There was no way I could change my plans without major hypocrisy: earlier in the day, I'd accused Alison -- and now I was trying to resist Joel's inducements that I do the same.
I was standing on principle, even though I actually wanted to chuck principle out the window, along with my plans with Ellen. And now Joel was irritated.
The truth was that I was feeling guilty. I hadn't been around so much since the advent of Joel. Between the demands of his medical practice and (much more so) the time with his daughter, Michal, I had developed the irritating habit of dropping everything to spend time with him if he became miraculously available.
I am going to grow old alone, live with multiple cats, and drink tea with my sister.
But now I told him I was going to check up on Ellen tonight. After a rather unsuccessful blind date earlier in the week, she had reached the "I am going to grow old alone, live with multiple cats, and drink tea with my sister" phase. I promised her that I would drink tea with her, thus saving the plane ticket to Chicago to find said sister.
Joel was petulant.
"But Jess, I won't be able to see you all weekend," he said flatly.
"Well, I know..." I said, "but you weren't supposed to be free tonight, and it's not my decision that we don't see each other when you have Michal..."
-- Oops. That sounded a bit more pressure-inducing than I had intended.
Things were moving between us... I felt connected to him... and I felt cut out of the most important part of his life. But I hadn't meant the comment to come out that way.
I heard him exhale sharply, so I quickly apologized.
Kim is the friend who drops out of sight -- only to reappear, shamelessly needy, when the relationship ends.
I told him how my friends had always remained my top priority. But of late, I had started to feel a bit differently. Because building a real relationship takes time.
"Of course it does," Joel said. "If you suddenly have someone in your life who takes up X amount of hours, that necessarily means that you have X hours less to devote to your friends. It's like medical school."
"That's romantic," I returned.
"Well, it is," he said. "Med-school students are nightmares in relationships because they don't have time for a significant other, let alone friends."
I sighed. Is this some weird passage into adulthood, when all of a sudden one has to balance all of the demands -- work, friends, school, whatever -- in order to maintain some semblance of a life without the important people within it hating you?
"Fine," he said, sounding pouty. "Go off and be a good friend. The truth is, I wish I took up more of your time."
As I drove over to the dejected Ellen's, I felt guilty about not letting him take more of my time.
With the end of a relationship, all of that regained space screams back at you.
Relationships take up space in your life. I think that is one of the innumerable reasons why the end of a relationship hurts so much: you lose not only the hope of a future together, but all of that regained space screams back at you. But more so, there is a kind of emotional reshuffling. As a relationship reaches the Really Significant point, your energies and loyalties and, yes, priorities start shifting toward him (or her). Other relationships in your life necessarily have to change to accommodate that.
This doesn't give us license to view friendships as entities that provide emotional support and companionship when we need it, but neglect the importance of maintaining our end, of giving ourselves.
Alison was already at Ellen's when I arrived and had already achieved some success: making her laugh. They were running through theories about getting over a breakup, calculating how long Ellen could expect before being back on her feet, and whether or not it was a wise thing to be dating right now. After exchanging The History of Bad Date stories, they reached the funny bravado stage and we began spinning comforting tales about Amazonian fortresses and the requisite inessentiality of men and relationships with them.
I laughed, but wasn't sure if it was some successful marketing attempt, or bravado, or self-denial. Or maybe just a colossal coping mechanism. Around the same time, Ellen sighed.
"Am I just allowed to say that I am mad that I am single?" she said. "And that it's irritating that you're both dating people, so you can't really whine with me?"
We both nodded vigorously.
"I wasn't supposed to get married late," she said, kicking a pillow. "I was supposed to be married by now. And if I wasn't, I wasn't supposed to care because I was so fulfilled from my wonderful job and my wonderful friends and my gym membership..."
I was supposed to be married by now. And if I wasn't, I wasn't supposed to care.
She gave voice to the lie: the massive societal fake-out about being single. We're young and single and fancy-free (sounds like some Marlo Thomas movie from the '70s). We have a marvelous network of friends and things to do. Singleness is normalized. We have so much freedom we don't know what to do with ourselves. How many times has someone said to me, "If I meet someone, that's great. But I'm not really looking."
The simple fact is that, as the Good Book says, "It is not good for man to be alone." The self-consciousness and discomfort we feel is the simple byproduct of the fact that we exist in what is an essentially unnatural state: human beings aren't meant to be un-mated well into their adulthood.
Joel's face popped into my head...