what can destroy a friendship faster than anything else? Sex.
What can bring two friends closer than anything else? Sex.
At some point in your friendship, the two of you must have gone over this ground. It was probably at the beginning, the sniffing stage, when somehow one or both of you came to the implicit conclusion that friendship -- and not coupledom -- was the way to go. Perhaps there were other, more pressing commitments: a spouse, a lover, a demanding job, a vow of celibacy.
Nevertheless, you've always found this person attractive. Oh, yes, you have. Otherwise, you wouldn't be friends. It's just a simple truism that male/female friendships are grounded in mutual appreciation. It has been noted in various Hollywood films involving Nora Ephron that men focus on the physical attributes, whereas we women can be seduced by other, more subtle qualities, like a sense of humor or the ability to listen.
But that's besides the point. One day, you may be with your pal, doing the same old things you always do -- chatting, burping, making derisive jokes about Perot supporters -- when suddenly you realize that, for some odd reason, he or she looks very good. Maybe it's the smell of Cheer emanating from his wrinkled yet freshly laundered T-shirt. Maybe you suddenly noticed what long fingers she has. Or maybe the chemistry was exactly right that day, at that precise instant, for no reason whatsoever. It will be entirely unclear why the issue suddenly became an issue at all.
I'd been friends with Mariano since high school, when he came over from Ecuador as an exchange student in our senior year. The first time I saw him, he was walking across the street, loping, really. He had a distinctive gait and curly hair that stood straight up, with dark circles under his eyes. He looked moody and tragic underneath his dark complexion -- quite a feat when you think about it.
It became quickly apparent that Mariano had about as much interest in me as he did in a persistent case of dandruff. This being California, he was far more curious about the flower-skirted Deadhead chicks, a group of women to whom I was violently opposed. Nevertheless, we became friends. I swallowed my pride, contenting myself with the few crumbs of attention he'd throw my way: "Courtney, you can meet me to Hooley, no? You have party, bring with her and I come." "Sure, Mariano," I'd say half-heartedly. I tried to bring it back to the intellectual ground, always a safe bet with him. "It's 'Julie.' Have you written your paper on 'Hamlet' yet? Do you want me to proofread it?"
Jump ahead to 1996. We've been friends for 13 years now; in the interim, I've lived abroad, gone to grad school, loved and lost, thrashed through various family traumas and finally returned to San Francisco. He's gone back to Quito, moved to Mexico City, gotten a medical degree, loved and lost and resettled to San Francisco. Now in the same city, we forge ahead with our friendship: movies, talks on the phone, advice to whomever happens to be lovelorn. Solid friends. Until...
One night he unexpectedly showed up at a party I'd told him about a month earlier. "Hey..." I began. I was about to ask him what he was doing there when I recognized something in his eyes. It was the same intense look he got on the soccer field when he was trying to blast the ball past the goalie.
"I thought you might want a ride home," he said.
"On your motorcycle? I thought you didn't have an extra helmet." "We'll take side streets," he said. We zoomed up and down the empty streets, taking hills and alleys that I didn't know existed. Finally, he pulled his motorcycle onto the sidewalk in front of his apartment building and turned off the motor.
I paused. "What are you doing?"
"I thought it might be interesting if you spent the night."
I thought for a moment. Over the passage of time, my attraction to Mariano had faded. It had mutated into a warm, downy feeling, devoid of sexual fantasy. I was perfectly happy with the occasional movie, the weekly phone calls. And to have sex with him? Now? What did it mean, what would it mean? Could we still be friends, would we become a couple, would we be friends who fuck occasionally (never a workable arrangement)?
I went into defer mode. Jumping off the motorcycle, I confronted him. "After all this time, you want to fuck? What are you saying, Mariano?"
"You don't have to put it so crudely," he said, slightly offended. "We don't have to do anything."
The logical action, given my comfy friendship with him, would have been to ask him to take me home. Naturally, I didn't do that. I compromised (with whom?) and spent part of the night at his house. In the middle of the groping stage, I asked him what he was thinking about.
He looked startled. "Actually, I was thinking about your breasts."
I took a cab home around 5 a.m. The thought of looking at each other in the morning light and talking about it or not talking about it was too daunting.
Now, we chat on the phone fairly regularly, though I perceive not as much as before. Some of the ease, the wonderful unconsciousness of a good friendship, seems to have been lost. I, of the double-x variety, try to probe him on his feelings about that night, which are cagey at best. "This isn't going to wreck our friendship, right?" I ask.
"Of course not," he says.
What's that tension, then? I want to grab and ask him, probe further, see if I can find an answer in his steady dark-eyed gaze.
But I don't.