“Want to jack off together some time?” our friend August said to my husband, Jeff, one night over the phone. He invited Jeff to masturbate with him as casually as he might ask him to lunch. “It’s not a gay thing. It’s an Indian blood brothers thing,” he added.
Jeff was speechless. August was married to Dana, also a friend (their names have been changed, of course). Did she know what her husband was doing behind her back?
After gently declining the invitation and hanging up, Jeff told me about their conversation. “August made me promise not to tell you, but I didn’t think it was right to keep it from you,” he said.
I wanted to close my eyes and pretend this was not happening.
Our couples friendship with August and Dana had been going so well. The night before the phone call that changed everything, the four of us feasted on Chinese soup dumplings in the San Gabriel neighborhood of Los Angeles and laughed so hard that tears dribbled down our cheeks. A month before that, we toasted our friendship over glasses of almond champagne in Temecula. August was so enthusiastic about going on the road trip, he’d spent hours drawing a cartoonish itinerary that included caricatures of us and multicolored illustrations of the wineries we’d visit. A month before that, they came over for an elaborate high tea that included silly hats, homemade scones and petits fours, and fake English accents. We saw August and Dana often, cooked meals for each other, and had long, meaningful conversations. Finally, I thought we’d found our people in L.A.
I was devastated that we were going to lose these dear friends. We had so much in common. August and Dana were an artistic couple like us. He was a writer and music lover. She was passionate about 1950s vintage kitchenware and interior design. Like us, they loved subtitled movies and didn’t mind driving to the hinterlands of L.A. for mind-blowing enchiladas with three moles. After almost a year of spending time with them, I’d assumed that we both had closed marriages, but maybe August and Dana didn’t. I didn’t judge anyone’s sexual preferences or peccadilloes. I just didn’t want them threatening my marriage.
Besides, Jeff and I were running out of friends. As a childless, married couple in our mid-30’s, it was hard to find other DINKS (double income, no kids) to spend time with. We’d already lost three sets of couple friends when they had kids. In spite of our offers to baby-sit, Mommy and Me clubs and play dates took priority over our friendship. We once tried to befriend an unmarried couple in their 20s, but the first time they came over for dinner, they had a huge fight and broke up soon afterward.
We were just as incompatible with single people. My single friends couldn’t stop obsessing about their jerky ex-boyfriends. There were only so many times I could say, “Now you’re free to meet someone more worthy of you,” before it sounded condescending and I was painfully reminded of my own past dating trauma. When Jeff went out with the boys, they tried to convert him to bachelorhood. They kept him out late and made him their wingman. When he crawled into bed at 2 a.m., I worried about what he’d been doing. Did his bar flirtations lead him to cheat on me? Much to my relief, Jeff grew tired of his friends’ cocaine-fueled phone calls in the middle of the night, and he let his bar-hopping buddies go.
We’d met August and Dana after an excruciating six months of isolation. We’d moved to L.A. not knowing a soul. Our mid-century modern apartment in Silverlake became a deserted island on which we were marooned. We did not see or interact with anyone else. Making friends in L.A. was extra-challenging as it’s a city where most of us spend our waking hours encased in individual cars on a jam-packed freeway.
I didn’t want to go back to weekends alone, the two of us shuffling around on our Berber carpet preoccupied with our stressful jobs, trying to ignore the screechy sounds of aspiring opera singers practicing scales outside our windows. I couldn’t stand another friendless brunch at the 101 Café. We’d stare longingly at the groups of hipsters in plaid shirts and oversize sunglasses who’d just gotten out of an AA meeting next door. We’d hear them laughing over their huevos rancheros and wonder if we’d ever find friends like that.
The brunches would inevitably include joint self-loathing discussions where we’d explore how our unsavory traits had caused our social leprosy. Were our noses too big? Maybe we were ugly and that’s why no one wanted to talk to us. Was it because we were professional failures? The MBA that I’d hoped would lead to a corner office had instead produced endless menial tasks under an abusive boss. Jeff had abandoned his dreams of becoming the next Picasso for a steady paycheck as a 3-D artist. Maybe if Jeff was an important director and I was a producer, people would want to be our friends. These conversations never produced any helpful insights, and at the end of brunch, I felt more depressed than I had when I woke up.
I was not going back to those lonely weekends on the island. Not if I could help it.
I racked my brain trying to come up with a scenario that would allow us to maintain our couples friendship. I didn’t judge August for being attracted to Jeff, but he’d crossed a boundary, and I wasn’t sure how we could go back to being friends without it being awkward.
In an effort to preserve our relationship, Jeff had a talk with August. August refused to label his sexual preferences, claiming that “human desire knows no bounds.” Jeff reminded August that no matter what his sexual preferences were, infidelity was infidelity. We felt bad for August, but we were friends with Dana too. We didn’t feel comfortable keeping this a secret from her. It felt like a betrayal. If August told Dana about what he’d done and accepted that Jeff wasn’t interested in him sexually, then we could resume our friendship. But August wasn’t willing to talk to his wife, so we were forced to break it off.
The first few weeks without August and Dana were hard. Jeff and I moped around the house, wondering if we’d ever find new friends. We considered extreme measures like joining AA or having a baby to improve our social opportunities.
In the end, we found solace in each other. Maybe we didn’t have a vibrant social life, but we didn’t need August and Dana to have long, meaningful conversations. We had them with each other, and no topic, including masturbation, was taboo. We spent our time seeking out the hidden culinary gems of Los Angeles: authentic Japanese udon and Mongolian hot pot restaurants, watching German and Spanish movies at the Arclight, and getting to know each other again.
Sometimes we stewed in angst on the island, feeling trapped by our circumstances. It should be infinitely satisfying to have a partner who appreciates you and shares your interests. But it’s unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all of your companionship needs. I adore Jeff, but he knows me too well, and sometimes is more annoyed with me than I am with myself. Friends allow me to take an occasional mental vacation from the pain of being me. I need these breaks to overcome my personal struggles and limitations.
How can we spend so much time searching for the perfect person to share our lives with, then so quickly tire of him? The exhilarating part of finding your soul mate is wondering whether he’ll want to hang out with you the next time and the next time. Marriage is great, but once you’re legally committed to hang out forever, the simple act of not getting a divorce every day isn’t exciting. August got his kicks by daring a friend to participate in something illicit. Dana found adventure by marrying a bisexual man who could end up playing for the other team at any moment. We all crave excitement. Those who don't acknowledge it end up having affairs. Platonic friendships provide us with safe emotional drama. We can experience the mystery of getting to know someone new, the ego boost of being idealized and still stay faithful to our spouses.
But if I have to be marooned on an island with someone, I'm glad to be marooned with Jeff. When we run out of food supplies, he somehow makes 10 different varieties of tropical fruit salads and steamed fish in banana leaf. When I'm feeling low, he entertains me with hilarious impressions of family members and interesting art history tidbits. Plus, he has a cute butt. I suppose I can thank August for reminding me of these things. Because maybe with all of the high teas and wine country excursions, I was too busy to remember how lucky I am.