I’m in love with my best friend’s boyfriend. Wait! Hold on! Before you write me off, I know I sound like Paris Hilton is my mentor but not even my PhD and a sobering mortgage can distract me with perspective. This is not infatuation or jealousy, nor have I gone the drama route because I’m bored or devious. And it’s not just because he’s a great guy. I wouldn’t be in a quandary if he was just a great guy. He is the one. The reason I know this? He used to be mine.
We started going together (that’s what you did in the 80’s) when I was 17: ancient for some folk but practically in-utero for me. He was a veteran on the dating circuit at the ripe age of 18. His reputation preceded him; full forward on the football team, leading point guard on the basketball team, captain of the chess club, fluent in French (not the language) and in possession of the almighty P plate. This boy could score. Physically, he was also ahead of the curve. He quiff-ed where others mullet-ed. He Conversed while they Volleyed. He exuded the retro menace of a Causeless Rebel, all furrowed brow and tortured soul. Sigh. So, Come back to the five and dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, come back with me.
How our lanes even crossed is still some colossal cosmic conundrum. Genetic pools like ours usually repel. I grew up Catholic, athletic and overweight, a perverse combination. I was a strong swimmer for my age but looked like a wombat in togs. My swimming coach called me Moby. He must never have been a kid. Drowning in his own middle age, he couldn’t remember what it was like to be one. He probably read Moby Dick when it was on the Best Sellers List. And even though he later explained it was because I had great lung capacity and rarely came up for air, that didn’t stop the boys miming harpoons as I swam past or the girls from calling me Blubber Box or Rehab (at least that had an iota of intellect behind it). No matter how fast I swam or my refusal to breathe, I could still feel their synchronized jabs to the chant of Rehab Rehab, like some perverse cheer. Give me an Arrrr! I never saw James Dean throw a harpoon, but his mates’ worked the trawlers.
My face was beetroot at the conclusion of every race, which clashed perfectly with our mandatory school bathers’ - a ghastly red one piece made from cellophane in one size that fits all (a one brain-cell concept). No one told me you had to wear a Speedo underneath it! I won my first school swimming title in year eight with coffee coloured high beams and an untamed bush poking through my togs. The embodiment of embarrassment. The epitome of indignity. The personification of mortification. It’s perverse how the best and the worst moments of your life occur simultaneously.
JD spotted me again on the swimming circuit three years later. It was the inter-school carnival at the State Swim Centre, and the boys’ schools came along in support - of what I’m not entirely sure. They may have wanted to see us whip some ‘South of the Yarra’ butt, or maybe they just wanted to see some butt, either way I cannot diminish the adrenaline rush created by their presence. I won my favourite event (400 metres backstroke) in a nail bite slog fest against Linda Blair (not The Exorcist, but she did cop a flogging, especially as Catholic school girls had no business watching that movie at every single slumber party we went to). She had been my long time nemesis. Butterfly was her event, so you can imagine the physique. She was the prototype for Xena: Warrior Princess. My thighs rubbed together when I walked. However, for a nanosecond, I was the toast of the pool deck and while I was being slapped and clapped after the medal ceremony, JD slipped in amongst the crowd. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea. Not only did all the girls fall away as if their skeletons dissolved, even the parents and teachers deferred. I looked up into his face as if it was the sun, attempting to bask but actually squinting from its brilliance. I could feel the suction marks left by my goggles, pinch my brow. He leaned down, his lips millimetres from my chlorine clogged ear and whispered,
“Miss the red togs.”
The blush began in my groin and erupted through my body like a volcano. My head exploded all over his face and I couldn’t understand how my brain was able to flash forward to the picket fence and station wagon if it was currently dripping onto his T-Shirt. Was that my tongue or Warhol’s iconic Rolling Stone tongue dribbling down his pants? Why did I do that? The guy said “Hi” and I heard, “For as long as you both shall live.” Women are definitely in the driver’s seat when it comes to relationships, while men are left dragging behind the bumper along with the streamers and tin cans. Want the good news or the bad news? He remembers me from three years ago. He’s also seen my boobs and bush. How much would you love a 27 year old mind in a 17 year old body? (A resounding “No!” from the Humbert Humbert chorus.) Of course it’s never going to happen (and for good reason), but you end up with a juvenile mind clouded with adult possibilities and a body that betrays you at every opportunity.
