Pals: The Married Man and Me
“Our friendship was so beautifully effortless because it was devoid of expectation.”
He loves to wink. It happens so often I forget winks aren’t part of everyday interaction. Couldn’t wink like him if I wanted to. There’s nothing cartoonish about it. Every wink of mine screams I’m winking—wink, wink. His grin is fixed; no Elvis quiver wrinkles his lips. He flashes that lid as an independent actor, practically daring me to miss the gesture entirely.
He winks when I make a good joke. He winks when someone else says something funny. He winks, just because I’m looking at him.
I resist the urge to fantasize. I rationalize. It isn’t a stretch to say he loves to wink, but maybe it would be a stretch to say that he loves accidentally brushing against me. I don’t know what he loves, except the things he is proud to profess loving: his wife, raw oysters, the Beatles, jokes, swimming pools.
The wink is safe cover, and to make it lascivious is a perversion. This wink is for family, for allies, for anyone you can trust with a secret. It is no more flirtatious than a baby’s giggle. It says nothing, except:
I see you.
Sometimes I don’t put together a story about what just happened until I’m away from it. Once I’ve slipped into silence, all the words just spoken storm in my mind. Details cling: a wink, a smile, a seemingly jealous remark about who I’m meeting for dinner later. Do these add up to anything? Or am I mixing facts to make fiction?
We all do this. Read into the small stuff. It’s no big deal. Except, like anything else—alcohol or marijuana, food or sex or love—the stories we tell ourselves can be a problem or not-a-problem, and the only way you know for sure is if it hurts.
The married man used to make me swim in text. I tried to process our interactions into relevant categories: subtext, context, facts, and fiction. I told stories to myself, then repeated them to friends while I stared into beers to avoid seeing their faces. My favorite reaction was always: He said that? But I couldn’t figure out how to narrate how he looked at me.
A gesture is like a soundless GIF autoplaying on my iPhone. It adds and deletes context: visual on, audio off. Sometimes people put text right over the animation, a hearty “YASSSSSSSSSSS” or “Ew” or “Do not want.” But action minus dialogue plus text does not equal a thing experienced.
I sit on a chair and the married man stands in front of me, telling a story. Sometimes he puts a finger to his glasses. He points a little. He raises eyebrows, gestures with his hands. And then sometimes, as if unconsciously, he pulls up the bottom of his T-shirt, getting air on his belly, which is at my eye level.
A normal person would miss this move entirely. Maybe he’s warm. Maybe it’s a fidget, like looping hoodie strings around fingers. But I look at him flashing these inches of flesh and I think about how even ankles used to be sexualized. I think of all the times I have looked at my own thighs and the tops of my breasts, tried to peer through clothing to see the lines of that familiar figure underneath.
He flaps up his shirt, then lifts his arm to point down the road, and I imagine him in one of those cheesy bodybuilder poses. I sit up straighter and adjust the hem of my dress.
I’ve done the love thing in real life. When the married man and I met, I had been living with someone for five years. We had problems, the sort you could guess, Family Feud-style, from a list of common relationship complaints. We were in love, and we struggled, and I wrestled with doubts but never liked anyone better.
A failure of storytelling logic goes like this: I want to talk to my boyfriend more than anyone else in the world. Then, I want to talk to the married man more than anyone else. Ergo, the married man should be my boyfriend.
It was a convenient distraction from real pain: I had fallen in love and it didn’t work. I had a soul mate, and I eventually left him. To mourn that loss was unfathomable. So I put it on someone else.
Although I dreamed about life with the married man, it was only to mark lines around something I couldn’t have. Without specific, unrequited want, I wasn’t a tragic enough figure. I needed to feel unjustly denied love. I needed to feel that fate was cruel. And above all I needed it to be a fantasy.
Sometimes I cut bargains. I wished for the married man to stay married but also to be my boyfriend. I wished that we had a past together. I wished for him to slip up and kiss me just once so I could have a birth of new pain. It was a good hurt, this one, so full of possibilities.
I’m a classic youngest child: precocious, curious, calculating. I start with observation. Is this person trustworthy? Fun? Funny? Kind to others, but never a doormat? What do they want from other people?
Then I go about being who I need to be. Maybe that person is myself—with good friends or potential lovers, that’s the goal. But maybe I need someone to not hassle me at work, and the best way to get them on my side is to ask some dumb questions about their kids.
With non-intimates, this dance is solely transactional manipulation. But I’m still calculating with people I love. I’m still trying to grease our interactions, to make sure everyone has a good time.
The first time the married man got mad at me, we were in his kitchen, just the two of us, telling stories. Maybe this was the time he told me all about his wedding, queuing up the playlist, reliving it through telling me, retroactively instating me into these memories, so when he uses shorthand, I’ll know what he’s talking about.
We got on the subject of doctors, and he told me how long it had been—an old man joke, who was president the last time I went to the doctor? I responded exactly the way you’d suspect. I tried to tell him important stories about hating going to the doctor but doing it anyway, because we owe it to the people we love to try not to die.
He raised his voice, pointed a finger at me. “Do you think you’re the first person to say this to me? If I were going to listen to anyone, it would be my wife.”
I felt like I’d been slapped. I wondered aloud whether I should leave.
