I got a text.
We still hanging out tonight?
You know it!
Can we talk first?
Before I could type a question mark, my phone rang. I listened as Rocco told me the news. He said he’d met someone, a girl named Vicki, that she was perfect, the female version of him. Of course, I thought, that makes sense. He said he still wanted to come by my place, just that he couldn’t spend the night, which meant no sex. This Vicki girl was bumming me out. Rocco arrived shortly after and we drank wine while he told me all about her. I listened politely and feigned excitement, the way friends do, but the only thing was -- and it was a pretty big thing -- my mom had just died the week before and I was a mess.
Rocco was my fake boyfriend; he served all the same functions that a real boyfriend would, minus the commitment. I knew all of his friends. I met his family. We exchanged sentimental birthday and Christmas gifts. He’d treat when we’d go out. We weren’t just bed buddies texting each other at 2 a.m. We were truly friends…with benefits.
But Rocco helped me avoid my life, like a huge PAUSE button. I was 30 years old and still a party girl, drinking with Rocco well into the night, having a love affair that was more like a Groundhog Day one-night-stand. Rocco unintentionally reinforced my own belief that this was good enough, all that I deserved. And even though I thought I had it under control, that I was the one with all the power, I know now when you get dumped by your fake boyfriend, the feelings are just as real.
We decided that night we would just be friends and that I’d meet Vicki soon and that it wouldn’t be weird at all. I wasn’t sure if I was saying this to convince him or myself. Then, we talked about my mom, how her lungs had filled with fluid due to heart failure, that that was the actual cause of death, how it had triggered a phenomenon called air hunger that caused panic and breathlessness in near-death patients. He said how sorry he was, that having lost his father many years ago, he understood. He left that night to meet Vicki and he didn’t call me for an entire year.
The first time Rocco and I dated we lasted three months before I broke it off. I cared deeply for him but I knew I wasn’t falling in love. He was gorgeous, tall with thick black hair and we had interesting discussions about pop culture and great philosophical conversations, too. Plus, if it were a thing, we could’ve won the cuddle Olympics. But there were too many deal breakers, like his horrible road rage that made sitting shotgun feel like you were staring down the barrel of one, his chronic weed habit and the arrogant way he could go on and on about himself, like forever. He was a good guy, but not my guy.
We didn’t talk for a month or two after our initial break-up but when the birthdays and cocktail parties of our mutual friends kept bringing us together, we reconnected. I still didn’t want to be with him. But I had sex with him. He’d come over, we’d split a bottle of wine, talk about our ambitions, our families, a funny thing that happened the other day, then have sex, cuddle like gold medal winners and sometimes even make it to Huevos Rancheros and OJ in the morning. It just wasn’t 3-5 times a week like you might do with your real boyfriend. It was once or twice a month, depending on how busy we were.
We would discuss our dreams, have a few laughs and because he wasn’t my boyfriend, I didn’t care about certain things. Smoke all the pot you want -- you’re not my boyfriend! Talk non-stop for an hour about how you wish you still did graffiti even though you’re no longer a teenager -- you’re not my boyfriend! Want to sag your pants like it’s the early ’90s? Knock yourself out -- you’re not my boyfriend!
In the morning, I’d walk him to the door. We’d exchange niceties and see-you-soons and when he didn’t call the next day, I wouldn’t even notice. I was too busy working and catching up on my non-sexual relationships. We never spoke about other potential suitors. Not unless there was really something to tell. Enter Vicki.
She liked comic books, smoked weed like him (I abstain) and tutored kids in an after-school program. Even though I would miss the cuddling, the long talks on my patio about what-it-all-means-man (remember: he was always high), I was, in a way, happy for him. But as the months went on and Rocco never reached out, resentment built inside me like a sticky residue, crud you can’t identify on the bottom of your shoe. I was sure Vicki was nice and if he had just explained the situation to her -- that my mom had passed away and that he wanted to call and check up on me, maybe have lunch, she could even come, she would have understood. I mean, we were all gonna be friends, right? Modern family!
