You’ve probably heard this story before–the important parts anyway: two good friends. girl comes between them. two bad enemies. It’s a cinematic cliché meandering about the lives of young people throughout time. I’ve lived this story before. And I’ve written this story before. When I wrote it, I thought I was removed enough from the incident. I thought I had matured enough to tell the story with the fairness and dignity that it deserved.

I spat curses onto the truth and used them for polish.

I wove a tale of betrayal, explaining how my friend had committed treachery of the most sinister kind: he made advances on a girl I had feelings for, which was a direct violation of an understanding we had come to. He violated all the trust I had given him whenever I bled my heart to ease the pain of unrequited love. He put me between a rock and a fucked up place. By and large, these facts still stand, but I see them differently, now, so many years later.

I reread that story every so often, mainly to remind myself just why I ended the friendship. I’ve come to a new understanding of that story. It’s less about my friend and what he did to me. It’s more about me and who I am.

***

The dating game is a tall man’s world.

By middle school, I could no longer ignore the physical disparity between myself and my objects of desire. Girls that I had pursued just a year ago were now half a head taller than me and consequently pursued taller guys. Years later, even after puberty, I would still only measure in to be slightly taller or on par with most girls around me, which still put me at a disadvantage because of women’s affinity for heels.

I blame the height difference on my race. Growing up as a Filipino boy in mainly white society, all I could think about were white girls. They were everywhere: school, television, movies, in my father’s rants about how non-white races were so ugly–even other Filipinos. This was all well and good in the beginning, but once hormones started to kick in and white counterparts were growing several inches taller than me and beginning to fill out, the visual disparity was becoming too great to ignore. Realizing I couldn’t compete physically with other guys, I’ve always relied on my talents to distinguish myself. I’m an artist. At age eleven I had a wonderful grasp of objects in three dimensional space, lighting, composition, emotional content, what have you. I further tried to distinguish myself by becoming the brooding recalcitrant loner at an age when so many boys were openly drooling over girls they liked. My tactic, maybe unintentionally, was to come out of my introversion just long enough to get the message across to a girl that I liked her. Then I would duck quickly back into my shell and draw rough sketches of the girl and flash weak smiles and puppy dog eyes her way, intimating at the maelstrom just below my calm exterior that could be stilled only by her love. It was all bullshit, of course. I had watched too many movies as a child, mostly romantic comedies from the 80’s, and assumed that modeling my persona after those reticent protagonists would make me more attractive.

In the sixth grade, I caught the eye of Rebecca, my very first girlfriend. She was emotionally precocious for an eleven year-old and went after the boys she liked with rigid determination. This was just fine with the boys because it took out a great portion of the uncertainty. One day, during lunch in the sixth grade–during the week proceeding Rebecca’s break up with her boyfriend, Joshua–an emissary from the girls’ lunch table was sent to the boys’ lunch table to fetch me. This was a ritual that had been performed many times before and every boy at the table knew this. Rituals like this bonded us as young men. My friend, Travis, whom I’d always regarded as intellectual competition, gave me smiles and looks of encouragement. My part in this middle school ceremony was simply to sit down and ask Rebecca to be my girlfriend and then we would be a steady couple. I knew this fact reflexively, but doubt clouded my actions and the task turned into a spectacle of cinematic proportions.

In a movie, the frame freezes, allowing the character’s voiceover to explain a few things. Previous to this encounter, every girl I had pursued had rejected me with the cruel honesty that only children possess. In the first grade, when I had drafted a love letter for a cute blonde girl named Angel, asking her to marry me and providing a small dowry of ten cents, she showed the note with crude drawings of stick figures holding hands to her friend and subsequently to the teacher, Ms. Basset. I saw them giggling and pointing in my periphery. In the third grade, my pursuit of a girl named Kelly, a flaxen haired fair skinned beauty, ended quietly when she gave her affections to a taller, white boy named Rich.

In jealous revenge, I punched him in the groin.

The only girls I did attract were two Hispanic girls named Sophia, gaunt and bug-eyed, and Christina, curvy in all the wrong places, and they were hideous by comparison. So while I listened to and accepted the idea that I could be anything I wanted and have anything I wanted if I worked hard enough, it was getting more and more difficult to reconcile that absolute with the reality of my love life.

This was the doubt that sat between Rebecca and me at the girls’ lunch table.

I sent all of the other girls away and I screwed up my nerves. My teeth chattered and my hands sweated uncontrollably. Finally, I forced the question out and gritted my teeth, prepared for disaster, but Rebecca of course said yes. In retrospect, I should have taken Sophia and Christina as my initial girlfriends just so I would have had some prior experience.

Rebecca dumped me the next day–via emissary, no less. It hadn’t come as a surprise. During the whole of our short-lived, one-day relationship I had been tongue tied and awkward and my palms still sweated uncontrollably when we held hands. I had desperately wanted our relationship to mirror the movies, but those spontaneous romantic moments never arose and I didn’t know how to act outside of those cinematic guidelines. Despite that failed relationship, I quickly formed an obsession with Rebecca that stayed with me for years to come, even when we went to different schools and I was involved in other relationships. Rebecca was the mold into which I attempted to fit all other girls. Just let that information ride for now, this story isn’t about her.

After Rebecca, the rejections came quickly and constantly, but I used my mitigated success with Rebecca to convince myself that my shortcomings were not physical. As such, my approach to girls was molting constantly. While I still brooded more consistently than ever, I was also much more open and aggressive with my endeavors. For a time, I cut my brooding out of the formula and attempted to get to know the girls I pursued, but they either turned into friends who became untouchable or simply didn’t care to get to know me. I then tried the route of the secret admirer. For Valentine’s Day I left a teddy bear on the desk of a girl named Nicole, an elfin white girl who sat in front of me in World Geography. After finding out it was a gift from me, she refused to speak to me ever again and gave the bear to some boys who used it for a hackey sack. Another time I wrote a poem for the librarian’s daughter, Daunielle, an emaciated yet cute blonde with braces, who attended a different school, but whom once in a while visited her mother while she worked. According to her mother, Daunielle was so taken by the pm that she immediately requested to meet me. When we finally met, the expression of controlled disappointment that washed over her face was soul breaking to witness.

By high school, I had seemingly gone over the edge with trying to make up for my shortcomings by plying girls with roses, writing them ptry, or slaving over hand drawn portraits, which by now, after having done so many, were remarkable likenesses of them. All of these things I did to no avail, to much frustration, and to much heartache. I had watched the wrong movies as a child. I had been exposed to films like Say Anything and Revenge of the Nerds, or countless other teeny-bopper love stories where the seemingly undesirable guy gets the beautiful and nubile ingénue by making her see beyond his physical appearance to recognize all of the other (more important) qualities. I should have been watching more movies like The Last American Virgin.

While the rejections were numerous, I did manage to eke out relationships where I could during middle school and high school. However, these girls were largely undesirable due to physical drawbacks. One of my girlfriends had a lazy eye, which made her look cross-eyed most of the time. Another girlfriend was on the plump side and was constantly mistaken for a boy by passersby. That’s not to say I wasn’t genuinely attracted to these girls. They sated my white-skinned lust for a time, but I knew that I was settling and it grated on my mind after the mystique of the relationship wore off.

I wanted the girls with perfectly round C-cup breasts with modest areolas and eraser head nipples. I wanted the girls with hourglass shaped torsos with legs long and slender and thighs perfectly sculpted so that they left a tight triangle of space between them and the bottom of her pelvis. I wanted the girls that draped themselves over tall white guys.

***

I met John A. my sophomore year in high school when he welcomed me onto the Mock Trial team. I immediately liked him. He was a tall white guy, a commanding figure, measuring in at 6’4″ and he spoke with a deep rumbling voice that resonated from his barrel chest. I’d say he was an attractive guy. He wasn’t gangly. He wasn’t fat. He was well proportioned. John was also very sure of himself. He radiated the pretentious confidence that comes with exceptional height. For the most part, I played his sidekick: Kato to the Green Hornet.