He said no, his voice back to normal. There was some relief to getting it over with. I knew he had a temper, and now I knew what the outburst looked like. I thought then what I was assenting to was: Sometimes I get angry, but it’s over quickly. What I didn’t realize is that I would watch his moods like we watch the skies. I am always trying to read him, to make sure I bring an umbrella or sweater if I’ll need one.
I get lost inside this story of me and the married man. My problems become a blur of I don’t have him. How much I want him becomes indistinct. The lack is all that matters.
Finally, one of my friends says, “You should figure out what would make you crazy if you actually dated. Like, poof, if you were just together, why would you break up? Because—really—I think you’d be sick of him in like six months.”
I had tried this before, telling myself that he wouldn’t do enough housework or was too moody to live with.
I never considered that the reason our friendship was so beautifully effortless was because it was devoid of expectation. I used to think, if only he had been single, we would have fallen in love and gotten married and had babies. I thought that because he and I get along when we’re running errands or drinking beers, because we can talk or not talk for a while, that we’d make each other happy. It was only after my friend’s remark that I understood how different the married man and I are. Relief finally materialized. We don’t have to try to be The One, every day, in real life. I realize that was the bad hurt I was trying to avoid, the one I lived through with my ex, where I love him and he loves me and that’s still not enough.
Hanging out alone with the married man feels like playing house. It’s not like I forget his wife at home, but I’m happy to be mistaken for her for a spell. It’s good to be around someone who will hold the door, carry the heavy thing, warn me to watch my step. It almost doesn’t matter that I’m always more concerned he’s having a good time than vice versa.
We have another one of those nights, just the two of us. We go to a high-rise hotel bar to watch fireworks on the river. He starts to touch me a little. He passes a drink and his palm is on my palm for longer than it needs to be. Then, fireworks. I start to shriek, point. I realize how close we are: skin touching, arms. Shoulders. His hip against mine.
The next day, trying to sort leftover feelings, I wonder: Why does this have to be about lust? Why can’t I just call it comfort?
The Point (Part Two)
He lifts his left hand, palm to his face, wiggles the third finger, and uses his right pointer to tap the ring.
That’s all I see. There’s a virtual blackout around every time he’s used this gesture. How many times has it happened? Is it in response to a joke—and if so, his or mine? Who are we laughing at? I wish I could apply some other context or subtext. But this one only means one thing.
What if everything hurts? Sometimes everything hurts a lot all at the same time and then you have to just hang on. More often one thing hurts a lot but the others not so much, or almost everything hurts but just a bit. Sometimes you’re just trying to pick the better hurt.
How lucky can a person be, to meet a new best friend at thirty? Sometimes the married man compares me to his oldest friend, practically his sister. She and I are both Irish Catholic, both blunt, both women whose giggles turn into cackles. One day, after a long stretch of days spent together, just the two of us, he said to me, “Be careful, if you and I get any closer, it’s going to be weird. We’re approaching X level.”
I was upset because in the X, he did not say his wife’s name. He said his friend from way back, the sister one. I thought about how unlucky I was. Don’t people talk about being lucky enough to marry their best friend? How unlucky is it to meet a new best friend who is already married?
For too long, I loved the married man in the wrong context. I could have just loved him for his character, for helping me out, for making me smile and listening to my stories. I picked maudlin love instead. I was so worried about the fact that I couldn’t be part of his family—that I wouldn’t be the person he made decisions around—I missed the fact that he had already invited me into it.
“You and I are pals, right?”
The first time he says this to me, he asks why my boyfriend isn’t out with us. His wife is at work, but, he notes diplomatically, “I know everyone is different, but I want to be near her.” A month later, I tell the married man over beers that I’m thinking of breaking up with my boyfriend. I do, later that night. My ex is suspicious of my “weird new friends.” He warns me that their vows precede me. I won’t ever be a part of them.
Their cat’s name is Pal, and when the married man calls me the same, I take the usage as its own weird compliment, because he doesn’t like nicknames or pet names. Me, I call strangers “baby.” For my loved ones, it’s darling or sweet thing or babycakes or boo, hon, heart of my heart, beautiful, sunshine, treasure.
He says “You and I are pals,” and he says his friends are his family, and it’s forever. He says “You and I are pals,” and after a long time, I don’t wish it were “I love you.” He says “You and I are pals,” and I think, loving you so much isn’t that bad. I used to love him way, way, way more than I was supposed to. Then it was way, way more; way more; more; maybe now it’s only a little more.
When I thought I loved him too much, it was a problem in my life. My way out was to right the narrative: I thought I was in love with him and we belonged together, but I was wrong.
My feelings for him ran wild and feverish, but they weren’t the problem. What was wrong was my conclusion—that I only got to keep him in my life in one of two constrained ways, kin or partner. When I realize my error, the freedom is so intense it is almost painful. I do not have to choose any sort of life except the one I create every day. I will not be bothered by an abundance of tenderness. I am grateful to love, however I can.
One night, I look up “pal etymology.” Sanskrit to Romany. Brother; mate.
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More in this series
“I was worried that no one would see me; that they would only see a Wife”: On a John Singer Sargent Painting and Marrying Young
I see two people who are entwined, but never completely, and not at the expense of their separate selves.