We've been close friends for many years. Some almost-romantic situations, one short-lived affair that ended in tempers fraying and a cessation of friendship that was, thankfully, not permanent, and numerous chemistry-fuelled encounters. He's not handsome or good-looking by any gauge. Average Joe, most would say. But a brilliant mind. Creative. Innovative. Passionate. Persistent. Consistent (for the most part).
A pact was made some years ago and somewhat (jokingly?) reinforced awhile back. When I hit 40 years of age, and we're still single, we'll shack up together for companionship. That number is 6 years away. So much can happen between then and now. What is my mental state regarding that? I'm afraid to think about it. Life goes on.
We catch up again after another lengthy period of time spent in different countries or different states. He's met someone that he seems serious about. Talking about her quirks and loves. She's young. I tease him again about ending up as a cradle-snatcher and he reacts predictably. "Shaddap!" I don't shut up. The day I stop giving him shite about various topics is the day our friendship hits a major roadblock and dies. He loves it anyway. No one else will tell it to him like it is. No one will give it back to me as good as he gets it. I will miss him when he's married.
Walking along a quiet stretch of road. Street lamps illuminating our paths. The occasional scurry of rats scrabbling for food gives me small frights. He takes advantage of the opportunity to tease me about being scared of things that go "bump". He's merciless. Until I turn the tables on him.
Uncharacteristically, he goes quiet. Stopping in mid-stride, he looks pensive for a fleeting moment. I step back to where he stood and joked, "Eh. What's wrong? You cannot possibly be upset over what I just said!"
He looks at me. Something in his gaze sobers me. Touching his arm to offer some comfort. He grabs my waist. Pulls me to him. Kisses me passionately. As if he was afraid that I was going to disappear into thin air or worse. I respond in kind. What else could I do? While I was happy for him to have found someone to settle down with, he is my first love. Possibly my most constant love. Guilt makes its presence known and I draw away from my drug. "What the heck was that about? You're attached and making wedding preparations!"
He holds onto me and reveals the circumstances behind his engagement.
"You. Are. KIDDING. Me! What on earth possessed you to agree to something like this?! Even if it is only for 6 months."
"I know it sounds crazy but...."
"Crazy? Crazy doesn't even BEGIN to describe it!"
"I know. Please. I need you to understand that I didn't think I had a choice. You know how my family is like."
"Yes. I do. But this is ridiculous! We're in 2013 not 1913. Even if it's is 1913, shouldn't it be the girl who needs to marry to meet familial demands? How the hell did you get pressured into this archaic...medieval...role-reversed situation?!"
"But I'm not really getting married....it's just a....."
"Yes yes. I heard you the first time. It's a pretend thing to make your grand-dad happy before he passes away...it's still going to be legally binding though. What if she changes her mind? Or you change your mind for that matter. Fine and well if you both fall in love for real, but what if it turns into some tragic one-sided thing?"
If this story had come from someone else, I wouldn't have believed it. Stepping back, I turned away from him, then spun around and said, "I don't know how to feel or respond to this. I can't be happy that you're going to follow through. And I can't penalise you for being filial......"
"I know. And I won't blame you if you decide to cut all ties with...."
"I'm not going to cut ties with you, you idiot! Seriously!! You're such an.....uuuurgh!! I can't believe you actually thought that I would do something like that. We've known each other for how many donkey years!.....y'know. It actually hurts that you would think so little of me....of our friendship. Or is this a roundabout way of telling me that you don't want me around anymore?"
"No! Never! You know that I love you!"
Of all the things I thought he might say, that was the least expected. Yes, I've always had a strong sense of love for him, but since that short and ill-fated affair, I never allowed myself to say it to him. And never thought he might still have feelings for me. Much less love.
"What are you...how can you possibly.....huh?? You love me?"
"Yes", he whispers.
For the first time in all the years we've been friends or lovers, he seemed on the verge of tears. Him. The one person in this world who never fails to make me laugh. The one who, like me, is able to look for alternative solutions rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up. He looked shattered. And it broke me. Taking the half step to close the distance between us, I pulled him to me and hugged him. At first tentatively, then strengthening the embrace when he appeared to draw comfort from my touch.
"What am I going to do?" His voice is somewhat muffled by my hair.
Hugging him tighter, I resolved to be visible and tangible in my support for him even if he and the girl do fall in love for real. I held him for a few more moments. Willing myself to remember everything about this night, the feel of his arms around me, the drugging kiss we shared, the words of love.... Steeling myself for the feeling of emptiness, I broke the embrace.
"You will follow through your promise. You don't have a choice, we both know that. And who knows, maybe you will grow to love her and vice versa, and you'll live happily ever after with no need to file for annulment."
"Yeah right. You are certifiably insane, you know that don't you?"
"Pffffft. Old news, hun."
That coaxed a small smile out of him. It disappeared and was quickly replaced by a heavy sigh. "What if she doesn't like you?"
"Then...that's a sure sign she's into you. You know how all your potential paramours are intimidated by me..."
"Haha! 'What am I chopped liver?' That's still very funny even after all these years!!"
I glared at him. "Idiot. I was going to say...before you very rudely interrupted me....that if she doesn't like me, it's a sure sign she's into you, and then maybe it's time for you to seriously consider building a permanent relationship with her. Just because you're not in love with her now doesn't mean that you won't grow to love her..."
I hesitated to say what I was thinking of next. But I had to.
"And when you two decide to turn the fake marriage into a real one, and if she still doesn't like me, then I will remove myself from your life."
"NO! I won't let you do that!"
"Oh please. You know very well that this is your current emotional state talking. When you're in love with her, you won't want me around upsetting your life partner. Sheeeesh. Get real."
"I will not allow her to push you out of my life."
"She's not pushing me out. I will voluntarily leave. I have always loved you. Never really stopped being in love with you in spite of the distance and whatnots."
We resume walking. I shove my hands in my pockets to control the urge to hold his hand. He's not mine.
"Look. I still love you. And sadly, I suspect I will always have love for you no matter who I'm with or you're with. And I know that it's different for you. When you are in a new relationship, you won't have time for me nor will you feel the same like you do now...."
"I have been in relationships when we've been apart. And I've never stopped loving you!"
"Not really. When you're in a relationship, I don't hear from you at all. It's different for you. You're always in my heart. But I re-enter yours when there isn't anyone else more interesting. No. Don't shake your head. I know it. You know it. Stop trying to fool me...and yourself."
He falls silent. Reaching around me, he tries to pull me to him. But I resist and move further away. "I can't. You belong to someone else now. Even if it isn't a so-called real relationship."
"No one is here. I want to hold you one last time. Well...hopefully not the last time, but...last time for now, anyway."
I relent and allowed his hand on my waist as we walked towards