It Looked Like Love
Things you don’t know: I dream that you and I buy houses on the same block, but yours is better. This is one of so, so many dreams I have about you, about us, and even in the dreams I am anxious, unsure of myself, wanting to please you and win you back. But you are never impressed. You are mixing cocktails for a party I’m not invited to. You are running ahead of me towards the theme park. You are whispering to the faceless people of my dream something terrible about me. And still, I call you my best friend.
Things you know: You attended sleep-away camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina when we were ten. The following year, I went too. You told me that day camp was for babies, that I needed to grow up and experience time away from home like you had. I liked day camp though, the idea of being away for only a few hours, the short bus ride to and from camp, the safety and comfort of home returned to me by 4:00 PM each day. I liked to show my mom things I made in Arts and Crafts. I liked the way she washed my bathing suits and my mandatory camp T-shirt, the way these things reappeared crisp and new in my drawers. But then I began to romanticize the idea of going to sleep-away camp, the fresh mountain air, the canoe trips, the new friendships, the strengthening of our own friendship by being friends here and there, everywhere. I thought our love was boundless.
I learned quickly how different you were at camp compared to how you were at home. In Florida, we were equals. Our friends knew us as a package deal. We were the same height (even though you declared yourself an inch taller), we had the same name, and even though you were good at sports and I was a bookworm, we evened out each other in ways that made us perfect counterparts of each other. But at camp, you were a queen. You were athletic and funny and fashionable in your Umbro shorts, baggy T-shirt, and yellow Crocs. My first summer when I arrived on the bus, you weren’t there to greet me. You pretended my attendance at camp was coincidental. You were distant and pretended not to know me. Everyone called us by our last names so they wouldn’t confuse us. I didn’t like it, but I was too shy to say so.
Even though I hated camp, I continued to go for the next two years, hoping each time would be better than the last. None of our inside jokes carried over to the realm of camp, and since you were not available, I died for attention from someone else, anyone else. I wore denim skirts and twisted the front of my shirts into a knot to show my midriff. I wore make-up and braided my hair in pigtails. I tried hard to look good while you seemed to put all your energy into looking silly. You put hay in your hair for the weekly Square Dance, you wore all your clothes backwards for a laugh, you ate macaroni and cheese every night in our cabin and disregarded the weight that started to show on your belly. All the while, I lost myself in the boys of camp. I kissed a boy who went by the name “Ice” because his hair was so blonde it was white. I befriended a set of twins who I took turns kissing after evening program. I flirted with boys playing basketball on “The Slab,” a concrete surface surrounded by a fence where everyone plays Horse. I eventually got an official boyfriend, Jackson, who was sent home after a week for smoking weed.
You never had a boyfriend at camp, but the summer we were thirteen, you were in love with one of the boys’ counselors named Texas. Texas went by “Tex” and was dirty blonde, muscular, and the most popular counselor at camp. He was the reigning champion of the camp’s annual male beauty pageant, telling jokes as his talent, and dancing to an NSYNC song for the dance portion. He was twenty, but he indulged your crush on him. I thought it was sweet, but looking back, I recognize it was cruel. You beamed when he grabbed your arm to square dance on Tuesday nights in the barn. He asked you to fake marry him at the camp’s Renaissance Fair, tying a baby blue pipe cleaner around your ring finger. He lifted you up onto his shoulders when you were declared the Color War Lieutenant, him the General.
Things you didn’t see: How many other girls Texas danced with, how the pipe cleaners meant nothing to him—he had so many on his fingers by the end of the night—how he pulled me aside and told me he’d marry me if he wasn’t already married to my best friend.
Another boys’ counselor, Gabe, short for Gabriel, caught my eye. I preferred him because he had black hair, brown eyes, watched Adult Swim, and thought camp was stupid. But, like me, he returned year after year for some reason, some pressure that wouldn’t subside. Maybe his mom forced him to get a job. Maybe he needed the money to pay for college. He was nineteen and studying Political Science. I didn’t even know what that was then. We were on opposite teams for Color War, him a Red Devil and me a White Knight. I didn’t care when we won, but still, Gabe hugged me a beat too long.
