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Behave May 1, 2000
The choice between being lovers or staying friends.
The phone rang at half past one, an almost welcome reprieve from two joyful hours trying to toss and turn myself to sleep.
I picked it up, suspecting it was her. And if it was, I knew this would be the night when we'd have to decide, at last: would we become lovers, or remain friends?
I had realized this earlier, at the party. We had danced more tightly than ever, our smooth rhythms disrupted by a reluctance to let go of each other's butts. At first I blamed the friskiness on the abundant alcohol served at these company events; but later, after we parted ways too abruptly in the lobby, I accepted it for what it was.
'My head's killing me,' she said, her voice hoarse and hesitant - as if she had woken just before calling.
'You're probably hung over,' I said.
'Do you have aspirin or something?'
'Yes, I think.'
I agreed to bring it to her. We needed an excuse to play this out, and this was as good as any.
I stood in the strange bathroom slapping cold water on my face. I was naked and looked like a pasty imitation of myself in the phosphorescent glare. Then I shut my eyes and let some hot water run because I didn't want to sober up and lose the giddy smile in my gut, the numbing arousal that had seized me on the dance floor and now lit my insides up like a fiery narcotic.
I put on jeans and a T-shirt and walked barefoot down the hallway. I was nervous even though I had answered many of her midnight calls before. My role had always been the protector; she was so easy to rescue. As long as I was the one who swooped down when she needed it, who supported her unconditionally, I was the hero.
When I reached the elevator I paused, forcing myself to reconsider; but I pressed the up arrow all the same, and waited. I calculated how long I had waited. Three years since we first met, two and three-quarters since she showed a real interest in me, nearly two since we became friends. Now she was my best friend. And I was hers.
I stepped tentatively into the elevator. The numbered buttons stared at me, daring me. I like being the hero, I thought. After a minute we started down toward the lobby. From there I rode up to the last floor, and then down, and up again. I was trying to imagine us, in her room, in her bed, touching like lovers and not like friends. But the pictures in my mind were wrong, contrived. Our friendship had always felt natural - it had grown organically, with never a forced moment. We had a lot in common, and also enough differences to keep us from suffocating each other.
I was in the lobby again. I thought: if I go do this, I am a certified, first-class, prize-winning Idiot. I will betray the most noble, trust-worthy friend I've ever had. So, I pressed my floor.
The doors opened. I let them close. I pressed her floor.
I had barely knocked when she opened. We whispered 'hi' in the noiseless hallway. We smiled and looked at each other, and I could not guess what she was thinking.
Her room was dark except for the glow from behind the curtains. I gleaned strewn clothes on chairs and floor. A room-service tray was pushed into a corner, covered with white linen, like a corpse.
'I heard the young lady in 2311 needed a doctor.'
She laughed. 'But you're not a doctor.'
'Yeah, but I'm good with headaches.'
'Come in then,' she said, the banter making it easier for her to ask me in and for me to accept. Which seemed stupid considering I had keys to her apartment and she to mine.
She went straight to the bed and burrowed under the covers, as if she were cold. She wore a robe - and perhaps nothing else, I thought. Then I paused. Maybe she was really sick. I brought a glass of water and the pills and sat on the edge of the bed watching her swallow. There was so much pretending now that I began to doubt my grasp of the situation.
'Thanks,' she said. I took the glass, happy I had come. She was good at making me feel useful and admired.
'Would you like a neck massage?' I had given her hundreds before. This would be no different.
'Yes.' Her voice was hoarse again.
I kneaded her vertebrae and shoulders. She was sitting up now, but I stayed on the edge, in a strained pose. I was too self-conscious to cuddle as we normally did, in private or public.
People who saw our casual intimacy usually assumed we were dating. It never bothered us. If they asked, we denied it and laughed, because it was nothing. But now the heat beneath her skin was tingling inside my fingers. A low moan trembled within her neck. I whispered to myself: behave. Behave.
I told myself I could still turn back. This back rub only and then I'd leave. Yes, I needed to leave soon, or I wouldn't leave at all. If I stayed, tomorrow we would wake up side-by-side, like brand-new strangers. We'd lose the casual transparency between us. Those things we knew, those intimate secrets, would become an awkward burden, or a potential weapon in some future dispute. We would lie to comfort each other, to hide petty jealousies and protect injured egos. Some day, one of us would need more, one of us would fall in love.
I had constructed this ominous theory from the first time physical temptation intruded in our friendship. I wasn't certain whether I actually believed the convoluted taboo, or if I was simply trying to persuade myself to act with a preconceived notion of common sense - to behave.
She moaned again, audibly this time. I told myself to stop, but I could not. I needed to behave. Behave!
'What did you say?'
'Oh,' she said, unconvinced. 'Stay for a while?'
I moved to a chair. I wanted to say something, but the ideas dried up before they could become words. Maybe time passed, maybe it didn't. Outside, leaves were twisting silently in the windy night, and I heard them fall in the quiet between us. It was like being in a scene from a Jim Croce song - you're not sure how you got there, or what happens next, but you know this is the most important part of the story.
'What are you thinking?' she whispered.
This woman and I talked for hours every week - every day - analyzing every person and thing around us, wrapped up in our own peculiar version of the world. We even put moratoriums on talking, so we could function like normal people. Now, I couldn't even tell her what I was thinking.
I suddenly stood up and climbed in beside her, because it was the only thing I was clear I wanted to do. She kissed me, and her lips tasted of tears. I ran my tongue over her teeth, starting to lose control.
Then she stopped. 'Are you sure?'
I felt us floating together, she and I, tumbling and bobbling along on the brink of - what? I asked her if she thought we would never again be friends like until then. She didn't know. Did I? I wasn't sure. She was afraid, maybe, we wouldn't. I was, too. But she wanted it so much. And so did I.
Are you sure?
Our words filled the air, then dissipated, interspersed among long flimsy silences. We weren't getting anywhere.
'I'm tired,' she said. She closed her eyes and feigned sleep. She had started this, and now it was up to me, the hero, to choose.
I breathed in her scent mixed in with cold fries from the food tray, and I felt the condom in my pocket. I ran my fingers through her hair, the way she liked it, wondering if we were forcing our relationship to be something it wasn't equipped for. I wondered if the only sustainable status for us was friendship.
I listened to her breathing become regular, and desire faded as I also began to drift. I wondered if we were not ready for this yet, if I needed to wait more. And I didn't want to choose by myself - that was not how I imagined it would be.
Then, before I finally fell asleep, I remember thinking: yeah, but maybe this was my one and only chance.
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