Recently, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video called “Can Men and Women Just Be Friends?” I rolled my eyes. I hate that question. It’s heteronormative and sexist, and yet, I clicked anyway.
The video has more than 5 million views. In it, women on a college-campus all say, “Yes! Of course men and women can be friends.” But the college-aged men aren’t sure. They report always wanting “something more.” The women also admit that many of their male friends have crushes on them. Watching, I squirmed in my seat. The video hints at some unnamed truth in the male/female friendship dynamic: the male friend who is in love with you, who you kind of lead on but who you do love, in some way. I understand this phenomenon all too well.
Elliot was a film student at my college; he had Kurt Cobain-like hair that he constantly pushed behind one ear. We hung out almost daily. I’d go to his dorm room and we would lay on the floor, smoking pot and painting with watercolors. Or we’d have picnics, drinking wine and talking about the poetry of Frank O’Hara and Stevie Smith.
At the time, I said things like, “I loooove being single!”
But looking back, I was never lonely in my single-dom because I had Elliot around for boyfriend-y things. Painting together! Discussing poetry! Once, while I was sick, he even read The Little Prince aloud to me in bed. These were things I’d previously only dreamed of doing with boyfriends.
When people asked if we were dating, I was appalled.
“No waaaay! We’re just friends!” I’d huff.
It was true that I wasn’t interested; he was younger than me and seemed somehow too naive or uncool. I was sleeping with guys who had sleeve tattoos with guns and spiderwebs on their arms, which, apparently, was my idea of what was cool at the time. I wasn’t interested in Elliot, and yet, somewhere inside of me was a voice that said, Keep this guy around! You could marry this man.
I would have never admitted that to my friends.
The first time Elliot told me he loved me was in a letter.
I wrote him back: Of course I love you, you’re my best friend!
The letter was vague. I told him I couldn’t handle more than we had because our friendship was just “so important to me.”
He wrote back: I have no idea how this is all going to play out. Or even if it should play out. Even though I want it to so badly. Sometimes you just aren’t supposed to get what you want.
So was he admitting that he liked not being able to have me, even though he knew he shouldn’t?
The friendship went on this way, teetering on the precipice of more than friendship. He would confess his love and I would give him just enough to stay around. When I came by Elliot’s apartment, his roommates would shoot me a knowing look, full of annoyance. They knew, and I knew too. He loved me and I was never going to date him. But I was not going to let him date anyone else either.
One fall, I brought Elliot to visit my parents. We drank mini-bottles of red wine during the seven-hour train ride. When he stood in my childhood kitchen that night, I felt safe with him there. My parents loved him. And there was that thought again, the “Maybe someday I’ll marry him” thought.
It was soon after this visit that I met someone else. Someone who was grounding, someone who I realized I could be with, and wanted to be with right then. Not just someday.
I’d been seeing this new guy for a few weeks when I stopped by Elliot’s place for a visit. I ended up staying the night. Did I mention that sometimes we slept in the same bed? It hurts to think of it, how we slept so often, side by side. My body stretched out beside him must have been the ultimate tease. For the first time, that night, Elliot reached his hands toward me and put them on my hips.
“No. We can’t,” I whispered.
Then Elliot started seeing someone too. And then we fell out of each other’s lives. Later, when we finally reconnected, I was married. That new boyfriend became my husband. My husband and I invited Elliot over for dinner, and in the kitchen as I nervously fussed with a salad, I could hear the two of them laughing and getting along.
“I don’t understand why he was undateable,” my husband whispered to me in the hallway. “He’s great!”
That night, Elliot and I stayed up late talking after my husband went to bed. We talked about the past and future. In an instant, I saw it. That line we so carefully traversed. Between friendship and something more. That was our pattern. It still was. Maybe it will always be. But it’s a line I’ve never, in my heart of hearts, wanted to cross. For whatever reason, all I wanted was for Elliot to be a good friend. I said goodnight to Elliot and joined my husband in bed.
Like the women interviewed in the video, I’d answer that I think men and women can just be friends. I’m not sure what the difference is exactly between platonic love and romantic love, but there is a difference. I’m not sure if any friendship is completely platonic. Maybe in part, this is also why I hate this question, because I am not sure if you can truly be friends with someone whose heart you are breaking.