Things you didn’t know: One day when we got to pick an elective, I chose ice cream making because I knew Gabe would be in charge. But no one else showed up and so Gabe and I shook bags of ice with chemicals inside until we had enough vanilla ice cream to share. We used the same spoon and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Things you knew: When the age we were as campers no longer mattered in comparison to how old the ex-counselors were, that I had found Gabe online and that we dated for a year. We were on winter break from our sophomore year of college, still underage to drink, but with enough make up and high enough heels, we could pass for twenty-one. Gabe was living in Orlando and drove down to see me. You knew when he showed up to our camp reunion at a bar in Fort Lauderdale and I left with him in his car instead of with you. You didn’t judge or tell me “no” or “wait” or ask “why?” Instead, you waited to see if Texas would show up so you could show him the ring you kept all those years. He was from Louisiana, but a lot of people were flying in for the weekend. Everyone had kept in touch on MySpace, then Facebook, creating an “Event” with so many little thumb icons symbolizing an agreement to meet up. You were sure he wouldn’t miss the party. I wanted to explain to you that he was almost thirty, that there were other guys at the bar that night, other opportunities to find someone. Texas never showed up, so you got drunk and drove home anyway, a bad decision, dangerous to you and no one else, or so you thought, because you were alone in the car.
Things you never knew: Gabe and I watched movies and ordered take out and took his dog, Kurt (named for Kurt Vonnegut), for walks and smoked weed and went down on each other and made out in his car and went bowling and had breakfast at the Waffle House and then it was time for me to go back to school in Indiana. Gabe flew out for a weekend but it was difficult. I was in a sorority and he felt out of place, weird in the house with all those girls. He must have felt out of place being back on a college campus long after he had graduated, but he had wanted to come. He took pills all weekend and I broke up with him on the way back to the airport. I don’t remember if I ever told you about his visit. Maybe you saw pictures of it online, but I never explained how one morning I had trouble waking him up, how my roommate had to pour water on his head, and he laughed it off.
Even though I said I didn’t want to have sex, Gabe pinned me down on the bed while we watched I Heart Huckabees and tried anyway until I started crying and he backed off. Nothing happened, but I never told you how that was when I understood the force of a man on a girl’s body, how they could so easily overpower us, how careful we had to be.
Gabe was engaged, then broke it off, and is now engaged again to a girl who looks like the female version of him: curly hair, bubbly, fun. He emails me when I publish my first book, congratulating me, telling me how proud he is, promising me he will attend the reading I’m doing at the local university where I got my Master’s degree. I don’t reply, and when he does not attend, I am glad for it.
Things you knew: James was the one that broke our friendship into pieces. I had stopped going to camp after three summers, but you continued. You went on to become Color War General, to become a Counselor-in-Training, and then to have your own campers. Camp was your family because you hated your real family. Camp was the dream you lived inside of. Camp was the place you couldn’t wait to get back to each year, until you got an internship in London and camp was left behind. James had been a counselor when you were one too, and you always said how perfect he was for me, your best friend, how our humor was the same, how handsome he was, how we should meet and see where it goes.
And so we met. The summer before our senior year, I drove up with you to Tallahassee for a weekend of partying, a chance for me to see where you had been for the last three years. You never visited Indiana, which had been part of the deal, but at least I got to see a piece of your life back then.