John was my guide of sorts through crucial stages in my life. For starters, John initiated me into the world of tobacco. Until that very moment, I had been ardently anti-cigarettes. Now, I was exhaling smoke and glancing around to see if anyone else noticed just how cool I looked. The enemy had seduced me and I had no regrets. Initiation rites into the taboo forge friendships in fire.

Years later, John helped me get my first real job and then a promotion at the same company. Together, we discovered the bullshit of middle management. We plotted the downfall of the company and we burned our boss in effigy. In addition to these noteworthy experiences, John and I were also simply good friends. Once we graduated (John one year before me) and subsequently moved out, we were as thick as thieves. Not a night went by that he and I didn’t spend a few good hours neglecting our responsibilities while we played videogames until four in the morning, breaking only occasionally for a cigarette.

What I enjoyed most was that John had a particular philosophy on interpersonal relationships. He always believed in honest dealings. If someone pissed you off, let that person know. If you thought someone was being two-faced, call that person on it. Instead of harboring resentment for people close to you, you would confront them and sort shit out. This was the gospel according to John and I accepted it, but it would take years of practice before I learned to apply it correctly.

In spite of all the good times I’ve had with John, he suffered from fatal qualities: character traits that make people incompatible with me. At first, they were just little insignificant things that irked me; you know, the things people do that bother you, but you forgive them because they’re your friends or they’ve done things for you and you feel like you owe them. John was both: he was a friend I owed.

My friendship with John and our relationship to girls maintains particular relevance to fatal qualities. In regards to girls, John was both a balm to my soul and the source of great anguish. When it came to my so-called love life, John was a pillar of support. In high school, after a gorgeous redhead spurned me, John told me that he would support me if I wanted to punch the girl in the nose. When I was a teenager, this was the support I looked for. When it came to John’s love life, however, I wanted to vomit. At twenty-two, John was still using grade school approaches. If he liked a girl he would make his intentions known by annoying the girl somehow. Most of the time, it was at work. He would unhook her bra in public, put her in headlocks or wristlocks, and sometimes wrestle her to the ground. Absurdly, women flocked to him. After an intimate night with any of these girls, John would come over to my apartment and he would recount the night’s festivities, rife with derogatory commentary on these girls’ physical attributes. It always made for a good laugh over a pack of smokes.

John and I did most of our socializing at work. That meant John’s love life affected mine and in our shared dating pool John was the big fish. My disadvantage was so egregious that it got to the point where John and I would sit around and claim particular girls at work. The claimed were hands off to the other guy until whver claimed her had a chance to make his move. All this really meant was that John observed a courtesy waiting period just long enough for me to get shot down after which the girl asked me to put in a good word for her with John. One girl had gone so far as to threaten me, via a male coworker, with charges of sexual harassment if I didn’t leave her alone. Ironically, John informed me later that week how the same girl pulled him aside to let him know that she wasn’t wearing any panties. Life is grossly unfair. My love life had been relegated to playing the annoying drunk guy in a two man bar con where the good looking sober guy saves the beautiful woman sitting alone by asking, “Is this guy bothering you?”

I hated my place in the dating world.

I hated being the ugly friend.

I hated being jealous of John and seeing him as competition for my happiness.

***

I met Megan M. my junior year in high school. She was a sophomore and I considered her just pretty. The following year I would find this girl outrageously gorgeous. That’s not to say that she suddenly bloomed or anything–she looked largely the same–it’s just that I knew for a fact that, at the time, she had a boyfriend (instant turn-off) and she also carried herself with the aloofness that beautiful girls exude when they don’t want to be bothered by strange boys. Empirically speaking, I was not alone in my opinion of her beauty, considering how other girls openly hated her. Further fueling their rage, Megan was pretty flirty–even when she was in a relationship. When she wanted attention, she knew all the right things to do to get it. And while I benefited from the occasional innuendo and backrub, I also worried about how I would be able to handle her flirtations towards other guys if we ever became an item. I had previously had a flirtatious girlfriend and during that relationship I felt cheated that other guys benefited from her affection without having to invest the time and emotions like I had. Did I want to put myself through that again? I gave the question cursory consideration and let it go. I was getting ahead of myself. After all, I hardly knew her.

The more time I spent with Megan, she treated me less icily and I began to see just how unique she really was. As such, she was highly coveted in many social circles. She loved musicals, performing in them when she could. She had a wonderful voice. She played the piano. She was well read. She didn’t slouch when she sat. She didn’t have to wear makeup to look good. She loved jazz and she played videogames. She could hang with the boys, but still be feminine–ladylike, even. She knew how to react to me when I was being a gentleman, instead of letting my actions go unnoticed or worse: looking at me quizzically and then laughing. She was also short enough so that when she wore heels she wouldn’t tower over me.

I had to have her.

I went way overboard in my pursuit. I should have taken my time and got to know her–I mean, really get to know her: find out her dreams and aspirations, what she hoped to do with her life, what her favorite doll was. But that wasn’t my style.

My high school held an annual renaissance faire. One of the attractions was a marriage booth where a teacher would dictate vague marriage vows and then the happy couple would stand in front of a cheap backdrop and get their picture taken. It’s all in good fun and every person proposed to usually says yes.

Right next to the marriage booth was another attraction: the fencing arena.

Megan was single now so the time was ripe to put my machinations into motion. I grabbed one of my friends and we quickly choreographed a crude sword fighting sequence in private for later use. Then I had him approach Megan to ask her to marry him. As he proposed, I ran up in a huff, telling him how Megan was mine to marry and an impromptu argument ensued, ending in me sulking away dejectedly. While Megan and my friend strolled leisurely, I ran to the booth and told the teacher dictating the vows to ask if anyone objected to their marriage during the ceremony. At which point, I appeared from behind a nearby tree, holding two of the fencing arena’s foils and challenged my friend for Megan’s hand. He accepted and I tossed him his weapon. Our fencing foils were really just spray painted sticks, heavily padded on one end. We were fighting with giant silver q-tips. Our duel was more clubbing than fencing. Nevertheless, my friend and I were locked in mock mortal combat for a handful of intense minutes, drawing a good portion of the student body. At length, I disarmed my friend and plunged my implement of death deep into his belly, smiting him to the earth with all the fury of Judgment Day. A roar of delight arose from the onlookers. Breathless, I dropped to one knee before Megan and uttered a dashing and utterly forgettable declaration of love. We were married a few minutes later.

Of course, nothing positive came of this. While she was involved in theatrics, Megan was just as down to earth as most girls when it came to feats of romance and she probably thought that this was not the kind of stunt a guy should pull on a girl he hardly knew. In our wedding Polaroid, Megan’s face is flush with embarrassment. She started dating someone she met in one of her musicals some time later and my pursuit came to a halt.

***

The beginning of my senior year of high school, I gave Rebecca (with whom I still kept in touch) a call to shoot the shit and catch up. That very week she had broken up with her fiancé and she was doing her best to adjust. She sounded very strong and like she was coping well, but I offered to go visit her just the same. I had every intention of just being a friendly shoulder to cry on.

I picked Rebecca up from her home and we decided to pass the night at a local coffee shop called JavaBooks, one of many clones that served as non-alcoholic bars for the underage. I was at particular ease that night and we talked in such a way that we had been unable to before. I really listened to her instead of waiting for an opportunity to regurgitate some corny line. We talked about old times and what different mutual friends were up to then. We discussed our physical and emotional scars and we laughed about our initial relationship together. For the first time, I realized how refreshing it was to be able to sit down with an attractive girl and just be myself, free of any romantic advances. I said as much to Rebecca who fell silent.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I’m thinking,” Rebecca slowly began, “that I would like tonight to be an official date.” She paused a moment. “And I’m thinking that I would like to go on more of them with you.”

I don’t exactly recall my reply, but I know I was happy. We quit the coffeehouse and went for a moonlit drive. We ended up on a dark street and took the opportunity for some stargazing.

“Are you any good with constellations?” she asked, sitting with me on the trunk of my car.

“Not really,” I confessed, “I think I can point out Orion and that’s it.”

“I see him.”

“Where?”

“There.” Rebecca pointed into the sky and I inched closer to her and pressed my cheek against hers.

