When I think about the singer at all, it’s usually because I had a dream about him. It’s amazing how the details are all still there in my brain, even fifteen years later: the rubbed-thin feel of his band t-shirts, the oakmoss notes in his cologne, the way his hair felt on the soft skin on my neck. If we had had sex, I’m sure those memories would be there, too, but we never did.
My relationship with the singer exists in my brain in a kind of category-less limbo — definitely more than a friendship, but not quite an actual relationship. The singer and I never “made love,” but we did make love, coax it from the air around us, render it in our folded hearts. We made letters and art and songs, we made lists of things we taught each other, we made poetry we exchanged in the middle of the night, walking to the spot exactly between our across-campus dorms, and then walking quickly back in opposite directions.
My relationship with the singer exists in my brain in a kind of category-less limbo — definitely more than a friendship, but not quite an actual relationship.
In the winter, he took me as his guest to our college’s winter formal. Our designated driver got too drunk too fast, and the singer shelled out for a cheap room across the street from the banquet hall. We draped our fancy clothes across the suitcase rack and slept in our underwear under the stiff hotel blankets. A thunderstorm raged outside. Lightning flashes filtered through the curtains, throwing shadows on our bare arms.
He didn’t kiss me.
We were more than best friends for almost five years, but it never got physical. The mundane politics of early adult life played a role. He was the ex of a peripheral friend, then I briefly dated a friend of his. Bad timing had its part to play, as it always does in almost-love stories. The singer flirted with a girl one notch over on the rust belt. I moved from one serious relationship to another more serious still.
In between, we did our fair share of cuddling and holding hands. We shared a bed with some amount of regularity. There was a lingering kiss at midnight one chilly New Year’s Eve. I remember he whispered, when our lips came apart, “I am never, ever going to forget that.” Physically, it never went further.
Our more-than-friendship leaves me in a dilemma when laying out my romantic history. When a potential partner asks, “What’s your ‘number’?” they mean, how many men have you had sex with? Not how many men have held your heart, quivering in their gentle hands? How many men have you cried with over the same, sharp pain? How many men have watched you nod into sleep, their shoulders numbing under your heavy head?
When a potential partner asks, “What’s your ‘number’?” they mean, how many men have you had sex with? Not how many men have held your heart, quivering in their gentle hands?
The singer wasn’t my only almost-relationship. There was also the engineer. He was quiet, with blue eyes and a soft laugh. He knew about cars and showed me how to change the oil on my ancient Ford Escort. I had never been the kind of person who found cars sexy until I watched him drive, effortlessly shifting gears, the streetlights strobing his five-o’clock shadow as we sped down I-90. He taught me to drive his beloved car, my first experience with a standard transmission, patiently talking me through each move as I slipped the clutch and ground the gears.
We stayed up nights talking philosophy and science, art and music. I loved the way his mind worked. He was predictable, but funny. Quiet, but not tame. Generous with his time, his friendship, his feelings. When he saw me admiring an expensive art book in a bookshop, he surprised me with it a week later. He signed it, “love.” There was no occasion.
He was predictable, but funny. Quiet, but not tame.
We took a week-long trip to Florida together with a couple we were friends with. I kept him awake on the long drive south by singing and telling him stories. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and played mini-golf in the ocean air. Our hotel room had two beds, but I climbed into his after the first night.
The next day, we cooked dinner together, drank tequila sunrises on the neon boardwalk. He held me in the backseat of our friend’s car while pop music blasted through his speakers. Back at the hotel, he gestured for me to get into bed with him and I did. He smelled like salt and ice cream. I slipped my hand into his.
He didn’t kiss me.
How do you define a relationship? For it to be “serious,” does it require sex? Love? The threat of heartbreak? Is a relationship something you do or something you have? It is something that changes you? Teaches you who you are? Nudges you away from who you’ve been and towards new things you’re only just discovering how to want?
How do you define a relationship? For it to be “serious,” does it require sex? Love? The threat of heartbreak?
These men weren’t my boyfriends, not really, but they weren’t merely friends either. These days we have dozens of names for people we have sex with without any corresponding affection. We call them hook-ups or one-night-stands. We call them fuck-buddies or friends-with-benefits. But unrecognized in our vocabularies is the inverse: What do we call the people with whom we have authentic, passionate intimacy, but no actual sex?
I suppose a generation ago we would have called these “boyfriends.” But in the modern social landscape, where even the most casual relationships seem to include sex, there doesn’t appear to be a word for the man you cuddled with at the drive-in, the man who picked up when you called in the middle of the night, the man you danced with in the darkened bar, but didn’t take home. The man you slept with, but never “slept with.”
Can you have a break-up if you never have a real date? When the engineer started to pull away, he stopped inviting me over and asked me, instead, to meet him in public places. He declined invitations for movie night at my house. It was easy to understand what was happening, even if the vocabulary didn’t exist for us to talk openly about it. He still lives in our hometown and sometimes I ask about him through our mutual friends. I don’t know if he ever asks about me.
Can you have a break-up if you never have a real date?
Things with the singer unravelled in the summer. He drove away in a rusty panel van for a three-month tour with his new band. When he left in May I gave him a box of envelopes with my name and address hand-written on each one. I tucked a book of stamps in the front, with a note that said, “Write to me.”
He did write. Almost every day. The letters arrived from Michigan and Tennessee, from Missouri and Illinois. Each contained a brief update on his life on the road, a weather report, a readout of how much he missed me.
But a few weeks later, I met another man in a writing class — tall, t-shirted — who made me actual honest-to-god mixtapes and kissed me on the dance floor at his friend’s wedding. And then again in the hotel room after. And then, and then, and then.
The letters from the singer kept coming, but I stopped opening them.
Now and then his name comes up in a story I tell or a friend will notice him smiling in my photo album, his arm around my waist, and inevitably ask, “Who’s that?”
I say, “A boy I used to love.” This is at once the vaguest and most specific I can be.
I still have his unopened letters, in a box alongside the opened ones, pressed flat under his poems, the copy of Le Petit Prince he gave me for Christmas one year, and the French-to-English dictionary that accompanied it. Whenever I visit my overloaded storage unit outside the city, I take a moment to see how the letters have aged, to admire the careful lettering of his initials in the corner of each envelope. Sometimes I turn them over in my hands, feeling the weight of the pages folded inside.
But I don’t ever think of opening them, of checking the contents for his smell, of running my fingertips over the seal, searching for the thin, translucent half-moons of dried paper where his tongue slipped off, just for a second.
No. I never think about that. That would be too much. After all, can this really even count as love?