“Miss your red face.”
My witty retort. I was thinking of the times he played basketball and got all sweaty and salty - mirroring one sports quip with another. Interestingly enough without context, it was radically misinterpreted. A storm front replaced his smile and no amount of digging was going to save me from his grave expression. When in doubt, shout. I shrilly enquired how his basketball season was going; where they were on the ladder; favourite opponent; infuriating nemesis; if the coach preferred laps or star jumps; I may have even mentioned how purple and red (his team colours) suited his complexion, never once waiting for a response. I asked his favourite position and answered “doggy style” in the same breath. Could he hear the Benny Hill theme song as well? Our first conversation and the virgin queen eloquently references taking it from behind. Embarrassing gaffs – one. Grace under pressure – zero. I think he did laugh (cringe) – benevolence in the face of the babbling sex fiend. And just as I was about to compose myself and ask an intelligent question his mates swooped in to save his reputation, man-handling him away from his error in judgement. As a parting apology, he absently asked if I was coming to the game on Friday.
“Does the Pope shit on the Vati-can?” I asked.
His mates burst into hysterics. You could actually see JD’s dynamic shift, like a slide suddenly unfocused. Were the hysterics directed at him or me? Too close to call. Instinctively he shoved me, the weight of his mates behind him. Off balance at the best of times, I stumbled back off the pool deck and splashed awkwardly into the water, towel and trophy in tow. I surfaced to peels of hyenas as they ran from my humiliation. The chlorine masked the tears. Grace column still zero.
Long story short (the polar caps will be puddles) he asked me out, I had a coronary and we were together almost four years. I want to repeat that. Just in case you read it and didn’t appreciate the gravity, you know, just read it and went on to the next sentence, like all good readers. Four years! This was my first relationship, frankly it was the first time I had a conversation with a boy that wasn’t a relative or a parishioner. I couldn’t have been less prepared if I was addressing the UN with a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And don’t forget teen years are the same as dog years. That’s 28 years!
The first six months were a blur. What’s the first thing you do when you get involved with someone? Philately? Incorrect! (Although phonetically not dissimilar). You have sex. Even I knew that. Cent in the jar for every shag in the first year and you still have enough for an imported beer on your death bed. You can laugh and share and learn and grow with anyone. But with a partner you fuck. However, as my father was Saint Anthony, the patron saint of finding lost items, my virginity was something I was never going to lose. And even though JD was raised Catholic, it was selective Catholicism – “I’m really only looking for seven commandments, to balance the seven deadlies. I’ll not take your name in vain if there’s any wiggle room on the whole pre-marital sex situation?” Mum met me at the door after every date, asking if I kept a price on my head. They were her exact words, “Did You Keep A Price On Your Head?” Such a price was kept, now no mere man can afford me!
Our relationshit was a sordid tug of war. I never had sex with this astonishing creature, instead we shared an evil intimacy between desire and devout with guilt the clear victor and reigning champion. I wouldn’t let him fuck me, but there’s more than one way to skin a kitty. He said it’s not really sex if you can’t get pregnant. There’s an annual parade down Oxford Street, which would disagree. I felt compromised, he felt compromised and I swallowed the hypocrisy. We tortured the fuck out of each other. And I can’t blame him, I invited him to dinner: of course he wanted to eat al-a-carte and not from the kids menu.
I often wonder why it took so long to end. (Translation – why did he stick around so long? I certainly didn’t have the insight to end it. If Jesus calls, you don’t take a number.) I pretend it had something to do with humour, intelligence and creativity, but that’s not currency to a teenager – sex is. Sex is the US dollar. Ultimately it was the most destructive relationship of my life and the only one I’ve ever coveted. They say heroin users are always chasing that first high. Tragically, all his fascination and fervour got buried under my fear and loathing, but I didn’t hate him for wanting to have sex before I was ready, I hated Jesus for forbidding me to be ready. It’s a wonder he stayed. No wonder he strayed. That was my last threesome.