“Okay, this never works,” I stated lightly.

“He’s over there!” Rebecca poked at the sky.

“All I see is your finger!” I exclaimed and we started giggling. In a movie, a kitschy soundtrack with long breathy notes or a quick tempo in a major key usually accompanies scenes like this. Despite that missing element, this was what I had hoped to achieve with Rebecca so many years before: the movie in my mind.

I was very much in love for those few months that Rebecca and I dated casually. She had hinted that she was falling in love with me by things that she would slip into conversations. She would say things like, “You’ve made me happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life” or “You remind me of my father.” When I would ask her if that was a good thing, she would reply, “He’s the first man I fell in love with.” Things were getting emotionally intense so we decided to get together to discuss dating seriously. But before that discussion took place, Rebecca decided for both of us that it was best to stay friends. She called me and told me that she didn’t have time for a relationship: serious or casual. She was involved in several activities at her school and she left me with the hope that we might get back together after some of these events were over months down the line.

I was taken aback. Just days before we had been discussing marriage–not getting married, just how we would be as a husband or a wife in the future. Now, any illusions that that future might have been together were dispelled. The blow winded me, but didn’t knock me down. In a movie, this is the part where boy loses girl and I was prepared to get girl back. I made sure that we would still meet on the day that the now unnecessary talk would have taken place. I even reconfirmed two days prior to the engagement. The night of, I went all out to change her mind. I got dressed to the nines. I bought a modest bouquet of flowers. I planned a romantic picnic under the stars on lake front property. I had become a modern day Orpheus and each detail was another string in my lyre, another verse to sing and another hope to lead my love out from the underworld.

The traffic there was horrendous. When I finally rang her doorbell, her older brother answered the door and told me that Rebecca was out on a date with some guy from her school. Like Orpheus, I left Rebecca’s home without my love, drenched in failure. At the time, I was too pissed to consider the emotional turmoil that a person enters after leaving a relationship as Rebecca had done when she broke up with her fiancé. At the time, I had no concept of being a transition person.

But I was learning very quickly.

I was angry and confused and slowly slipping into depression. It wasn’t until a short time later that I could put a face to the guy from her school. Some friends told me that Rebecca was dating seriously my friend Travis, my intellectual competitor whom I had known since the fourth grade and who intimately knew about my feelings for Rebecca. I could still see his pudgy face looking up at me from the boys’ lunch table. In disbelief I immediately called him.

“Hello?”

“Travis, is it true that you’re going out with Rebecca?”

There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line and then he asked, “Are you pissed?”

There was a pregnant pause on my end and then I threw the receiver back in its cradle.

The betrayal I felt was profound.

***

For the most part, I was in a world of shit. My brooding now had emotional foundation and my dressing in all black was now apropos and not just tragically hip. I turned my attentions back to Megan, but she was already well acquainted with the Transition Person Trap and could smell my musk of rejection. For a time, she politely entertained my advances, but when she started to show Renéwed interest in one of her former boyfriends, Megan treated me very coldly. When they started dating again, our relationship degraded to the point where she would do her best not to talk to me. This was of course awkward, considering that we were both on the Mock Trial team.

My depression subsided into frustration and I just swore off girls. Specifically, I killed off my feelings for Megan. If she wanted to treat me that way then I would spit it right back at her. Things were strictly professional between us for two solid months. Then one day, at the conclusion of a Mock Trial meeting, Megan asked me to stay behind. I expected she needed clarification on something or some other mundane concern. Instead, she embraced me good-bye. That modicum of physical affection was so strange it took me a moment to comprehend what she was doing. It was a simple act, but we both understood the gravity of that gesture.

Later, one of the Mock Trial coaches and my personal friend, Jim, asked me if I could “go for her.” Ah, Jim…a friend by every sense of the word. He stood at about six feet tall and had the girth of an ancient red oak. Jim was one of those big teddy bear types who was always concerned about the people in his life, so of course we discussed Megan on a regular basis. Admittedly, Megan’s hug had dripped a few drops of oil onto the rusted shut floodgates of my affection, but she still had a boyfriend and I wasn’t going to get in between that. I said as much to Jim who gave me a knowing look.

“She ds have a boyfriend, right?” I asked.

“Don’t say anything, but they broke up last Thursday.”

The world was suddenly full of delicious possibilities.

With Megan, I was cautious to say the least. So cautious was I that I phrased my proposal for our first date in such a way that it could be construed as a date or a friendly outing in case her interest in me was my imagination. Furthermore, I made a conscious decision not to brood or play the tortured soul. Instead, I chose to present a more upbeat persona, smiling and laughing more. I didn’t want to bring her down. On the evening of our date, we went to my house and watched a movie then went out to get something to eat, fairly run of the mill as far as dates go. To be completely accurate, however, the smell of her hair, the way she fit under my arm, the contours of her body against mine all added up to make the average evening dazzling. At the end of the night, when I walked Megan to her door, I had a moment of conflict, which I shared with her.

“A very long time ago,” I began, “I promised myself that I would never feel anything for you again. Now I don’t know what to think.” In a movie, characters are always spouting off with awkward outbursts of honesty. I don’t recall what she said to allay my fears. I do remember that she gave me a heartfelt hug and that was enough. I was just happy to have her in my life in a romantic capacity. I quickly asked her out on another date. This time it was for my eighteenth birthday.

We arrived at the restaurant early so Megan and I stood on the balcony and watched the sun set and the city lights come up. Then we adjourned inside to sit by the open fireplace for small talk. After dinner, we went outside again to sit in front of the lighted fire pits and drink mocha cappuccinos under a full moon while I read her ptry. At the end of the night I drove her home, feeling a little more than buzzed on how magical the evening was. I could tell she felt the same way by the languid gaze she fixed on my face, which I caught out of the corner of my eye. I knew then that it was time to go in for the kill. At Megan’s doorstep I pulled out a quarter and asked if she was a gambling woman. She was game.

“I bet you this quarter that I can kiss you without touching you.”

“Okay.”

“Close your eyes.”

She closed them and with strength I have never since experienced I fought back earth-shaking anxiety and kissed her.

Then I gave her the quarter.

Gimmicky, but effective.

Now as far as I could tell, things were going well, but young people are so easily distracted. Introduce Mike. I don’t know much about Mike so I’ll do my best to be fair when I write about him. He was around six feet tall. He played sports, a wrestler, I believe. I don’t think he was an honors student like Megan and myself were and it was also rumored that he was a heavy pot smoker. He had curly blond hair and fair skin, but he had a grotesque gap between his two front teeth. I wouldn’t be surprised if he whistled when he smiled on a windy day. Initially, other than those meager facts, all I knew was that Megan had a thing for him as well and therefore didn’t want an exclusive relationship quite yet. Maybe he had a rapier wit or an astounding wisdom, but coincidentally he was very tall and many girls were attracted to him…coincidentally. Still, I was confident in my abilities and discounted her infatuation with Mike as a fabricated attraction created when there is an object of many desires and one is in the position to have the object even if there is no initial personal desire for said object. Besides, the Mock Trial team would be going away to Sacramento for a week to compete in state competitions and I figured that that would give Megan and me ample opportunity to be alone.

A few days before leaving for Sacramento, I received a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi, René?”

“Who is this?”

“This is Rebecca.”

Oh.my.God. Old flames never call until you’ve forgotten about them. We talked and I laid it out for her. I told her just how fucked it was that she break up with me, handing me the line that she was too busy for a relationship and no more than a week later start dating my friend–MY FRIEND–of all people! I made her cry. Nothing douses the conflagration of a jilted lover’s rage better than a woman’s tears. She told me how her relationship with Travis had turned out to be a big mistake and just how sorry she was for hurting me. She asked to see me, so we scheduled a time to go for some coffee one chilly Spring evening.

Reprise JavaBooks. We sat on one of the worn comfortable couches off to the side and talked. I told her about my success with the Mock Trial team and how we were going up north. I told her about my personal success in the competition and how I had been awarded an internship with the Public Defender’s Office. I told her about Megan and how I was crazy about her. Rebecca expressed her excitement for my success on all accounts. Of course, as most conversations between old flames on good terms go, small talk turned into flirting. After a bit of sensual rough housing, we found ourselves in an awkward situation. In a movie, the camera maintains a tight shot of two profiles no more than an inch away from each other, breath pressing on each other’s lips, a pin prick for the inflating tension only a kiss away.