James had dated a girl you knew, Carolyn, and now you all went to school together, so you said I had to tread lightly. I remember painting our nails before we went out, mine purple and yours blue, how you did my right hand for me because I couldn’t, how you blew on my fingers to help the coat dry. We all met at a restaurant for dinner and James and I immediately hit it off, flirting and whispering, holding hands under the table. You never pulled me aside. You never said to stop. We ended up at James’s house, all of us, drinking beers and throwing knives into a tree trunk in the yard. James took me to see his room, and we kissed while he held onto his beer in one hand, me in the other, and I heard the engine of a car starting. You were trying to leave without me. This is the thing I will always be trying to figure out: why did you get mad at me for getting along with James even though you’d encouraged it? I wondered if it was because of Carolyn, if girl code existed between me and her, a girl I had never met before, and frankly, didn’t like very much. If there had been a code intact, it should have been between us, you and me, the friends who had been best friends for so long. But there you were, about to drive away, angry and intoxicated. It wasn’t a grace you were giving me, to spend more time with James, alone, uninterrupted. But rather a deliberate showcase of your condemnation.
I left James, ran downstairs and got in the car. I asked if we should spend the night, both of us drunk, but you wouldn’t speak to me. You drove us back to your apartment in silence and my stomach turned with nerves, knowing you shouldn’t be driving and knowing I couldn’t say anything about it.
I can’t remember if we stopped for breakfast on the way home the next day, the nine-hour drive where not one word was said. Instead, you played the RENT soundtrack that I hated and blasted it. I wanted to sleep and dream of James, but you kept me up with the music to let me know of your disapproval. You had navigated me through so many text message conversations with James before I met him. You had told me that even though you kissed him one Halloween, it was Carolyn we had to worry about. James had even joked about the kiss. “I was dressed as a cross-dresser,” he said. “I was so drunk I broke a chair.”
You wrote me a Facebook message a week later calling me selfish. I was supposed to have been more interested in coming there to see your life. But I had ruined it. I had also damaged your “new and budding” friendship with Carolyn, and now that was probably over. I wrote back and apologized. I wanted to mend things and get past this misunderstanding. I loved you and didn’t want to lose you. I felt bad that I had caused problems and made a mess. Ultimately, you said it was “fine,” but it wasn’t.
You knew James and I continued to date, and would only speak to me after we broke up a few months later. We FaceTimed in our respective college apartments, you in Florida, me in Indiana, and I put on makeup to get ready for a night out while you made flashcards and studied for a test. You talked about going back to London. I talked about California. We tried to keep things light, go back to normal, but it would never be normal, fine, okay, acceptable, any of those. The situation had become the weight you held over my head. My friendship—a burden.
Things you didn’t know: James moved to Los Angeles, which ultimately swayed my decision to move there, too. I knew it was stupid, a bad decision, but I thought I was in love with him.
James and I liked to go to movies and talk about them afterward. We took long walks through Los Angeles, went on hikes, hung out at the pool, at the beach. He always kept me warm when it was cold. He would give me his jacket, his sweatshirt, a blanket. He would stay with me every night for a week and then I wouldn’t hear from him for a month. Even after I found out he was still seeing Carolyn, I stuck around. He made trips to see her, hopping on a plane and telling me he was going to see his family in Florida. He borrowed my luggage and when he gave it back, I saw the tags read Chicago and not Florida. I still stuck around. Your disapproval hadn’t been reason enough to end things with James. His mistakes and trespasses hadn’t been enough either.
Things you might not understand: The pull James had on me, the power. How I was always there when he called. How I did his laundry and paid for most of our meals together. How we took ecstasy on my birthday and stumbled into a fortune-teller who told me someone in my life was lying to me. How I asked the fortune-teller if I’d ever talk to you again and she told me I would. How she warned me that I might start seeing you in my dreams, to burn sage and put crystals in my pockets, all of which I did in hopes of erasing your anger, of bringing you back. You never knew that my breakup with James would be an eight-year slow burn.
Eventually you found out about James and hated me all over again.