I don’t know if I ever forgave him. He wasn’t my boyfriend but he was my friend and I needed his support. But that didn’t stop me from starting the whole thing over again after he and Vicki broke up a year later.
I dated other people during that year, a few flings that only lasted a couple of months. I was numb from the loss of my mother and couldn’t be open with anyone. Also, not a big turn-on to bring up the painful suffering and death of your mother only a few months prior on a first date.
Then one day, Rocco called.
“I’ve been thinking about you…” he started. A few hours later we met for drinks and for the next couple of times hanging out, we actually tried to be just regular friends. I told him how hurt I’d been that he disappeared on me when I needed him. He apologized, admitting he had been scared, and then told me all about his break-up with Vicki. It didn’t take long for us to slide back into to bed with each other, a familiar comfort during this dark period and soon we were seeing one another two or three times a month.
But this time, it was different: We were getting to that age. It seemed that all of our friends were getting married. Baby announcements were flooding our Facebook newsfeeds. Sometimes, Rocco would tell me that he loved me, that he wanted to be with me, to build a life together and I would look at him and think, I love him, too, I really do and Maybe this could work. Maybe this is more than a distraction. I mean, it’s been two years, I’d bargain with myself. We are great friends, I’d think.
But then he would talk endlessly about himself for like, a week, incessantly bragging about basic human functioning. He wanted major accolades and kudos for doing the laundry, making his bed, not playing video games for the entire day. Taking out the trash deserved high honors. I would smell weed on his breath, notice how many times he went to bed without brushing his teeth. I would feel happy when he left my apartment in the morning -- finally, I got rid of him and could start my day. That isn’t love, not even a little.
This on-again/off-again fake relationship went on for one more year, until he met someone else, a girl he’d grown up with back home in Philly.
“It would’ve been weird when we were kids,” he called to tell me. “She was my friend’s little sister but now…” His voice trailed off. As a friend, I was happy for him but sad it would never be the same. Mostly, I was scared. I didn’t want change. I didn’t want to feel. I didn’t want to try.
“I don’t even know what it is yet. A flirtation?” he wondered. “A fling?” It was important enough that he had to tell me. “Her name is Ali,” he said and suddenly, Ali was real to me.
“We started chatting online, after all these years, then, started talking on the phone and now I’m going back to Philly to see her in a few weeks.”
“Oh,” I said. “Crazy.” It wasn’t crazy. We were crazy. Things like this happen all the time.
“I mean, I don’t know if it’s even anything yet,” he said, hedging his bets. “I just wanted to tell you cause-“
“I get it,” I said. “We’re cool.”
I hung up the phone. We’d decided to be just friends, again. No more crashing at each other’s places, no more cuddling and watching movies on the couch. No more sex. The biggest benefit of all was gone: orgasms.
A few weeks after that phone call, he told me that he was in love with Ali. I thought about my mom, how Rocco and I couldn’t even be friends back then, when I needed him. Why would it be different now when my life isn’t in an emotional crisis?
We decided to meet up for drinks, to give this friendship thing a try. We picked neutral territory -- a bar. He told me all about Ali. He even texted her a few times to check in. I told him a few of my funny dating stories and it was nice to be honest, to admit to each other the qualities we found attractive in others that we did not see in each other.
We split the bill and he walked me to my car.
“Drive safe,” I said, even though I knew he wouldn’t. “I’m so happy for you!” We hugged. “I really, really am,” I said smiling, convincing myself. Then, I watched as Rocco dodged a few cars jaywalking across the busy downtown street and into the night.
I got in my car and thought it’s finally over. But not quite ready to move forward, I sat there a moment and just felt my feelings, a practice I’d long abandoned. First, I felt fear, that it was true what I’d always suspected, I am completely unlovable. Then, self-talking my way out of that rabbit hole, a huge sense of relief came over me and I sighed heavily. Like a new day, I felt recharged but also vulnerable. The future is uncertain, I thought but I knew that was the last time I would ever see him. I smiled as I turned on the ignition, driving off, dreaming of the possibilities.
When we called it quits, I was sad, then happy, then free.