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“Spring is in the air.”
“We could just get in the car and start driving.”
“A road trip. To anywhere. It wouldn’t matter where.”
But we wouldn’t. Not because we both wouldn’t want to, but because it would be stupid. One of us had to remember that. If he wouldn’t, I would. I owed him at least that much.
When we first met, I suppose we could have called it love at first sight. But we didn’t. I insisted most strenuously to myself that it was not. Which wasn’t a lie. Not exactly. I idolized the guy. Would go to hell and back for him. Would have more than one chance to put hell-and-back to the test, too. Collaboration as equals? Fine? Playing protégé to one another? Also fine. But romantic love?
A heedless impulse to martyr yourself on another’s behalf hardly makes you good sweetheart material, even if the desire is reciprocated. I don’t know where I got the sense to see that, being an otherwise silly, hopelessly pent-up romantic. But thank the good Lord I did. Christians make a habit of studying at the school of Christ’s total sacrifice in order to learn what love is, but none of us is Jesus. Jesus had an advantage over mere mortals, also being God. We haven’t got God’s reserves. Even when we fervently desire to be mere conduits of God’s infinite love, we’re leaky pipes. Our plumbing is — quite frankly — a bit on the moronic side. Call it a consequence of the Fall.
Within a few hours of meeting this young and exceptionally G-rated combination of Johnny von Neumann, Richard Feynman, and John Nash (in case you were wondering which part made him dangerous), I had resolved not to do the one thing I rather overwhelmingly wanted to do, at least not for a while. Partly, I was still too much in awe. Partly, I was simply frightened. And very suspicious. We were both innocents. In his case, I was firmly convinced, the innocence was due to some innate and wonderful goodness of his. In my case I knew innate goodness played a lesser role: I was merely oblivious to the way romance was done. In any social circle. Much less that minuscule intersection between hard-science über-Bohemia and Campus Crusade for Christ.
Moreover, neither of us was quite right, were we? The rumor among our friends quickly spread that we were perfect for each other: alike both in having a touch of madness as well as an inquisitive intensity unusual even in nerds. He was just a little too expansive; I, a little too grimly cynical for someone so obviously naïve. Something had to be not-quite-right with both of us.
It didn’t follow, though, that two not-quite-rights would be right for each other. Things could go horribly wrong, I feared, long before I could even name what that fear was. What our friends expected was something that – if it happened – I did not want to screw up. Only much later would I realize the obvious: romance can’t even begin without some reckless disregard for the other person’s sensibilities, without some disregard for what happens if you do screw it up.
So we just became good friends, clichéd as it sounds. I thought the girls he dated were beautiful and he thought the guys who flirted with me were handsome (no matter what a neutral bystander might have thought). We gossiped together, letting slip secrets too embarrassing to share with the crushes we wanted to impress.
Eventually, we both ended up on the brink of engagement to other people. Then, both our romances collapsed within weeks of each other, and all hell broke loose.
My friend and I can never really know what might have happened otherwise, but having each other around may have been what kept us both alive and out of jail. The girl he was so sure would soon be his wife left him – perhaps just to further her career – which drove him rather more literally nuts than he was used to being.The guy I had foolishly believed was about to propose left me abruptly for someone else, likely out of sheer sexual frustration, mere months after declaiming he had loved me in secret for years. (Years of loving me in secret, and a few months was too much? I could scarcely contain enraged shame as the real facts emerged: this guy had a habit of leveraging his status in church into attachments with vulnerable women. Though I told myself over and over again to be glad I wasn’t quite as vulnerable as he thought, it didn’t help.) My friend and I, both habituated to taking rage out more on ourselves than on others, and both in uncertain health, took turns watching over each other to ensure neither of us did anything too severely stupid. Whatever it took – all-night vigils, trips to the hospital: this was the hell-and-back part.
Finally, the raw, gloomy spring turned lush and warm. “Spring is in the air at last,” my good friend said. We sat on the alleyway stoop, watching lilac bushes down the hill ripple as birds quarreled in the breeze. Spring was in the air, I agreed, and he repeated it.
We didn’t get into the car. We didn’t start driving. By now we both knew what we’d both want, if only we wouldn’t screw it up – and by now we were both painfully aware that, for the foreseeable future, the odds were especially great that we would screw it up. So instead of taking a road trip to nowhere, we made a deal:
Since he was the older one, if neither of us was engaged by the time he turned 30, we’d talk about marriage then. Not now. Now would be too stupid, so soon after mutual heartbreak, so soon after all that hell and back. It takes more than self-sacrifice to make a compatible marriage: So what if we had managed to look after each other without fear or disgust during our worst days? If being together meant inflicting more bad days on each other to begin with, what good would we really do each other? We agreed we both could use time for self-improvement before marrying anyone, even each other.
We are married now – to other people. Wonderful people. People who didn’t risk doubling our mutual weaknesses, but who instead complement them. We both chose domestic tranquility over romantic martyrdom.
My friend and I aren’t as close now – many of his old friends aren’t very close now, it seems: that’s just the way family life worked out for him. And I would never want to intrude on the domain of the woman who’s made him such a splendid wife. Valuing friends’ happiness means valuing their spouses’ happiness too.
My friend and I have nothing to regret – and better reasons than most, perhaps, to be grateful for that nothing. Even so, sometimes
…when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour —
I remember the stoop, and the alleyway, and the road trip we never took, and simply miss an old good friend.