I’d know him my whole life. Well, not my whole life, but since I was 13, and how much of your life is really your life before that point? We were star athletes, make you laugh out loud funny, witty kids for whom good grades came easy. Confidence bordering on arrogance – well, more so him than me. But we were unicorns, the both of us – well, me more so than him. We had kissed, maybe more on occasion as we got older, but never dated. We had a chemistry of a quirky nature. Always flirty and fun smiles, but based in the comfort of true friendship. I think it worked because neither of us was someone that the other would want a real relationship with, and you don’t ever have to be anything other than yourself with someone you are never going to be with. We maintained a quiet closer friendship than our distant, public one. As we got older, we would go years without seeing each other. There was never a void when the absence of the other would loom, rather always an assured knowing (without ever thinking about it) in the back of our minds that our paths would cross again.
Our paths crossed again. This time is Birmingham, AL. He had lived there for years, working as lawyer, and I frequented the area on holidays with my family. I had been doing so since I was a kid because my uncle lives there and has a huge, beautiful home that can house the entire extended family (as long as a few of us are okay sleeping on the floor). My friend and I had kept in touch mostly over social media. It was on social media that I saw the woman he was dating, and her two children. They were not prominent, but certainly present on his page. We never talked about her. It’s not that he tried to hide her, or that I ignored her existence, we just never talked about her. Or I never asked about her. Maybe I should have.
On the last few trips I made to Birmingham, we never managed to link up. On the same holidays that I was rolling in to see my family, he was rolling out to see his own. But this time, we would be there at the same time, and it was long past time to catch up. He picked me up from my uncle’s house in a car that I don’t remember because it wasn’t important – I was just happy to see my friend. We talked with ease the entire way to his house, a conversation perfectly balanced with laughter, memories, and new need-to-know information. I asked about the girl online.
"How long have you been dating? Are you happy? Seems like you’re pretty active in her kids’ life."
"We’re not dating, he said. Not officially. I spend a lot of time with her, though, and her kids are great."
I knew he was down playing it, as men do when they are not-so-secretly hoping for a one night slip up that cannot possibly result in repercussions. The type of nights that are far more harmful than men realize, and of far less importance than women seem to - but not for us, because we're different. In the car, I was on the fence about the night. I wasn’t completely disinterested in a rendezvous of the romantic variety, but I also wasn’t looking for it. Again, I was just happy to see my friend.
We get to his place. It was mostly unmemorable with the exception of three things – the couch on which we drank and talked for hours (a maybe kissed a little after a couple of those hours had passed), his closet full of sneakers (some things never change), and the pictures of him with his not-girlfriend and her kids front and center, on a table in the foyer, displayed right when you walk into the front door. I laughed.
"Oh my God, this is sooooo your girlfriend!"
"They’re just pictures," he says.
We both knew he was lying. It wasn’t meant to be malicious; it was meant to be funny, and it was. Oh, Crown and Sprite. That is the other thing I remember about that evening. I learned that his drink of choice was Crown and Sprite, and that I am not opposed to it. And we drank a lot of it as we caught up on the couch, weaving our way through the last few years of our lives, then slowly weaving our legs between each other, as we lay there as innocently as we were capable of. Like I said, there was a little kissing, mostly for nostalgia purposes. He avoided explicitly trying to sleep with me, but it was clear that he was down if I was down. I wasn’t down and he wasn’t upset about. I actually think it was more about the game, and he only pretended to be down because he knew I wouldn’t let it happen. Like I said, our chemistry was quirky, and the trust was real. We just kept talking, but the tension kept building.
" I better take you back before this gets too hard."
It was already hard, but he was referring to restraint. And he was right. On our way out of the door, I stopped and looked at the pictures.
"I know you’re not going to admit it, but you really like her. And it looks like her kids really like you. Look at their smiles."
He smiles in a way that confirms my suspicions – she might be THE ONE. Despite the evening’s high alcohol intake, he got me to my uncle’s house, and made it back to his own in one piece. For a while, the societal normalcy version of friendship kicked in with more texting, more keeping up, so there would be no need to catch up later. And then it fell off again, which was to be expected. I noticed on social media one day that – it may have been an entire year later – that pictures of him and his not-girlfriend and not his kids, were showing up on my newsfeed. Like, multiple pictures. And they were so stinking cute. I felt this was the perfect opportunity to share some of my legendary snark, so I texted him:
Me: When are you going to stop playing and wife that girl? You know you love her and you and her kids are too stinking cute together. That should be your family.
Him: Oh. You didn’t hear?
Me: OMG. Did you get engaged, and not tell me?
Him: Well, yes.
He was still typing. I could see the three dots. But I'm not patient.
Me: OMG. Did you get married, and not tell me.
The dots disappeared for a minute.
Him: So, you didn't hear what happened.
Me: How would I hear what happened if you didn’t tell me?
Him: I don’t know. Social media.
Me: I don’t really pay attention like that. You're not on my stalk-worthy list.
Him: I did ask her to marry me. We were engaged and I was in the process of adopting her kids, but she was killed in a car accident.
Him: She was killed, along with her six-year-old daughter.
Him: I still adopted her son. He’s next to me now.
Me: I’m so sorry. I’m a dick.
Him: No, you’re not. You didn’t know.
He was trying to comfort me. Can you imagine? I immediately called him, and we spoke for a little while. I wanted to express to him that I was so mortified I could just die, but that didn’t seem like the appropriate thing to say given the current circumstances. So, I just listened to details of a story that was muffled by the sound of my own embarrassment, and the shame of kisses that felt so innocent that night in Birmingham even though kind of knew that he probably had a girlfriend. It had been a few months since the accident, and while he was clearly still saddened, he sounded like he was doing as well as he could be. He was always mentally tough and emotionally stable – I admired that about him. I also think taking care of her son was helping him cope.
I don’t know that I ever knew what to say for years after that. I know that I was always afraid to say the wrong thing, but somehow never managed to stop myself from saying anything that came to mind. It became a situation in which all sentences delivered were punctuated with a pause, while I waited for the other shoe to drop. He could feel that, and tried to make it less weird than I was making it, but it’s hard to outdo me in that regard. At least it was for a while. But, like I said, we have a chemistry of a quirky nature. Our flirty and fun smiles, based in the comfort of true friendship slowly returned. I wish I could say that we experienced growth, that the dynamic of our friendship evolved, and I became a much more present friend, checking in, and asking all the right questions, but it didn’t…I didn’t. Our friendship pretty much stayed the same. We both reach out from time to time, per usual. Our paths have even crossed again. A few times.
I will say that, now, I always ask about his relation status.
And we never kiss.