Imagine my delight when my best friend walks into the bar with James Dean in tow. I’d been hearing about this heaven on a stick for months and tonight was the night the boyfriend meets the best friend. Ice filled my veins so fast my breath plumed. My central nervous system shorted. Maybe they just walked in at the same time. Maybe their arms are around each other because they are already drunk and need support? Why am I not drunk? Where’s my support? Instinct screamed run, but they were already smiling and waiving in my direction. Plus my legs were stalagmites. I wasn’t going anywhere without a stretcher and a drip. My name reverberated in my ears as if spoken under water. My best friend was standing in front of me, looking gorgeous in lemon with that Mediterranean olive complexion, introducing me to the love of my life. There was a ‘Back in 5 Minutes’ sign across my forehead. I’d convinced myself I was over him, psychoanalysed and eulogised, yet the hairs on the back of my neck were doing the can-can and hairs of a different texture were weeping. I knew I was still alive because a bead of sweat had pooled above my pussy’s bow. I resisted licking it. And there was my name again, smacking my ears like a disobedient child. Thank God I smoke. If the forgotten cigarette hadn’t burnt all the way to the filter and bit my fingers, they could have roped me off and charged admission to The Most Pathetic Woman In The World.
“Darling! You look fabulous. Lemon delicious.” I bellowed.
I turn into a gay man, when I’m nervous and apparently I’m not alone. My best friend’s name is Mike. And the love of my life is now the love of his.
Mike and I met on the dance floor of a seedy, gay bar (tautology) and he told me I was a cliché because fat girls only ever dance with gay men. I fell in hag with him immediately and we moved in together within a week (the gays move fast – also like dog years) and we’ve been together ever since. I’ve been the shoulder through his several hundred break ups and he’s been the chef of my several hundred meals. Call Alanis Morrisette, I’m about to choke on actual irony. The love of my life starts me on a trajectory into the arms of the gay boys because I won’t have sex with him and he’s gay! Mike moved us into introductory positions. Am I pretending I don’t know him? Maybe he doesn’t recognise me as a Madame Tussauds’ exhibit?
“Lovely to meet you.” Two lies for the price of admission.
JD shakes my hand which is doing a masterful imitation of a John Dory, classic rookie mistake, and just as I’m about to slip free he leans in and kisses me on the ‘clip’ (cheek/lip combination – it looks innocent enough). His smell hasn’t changed in a decade, still a mix of athleticism and existentialism. I’m teleported back to the pool deck, muscles firing, volcano flowing. I could have neutralised the situation then and there but my mind was oscillating between “Can I have my innocence back?” and “You look good enough to eat.” Neither appropriate. When my mouth finally shifted into gear it managed,
“I’ve gotta pee.” Classic! My PhD in Psychology not worth the bar tab it’s written on.
Standing at the bar I order a slab, smoke a deck, shoot up, have sex with a total stranger, gamble my inheritance and swallow a sack of potato chips. I hit every one of those 12 Steps on the way down. Grace – yet to score. The beer is past my lips before the barman has finished pouring, but he laughs and that’s all that matters right? Keep ‘em laughing. As long as they’re fucking laughing. The hops soothe me and I’m able to collect my thoughts. So James Dean is gay. Didn’t see that one coming but it makes all the sense in the world. The reason for the pandemonium is not that I think he’ll do Mike wrong, but he’ll do him right. And I’ll get to re-live all his fabulousness through sparkling gay eyes. I can do this. I can do this. I just need to keep a professional distance. Keep a buffer zone. How can 10 years have passed and I devolve in a heartbeat?
“Let me give you a hand.”
