Once upon a time I had a friend, and his name was Pat. We went to college together. He had a girlfriend at another college somewhere, but that was fine with me, because we were just friends. He and his roommate kept their dorm room immaculate, leaned their sneakers against window screens, and plugged Glade Plug-ins into their walls. When they changed them, the smell was so strong it kept them up at night. They had a Nerf mini basketball hoop over their door, and I spent so much time there that I eventually perfected the no-look, over-the-shoulder, nothing-but-net shot.
Pat and I would go to the on-campus "pub" together (a misnomer, since no alcohol was served) at 10:00 or 11:00 at night for "fourth meal." Sometimes I would also order the greasy chicken fingers, fries, and soda, but I never felt particularly great after I did this, so sometimes I wouldn't. Sometimes I would just go for the company. One time Pat filled his giant styrofoam cup with orange soda. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Don't you always drink Coke?"
"Do you ever drink Coke?" he asked.
"Well, no..." I said, and trailed off. He was the kind of friend who would get the kind of soda I liked, because he knew I would end up absent-mindedly sipping down half of it while we talked. He was the kind of friend who may have been half in love with me but was full in love with his girlfriend at another school and it didn't matter because I just wanted to be friends, anyway.
We would talk for hours and bare our souls, and I don't even remember what we talked about, exactly. I know that he worried about failing classes, though he was smart, but not particularly scholastically motivated; he worried about the future, about being poor forever, about not ever making something of himself; he had problems with his girlfriend, sometimes, and we talked about that, too. I must have been worried about things, too, though I can't imagine what. I hadn't even had my first heartbreak yet, though I probably would have told you that I had.
Our friendship trickled down deep and formed roots. He told me how important his sister was to him, and how she had helped raise him and taught him how to treat women. When I met her for the first time she bowed down before me in silly, mock reverence. "The almighty Rachel!" she exclaimed. "I've heard so much about you."
I went to France and he sent me letters, actual letters, even though he could have just e-mailed. At first he didn't write, because he thought his roommate, with whom I had had a brief, two week fling prior to leaving, should write first. After a week of making out and touching each other quietly and clumsily under the blankets, he, the roommate, had told me he loved me. He was drunk at the time, but when we woke up the next morning he asked if I remembered what he had said. "Yes," I said, and he nodded, and so I thought that meant that he loved me. Two weeks later, I called him from a payphone in France, tearfully telling him I loved him too, asking him to call me, to write me, that I missed him. He was strange on the phone, and that was the last time I ever heard from him. Once it became clear that his roommate was never going to write to me, Pat took over all letter-writing duties and began sending me regular missives filled with news and pictures and hand-drawn cartoons. He apologized for the initial lapse, saying that he had been bugging the roommate to write his letter so they could mail it in the same envelope. "He's an idiot," he concluded. "I'm sorry, Rach," and then he carefully avoided all further mention of him.
When I got back from France Pat didn't have a girlfriend, anymore. But that didn't matter to me because I just wanted to be friends, anyway. It turned out there were benefits to there not being a girlfriend in the picture, though. One was cuddling. It turns out he was an excellent cuddler. We were still friends, but now we were friends who cuddled. But as with every slippery slope, soon we were kissing, too. It turns out he was an excellent kisser. One thing led to the next thing which led to the last thing, and finally one night, we had sex. It was my first time, and it was painful and confusing and I didn't like it, but I had done it and I was glad. Somewhere along the line, my thinking had changed. Maybe I did want to be more than "just friends" after all.
I was heartbroken when I found out that he was sleeping with other girls. No, he hadn't told me before, but he did when I asked him outright, so he hadn't lied, he said. "But I thought..." I said. "But I assumed..." I said. "But, but..." I said, but I never could finish the sentence. We had never talked about what we were doing. We were "just friends." He said he would stop everything with the other girls and just be with me if that's what I wanted; all I had to do was ask. But I was too proud; I wanted him to do it without me having to ask; I wanted him to want to do it; I wanted a grand gesture and a declaration of love and devotion and an apology. "You just have to ask," he said.