“Are you going to kiss me?” she asked.

Dazed, I replied, “I don’t know, am I going to kiss you?”

Pause, “What about Megan?”

Young people are so easily distracted.

I pushed her off my lap and stood up. Rebecca went to the restroom while I collected myself. When she came out again I stormed outside to my car. I couldn’t articulate what I felt. I had wanted Rebecca for six years. No matter how young I was back in the sixth grade, those feelings had been carried and compounded with each day and here I was getting green lights from her. On the other hand, I had Megan: a girl that other guys can only hope to have in their lives. Furthermore, my feelings for Megan were built on a more solid, more mature foundation.

“What’s wrong?” Rebecca asked when we finally got into my car and out of the cold. I did my best to tell her what I was feeling. “I’m so sorry, René. All I do is hurt you. What can I do to make it up to you?”

What could she do to make it up to me? Her cadence in delivery, the tone of her voice, and the inflection of every word all amounted to the same assurances of a genie asking me to make a wish.

“Let me make love to you.” Megan be damned.

My demand was out there, floating in the vacuum of the momentary silence in my car. I look back now and wonder what could have possessed me to be so bold. Perhaps I wanted vengeance or retribution for the hell Rebecca put me through. And what better way to get my aggressions out on an old flame that charred me to the bone than by fucking her silly? Maybe I asked because of all this conditioning by society, stating that a guy of my age and means should be out there getting laid more often. I should throw caution to the wind and forget these romantic notions of love and committed relationships and just be a play’a’! Maybe I was just curious. I was not prepared to hear what I did.

“Okay,” Rebecca replied simply and she began to undress, “If it makes you happy.”

If it made me happy? The words pinched something inside. I was already happy. I had Megan waiting for me back home. I wasn’t about to cheapen what I had already started with her for a few minutes of something that I could easily achieve with my own hand. Rejecting Rebecca’s offer only hinted at how deep my feelings for Megan ran. Instead, we had a meaningful talk and afterwards we drove back to her home and I walked her to her door. The cold outside was numbing.

“Will you at least kiss me goodnight?” Rebecca asked innocently, turning to face me at the top of her driveway. I looked at her and I was at once disarmed. The expression on her face in the dim glow of the amber street light was a plea; the way the tips of her eyebrows slanted ever so slightly up to her forehead, the almost imperceptible tightening of her lips, her intent gaze battered down every defense I assembled.

Just one friendly kiss goodnight.

That was all.

I could live with that.

It would not be betraying Megan.

I had been strong enough for one evening.

I cupped her cheek into my right palm and drew her close with my other hand. When I could feel the warmth of her breath I closed my eyes and kissed her gently. I could feel the soft short hairs around her mouth against my thinly parted lips. I kissed her gently again, but held it longer. Then with the tips of her lips, Rebecca urged my mouth open and devoured me. Surprised, I inhaled deeply through my nose, which heightened Rebecca’s excitement. She redoubled her efforts, voraciously teasing my tongue with hers and exploring my body with her hands. Saliva was slowly slipping into the cracks of our lips and we continually shifted the angles of our heads to seal the breaches. What had started out as a friendly kiss was turning into an oral ravishing. This was the most earth moving, mind-blowing kiss I had ever had and it rocked me to my ts. It was Rebecca’s way of adding an exclamation point to one of the greatest missed opportunities any man can have in his life. When she finally released me we were breathless and the brisk weather was no longer biting, but refreshing.

“Call me if you change your mind,” she said. Then she slipped inside without another word, a silent ending to my romance with Rebecca and an inauspicious beginning to my now unencumbered pursuit of Megan.

Unfortunately, Sacramento was not the romantic getaway that I thought it was going to be. Mike was also on the Mock Trial team and he flew up with us. As it turned out, Megan spent most of her time with Mike for the four-day duration. When the team toured the capitol building, Megan and Mike were never more than an arm’s length apart. When the team walked the streets downtown, if I was able to catch Megan alone and walk beside her, she would inconspicuously slow or quicken her pace in order to walk with Mike. Back in the hotel, the two of them would disappear for hours. I spent most of my time reading Dante’s Inferno in my room alone. Jealousy turned my stomach while I tried to remain focused for the competition.

During that time I spent my nights with John, who joined the team as an alumnus coach after we took County, and he counseled me as best he could on the issue of Megan. He was very sympathetic to my needs and while he proposed I keep going for Megan, by the end of the trip I was a beaten man. My team had lost its first round, which meant we didn’t have a shot at going to national competition. I had a particularly poor performance my final round and I felt as if I had let the team down. Moreover, Megan was as distant as ever. I was so disgusted with everything about the trip that I walked back to the hotel after the last round rather than travel with the team. Later that night, I got drunk with Jim in a nightclub on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency, where the team stayed. I was still dressed in my suit so I wasn’t bounced at the door and I had the look of a man broken by life so I wasn’t carded at the bar. Just the same, I ducked out onto the balcony while Jim bought us cigars and a glass of brandy to share.

The night was pleasantly cool and a few patrons had gathered outside to bask in the inviting weather. Jim returned shortly and we lit our cigars, dipping their tips into the brandy for accent. We let a few minutes pass in silence, smoke curling all around us, before Jim spoke.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked.

“I’m losing her,” I replied. I drew long and hard on my cigar, then dropped my jaw and pushed the smoke out with my tongue, allowing the wispy tendrils to engulf my face.

“She doesn’t know what she wants right now.”

“Oh, it’s quite obvious what she wants, Jim.”

“You don’t know that,” Jim pleaded. There was a hint of hope in his voice.

I was oblivious to hope.

“Jim, I see the way the she looks at him. I see the way she smiles and talks to him,” I paused for a moment, dully feeling the pain of accepting reality, “She never talks to me, I mean never really talks to me. I never know how she feels, but when she’s with him…chatterbox.”

“Well, that’s mainly because she doesn’t know what to say.” Most of the time, I supported myself with Jim’s insights. As he was my personal friend, he was also Megan’s, so I could always count on him to bring me insider information. That night, however, none of it mattered.

“And would you care to hazard a guess as to where she is right now?” I continued, “She’s probably with him somewhere.”

“Well, apparently Megan and Mike spent a long time alone together in his room, but all they did was talk.” Some insights were better left unseen.

I glared incredulously at Jim.

“Thanks, Jim, I really wanted to know that.” Jim chuckled, but through my mind, brief flashes of Megan and Mike together burst here and there. In between those bursts were thoughts of jumping off the balcony. I just wanted to give up…on everything. I was so tired. I single-handedly carried the Mock Trial team victoriously to Sacramento and now I was carrying the team ignominiously defeated back home. All the while, my personal feelings and emotions had to be squashed down and become second priority and now I was simply drained. Giving up was the easy answer.

“I’m going to bow out,” I suddenly declared.

“What?” Jim asked, aghast.

“I have to. She doesn’t want me.” I took a sip of the brandy, preparing myself to counter whatever pep talk Jim might be able to improvise to dissuade me.

“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do,” Jim began.

“And I have to do this,” I retorted quickly, hoping to show my determination.

Then Jim said something completely unexpected and it hit me squarely in the jaw. “You love her.” He spoke cleanly and evenly. He didn’t even look at me.

“What are you talking about? I don’t love her.” I drank again.

“You love her,” Jim repeated more persuasively, “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be hurting the way you are.” He finished with a knowing puff of his cigar. I drew myself to my full height, ready to refute the accusation with plenty of evidence to the contrary…but nothing came. I could only think about Megan and what she brought to my life. I thought about the scent of her hair and the way the corners of her mouth creased whenever she smiled. I thought of the way she would look up at me when she was being coy. I thought of the way she would take me into her arms when we embraced at the end of the night. I thought of all the things that I normally took for granted and realized that I would truly be saddened if I lost those things: the superficialities of love.

