I have a friend who I haven't seen in a long time.
I have a collection of those, I'm afraid; my track record for "staying in touch" is appalling. Scoff if you like, but this serial inability to keep in consistent contact with people that aren't in close proximity to me is actually based in love: Friend A deserve buckets of attention and time; if I can't give Friend A all of what Friend A should have from me as a friend, I should excuse myself so Friend A can find a Friend B, who is way, way better at returning calls and text messages.
(There's also the little matter of my bonafide phone phobia. I actually fear making and taking phone calls. According to the Internet, this is a real thing.)
This particular friend -- Billy -- and I were hyperclose for a number of years. We met in college.
After graduation, I moved to Chicago; he arrived six months after I did, and I got him an apartment in my building. We lived in units separated by a dry grass lot in back, close enough to string a tin can telephone between our windows even though we never did, choosing to skibble back and forth to each other’s apartment at odd hours, usually in our pajamas.
We were together constantly back then, driving around Chicago in his red Saturn, listening to rock n' roll, working our crappy jobs. Rent was forever due, Chicago was cold and then it was hot, the laundromat was scary, and there was no nearby train where we lived, just a bus stop three blocks away that you could only reach by walking up a lonesome industrial corridor. In many, many ways that era sucked. And it was an isolated world; our isolated world.
There were two reasons we didn't slip into acrimony and defeat: 1) we were creating things, and 2) we had each other.
Billy played his guitar whenever he was awake, which was about 22 hours out of every day; I wrote poems on the back of guest checks at the restaurant, wrote in my journal in the coat check room at 4am, and had nine books going at any given time. We were dedicated to making something happen in our lives and we worked hard at what we loved; we knew we were gonna scale up one day, alone or together.
You’d think with all that "Les Miserables" closeness, we would’ve been having crazy monkey sex, too; at the very least, surely we were dating, right? We weren’t, and we didn’t. We slept in the same bed a lot, curled up together against the storm. And we would make out like maniacs from time to time. Billy loved me and I loved him and from the first night we met in college, we had been just generally hot for each other, appreciative of one another’s body, personality, and robust sex drive.
But actual sex with each other was something both of us kept back in order to preserve what was out front. We needed each other too much to muddy everything with sex. Thinking back now, I see us as as desperately needing to be innocent in some area of our lives; we were growing fast in a big city. We both tacitly understood that if we started sleeping together, everything we needed most could disappear. We would grow up in a way we didn’t want to in the eyes of the other. We never really talked about it. We came close many times. But we just didn’t. It was a relief and we were each other’s safe zone. You might say it was a brother-sister dynamic, except most brothers don’t spoon their sisters and kiss them on the mouth when it’s time to go to sleep. I mean, I don’t have brothers. But this is what I understand.
We both dated. We both had sexual misadventures with people. And we’d come back and talk them over, speeding down Lake Shore Drive, smoking cigarettes in the red Saturn. Bill would’ve done anything for me and I for him -- except for that one thing. That, we both just wouldn’t put on the table. Or on the couch. Or into bed.
Today, my friend plays big sold-out concerts all around the world; I’ve been working as a writer for almost a decade. We made good, is what I’m saying. And we knew we’d make it. We knew.
We knew lots of things.
* * *
I could end the story there, and not tell you the truth, that my friend and I did sleep together, exactly once, years later. All I remember is cheap champagne, an apartment nine apartments ago, and that we never did it again.
What does sex do? Sometimes, it makes a baby. Sometimes, it makes two people fall more in love with each other. And sometimes it snaps a twig. You can’t unhave sex. You can’t go back. You can’t not “know” that person in the biblical sense once you “know” them in the biblical sense.
But there are all kinds of ways to know someone. You don’t have to know every inch of them, inside and out physically, to know them, inside and out emotionally/personally. I’d venture that Billy and I knew each other better before that night.
We slept together, but we didn’t fall asleep.