"I can't," I said.
And so we were "just friends" again, though we were still friends who cuddled, until it got too confusing and I got too angry, and then we were just friends who (mostly) didn't cuddle. One day he asked me what I was doing the night of his fraternity formal. "Nothing!" I responded gleefully, because I wanted to go and part of me still wanted to be his girlfriend (but didn't want to ask).
"Do you have anything to wear?" he asked.
"I will have to buy something!" I responded, visions of formal wear dancing in my head.
The next I heard about it was from a mutual friend, who asked me hesitantly if I had heard who Pat was taking to the formal. He was taking the delicate, long-haired girl who I'd been giving the stink-eye to whenever I saw her hanging around his desk at his part-time job in the game room, which was increasingly often. When I asked him about it, he said, "Well I never actually invited you. I just asked what you were doing that night." I gaped at him. "And plus, she already has a dress and shoes, and you would have had to buy something..."
"But, but..." I said, never managing to complete the sentence.
"I just have to," he finally said, quietly, and that was how I knew they were dating. I didn't allow myself to be angry, because it was true, he had never technically invited me. Or rather, I didn't allow myself to show my anger. I spent so many years of my twenties not allowing myself to be angry when guys treated me poorly. I thought it was my fault for not asking the right questions.
I was glad that I had never asked him to only be with me. He probably would have found a loop-hole.
Still, we remained friends against all odds, and I got a boyfriend and graduated from college and moved away and that made it easier. Then I broke up with the boyfriend even though this time I had asked the right questions; I asked all of them over and over again because that was what I thought I had to do, and he lied to me again and again and I believed him, because I thought that was what I had to do, too. I was devastated and broken and thought I would never be whole again, and Pat carried me out and through. I was in Boston and he was not, but still he spent hours and hours on the phone with me every day while I cried until eventually, one day I stopped crying. And the next year I did end up going with him to his fraternity formal, after all. He paid for my plane ticket and a hotel room and I bought a dress, and it was perfect, and I left it in Boston hanging on my closet door and I cried again. Then I bought a new dress and we went to the formal, and his roommate was there too and I wasn't even angry at him anymore, because this time I knew what real heartbreak was.
The last time I saw him he came to see me at my parents' house while I visited over the summer. I talked my parents' into letting him stay the night (It's late! It's such a long drive back!) but they wouldn't let us sleep in the same room together. I was angry at my parents and I snuck into his room, which used to be my sister's room, in the middle of the night, and fucked him quick and quiet, right across the hall from my parents' room. It was partly because I was mad at my parents but mostly because it was goodbye. We lived hundreds of miles apart, and I had just started dating someone else.
I had hoped and actually really believed that this was the one I would never break up with, but when it all came apart three years later, as it had to, I knew a new kind of pain. Nearly paralyzed with grief I called Pat again as I had before, as I always had, and he was sympathetic and let me cry, but it was different this time. He was distant and vague, so I didn't call him again, and he didn't call me. Months later I e-mailed him about my upcoming visit home, saying I wanted to see him, meet his new girlfriend that he'd told me about, meet his dog that I had only seen in pictures. He said he didn't have time. That was it--he didn't have time. "We've been so busy lately," he said. So busy with weddings and house-warmings and engagement parties that he didn't even have time to see his friends. He didn't say it, but I heard the word "real." He didn't even have time to see his real friends, so you see, he couldn't possibly find time to see me. I sent a snippy response, felt bad about it, then sent an apology. He said it was fine, and not to worry about it. Then I felt worse and wished I hadn't sent the apology. We didn't talk again.
Two years later I heard from a mutual friend that Pat and the girlfriend I never met had gotten married. Four months ago I read in our alumni magazine that they had a baby, a little girl. And I don't know what I'm trying to say with all this, all these hundreds and hundreds of words that couldn't possibly mean anything to anyone else, but I guess what I wanted to say was that once upon a time I had a friend, and his name was Pat.