In between the on-again, off-again bouts with James, I endlessly attached myself to anyone who would have me. My friend Mady and I went to college bars to hang out, even though we were twenty-three. We got dressed up to go to our favorite bar in Westwood called O’Hara’s where we paid $4 for giant, English pints. We talked to guys and brought them back with us where Mady and I would sleep in my bed and the guys would sleep on my couch and the floor. We would kick them out in the morning and laugh. Mady was never really a best friend, but more of a partner in crime. She dabbled in comedy and I watched her perform at The Comedy Store where she worked part-time as a hostess. I was sad a lot of the time, so I started going to open mic nights alone to watch people make fun of themselves, of the world.
When I saw Texas at an open mic night in Los Angeles, I understood he had become my prey. He was older now, and he was not wearing any pipe cleaner rings. He told me he had moved out to Los Angeles to pursue comedy and acting, but he was working at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Beverly Hills for money. He confessed his lust for me as a camper. He barely remembered you. And I wanted him to want me. I wanted to be the one that was desired. I wanted to win and I wanted you to lose.
I can’t remember how many times we fucked, but it was enough to become habit. I’d drive over to his apartment in the valley after work. The drive felt freeing, like I was untying all the threads that could possibly lead me back to you. I knew after fucking Tex, there would be no friendship to go back to. I knew that fucking Tex would end any possibility of love with James, too. I knew these things, and still I drove. I packed a spare pair of underwear in my purse, a toothbrush from CVS. I slept uncomfortably there, Tex wanting to go again and again all throughout the night. I learned he was a recovered alcoholic and ate a pint of ice cream every night. Maybe fucking was his way of burning off the calories. He still looked good. His hair was thinning a bit, but his body was still nice. He was still funny. But none of that mattered; we both knew that.
Let me explain. One time his neighbor left a note on the door to keep it down or else he’d get Texas evicted. That is how hard we were fucking. I knew no one could find me in that tiny apartment in the valley. I didn’t know the neighbors, didn’t care if they thought I was too loud, if my car blocked one of their cars, if they didn’t like us staying in the hot tub late at night. I wanted to be free of the burden of disappointing you. I wanted to erase you with all this fucking. Then at least you’d have a valid reason this time to hate me. It never made sense to me that after over a decade of friendship, you had been so willing to let me go, dismiss me, and side with some girl you went to bars with a few times. It felt like something deeper had been brewing, a realization that you had never been able to accept me for who I was, just like you hadn’t when we were younger. But why not? Why did I allow you to treat me like that? Why were you the judge of how I should act? Can you blame me for wanting all this attention?
I became bored with Tex before he could even have the chance to stop calling me. James started calling again. He always had precedence over my heart before anyone else. No one stood a chance against him, even though he always let me down.
On a date once in Beverly Hills, I was so coked out I forgot about Texas as I walked into Ruth’s Chris, freshly manicured and hair blow-dried, arm-in-arm with a talent agent I was seeing, that I gasped when I saw him and recognized him. “I used to fuck that guy,” I even said to the talent agent, who laughed and still took me to bed that night.
Things you didn’t know: There was one more ex-camp counselor I dated, very briefly, who lived in LA. Perhaps our camp experiences had funneled each of us into this huge city where we are driven by our dreams and steered via chance happenings.
You had always gotten along with Ryan Marsh. He was funny, cute, sort of looked like a young Tom Hanks. When he wrote to me on Facebook, he was working part-time as a mime at Universal Studios. He was teaching a kid’s acting class and taking classes himself on the side. He lived in North Hollywood in a lofted studio. Ryan Marsh was a White Knight too, back in camp days. He had reached out to me and saw that I was living in LA too, wondered if I would meet up with him.
The first night we hung out, we walked around the Television Academy, through the Hall of Fame Garden with its giant Emmy statue, busts of Walt Disney, Carol Burnett, and others. Ryan told me about his goals as an actor, that he wanted to be known as the next “Everyman,” like Clark Gable or Dick Van Dyke, or oddly enough, like Tom Hanks. We went back to his apartment and he took me up on the roof where he felt me up under my shirt and didn’t kiss me. He breathed heavy when he did it, like it had been a long time since he touched a girl. We met for another date a few days later, this time during the day. We ate Thai food and Ryan insisted that I pay because “the men always pay,” like he was trying to teach me some kind of lesson. I quickly learned he was a socialist. He went on long rants about how parking should be free and how fucked the city was.