Fuck! He’s squeezed in behind me at the bar, his body pressed snugly up against mine. The bar ain’t that crowded. Can’t say the same thing for my head. Or his pants. Money changes hands and it’s not mine. He’s being charming and generous while giving me the wooden spoon. Right under Mike’s nose. I bet he is loving this, may have even orchestrated it. He’s waiting to see my next move. God, I need another drink – in a completely different bar – in New Zealand. We return with the drinks, I accidentally spill mine all down my throat and exit stage left without another glance at Rebel Without A Conscience.
Fresh air. I never thought I’d appreciate the smell of urine-spattered dumpster, but it’s the smell of freedom. You don’t have to ignore more than two homeless folk in Melbourne before hitting another bar. For every baptised child, so another venue is christened. I slide onto the bar stool, order The Lee Marvin (a dozen dirty martinis to us Alcoholic’s Synonymous) and screw a cigarette between my teeth. I don’t even get match to tip before he slides in next to me. Jesus does not want me for a sunbeam.
In the intervening years it had been easy to romanticise his allure. Time was obviously smitten with him too. This man was handsome. And before the Skin Deep chorus clear their throats, let me remind you I have lived the life of the not beautiful and it does not inspire. You’re invisible (especially when you want to spend money) or too visible (near bodies of water or bodies of workmen). You’re a turd on a merry-go-round. And yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, its just the beholder now seems to be spell eye with an E! His beauty was hypnotic. The years had cultured his features; his skin welcomed his character and embraced his bone structure with the consequence of his athletic physique. His lips beckoned you on past the line of perfect teeth, save one front tooth which roguishly nudged its mate for space. His eyes sparkled with the secrets of the Louvre, prisms refracting duty and desire. He wore vulnerability like a badge, tempered fury that looked ready to unleash at any moment and with any luck all over me. He took the risks and returned with the stories. And if he looked at you with intention it was beguiling, paralysing. Destructive. When I looked into his face my answer was ‘Yes’. Regardless of the question. I just wish I’d been a woman with him - not a mirror, not an altar, not a virgin.
He grabbed my hand and blew the flame out before I incurred my second blister for the evening. Focus. Engage, just don’t be familiar. Don’t slide into that emotional shorthand, no physical punctuation of hands on thighs or forearms and for God’s sake don’t smell him, don’t teleport straight back to the time he took two hours to kiss you. That seared memory in the backseat at the Coburg Drive-In, gets re-run more often than I’m proud to admit.
His lips hover about my chaste face, plump and parted. One hand lingers at the nape of my neck; the other elates the shape of my nipple. Lips inhale my solicitation, the flicker of velvet flesh sweeps across my tongue, exhaling his hunger back down my throat, threatening to sate my ache. The aroma of breath mixed with Bitter and Instinct (Victoria and David), is arcane and eternal. He pants against the petal of my earlobe, the innuendo fucking my mind and a bubble of lust slips from my lips and soaks my clit. The orchestration of his temperate touch and the deliberate delay of gratification spawn my submission to dominance. He hypnotises me and I know if he doesn’t kiss me now, I’ll pin him like an insect to the back of the Kingswood and bite his head off at the neck. Man, ‘tis my prey. Credits roll and that Risky Business kiss re-routes neural pathways permanently.
Unexpectedly, in the air tonight, I can taste smoke - my cigarette in his mouth, his smoke in mine. I want to ask him questions, interrogate him about Mike, his plans, loyalties, lifestyle, those fuck off boots he’s wearing, but words are useless. Depeche Mode echoes from a time when he and I were a We. ‘All I ever wanted, all I ever needed is here in my arms. Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.’ And so of course I speak.
“I’m not the same girl.” I lie.
“That’s painfully obvious.” He is being deliberately ambiguous.
“So, you and Mike?” A pearler from the States The Obvious handbook.
“What do you think?” I can hear his mind cock, the question loaded.
“I think it suits you.”
He takes another drag of my cigarette and I try not to splinter the martini glass as I down it in one swallow.
“You smell good.” He’s going straight for the jugular.
Actually, I smell like Desperation for Women; a predictable cocktail of sweat, smoke, vodka and the impending swell of tears.
“You smell involved.”
He laughs and I almost cry, but I manage to push a smile out of my face.
“Haven’t lost your sense of humour.”
