Note: I wrote this a couple years ago, after Susie Over at Not a Habit, Susie wrote about two new books on the demise of female friendships.
Call me strange, but most of my closest and enduring friendships have been with men—less volatile, fewer mind games, and better suited to my strong personality. I always had an easier time building rapport and intimacy with the male of our species. Even more so after several explosive betrayals by college girl friends.
And I have my own “Friend Who Got Away.” Or rather, Two Friends. Max and Dean. (Not their real names, of course.) Together, we were the Terrible Trio. I didn't think anything would break us apart.
When I first met Max in Junior High, I instantly fell in love with his wicked sense of humor, his geeky charm, and his flamboyant inner confidence. I always secretly thought he was gay, which seemed even more plausible as he morphed into one serious hottie and didn’t seem to by interested in girls. Straight or gay, I adored him like a brother.
Max’s best friend was Dean—a cocky athlete who (even at the tender age of 15) excelled at the fine art of womanizing. Oh, he was a player. He flirted with everything that had a pulse, including me—and for the first year I knew him I was able to ignore his goofy libido.
Then there was me, bubbly and extroverted, with my big bad ‘80s hair and my hoochie mama miniskirts. And a pair of healthy mammary glands that Max and Dean affectionately called “Twin Peaks.”
On some level, Max was the glue that held the three of us together. It was Max and Me. Or Max and Dean. Or all of us together. But never just Dean and Me. At least not initially. That came much later.
When most girls my age were having slumber parties with other girls, I was spending the night at my best friend Max’s house. While the girls might have been watching Sixteen Candles and practicing makeup application, I was with Dean and Max—watching stupid 80s porn and playing naked-coed-truth-or-dare. All of this was, of course, completely platonic—up to a point.
When I was 15, I realized I was desperately, hopelessly in lust with Dean—that “weak in the knees, heart-skips-a-beat” feeling of my first crush. Did I mention he was a dead ringer for Dean Cain? We first kissed at a school dance, then went to a few movies, and started spending time together away from Max. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I soon learned—from Max, no less—that Dean was “going” with another girl. I was a little heartbroken.
Max and I stayed close in spite of Dean’s betrayal—perhaps even because of it. And Max stayed close with Dean—which is how we all ended up spending time together again. First a chance meeting at the movies. Then a group outing to the mall. Before long, we were back to our regular after-school hangout, a café where we would study and behave like loud obnoxious teenagers. Within a few months, Dean and I had rebuilt our tenuous “friendship,” though it was obvious to everyone around us—including Max—that something was still brewing between Dean and me.
The summer I turned sixteen, we all went to a wild party—a typical ‘80s fete where the parents go out of town and expensive artwork is destroyed. Dean and I flirted and cajoled, tempted and teased each other relentlessly that night. At one point he put his arm around my waist and stared into my eyes, and my silly schoolgirl feelings erupted into something new. Later that night as he drove me home, he confided that he’d never gotten over me, and begged me to give him a second chance.
So Dean and I started going out again—serious, exclusive dating this time. He was good and attentive and kind and gentle and sexy and persistent and adorable—and fucking hot. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and had lots of wonderful, maddening, breathtaking times together exploring our youthful sexuality. (How’s that for cornball cliché?)
But I was still reluctant to “go all the way” with him, especially when I knew so much about his many sexual escapades. This was just the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, but I knew enough to realize that giving myself to him would be a big gamble. My birth control prescription was really the least of my worries.
Meanwhile, Max was furious with me for dating Dean—not to mention tired of being a) a third-wheel; and b) the go-between whenever Dean and I fought. He seemed to delight in telling me “I told you so” whenever I found out about one of Dean’s many indiscretions. At the time, I thought he was simply trying to protect my heart, but I realized much later he was also watching out for his heart, too.
Long story even longer, Dean finally got me into the sack—almost. After a romantic Christmas in 1996, Dean told me he loved me. Not a juvenile “I Luv You.” But a mature, heart-wrenching “I Love You” that came after he finally opened up about a lot of things in his life and his family. Our relationship became very intense at that point, and he spent a few nights in my bed when my very liberal parents were out of town. But right before the magic moment, I had an epiphany. That as much as I loved him—and oh, how I loved him—I couldn’t risk losing it all to a guy who had cheated on me so many times. So I kicked him to the curb.
Max seemed thrilled that were all “just friends” again, but it was obvious that our tempestuous trio was broken. Dean started chasing girls again—many many girls.(No surprise there.) Max found a girlfriend. (Now that was the big surprise.) Even I lifted my head from my Dean-obsession and casually started dating other guys—first a sensitive delinquent, then a rich kid with perfect teeth.
But then I met Mr.Kat—an honest, funny guy who was a year ahead of us in school and planning to leave for college. Incidentally, this is the same guy I’ve been with for 18 years—8 of them married—and he's the father of my sweet daughter. He was honest, funny, smart—and interested in more than just getting me in bed, though I’ll admit I that didn’t take very long. Within a few months, I had fallen madly in love with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.
At the very least, I hoped Dean and Max would be happy for me. Instead, Max teased me for getting “used” by an older man that I probably wouldn’t even see again after summer ended. And Dean became openly jealous, trying to stake his claim to me at school and pursuing me with love notes, flowers, and surprise meetings at my job. Even after it was clear that I was serious about Mr.Kat, Dean cornered me in my room and kissed me, and Max simply withdrew.
Our friendship suffered a final fatal blow one summer evening after our first year of college. Mr.Kat had gone on a family vacation, and Max invited me to his swim club for a night of catching up. What I thought would be some swimming and a casual meal at the snack bar was actually an intimate picnic by the pool in a near-empty club. When I got there, Max and I bumbled through conversation and he started mocking me about “shacking up” with Mr. Kat so young. When I fought back, he finally admitted that he had hoped we would have hooked up. So much for my gay-dar. That came out of left field.
And then arrived Dean, who proceeded to spend the rest of the night grinding up against me in the dark, steamy pool whispering “I still love you” in my ear. All the while, Max sat on the other end of the pool seething with jealousy.
It was a sad, awkward end of a bizarre relationship with both of them, and we never really spoke again after that night.
It's been nearly 20 years, and I often wonder where Dean is today. What he’s doing. How he has aged. If he ever thinks of me. If he’s even alive. Yes, I wonder if his reckless behavior exposed him to AIDS or some other tragic fate. He’ll always be my first crush. My first love. And there are times I see his face in my dreams and his memory haunts me for days.
But when I think of “lost friends”—Max is the one I really miss. He's the one I still feel guilty about. I regret losing touch with him because I know he'd be the kind of guy I'd be friends with today—we had similar feelings about politics and art and travel and food and language.
When my high school had its big 10-year reunion about 8 years ago, Mr.Kat and I were knee deep (literally) in a renovation on our new (old) house. I thought about going to the reunion, then chickened out because I might see one of “them.” I just wasn’t ready.
But recently, I’ve been wondering if I might run into one or the other, since we live less than 10 miles from the epicenter of all this craziness. And since Mr.Kat and I attended the same high school at the same time, there's a little overlap in our friends. It turns out that one of Mr.Kat’s old friends knows Max quite well, and that he married a lovely woman and still lives in the area.
Tonight I googled Max’s name, and it turns out he has finally opened a business, one he always dreamed of, in a nearby city. I’m contemplating getting back in touch with him, just for old time’s sake. He is still the best friend I ever lost, and it would be nice to know he is happy. Maybe he’s got a couple kids and a wife in the burbs.
Maybe he thinks of me as fondly as I do of him.
Maybe time does heal some wounds.