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On Befriending Your Ex — Human Parts — Medium

February 20, 2015

The beginning of courtship is a web of minor lies resting on a foundation of one great lie — the pretense of friendship. Here we see two recently bathed people touring coffee shops and parks, a foot of space carefully guarded between them. They are suddenly aware of the numerous ways in which their manner of leg-crossing and drink-sipping can be stupid. They want to laugh charmingly at even the flattest joke, but how wide a grin is too wide? Does it make her cheeks look fat? His nostrils flare?

I used to notice with disgust how my speech pattern and intonation would change when I was talking to boys I liked. I instantly went up a pitch and began to raise the end of sentences into Valley Girl-ish questions. I fondled my hair even though magazines had warned me this was a “tell.” I maintained eye contact in what I can only assume was a frankly bizarre manner, because I imagined that maintaining eye contact for long periods of time was what sexy adult women did. Officially, we were friends, but with my real friends I ate pizza in bed and watched reality TV about models. My friendships do not generally include the horror of being seen consuming anything less restrained and ladylike than a glass of water. That was another fun characteristic of these little outings, an inability to eat anything — or, if I could bring myself to order something adorably feminine like a cupcake, to eat it in annoyingly tiny, bird-like increments.

“How daintily she eats her small portion!” I imagined them thinking, “I MUST have her.”

Every inane, painfully casual move contained some coded portent. I remember lending an ex-boyfriend a book (strictly McSweeney’s approved), and before giving it to him writing my name on its inside cover in what I hoped to be “attractive handwriting.” This excruciating, exhilarating time — which lasts until you breach armrest territory during a film you pretended to want to see, or get drunk together — bears little relation to actual friendship. This period will be of surprisingly little help to you when it comes to being friends with the person after you break up with them. When I was broken up with, I wrote sassy little notes to myself in my diary: “If he thinks he can just be friends with me now, he’s wrong!” etcetera. All these sad, damp scribbles hopelessly trying to claw back some control.

It was the first time I had really been broken up with since I was fifteen. I never felt any real danger in pursuing people, though I occasionally feigned insecurity for the sake of propriety — bowing my head like a saint, waiting for the inevitable reassurances. I had always done the hurting, which worried and pained me in its own way, but was nothing compared to the hot shame of outright rejection. Never before had someone I loved sat me down and told me they no longer loved me. I wasn’t prepared for the blow to my pride. I was supposed to be the one who got antsy and ran away. That was my thing. The arrogance makes me cringe now, but I kept thinking, “How dare he?” over and over. I wanted nothing more than to make him twist and burn like I did. I also wanted him to think I was immediately, breezily over it. In an ideal world I wanted him showing up at my window crying while I had thin sex with a handsome stranger. I was vindictive, but in a quieter part of my brain I knew that he was too special and singular of a person to let go. I knew I would want him to be my friend.

If Present Me could give Past Me some advice, I would say, “That is a good idea. Wait a while though. Get up in the mornings and try to go to work most of the time. Enjoy those West Wing box sets. In a few months you should give him a call.”

But Past Me was impetuous and unhinged. I wanted it all to happen immediately. I wanted to be able to text him all day again. Essentially I wanted to go out with him again, which I re-named “wanting to be friends.” The first time we met after breaking up, I spent hours deciding what to wear; how best to convey the winning insouciance with which I was handling the situation? The blend of worldly nonchalance and wry humor with which I was uniquely blessed? Carefully, I concealed the livid patches on my face that betrayed all the nights spent forcing myself not to think of him, thinking only of wine and more wine.

We met, and for a while performed a grotesque facsimile of the courtship formal chat. It was almost funny, except it wasn’t funny at all; at some point I abandoned trying to appear carefree, felt tears spring in my eyes, muttered, “I can’t do this” and that was that. He looked at me gravely, with a profound pity that still makes me flinch to remember. We agreed we wouldn’t try it again for some time. We left each other with an awkward hug, all the parts not touching announcing themselves louder than the parts that were. I crossed the road, and looking back saw him duck into an alley and hold his head in his hands briefly. And then he steadied himself and walked away.

Eventually, though, whether you want to or not, you tend to start living your life again. I relished the idea of wallowing forever and never forgiving him, but after a while I just didn’t have the stomach for it. There was only so much ill will I could muster towards somebody I hadn’t spoken to in months. I had started seeing someone else and so had he. Instead of acidic sadness, I had begun to merely feel curious when I thought about him. We cautiously began to meet again. We were still a little stilted, but all the barely concealed passive aggression was thankfully gone. Gradually I stopped thinking of him as the Bad Man Who Hurt Me, and started thinking of him as a friend. To my continued surprise and delight, he became one of my dearest.

My friendship with him is distinctive amongst others. The ugly fear which niggled away beneath all my petty jealousies — the fear that someone would look me in the eye and tell me they didn’t want me — was realized, and I had survived. I can tell him anything, because I’m no longer concerned about what he will think about me. The inescapable fact is that he knows everything about me. Here is someone who has adored me, and seen me at my worst, who has borne witness to all my grubby little insecurities and flaws, seen every inch of my fallible body, and still wants to know me. Our friendship is a smooth spot, a moment of calm amid the constant messes I make elsewhere. It’s a self-sustaining calmness — we don’t see each other all the time and it’s no big deal if one of us cancels. I never worry that I’m contacting him too much, or not enough. In the immediate aftermath of our breakup, I wrote:

“Life seems to be a constant process of forgetting. You get something good and then are forced to forget it, because living with the knowledge of losing something perfect would be too painful.”

I feel incredibly lucky to be friends with him; to love him in this new way that is so easy and safe — to have not had to forget him.

via On Befriending Your Ex — Human Parts — Medium.


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