That hurts, he’s going to remember me. Midnight, not a sound from the pavement. I think of Mike. Gorgeous, compassionate, culinary, cute, flatmate, Mike. Let’s not over react here, you think - I’m just having a quiet Lee Marvin with my best friend’s boyfriend in a secluded bar, having abandoned our host. Innocent as kittens. And I knew from the moment he lit my cigarette this was going to end badly. Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end. Tom Cruise wisdom from Cocktail. My eyes snap open with the clarity of a six -year friendship and I sit straight up ready to face my demon, but I am alone. The only physical evidence of memory lane, a smoking butt and $50 note under the ashtray. So that’s my price.
Why did Mike have to turn 30 while dating JD? What cruel twist of fate made that a reality? Guess who wants to organise a surprise party with my help? They say everything happens for a reason (notice, it’s only ever bad things?) and so I wade into uncertain waters, realising the lesson still unlearned. Simple things like the phone ringing send me into a panic. How does my hair look? Where’s my lip gloss? Does my arse look fat with these Caramelo Koalas in my mouth? I’m confident the telemarketer appreciates the effort. When I can’t convince JD all plans can be organized via smoke signals, carrier pigeons or snail mail, he insists on meeting, choosing one of our cosy old haunts - heavy drapes, club lounges and just enough habit to sedate me. I give him a dozen good reasons why we shouldn’t meet there. He gives me one great reason why we should. It’s his.
He’s so comfortable, so assured, so at home in the stunning bar that we shared more than a cocktail at. He’s restored it exactly the way we discussed and I need a beer back to go with my shot of melancholy. He looks across the bar as I walk in and his smile is a beacon in the blessed dark. Blondie coos “In The Flesh” and it permeates the room, exhaling from the drapes like carbon dioxide. He’s playing dirty and knows that many a dirty memory was created with Blondie as the soundtrack. He pops a bottle of champagne – it’s 10:30am. All aboard! Next stop Machiavellian Central. He’s going to resurface every desire I had for him, he knows my weaknesses and he knows I rebel if provoked. I just want to smack that Cheshire grin back through the looking glass.
And I know you’re all screaming – He’s Gay! Flirt your shirt off, nothing’s going to happen. If you think that I’ve failed. He’ll use that to his advantage. He is one of the few not using Bi-Haven as a lay-over to Queer-Ville. He’ll come on twice as strong all hard and fast, using gender as a convenient ruse. Love the mind not the body, until the mind is bored. He’ll push my buttons, till I’m quivering like raspberry swirl, then back off and accuse me of getting my wires crossed. Demon seed. I raise my glass and we toast Mike. I just have to keep Mike in mind. “If you can’t fix it, you got to stand it.” Once upon a time a broke cowboy on a mountain back squeezed those words through clenched jaw and closed heart. Then he died alone.
JD was the recipe for the perfect boyfriend, but I suck at recipes. Mike on the other hand was an expert with meat and two veg. They were bangers and mash. It was a killer birthday party, and everyone loved JD in perfect proportion to the effort he went to - spectacular. I received the Oscar for Best Performance By A Sporting Hag, which sat on the mantle of our flat for thirteen months while they forget why the fell in love with each other in the first place. So I would remind them. Didn’t I swear off threesomes? But Mike will never break up with him, because there will never be another like JD. Another, who can make you feel ultimate and ultimately never enough. That sublime combination. And so he will hold on, destroying himself. Destroying us.
JD slipped in next to me at mass the other night. I’d made a mad dash to get there by 5pm and was attired in the celebrity disguise - tracksuit, baseball cap and sunnies. He looked like he’d just come from a GQ shoot. I’m constantly stunned at how quickly I devolve. All the egalitarianism, feminism, any ‘ism’ in Ferris’ opinion, doesn’t change the fact that we are animals. And in that moment, that exact action of him sliding in next to me, I was 17 again. The acne, the bad hair, the extra 35 kilos, all the problems we are taught to eradicate if we are to have successful futures. But none of the education, promotions or evolution meant squat. I couldn’t keep my cool; I couldn’t even fake my way towards composed. I was in love with the boy next to me, and he bloody knew it. He would seek me out and I would allow myself to be sought. It took me an extraordinary amount of time to realise he was using me to get high. I was his heroin. When things fell apart in his life, he would hit me up. The manipulation of me physically and emotionally was sport to him and it was a match he always won. It was always the fourth quarter before I caught a clue.
