Just good friends

25 05 2012

Today is my anniversary.  26 years ago today I married a man I had already known for more than 10 years.  I liked him the moment I met him, and that’s saying something for a 15-year-old guy.   First thing I saw was how tall he was – which wasn’t that hard compared to me at a towering 5’1”, but this young man was 6’5”.   And he was the immediately the smartest man I had ever met, the kind that people refer to as “scary smart”.

He didn’t scare me.  He fascinated me.  I knew him through both high school and church, where we were both involved with the church youth group.  When Star Wars opened, in the summer of our junior year, I mentioned to him that it was playing at a theater with a fabled sound system – and when he said he’d love to see it there, I used the oh-so-subtle ploy of “Take me with you!”  I was already developing something of a crush on him – to which he was entirely oblivious, being in the throes of his own unrequited crush on another woman in our class.  So we went the friends route.  And it turned out that being friends wasn’t second best, some pathetic consolation prize – but rather the direct route to the heart and mind of one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.

Not that I didn’t keep trying, mind you.  I took him to Turnabout our senior year.  The pictures are hysterical, by the way.  Me in a tiered skirt, him in a conduroy suit with leather elbow patches.  Him in what he came to call his “Airedale phase,” trying to wear his exuberantly curly hair in the longer fashion of the late 1970s.  At any rate, my scheme failed.  He took another woman to prom in spite of the dismay of our friends and family.  “We’re just good friends” was my standard explanation.

We left for college, and it turned out that both of us had been raised to write letters.  And we did.  Phone bills were outrageous then, and cell phones and email didn’t exist.  So we wrote letters every couple of weeks, full of complaints about classes and ridiculous riffs on language.  He loved Monty Python and put cartoon characters with commentary in the margins of his letters.  I complained about the size of my classes at my tiny private college, and then felt ridiculous when he talked about his class size at University of Illinois.  We went from just friends to best friends.  We saw each other on breaks and spent as much time as we could with each other.

I met and fell in love with another man during my sophomore year, and we decided to marry.  And of course the first person I wanted my fiancé to meet was my best friend.  It was a disaster.  I couldn’t understand why the two men I loved the most in the world weren’t getting along… we limped through dinner and coffee.  When we left, my fiancé exploded in the parking lot: “You two are like two halves of the same brain! It’s like you were separated at birth!”  I laughed, and still didn’t understand, because… just friends, right?

The fiancé kicked my butt to the curb as soon as I left for graduate school.  And my best friend was the first one I called, from a thousand miles away, crying.  He sent me flowers and encouraging cards, and we kept writing.  I finished my master’s degree and moved on to a Ph.D. program.   Still writing, still seeing each other at breaks when we could, although things were different with me in school and him working.  In 1985 I went home for the M.L. King holiday weekend – seriously, it was the coldest night in Chicago history, and we went out for a symphony concert.  We ended up talking late into the night, and at 4:00 in the morning, he kissed me.

The world changed forever for me in that moment, with a single kiss.  In February he told me he loved me.  By May we were engaged, and married in May a year later, on probably one of the few decent Memorial Day weekends we had ever seen in Chicago.  As I walked down the aisle, I could see him beaming at me – he told me later that he had developed a persistent nervous twitch that day, and the only way to keep it under control was to grin like a lunatic (his words, not mine).  He also stumbled over the vows, saying “Rith this wing, I thee wed.”

Any marriage is a challenge, no matter how good and strong and right it is.  It’s hard to get used to another person in your space – in your bed – all the time.  I had the blessing of marrying my best friend.  For real.  Not someone that I really liked when we got married, that I could call my best friend because it was cute or expected.  I no kidding married my very best friend in the world.  Even so,  no marriage is perfect all the time.  There were plenty of times when I still loved him, but I sure didn’t like him very much.

And yet, I tell our son – and mean it – that marrying his father was the easiest thing I ever did.  Once we did turn that corner, and took the risk of being more than “just friends,” the rest of it fell into place naturally, like sun or rain, everything as it should be.   There was no question of where we were headed, what we wanted, what we really thought… we knew we were going in the same direction, and it sounded like fun to do it together.

It was fun.  We had over twenty years when he died in 2006.  Unlike his mother, he left quickly, changing my world again in a single moment.  He left far too soon.  I wasn’t done.  I told him that again and again in a hospital emergency room that night, feeling his hands cool and hearing the eerie absence of sound when I laid my head on his chest.  In the years since I’ve come to believe that he was able to make the exit that most suited him – he lived until he was done, and then he stopped.  No lengthy exit or long farewells.  And nothing left unsaid.  The last words he said to me, as he left the house to go the YMCA that night, were “I love you.”




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