I looked sternly at Jim for a very long time, then away at the horizon and sighed a conceding sigh.

“All right, all right…so I love her.”

Still, I had just competed in Mock Trial and therefore hyper-practical. Leaving the nightclub, I was acutely aware that unrequited love was far worse than unrequited infatuation. That being so, I was resolute as ever in my decision to quit my pursuit of Megan. I invited her back to my room where I told her that I wouldn’t pursue her any longer. Megan made her protestations and tears were shed, but in the end I had made up my mind: I would give up. Megan fell asleep in my arms and I was never more in love.

Once we were back in Southern California I resolved to just be her friend. I tried, but she wouldn’t have it. In reality, I guess I wouldn’t either. When we went out as friends, the night ended intimately. I realized I couldn’t just lie down for this one. I was a driven man and Mike became my f, once again.

Each day was a battle of carefully calculated words and actions to undermine Mike’s standing. The details aren’t important, but understand that it took planning and assertiveness and a special meticulous care that only clock makers know. From all observations, I was sure to win the race. Friends were congratulating me and telling me how Megan and I made a better-looking couple anyway. Two days after her birthday, after I had gone to great lengths to leave tokens of my affection on her desk in each class whereas Mike did nothing for her, Megan dropped the weight of the world on me.

“We need to talk.”

As it turned out, Mike had played the one card I had refused to. He had acted the part of the tortured soul during one of his and Megan’s private moments, no doubt claiming his life forfeit if Megan did not save him from the abyss with her complete, undiminished and unshared love. I’m filling in the gaps here with my own speculations, but what I was able to piece together amounted to the same. Megan still cared for me, sure, but she also cared for Mike and my life didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger. I was outraged by Mike’s underhanded maneuver, but to protect Megan’s reputation, I kept this knowledge to myself. I didn’t want her to go though the gossip about her dating a nutcase. As such, I played the part of the fool who was a silent martyr to love.

I understood then that all the bullshit I was fed in school about being able to have and be anything I wanted if I only worked hard enough really was just bullshit. The reason it was bullshit was because it was a guarantee and there are no guarantees when other people are involved. You can never know when someone might come in and ruin all of your hard work.

I did my best to keep the dike from breaking. I hung onto the hope that Megan was only placating the situation with Mike, that it would end quickly and that she would be in my arms again in no time. Then I hung onto the hope that there was hope. Then there was nothing. I had nothing left inside me. Life became a nightmarish event to get over with. Mostly, I remember sleeping, sometimes sixteen hours a day. Sleep was my vacation, my alcohol, my drug of choice.

Atrociously, I wanted Megan to be just as miserable. If I could see that she hated the situation as much as I did then I could be strong and bear it. Unfortunately, I never saw that.

One day from across the hall I saw Megan walking around with her hair up in a way that I particularly liked. She sported her green hooded sweater jacket and some blue jeans. It was during the break between second and third period and the sun was shining warmly. When the light hit Megan’s face just right, she was as radiant as the dawn. Then Mike walked up and said something to her. It was something she obviously liked, because she stood on her tipts, threw her arms around his neck, and gave him a kiss. Then she smiled contentedly.

In a movie, the camera zooms up violently from far away into a tight shot of the protagonist’s face as realization dawns on him. I was alone in this. I was more alone than even I could have possibly imagined. Even if Megan was hurting over losing me, she still had Mike to console her and from all appearances it didn’t look like the situation was particularly distressing to her. I couldn’t confide in our friends, because I was preventing any shameful gossip from spreading about Megan. In our friends’ eyes Mike was the winner and I was the loser. Even if I could have told our friends the truth, I don’t believe that they could have really understood the depths of my hell. Besides, as a teenager, frivolous and fleeting failed relationships dramatized as life-altering tragedies were rampant and I’m sure that my feelings would have been marginalized accordingly. I understood that nobody ever gives credit to the emotional description of relationships and especially not from a brooding teenage jilted lover. Then how could I expect my friends to understand my point of view until they suffered such a deep depression that they no longer measure their lives in years or days or hours, but in breaths? I measured my life so, because the idea of living even an hour longer was too painful. Too many things reminded me of her. And it wasn’t as if I could get away from any of it, especially when we went to the same school and had the same friends.

“René, did you hear that Megan and Mike are…”

“I feel so sorry for you, René. I heard that Megan and Mike are…”

“Hey man, I can’t believe you’re taking things so well. You know, since Megan and Mike are…”

“Out of twenty…okay, here’s your change, sir. Pull up to the next window…oh, and by the way, did you hear that Megan and Mike are…”

In choosing Mike, Megan may have saved his life, but she killed me instead. And though I tried to distract myself with studies and extracurricular activities, I allowed myself to become obsessed with the thought of her. I spelled her name out compulsively over and over again in the margins whenever I took notes. During passing periods, I would take detours to my next class through routes that would afford me a glimpse of the back of her head. Then one night, by chance, she had left her green hooded sweater jacket at my home and I clutched it whenever I went to sleep, drunk in the smell of her.

To stay sane, I turned to my craft. I gathered numerous photographs of Megan at many angles and constructed my own portrait of her. I was completely focused on this project. All of my thought and energy was bent towards this one thing. It would be my legacy, my magnum opus. The process took me a good month, I believe, not because the drawing was so grand, but because I had to draw it when I could. My home life was not so good and I would have to draw late at night by flashlight or, when the batteries died, by moonlight lest my father find me awake to give him one more reason to attack me. When my father finally kicked me out of the house, the first thing I asked my mother to smuggle out for me was this piece of paper. In the most troubled time of my life, this drawing was all I needed to sustain me. I later gave Megan this portrait, nicely framed and presented proudly on the wall of her room.

To conclude my senior year, Megan and I were Romeo and Juliet (not respectively) and Mike was Tybalt. The casting was awkward at best and infuriating at worst. Rehearsals were torture beyond description. Romeo would deliver his lines from beneath the balcony with the candid sincerity of truth and Juliet would be gazing and winking at someone in the wings. I couldn’t even have her in my fantasies. Still, it was nice kissing Megan and confessing my undying love to her and most of all, killing her boyfriend on a nightly basis; however, I would have preferred the real thing.

Then I graduated and moved away with no means to visit Megan: no car and no job for fare. And even if I could find some way to see her, she would always be preoccupied with Mike. I was in a very lonely, angry place and I needed something to brace me up.

Re-enter John A. John’s brand of support came in the form of attacking my enemies. Not to say that Megan was an enemy, but it helped ease the pain by attacking her, nonetheless. John sat through countless nights simply listening to me vent. Afterwards, he would insert his own opinions about Megan and about Mike and about them together. What’s more, he really knew how to echo my sentiments. I would say something like, “I can’t believe she’s with Mike.” John would say, “Megan’s a whore.” I would say, “I really felt led on.” John would say, “Megan’s a cock tease.” For once, I had an ally. Moreover, this was an ally who genuinely disliked Megan. If at any time I tried to compliment or defend Megan, John was quick to squash my positive comments down. I didn’t care. It made me feel better. It made me feel right in being angry.

It was during these dark hours that I learned the ways of truth in interpersonal relationships that John supposedly practiced. Lessons learned, I waged war on Megan. I told her how much I hated her and how unfair I thought the situation was. I attempted to sabotage her friendships. I took back the portrait I gave her. My contempt for Megan was so overwhelming that every good thing I associated with her darkened under its looming shadow. Once again, the stalwart friend, John was there every step of the way. He was a tireless soldier in my offensives and I always considered us a united front: Operation Burning Rage.

As time passed and old wounds scarred, I started to distance myself from that blind hatred. I reviewed my actions and realized just how stupid I was and that I still cared for Megan. I couldn’t leave things the way they were. She was no longer with Mike so I figured it was time to at least patch things up. I called Megan and invited her out to shoot some pool. I expected a lengthy rebuff, but she agreed rather quickly. I was elated and I shared the good news with John. I don’t recall his response, but I’m sure it was supportive. For all his Megan bashing, he was glad that I was happy. Then a mutual friend, Sean, called me and invited me to his eighteenth birthday get together.

