Twenty years into this and we’re still friends. It’s an accomplishment, or it’s a challenge. I almost wrote just friends, but stopped myself. What is compromised by being just friends? What is lost? Between two friends attracted to whatever sex the other identifies as, friendship has a tendency to be just, to be deficient. Platonic friendship is a rare thing. It’s a rare thing because no one gives a damn about keeping it from going extinct. The possibility of love, though we know love to be comet-like, short-lived, or at least mercurial, fraught, difficult, is too hard to resist.
There’s something safe about a friendship, particularly an old one. Nothing can top it, really. Cynically I think that all women want is someone to reproduce with. We allegedly seek out someone healthy, someone good-looking, but we also seek out someone we can trust, someone who will likely always be around. It helps if they’ve already been around for two decades. Never mind that maybe I won’t always be around myself, that I’m only looking for a familiar face because I don’t know much about familiarity. I’m not actually good at being familiar myself. But I’m familiar to you. There’s that.
In my early 20s I tried to forge a new path but I always came back to the better-worn one. I am told it’s time to make my own home, and that once I do, I won’t feel so confused. Instead I use the excuse that my generation will, for various reasons, take longer to put down roots, and until we do, we prefer to plant ourselves in the same dirt that our parents planted themselves in. We live at home, or at least spend a lot of time there. Is it for financial reasons, or is it because we need to feel there’s something to hold on to? The boomers roll their eyes. They didn’t have anything to hold on to. Their parents mostly pushed them out of the house and into marriage and parenthood when they were still in their 20s. This is unimaginable to many of us. But look at how many of them divorced. What’s the surest path to a happy marriage? Something that takes decades to mature, I think.
I don’t adhere to the advice of forebears or friends; I haven’t done much that anyone would call “advisable” in some time. I ran away to you, for instance. I ran away to you this summer, and last summer, and nearly every summer before that. Only the people there seemed to understand what I was doing, partly because they’re there. They’re rooting for home. They believe in that magic. They understand why it transfixes me because it transfixes them. And it transfixes you.
But I hear the skeptics’ words echo in my head, trying to affix themselves, waiting to affix themselves. People are weird, said one friend recently, and they tend to only get weirder over time. We don’t know where the chips will fall, so maybe you’ll get 20 years of a good marriage, and maybe that’s enough. But it’s hard for me to see the things in my life as choices, and to embrace those choices as permanent or even semi-permanent, 20-year leases. They feel like accidents, and I believe that the solution to all my problems is familiarity, old things, old dirt, history.
This year our forebears were more worried about us than ever. In that limbo between jobs, between relationships, between homes, there is ample space for whatever stability does exist in our lives to be demolished. You and I have never been very good at creating our own stability. We go home, we stay home, we stay too long. You try to make yourself useful, at least, which is more than I can say for myself. When your parents said they were trying to get rid of you, I cringed. How dare anyone try to make us stand on our own two feet, I thought, because that meant inevitably we’d be standing very far away from each other. You wanted to come back. But they kept you away until pity, or something, finally gave way.
In the day they worriedly watched us drive away together, but they felt protected by the light, convinced things would remain above board as long as we had a stark overcast sky above us. And things did. When night fell they sat firmly in their chairs, next to us, past the time they usually went to bed, waiting for us to part ways for the night. I felt guilty. I looked down at the floor more, though I hadn’t done anything wrong. The atmosphere in there made me think that I had, or was about to, like I was being pushed off a gangplank.
Our friendship might be too precious to disrupt, but the pain of not disrupting it is intolerable. Still, somehow, I am tolerating it. I wish humans could be more resilient. That not sex but something more noble, like work, was man’s preferred downfall. But it’s that simplistic game, the not-knowing, the gentle shifts in your behavior from brotherly to affectionate to sexual to completely unreadable, that I like best. Eleven years ago I walked through a parking lot in winter thinking of you, and moments later you appeared, sitting in the passenger seat of your father’s car. I could have been with you, could have spent the holidays with you, but instead I cowered in my own house, not telling anyone I was around, and thought of you the entire time.
That day you looked up from the seat of the car quizzically, and you seemed so small and so far away. So young, mostly. Then, the friendship was too delicate to even touch, let alone add to. I was too afraid to even be in your presence. I think I knew better then, because now I’m not afraid. I will plow ahead with all the actions you suggest we make, replicate all the gestures you make, try to reflect back the same warmth that I see on your face. It’s very difficult, someone said to me the other day, for men and women to just be friends without becoming closer and closer. Those words haunt me.
They worry, but look at all the time you’ve been given to be responsible. You’re only just beginning your life, they think, and here I am dangling some distraction in front of you. But you’re old. So am I. And I want to scream at them that it’s your fault. You’re the bad one, the distracting one, the one looking for any out. I guess we’re a team in that.
But we’re not a real team if we can’t do anything together except daydream, run away, play with each other’s emotions, and complain about all the things we’re trying so hard to push out of view. Some animal in me thinks that you’re enough to go on. That none of the other things in the vista matter. But they do matter, if only in the sense that they are the currency with which I could eventually earn you. I’ve already earned your friendship, but anything more will have to be fought for. In 20 more years, I fear – or is it hope? – that somewhere in me the fight will still be going on, no matter what else is.