Why you should care
Love, sometimes, is never getting to say “I love you.”
We planned to meet in New York’s West Village at a bar with interesting literary associations. There would be stiff drinks: Martinis, we’d agreed. It had been nearly eight years since we had last seen each other, and we both knew that our reunion would benefit from the assist of some serious lubrication.
We had met years earlier at a wedding — I was friends with the bride, she with the groom — and went on to have what I began to think of as a “torrid non-affair.”
She was at the tail end of a long-term relationship, and we would meet for dinner or drinks, play Scrabble or chess and talk about literature or philosophy or nothing at all until late into the evening. Then we’d come to an impasse in the conversation, and we’d sit, staring at each other, letting the tension surface, until one of us would consider the time and remark about how late it was. Then I would leave and walk the 25 blocks north through the darkened city, to my lonely apartment.
Things could not go on this way, though, and after some months our awkward silences turned to excited, guilty conversations. Her ever-on-the-verge-of-ending relationship continued, however, and soon our once-exuberant banter became marred by frustrations and complaints. Thinking that all she needed was a little push to make the right decision, I decided to force the issue.
It dawned on me that her remark that I looked the same was not necessarily a compliment.
She was not pleased.
I moved to a different city for graduate school, haunted by the “what could have been.” Our non-affair grew to be a powerful aspect of my personal mythology and served as an easy excuse for being noncommittal.
All the while, I was somewhat obsessed with the possibility of a reunion. I half-expected, half-feared some chance encounter, like Ilse walking into Rick’s Casablanca gin joint, or Alvy Singer running into Annie Hall outside a movie theater in Manhattan, and plotted how I would react.
One night, having grown tired of waiting for irony to reunite us, with a glass of scotch at my side, I mustered up the courage to compose an email. I explained that I was about to graduate and would soon head off to a position at a big state university. As our friendship had occurred just before I began grad school, it made sense to me to think about my friend at its conclusion.
It was unclear what I thought I would gain. It was many years after our friendship, or whatever it was, had ended, and I was not interested in rekindling any romance. I supposed I was seeking closure; I wanted, after all those years, to get a sense of what had gone wrong, to see with my own eyes how she had turned out, as if this might make me a freer, happier, more complete person. Or, at least one who understood what he had never really had so had never really lost.
The next morning a reply was waiting for me.
“I may be going out on a limb here,” she wrote, then suggested we meet for coffee or a martini when I was back in New York. “NO OTHER OPTIONS,” she added, in all caps.
So that was how she was going to play it.
“OK,” I replied. “Martinis.” My plan was to arrive at the bar a little early and toss down a whiskey to calm my nerves and steady myself for the encounter. Fortified by a drink, I hoped to emulate Bogart’s noble stoicism.
It was a humid early-June day, and emerging from the subway on Christopher Street into intermittent sun showers and turning westward onto Bleecker, I tried to rehearse the conversation we would have about these past years. Which details I would reveal and which I would carefully hide, a balance between self-disclosure and concealment, of what kind of person I wanted her to think I’d become, and how our brief non-affair had affected me.
I passed a bakery I had frequented years earlier, with an actual girlfriend. I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, and I was about to have a couple of serious drinks, so I figured I had plenty of time to enjoy a confection before getting to the pub for my pre-meeting dram.
As usual, there was a line of customers waiting out the door and onto the street. Things moved along slowly, and soon it became clear that I had underestimated the length of the line and the indecision of those ahead of me. I eventually decided on a simple vanilla cupcake with a thick turban of dark chocolate frosting. I consumed the cupcake in three or four bites. Having finished, I broke into a near jog. By the time I reached the pub, sweat beaded my forehead and spotted through my shirt.
And then I saw her, sitting at an outdoor table, seeing me. She put down her book and waved in my direction.
“Hey!” she said, standing. She walked up to me and gave me a cautious hug. “Wow, you look the same.”
“You too,” I replied. She did.
We sat nervously, and I looked around until I caught the attention of the waitress. We ordered martinis: hers a vodka, wet and dirty with extra olives, and mine a dry gin with a twist, austere. We smiled awkwardly at each other until the drinks arrived, and when they did, we clinked glasses without a word and gulped them down.
“I guess we can relax now,” said one of us.
“Yes,” said the other. “I guess we can.”
We decided to switch to beer. For some reason, I reminded her about the night we sat playing Scrabble in her apartment when she had nothing to offer but a Zima.
I recalled another evening … as we huddled under a single umbrella, bottle of wine in hand, and hopped over puddles on the way to her apartment.
“That never happened.”
“It’s not something I would make up,” I said.
“If you ever mention that again …,” she warned.
As we waited for the next round to arrive, I went to the men’s room to clean up.
I considered myself in the mirror. My reflection revealed a glob of chocolate frosting on my nose and a faint brown smudge like a slug’s trail along my cheek. My hair, dampened by rain and sweat, was matted in the front and stood out at the sides; my shirt had become partly untucked. It dawned on me that her remark that I looked the same was not necessarily a compliment.
I returned to our table and sat back down across from her. She actually seemed happy to see me.
I noticed us falling back into that familiar banter, the conversation that seemed to open in 100 different directions, and then halting in pregnant pauses. It was as if all the time in those eight years had simply collapsed and that we were back where we were.
It rained again as we walked up Eighth Avenue, and I recalled another evening, years before, at the height of our non-affair, as we huddled together under a single umbrella, a bottle of wine in hand, and hopped over puddles on the way to her apartment. I thought about reminding her of that night, of all of the hopes that I had pressed into it, but we had said enough.
At her subway entrance, we hugged again and agreed to stay in touch.
I didn’t know it then, but in our shared future, when my would-have-been-ex finds herself in my city or I in hers, we two aging romantic flops always make the time to meet and swap tales of our latest misadventures and disappointments. What we won’t do? Well, we won’t mull over the non-affairs of the past.
“Hey,” she said, wiping a trace of chocolate from my cheek, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
As it happened, it was.