I kept the invite to myself even though Sean had entrusted to me the responsibility of informing John. I knew Megan was going to be at Sean’s and I really didn’t need any competition to distract Megan, especially at this very fragile rebuilding stage. In truth, I was a little ashamed at thinking of John in this manner, but I was taking no chances. In various run-ins between Megan and John before that point, I noticed that John did not exhibit any of the things he said about Megan when he and I were alone. In fact, he would often accept hugs from her and speak casually to her with me looking on in incredulity. John’s motives were suspect, so I left him uninvited. Unfortunately, at the end of the workday I let slip the information about the party and John promptly invited himself.

When I got to Sean’s place, I found John smoking out front with Megan. I kept my cool about it, made my hellos to everyone else, and went inside. We all chitchatted for a while until we decided to go out to eat. At the restaurant, Megan sat next to Sean and showed him much attention, both physical and conversational. That was fine. I discounted Sean as harmless. It was his birthday, after all, and I had a date with Megan in a few days. Besides, Megan was a flirt. I began to get annoyed, though, when John would invite Megan out for a smoke. When I would inevitably join them they would finish before me, having had head starts, and go back inside. Then I would watch with clenched teeth as John would throw his arm around Megan and she would reciprocate. At the very least I expected John to stay and keep me company while I finished my cigarette.

After dinner we headed back to Sean’s place. Having nothing to do, someone suggested a card game. Megan volunteered to go get some cards and she asked for company. Megan had barely enough time to punctuate her question before John was on his feet. When they returned we all headed to the backyard to play some card game that I can’t remember the name of. I do remember, however, that Megan and John sat nearly shoulder to shoulder. I was knocked out early so I passed time by standing up and smoking and eyeballing Megan and John flirt. John had his hat off and rested on his knee. His feet were up on a patio table or a stool or something. Megan, having considerably shorter legs, couldn’t reach the table or stool and instead rested her legs on John’s legs. I sat down across from Megan and John. In one swift move John took this opportunity to drop his hand and rest it on Megan’s upper inner thigh with me looking on in silent horror. In that moment I knew I had no right to be jealous, but I was jealous nonetheless.

As I watched this unfold, John looked at me…and he took his time…he let his eyes drag slowly across the length of Megan’s leg, which was in possession of his hand…down across the distance of the cold cement…up my frozen body to my face…a face that was so deluged by a myriad of conflicting and confusing emotions that it did not know how to express itself except in a face so stoic that it was alien…dead into my eyes. In those eyes he found my entire history with Megan: all the suffering, all the pining, all the love and hate, every single tortured night that I would dream about her…pronouncing itself as rage. John stared at the lethal beast behind those eyes…and he grinned.

This guy–this fucking guy–my friend…in whom I confided every emotion I had felt for Megan, had his hand exploring an area not known to many men, with his mind no doubt racing with wicked fantasies and his pulse no doubt pounding with the anxiety of wondering just how far he could get…was grinning at me, ear to ear. These were not the actions of someone who carried a deep-seated dislike for Megan. This was the smile of a murderer who knew he could get away with it. I think subconsciously John knew that he could slander Megan behind her back with all the malice in the world and that she would remain as affectionate to him as ever. Again, I was the fool. I bought into John’s “honesty propaganda” and had actually told Megan that I hated her and here was John, reserving his harsh criticism and reaping all the rewards.

Life is grossly unfair.

I let John know my displeasure, without making a big scene, by sarcastically gesturing a “way to go” to him. I’m not sure what prompted John to respond to it, but he quickly looked away and withdrew his hand. To make it seem like the movement was nonchalant and motivated by something mundane, John used the same hand to pick up his cap and place it on his head. I drew another cigarette and perched it on my lip, virtually contracting myself to the engagement for a few minutes longer, but I really wanted to leave. The thought crossed my mind as each new cigarette burned to the filter, yet I couldn’t bring myself to go. I knew that there was a limit to what John would do with Megan, but that limit existed only so long as I was there to enforce it. Besides, I had to know what else would happen and I knew that my imagination would drive me insane if I didn’t finish out the night. So with endurance that I will never be able to fully relate, I stayed and smoked cigarette after cigarette until my tongue burned and my throat was raw. I had to control my murderous rage through repetition. My life or John’s life or both depended on it. I experienced the night, but absorbed nothing. I concentrated on smoking: the only lifeline I had as I dangled over the brink of madness. And with each butt that I tossed over Sean’s fence we were all one cigarette closer to a very bloody evening.

At length, the engagement ended and I had four cigarettes to spare. We all said our good-byes and I, physically and emotionally exhausted, tried to slip past Megan at the door unnoticed. She pulled me aside and I gave her a half-hearted hug, then made my way into the dark street to my car. John caught up to me and the first thing he asked me was, “Are you okay?”

This was a major thin ice situation. By saying “yes” I would have effectively said that what happened was okay with me. On the other hand, a “no” would have meant a confrontation that I wasn’t prepared for. I said, “No.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Alright, but I need to get a drink, I’m dying.” So we went to an ATM to get some cash. While at the ATM John said, “René, I want you to know that I wasn’t hitting on her.”

I looked up at him and simply replied, “Okay.” Then we went to an all night Ralph’s and got some water. We sat on the benches out front and rehashed the evening. I told John how I felt. John’s defense was that I claimed so many women that he felt locked out from being able to make any kind of move on them. I explained to him that I had liked Megan first and he said that he had liked her ever since he met her and he met her before me. He even tried to redirect the blame onto the nature of the beast, explaining to me how Megan and he were two “highly sexual people” and therefore he couldn’t help himself. I drank my beverage and listened to his excuses, but they didn’t hold water. The only thing I took away from that conversation was that if I had done the same thing to his ex-girlfriend, Jazmine, that he would have been pissed. With that I felt we had come to an understanding: you do not make advances on someone for whom your friend has feelings, especially if they have history together.

So while I didn’t necessarily forgive John, I let it slide. I allowed for the ambiguity of the terms and limitations of our friendship and to smooth things out, I invited him back to my place to play videogames until dawn.

As for my date with Megan, we just shot some pool, got some fast food, and then I took her home. It might as well not have happened at all.

Flash forward.

Megan was gone. She was up at Berkeley going to college and for the most part, things were patched up between us. Months passed with no communication, then one day I gave Megan a call. Phone calls turned into personal Internet correspondence. It was nothing romantic, but it was something. Online chatting then turned back into phone calls when I proposed that we write a play together, considering she was an avid writer. From that point on our long distance phone calls would last as long as the batteries in my cordless. We worked diligently on the play and at length we had most of it done by February when it was time for Megan to come back home to watch her younger sister compete in Mock Trial. Clawing my way back into Megan’s life was not easy. It took determination, perseverance, investment and good old-fashioned luck to break through, so understand that the previous paragraph belies the wherewithal with which I worked.

Flash back for a just a moment.

When Megan came home in December I went to go visit her the first chance I had. She expressed to me that she had put on a few pounds and was feeling unattractive. I disagreed, but can anyone really reason with a woman who thinks she’s fat?

Flash forward again.

So when Megan came down to watch her sister compete, I was a bit concerned over a few things. I shared these concerns with John a few days before Megan’s arrival. I told John that Megan had put on a few pounds and to do me a favor and not make fun of her. John nearly swallowed his tobacco dip when he heard that.

“I hope she got fat!” he howled gleefully. I explained that she had not gotten fat, but that she was feeling fat. I then went on to ask another favor of him.

“John,” I said gravely, “do me a favor and don’t hit on her. I don’t think I could stand that again.”

Again, John nearly swallowed the tobacco in his mouth, “When have I ever done that?!”

I was about to refresh his memory, but decided against it, “Look, if you don’t remember, I’d rather leave it at that. Just promise me you won’t.”

“I don’t remember doing that, but alright.”

The Mock Trial competition was long and boring and when it was over Megan invited me out to dinner. We went to a pretty classy place where her friends played jazz and we delighted ourselves with some fine music and a few laughs. When we left we found that we still had time to get to Jim’s–who was still coaching Mock Trial one final year–for a get together with some of the guys. Walking through the parking lot of Jim’s complex was a short wonderful time. Megan and I had more laughs in that lot than in the whole time knowing each other.

