leaves me, it doesn't negate what passed between us. I no longer feel foolish about the nakedness, the moments of vulnerability. They remain beautiful in retrospect, even if they are tinged by bitterness or regret.
When I meet a potential lover, I go forward knowing I may be in for a searing experience. My heart will be marked forever by this person, no matter what, because I don't know how to do these things without caring. I will, perhaps, be beautifully changed, and maybe I will do the same to them. Maybe forty years from now, she will be putting marmalade on rye toast because I liked it and I'll be taking my coffee with extra cream and sugar because of him. Maybe we will be sitting together, or maybe we won't. And maybe six months from now, I'll be sobbing my guts out because I'm longing for a touch that won't belong to me anymore, or maybe I'll be awkwardly watching while someone else reacts to a denial that comes from me.
Those things are the price of admission to romance, and I know and accept them.
With friendship, though, I'm so much less circumspect. I take the idea of Best Friends Forever to heart. I want a friend who is a life partner. When things come to an end, I am inconsolable, sometimes for years.
As an elementary school kid, I remember getting assigned exercises and writing prompts that asked for me to make lists of superlatives. What was my favorite color? Favorite book? Who was my best friend?
These lists confused me. I am enthusiastic by nature, and I love easily. Lots of colors are beautiful to me, and every friend is precious. Choosing favorites was an alien concept, something I had to be taught.
At the same time, I have walls up that even I don't know how to breach, and always did. People slip through them, finding various secret passageways in ancient brickwork, but that's a magical, accidental process. As an elementary school kid, I didn't know how to have a best friend, didn't know how to feel that close to anyone. I never really had the experience until I was an adult.
I had a best friend once who would invite me to go with her to the grocery store, or to stand and talk with her while she folded her laundry. I could tell she felt embarrassed about it, as if she was taking advantage of me, and I didn't know how to communicate how much I loved being part of that dailiness. I felt stitched into her life, and so safe within it.
I remember that she was nice to me when we first met, and at that time in my life I reacted to her kindness by wondering what the hell she wanted from me. As it gradually dawned on me that she wanted me, my company, my friendship, that dizzying star of awareness produced a complete and helpless sort of love that has become the way I always feel for a best friend.
I can't drop the walls easily, but when they fall, they come down completely. I'm not sure people know how bare I am before them, but when I have a best friend, I am skinless.
Sex will ruin the friendship. I believed that, and I think it became a twisted talisman, a way of trying to ward off endings that always seem to come. I accept that romances can end, and when I am blessed with a particularly dear friendship, I am desperate to prevent it from becoming a romance. Without sex, perhaps it can last forever.
This morning, I began to wonder about that. I think it's a vestige of my conservative upbringing to believe that sex destroys connections, or dooms them. Certainly, the times I've lost close friends have ripped me apart so completely that I can't believe things would have been any worse or better if we'd had sex.
That's not to say that I always want to sleep with my friends. But there have been times I wanted to, and I did not out of fear of losing the friend. The irony is that none of those friends are close to me anymore, none of the ones I wanted that way.
I want a best friend for life, a friend with whom I outlast marriages and weather changes of all kinds, a friend I can establish unbreakable rituals with. I fantasize about making tea for this friend in forty years, just the way we did last week. At some point, I realized that other girls fantasize about weddings.
I worried that my desire for a best friend was some sort of sublimation of my feelings for women. I think it sometimes has been. But I've also had male best friends, so that's not the only explanation.
There are friends I'm thinking of, losses it seemed I could not survive. But it feels like a final betrayal to talk specifically about them now. There is one in particular—I know she wouldn't like to be written about, so I can't do that to her, not even now. I feel like she would be entirely lost to me if I put her on the page, and I need to hang onto that last little shred of what we used to have.
But I'll say this. I can lose a romance. I believe in clarity and clean breaks and the knowledge that I'll obviously survive once I get through a couple of weeks of sadness. I believe that it's a favor I can do for a person to really know that to my bones. When I told my ex-husband I wanted a divorce, I did it just like that. Calm, decisive, with no room for hope or further torture. Then I walked away and never looked back. I missed my spice rack, and I missed our home, but I knew the romance was finished and I never let myself doubt it.
A friend, though… I suddenly become a font of impossible hopes. Maybe it's only an accident that they haven't called in six months. I lie to myself. I lie to people around me, telling stories about things I did with my "best friend" eight months ago, then nine months ago, trying to act nonchalant, as if those adventures happened just last week. I call long past the point I should stop calling. I cry when I mention their name. I cry when I hear songs on the radio that remind me of them. I wouldn't understand heartbreak if not for those experiences with friends.
I don't have a neat ending for this. My heart is still broken. But what I figured out while I was writing this is that I don't want to feel embarrassed of the past confidences. It's an amazing, addictive feeling to feel loved for who I am, and to love another with my whole heart. When I lose a friend I've loved that way, and who I thought loved me that way in return, it doesn't have to mean that the love was always false, just as I don't think it does for a romance.
I am terribly embarrassed in retrospect by the revelations that can come at the end of a friendship, ashamed to think of myself so open and trusting when things were going wrong around me and I wasn't even aware of them. But I don't want to be. I'd like to be as brave as I can be with romance. I would like to open my heart again in the future, knowing full well that if I wind up broken again, it will be because it was all worth it.
(I apologize for the lateness of this post. I didn't have the heart to write it any earlier. I've lost a few friends recently that I'm still torn up about. They were all that came to mind when I thought about the topic. It took me a while to work around to a more general treatment that didn't feel distanced and dishonest.)