Even though we argued a lot, there was something undeniably sexy about him. He always wanted to fool around, even if we had just been arguing all day. He was always available, ready for me to come over, no matter how late. Mady met him once and hated him. She said he was too territorial and pushy, but I thought that you might find him to be the type of guy I should be with, someone who had dreams and cared about people—except, perhaps, me.
When we broke up, I ended it from the street, too annoyed to go into his apartment and have a real conversation. I was dressed and ready to go out and told him there was someone else. He asked and pressed and needed to know, so I told him it was the talent agent.
“Ask him if he’s taking any new clients,” Ryan asked as I drove away, the rubber from my tires screeching against his street.
Things you didn’t know: I was hurt when you didn’t reach out to me when my first book was published. You weren’t in it, but I thought you might have found out and been happy for me. You reached out to me when a kid from our middle school found pictures of me online, never missing an opportunity to embarrass me or make me feel bad, yet nothing when one of my greatest dreams came true before I turned 30.
My therapist tells me that kids are bullied because the bully is insecure, lacks something, sees something in the person they are bullying that they desire. What was it you saw in me when you made fun of my teeth before I got braces, when you called me a slut in front of all of our friends, when you spread rumors through mass emails, when you told people my secrets after all those years of keeping yours, when you heard of my heartbreak and laughed?
Why did you keep adding me on Facebook, on Instagram, trying to see more of my life and disregard all of the bad things that happened? I blocked you, tried to let you go, but you’re still a part of me, perhaps the shadowy part I hope to refute but need to acknowledge in order to become whole.
When college was over, one of our mutual friends, Lacey (who is no longer a friend to me), came over to see me off before I left for California. You and I weren’t talking at the time, and she had wanted to act as a mediator, to figure out how we could come together again. She wanted to hear both sides of the story since she had only heard yours. We sat on the beach and shared a bottle of premixed skinny margarita and talked.
“You know,” Lacey said. “It’s funny because she always talks about how much love you have to give, how you’re always chasing the wrong guys and trying too hard. She wishes you could just relax and let the guy come to you for once.” It hit especially hard since I was about to chase James in Los Angeles.
“She never told me that,” I said. “We never talked about any of that.”
“She just wants the best for you. Maybe she just has a hard time telling you the truth.”
“But I’m her best friend. Shouldn’t she be able to tell me the truth?”
“Maybe you never asked for it.”
I hadn’t known that I had to ask for the truth. I certainly hadn’t wanted a friendship that adhered to the formula of intimidation plus admiration equals understanding. Maybe Lacey was telling the truth about you wanting the best for me. Did you want someone to love me like I loved you? And if we could sit together now and have coffee or hug it out, would we be able to say the things we never said, or would we go back to our old ways, the only ways we know? Would I have to ask for the truth and would you be willing to tell it to my face?
Things you still don’t know: Years later when these boys, these men, no longer matter, when we sleep next to our husbands in bed each night, me in California and you, ironically, in North Carolina, where we started to fall apart, I still dream of you. Last night you appeared in the dream, next to me at a bar. We drank and drank but somehow I didn’t get drunk. You were trashed though, slurring your words, saying you felt sick, getting up to leave. I grabbed your purse and fished out your keys, insisting I drive you home. But when I got in the car, I didn’t know where home was. I asked you to direct me, and you started yelling, the words not real words but sounds, loud, angry, and I sat there in the driver’s seat and took it, let it happen because I thought I deserved it.
Maybe our friendship was never meant to be easy and carefree, but instead an excruciating contest, too difficult and sad, the constraints of which, when angled toward the light, could look like love. Or maybe you dream of me too, the roles reversed, and you hope someday things will change. Maybe you feel the same, maybe you don’t.