When we entered Jim’s place, I was visibly elated. It didn’t last long. We all stepped out to smoke on Jim’s patio and John was sitting on a patio chair. Megan took this opportunity to sit on John’s knee. I looked on this situation as I would look on the beginning of a roller coaster that I wasn’t prepared to ride, but it would be too late because the ride had started and the carts were clicking and clacking ever upward to the peak painted against nothing but sky. I would see that peak ahead of me and know that beyond its summit was a whirlwind of screaming and confusion and a world turned upside down and inside out, but I would laugh it off because it was supposed to be a ride and it was supposed to be fun. So I too tried to laugh it off at Jim’s while that peak and its inevitable drop came ever nearer. To convince myself that I was there to have fun, I made light of the situation and sat on John’s other knee. The laughter that ensued was shorter lived than I would have liked.

Click!

Clack!

The temperature was dropping so we adjourned inside. We all felt down and muttered to each other about how disappointed we were that the Mock Trial team for Jim’s last year would not be going to state competitions. So to bolster everyone’s mood (all of us being guys), Megan flashed us her bra. It’s amazing the silencing effect that a pair of tits can have on men.

Click!

Clack!

Moments later John was on the couch, dipping his tobacco, talking about his English class and a pm he had read called the Goblin Market. He explained its premise and when he got to the implicit lesbian scene I realized that he was not speaking to everyone, but to Megan. Somewhere around this time, Jim exited to his patio again to rehearse his farewell speech to the Mock Trial team. John went on to describe the lesbian scene to Megan in great detail.

Click!

Clack!

At last, Megan made her way over to the couch on which John was sitting and sat on the opposite end. In the best flirty expression he could muster, John slowly lifted his bare feet off the floor and onto Megan’s lap. She smiled coyly back at him and picked up one of his gigantic feet and began to massage it.

Click!

“Well, this is my lucky day!” John exclaimed in between spitting into a cup.

Clack!

Then he began to groan in physical euphoria.

My world became a whirlwind of screaming and confusion and I found that the drop on the other side of the peak was so steep that it did not slope and worse yet, it did not end. The room became a funhouse hall of mirrors. Everything I looked at became bizarre and twisted. I could focus on nothing, but the carnal act before me. The idle conversation from those around me became muted tones echoing down some long and winding tunnel. I could hear nothing clearly but the animalistic sounds emanating from John’s tobacco filled mouth. And I had to think to myself, who was John in Megan’s life? As far as I knew, they didn’t communicate very much if at all during her absence. Who was John in Megan’s life to deserve such pampering? I had literally hacked a new path to Megan through a war torn history and a distance of five hundred miles just to be her friend and I don’t think it crossed her mind once to treat me with the same attention. In the warped reality of that room Beauty rewarded the Undeserving and for Her troubles She would be slandered once Her services were no longer required. In a movie, this is where the jealous lover takes a machete and hacks everyone into fun sized pieces, and as much as I wanted the situation to be cinematic fiction–unreachable and therefore no harm to me–the reality was tangible and oppressive and I had to escape. I grabbed my cigarettes and fled to the patio.

The betrayal I felt was profound.

“Jim,” I choked, “I promise you I won’t bother you, I just need to be here right now.”

“You’re not bothering me,” he replied, putting his speech away, “Do you want to talk?”

“Just let me get a few cigarettes inside me.” With trembling hands I quickly lit a stick and sucked it down hard. After a moment of blinding pain in my chest, I exhaled a stream of smoke that would make dragons proud. There was a beat of silence while the effects kicked in. “Do you see this?” I finally asked.

“Yeah,” Jim replied, looking off.

“What is he doing?” I asked incredulously.

“I don’t know.” Jim shook his head slightly.

I chain-smoked, once again measuring time with each cigarette.

“The worst thing is,” I said, “he’s going to expect to shake my hand at the end of the evening.”

“Are you going to?” Jim asked, interested.

“I…don’t know,” I took a deep drag, “I don’t know if I can be his friend anymore.”

John came out a good time later to join us. Upon seeing the scattered pile of cigarettes just beyond Jim’s patio John asked, “You going for a new record, René?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “something like that.”

“Well, gentlemen,” John stood up, “my feet are getting cold, so I’m going back inside.”

Jim turned back to me and muttered, “Sure, why don’t you go get another foot massage.”

I gave Jim a sideways look and chuckled. I had thought the exact same thing.

The night was drawing to a close and my ability to be pleasant in the face of hostility had been spent. I knocked on the screen door with the back of my hand, a cigarette still firmly pinched between my fingers, and asked Megan if she could take me home. She mercifully agreed. On my way out, John stood by the door and extended his hand.

I shook it.

After asking me “What’s wrong?” about thirty times, Megan finally got me home where I promptly proceeded to get plastered. I don’t usually drink alcohol. I use it. Alcohol gets me to my forgetting place. The following morning, groggy and hung over, I found that I had pissed on the floor of my bathroom.

***

I knew I had to be very clear on my point of view and it took me a couple of days to be completely sure of how I felt. I stayed very distant from everyone until I could sort things out in my head, however, I made it a point to stay away from John. If he called asking me to spend some time with him, I either begrudgingly shared a quick meal with him or made up an excuse not to go. Then I started screening my phone calls. I needed time to think, undistracted. If I was going to end the friendship with him, my reasons had to be solid. I was going to cut from the bone and there was no margin for equivocation.

The facts as they stood were, I was hurt and someone had to be held accountable. It came down between John and Megan. Scenarios implicating Megan fell apart when I considered that there were no rules of engagement established between us. She was free to do as she pleased. Therefore, the blame had to fall completely on John.

I decided that the event, in and of itself, did not warrant my ending the friendship with John, but the context surrounding the event certainly tipped the scales. First and foremost, I felt John betrayed me. John betrayed the understanding that we had come to after Sean’s birthday. John betrayed the agreement we had come to in my car, days before the incident. If nothing else, I felt John betrayed our friendship by making advances on the flame responsible for my burns. I will allow that Megan was a willing and initiating party to the event, however, there were a variety of responses that John could have chosen with which to react. I didn’t think that it would have been unreasonable to expect John not to put his feet in Megan’s lap.

Secondly, I would have resented John forever. I wouldn’t be able to help it. Days after the incident, before any decisions had been made, when I looked at John all I could see was the betrayal. As it was, I was already having horrible dreams about John and Megan sharing the close quarters of a bathtub. I would never forget this. I would relive the night every time I saw him. Why would I want to continue the friendship? What would be the point? There had to be consequences to John’s actions. What he was doing was wrong, if not to me then to Megan. He was backstabbing her repeatedly and with impunity. If she was blind to it then so be it. I was not.

Lastly, though I couldn’t prove it, I felt John had intentions toward Megan. I am positive beyond reasonable doubt that if he had been given the opportunity for more, that John would have taken it. If John had slept with Megan, then my decision to end the friendship would have been clear. In my mind, intentions and actions are the same thing. Friendship is based on opportunities taken to prove loyalty, not lack of opportunity to prove disloyalty. These were the arguments I steeled myself with in order to prosecute John’s actions.

It wasn’t long after Jim’s farewell to the Mock Trial team that John started trying to piece together the reasons for my silence. In my blind undirected rage I had vented to some mutual friends and I have no doubt that the fruits of my ire were picked off the grapevine. He was understandably upset and he prepared his defense.

Though John and I never spoke in person during this time, his explanations were distilled to me through mutual friends.

“This is the kind of relationship [John] always had with Megan.”

I took that to mean that John had always behaved physically and flirtatiously with Megan ever since he’d known her. Well, I’m not sure how Megan and John behaved together while I wasn’t around, but to the best of my knowledge things like what happened at Jim’s apartment never happened throughout the time I was wooing Megan. What’s more, John was already two years out of high school and as far as I knew, he didn’t exactly hang out with Megan, much less communicate with her while she was away at college. So the idea that John had any kind of relationship with Megan worth noting is pretty shaky.

