I Like You Just the Way You Aren't
It was a Sunday in late October. The morning air was crisp and fresh, quite unlike the steam bath that passes for summer here. My friend invited herself over for breakfast, and I made pancakes. She says nobody makes pancakes quite like I do. I think she means it as a compliment. In any event, with pancakes under our belts, it was time to set pleasantries aside and discuss serious issues. This doesn’t always happen after pancakes. Maybe this batch was different.
In truth, my friend did all the talking, but she also did the dishes, so I was content to listen. I was careful to nod my head or offer an acknowledging grunt when it seemed appropriate. After the dishes were done, we moved to the balcony. I grew tired of nodding and grunting, so I took to jumping up, for no apparent reason, saying, “Hold that thought!” and running inside the house, where I would act like I was doing something that required my immediate attention. Back on the balcony, I once again became the attentive listener, until I found myself jumping out of the chair with another “Hold that thought!” and running into the house. This time, though, I really did have a purpose in mind. I was looking for my small notebook, where I jot down ideas that I might write about later. I rushed back to the balcony, not wanting to miss out on any of the ideas that my friend, unbeknownst to her, was literally spewing from her mouth. Before long, my notebook was full, and for the third time I found myself leaving my chair and interrupting the flow of our “conversation.” This time I was reminded of a passage in a book I had just finished reading. I thought it would be a way to describe what was taking place on the balcony and move the conversation gently in other directions, like a dialogue instead of a monologue. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the passage, even though I could picture it in my mind just as clearly as … well, just as clearly as I was able to picture those pancakes on my plate about two hours earlier.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested in what my friend had to say. I was. It was clearly important to her that she talk, even though it sounded to me like a stream of word association. When I began to disassociate, I briefly took my leave, but I would always return, and not just because I was the host and it would have been impolite of my to leave my guest out on the balcony talking to herself. The real reason I came back is because she is my friend and because we’ve always been open and honest with each other. It’s also because we’ve never had sex. If we plan on maintaining a good friendship, it will have to stay that way too. When friendship turns sexual, you wake up the next morning reminded of Joseph Heller—something happened.
I want to protect her anonymity so I won’t mention her name here, and it won’t be of any use to you to try and guess, because I have well over one thousand, maybe even ten thousand, female friends. I can, however, relate the problem she was facing: she has mixed friendship with sex, and now the two are badly entwined and she felt badly ensnared. It had become one of those “toxic” relationships. Of course, I didn’t put it to her quite that way. I’m just reflecting now, after the fact, on what I might have said then and what I think about the whole matter. The problem, as I see it, goes like this: acquaintance becomes friend who becomes boyfriend who becomes lover-boy friend who becomes sexually friendly. This process leads to a change of character in said friend, making him her would-be ex-lover and would-be ex-friend. The steps in the process take much longer than it does to write them down. There is a great deal of spiraling, backtracking, and retracing of old trails, leaving you never really knowing where you stand or with whom. My friend is struggling with the question of what to do with an acquaintance and friend who at one point became an ex-friend but who remains still an occasional lover.
What makes it worse is that this acquaintance and sometimes ex-friend but still occasional lover has a nasty temper, as she experienced again recently. The two of them went canoeing on the Brazos River. Each of them enjoys being outdoors. As my friend saw it, it was going to be a simple afternoon spent enjoying nature, the canoe slicing through the water under the scorching sun, the mosquitoes mounting swarming and the algae along the banks stinking to high heaven. Despite these defects of nature, they managed to enjoy their outing. Before it was over, however, it became clear that the guy wasn’t just out for some nature but instead was doing a bit of fishing and without bothering to use a pole. I’m not going to elaborate on that right now. Suffice it to say that his fishing ruined the nature outing, although it left the sun, the mosquitoes, and the algae untouched.
We pondered this situation for a while together, my friend and I, sitting together on the balcony full of pancakes, and later I pondered more on my own. I still ask myself, why do people change after you get to know them? It’s no secret, you know. People change. Or our perception of them changes. Why does this happen? How is it that someone we once thought so attractive turns into a grotesque figure? Why do people struggle so with relationships? I wish I could answer these questions. I’d be happy to answer just one, but I can’t.
But I will offer a suggestion, a suggestion directed not to my friend but to the industry of friendships and relationships and lovers, the brokers of cardboard sentiments, Hallmark. Hallmark prints out cards for birthdays and funerals, graduations and weddings, for the fortunate and less fortunate, and cards that say nothing but are meant for that “special friend.” It would seem that Hallmark has all you could imagine, but don’t let yourself be misled. There’s one card that is missing from their stock, and it reads I Like You Just the Way You Aren’t” (no signature required).