[John] had a few beers in [him].”

This was the least persuasive defense that came my way. It was particularly weak because it effectively placed the responsibility on the alcohol. That is to say, if John had not been drinking that night, his actions would have and should have been deemed inappropriate. It is also important to note that John had an exceptional tolerance for alcohol. He once drank thirteen beers in the course of one New Year’s Eve’s party and complained about not feeling buzzed. Even if John had been inebriated, it didn’t excuse anything in my mind. When people are drunk, they do things they wouldn’t normally do. Some people say things they shouldn’t say. Some people drive over pedestrians. Being drunk ds not assuage their infractions.

“It was all her. [John] didn’t do anything. There was no interest on [his] part.”

While I will allow that Megan did assert herself, it’s not as though John didn’t initiate the foot massage by placing his feet in Megan’s lap. I didn’t have enough evidence to prove interest at the time, but this defense also felt weak because it–like the others before–relied on an outside force as foundation. Thus, each defense was made fragile. I simply had to attack the outside force and it was only a matter of time before evidence proving interest surfaced.

What I was looking for was accountability. I wanted John to say that he did nothing wrong regardless of any outside forces. I wouldn’t have been able to argue against that. You can’t argue differences of opinion. I think this was the explanation John was trying to get to if indeed he had made the arguments that came my way. In retrospect, I truly believe that John had no intent to hurt me and that he was simply too distracted with pleasing himself to realize that hurting me was implicit in his actions. For my part, I couldn’t be friends with someone who can’t grasp that they’re hurting me. That was the bottom line, unabridged and unabashed. I saw it discernibly now and I passed judgment with a clear conscience.

I want to say that some time after my drunken stupor I made the final decision to end my friendship with John. In truth, I don’t think there was a specific moment. I just ended communication and got used to not seeing him. I took it one day at a time until he was phased out. I also want to say that I ended my relationship with John solely because he betrayed understandings we had come to. Looking back, John was guilty of something far worse: he was a mirror reflecting everything I hated about myself. I hated the fact that I would have to work infinitely harder than him when it came to women. I hated being insecure about girls that I was deeply passionate over being attracted to my close friends. I hated knowing that deep down I hated my friend for being a hypocrite.

I ended the friendship to break the mirror.

***

The road to separation was always uphill and not always clear.

I missed John terribly. Since leaving my parents’ home, John had been the single person I spent time with most. I could always count on him to come over in a pinch. Removing John from the equation of my day was like quitting smoking. I suddenly found an overwhelming amount of free time alone.

The one thing notably missing was John’s laugh. He had a low guttural laugh that infected me whenever I heard it. And when John was wracked with laughter, a childlike expression engulfed his face, always impressing me with John’s ability to derive so much enjoyment out of the most infinitesimal things. I missed that: just being able to sit down with John and have a good laugh. There were plenty of times that I paced around my apartment, receiver in hand, wanting to get those moments back, but in time, those temptations faded. In time, I no longer needed John to complete me. I learned to be whole by accepting my reality, rather than fighting against it. I embraced my second place in the dating world and found room for the wreckage of friendship with John. I absorbed the pain and inner turmoil and incorporated them into my being. Thus, I did my best to keep my falling out with John between he and myself, but it was an impossible task.

The quickly widening rift between John and I swallowed our mutual friends the following summer. Understanding both of our obstinate characters, everyone knew that John and I would never be caught dead near one another and for a while it was I who had been invited to all of the get togethers and hang outs. At times it felt as though my problems with John had been contained. Whenever the question, “So, how’s John?” would come my way, I would glance it off with, “We don’t hang out anymore,” and leave it at that. I knew of course that they would eventually make contact with John and I expected our friends to be faced with a tough decision: whom do they invite? It was residual social fallout and it blanketed everything in my life.

If John was feeling abandoned by me it was more than made up for by the loyalty of our friends. My phone began to ring less and less and then not at all. When I would catch up with my friends I would hear of some past get together I hadn’t known about and then ask why I hadn’t been invited. My friends would pass the buck, saying things like, “Oh, [blank] was supposed to call you. He didn’t call you?” or “Well, I don’t want you to think that I’ve chosen John over you, but it wasn’t my party, so I didn’t feel right just inviting anybody.”

At first, I was hurt. Most of these people had been former Mock Trial teammates and we had shared life-altering experiences. We had cut our teeth together in the trenches and at one time they had referred to me as Oh captain, My captain! Now I was nobody.

After the initial shock of having been passed over yet again, I developed a morbid fascination in observing these people whenever they tried to rationalize their actions in leaving me uninvited. I enjoyed watching them squirm and their eyes dance about and their gaze always dodging mine, falling somewhere over my shoulders. It was all very insulting, but I chose not to get hurt. Instead, I viewed the rift as a great cleansing plague that thinned out my herd of friendships, leaving only the strong behind. Beyond that, I was through with judging people. I only sought to understand why people did what they did. The understanding I came to was that in large social engagements people view John as more fun to be around than me. At younger ages it’s on this fun factor that people base friendships.

That left me alone…again.

Moreover, Megan was down for the summer and spent time with these people on a weekly basis, which meant she spent time with John, oblivious or unconcerned as to why I was absent each night at the gathering. The worst had come to pass. Everything I had worked for to bridge the gap between Megan and myself had been destroyed and in my social circle I had become the square. I learned to speak bitter fluently. If there had ever been an opportunity that by some stroke of luck Megan spent time with me I would show my gratitude with snide remarks and sardonic comments. I knew I had deserved better. Instead, I had returned to my lonely place and serious doubt sank in as to the righteousness of my decision. It wasn’t until the following summer that my doubts were relieved.

As far as I was told, John would occasionally ask Megan out to dinner. Just the two of them. This was very uncharacteristic of John as I knew him, but still wasn’t enough to prove interest on his part. But then there were other details here and there–little slips of John’s tongue that came out during parties, hinting at John’s desire to break the platonic bonds. However, when Megan began postponing their dinner engagements farther and farther back, John slowly ended communication. This culminated, as I was told, in John not even speaking to Megan one of the last nights she was still in town for the summer and the last night that he would be seeing her for a long time. While I didn’t witness any of these events, I have it on good authority that these things happened the way that I have related them now. That being the case, I was more than relieved to find these things out. I had been floating in a morass of uncertainty until that point and it was wonderful to discover the true nature of John’s actions.

***

In a movie, where the story continues beyond the scope of the film, there’s usually a short montage of scenes showing the individual characters and what they’re doing now. Megan went back to Berkeley for school and we continued our friendship where I proceeded to fall in love with her all over again. When she came down for the following summer we did everything that lovers did, but Megan refused to call me her boyfriend or us a couple. At the end of summer, she decided for both of us that a long distance relationship would be unfair and we returned to simply being friends. When she flew back down for a film project in L.A., Megan started dating a guy who lived there and their relationship continued even after she returned to Berkeley and he stayed in Los Angeles.

I gave up on women completely and they moved in together sometime later.

I saw Rebecca one night at a local pool hall. I hadn’t even noticed that she walked in. I had had a job interview earlier that day and I was dressed smartly. Rebecca exclaimed my name in surprise, commented on how good I looked and gave me a hug. At the end of the night, I gave her my numbers, expecting her not to call. I wasn’t disappointed.

As for Jim, he died…just as my friendship with John was guttering out. We all hoped it was quick: a seizure on the floor of his bathroom after a shower. He was six years older than me. I was particularly bereft losing the only person who would have been my ally when it came to standing up to John and standing up for myself.

John and I finally exchanged our views with one another almost two years after the falling out. It was very civil and there was no ill will. Leaving that discussion, I discovered that I was not as complete as I had imagined. When I had cut John out of my life, I didn’t realize that it would be impossible to root him out without ripping up other vital areas. In fact, there were plenty of holes in my life after that; I had just learned to live with them. One of the greatest voids is the place in my life where John used to be and, try as I might, it will never be refilled. He had been a friend, a mentor, a coworker, a confidante, and if nothing else, a friendly ear to talk to and a companion on slow nights. Letting go of John was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life.

Be thankful you never come to those crossroads in yours.