The priest could have been preaching covet they neighbour’s wife and honour thy mother fucker and I would have Amen-ed every single time. I was lost. His effect was dizzying. I’m clearly a bull-ant who operates purely on pheromones having devolved my other senses. He was a margarita, all that sharp deliciousness through a rim of salt. My heart was banging on the white stripes of my ribcage, my temperature rose six-degrees and the space between us melted. It shimmered, blurring the boundaries of right and wrong until there was only want and have. I tried to convince myself that it was all in my head, but he’s lost in the possibility as well. His head tilts towards me, his knee rests against mine, his chest rises synchronously with my breath. He shared his hymnal, he actually sang, he put paper money on the plate and all I wanted was to exfoliate my body using his three day growth. I could see the new art under that crisp white shirt and I wanted to baptise his ink with my stink. We were always both horny after mass. Find someone else who can say that!
Quit him! Grow Up! True. I sound as bad as those people who cheat on their partners’ with the perennial but confounding excuse of ‘It just happened.’ Bollocks! The sex may have been sudden and urgent, but the forest of sign posts were all ignored. Wrong Way. Dead End. Go Back. No one nips these flirtations in the bud for two reasons - we all crave attention and no one wants to admit they’re not in control. He offers me a lift home after mass and I decline, which is English for shaking my head furiously and running into the confessional. Cramped space, noir shadows arresting my guilt, and the faint scent of polish, incense and regret. Much better. I slump against the whisper–sill for support, burying my head in my hands… but I am not alone. He is with me.
All I ever wanted…
His breath shrouds my ear.
All I ever needed…
Express lift for Eternal Damnation, confessional one.
Here in my arms…
His knee spreads my thighs.
Vows are spoken to be broken…
One hand clenches my arch, the other my arse.
Feelings are intense…
Muscles flex, determined in this dark, tight, penitent space.
His lips find mine.
So does the pain…
And we sink… deep inside each other… insisting… surrendering…
Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm…
The best and worst moments...
I kiss him and his fury electrocutes my body. It permeates me like a belt of cognac, infusing my bloodstream. My ovaries blush. He drinks me in and I allow myself to be poured. Breathless. Powerless. Unconscious. My spirit drowns. My soul liberated. I float away. The rest in pieces.
‘Clear, what?’ I wonder, in response to the bark.
“Clear!” Electricity courses.
My ribcage explodes under the pressure of my heart crashing. Buttons scatter and clatter as my shirt vaporises. He pinches my nose and wrenches my jaw, blowing into my mouth. His technique suddenly prescriptive, I know it’s been a while… then it dawns. He is not the love of my life; he is the saviour of it. He gives me his number for next time - 000.
Home. Back in my bed and back in my body. I managed to give myself a coronary rather than have sex with my ex. The weight, the alcohol, the tobacco – irrelevant. Needless to say he and Mike are splitsville. Mike didn’t come to visit me in hospital so I imagine I’ve got some mending to do there as well. Doesn’t mean the garden path is clear East of Eden. You can never go back. You can never recreate the spontaneity, the intensity, the anticipation. We were young, naïve and furious, traits lost to us now. The best we can have are our memories because they are the only permanence in our lives.
James Dean is married now with four gorgeous girls, all curls and tutus. And his wife is magnificent. Occasionally I receive envelopes in the mail, no contents, no address, no stamp but when I open them I can smell him. He’s sending me pieces of our past and as perverse as it sounds those empty pockets allow me to realise I am the one with the power. He sees in me now what I once saw in him. Destined for clandestine.
I promised to love him forever. Do I stop because he stopped? Do I allow him to break my word? Maybe love doesn’t truly exist without reciprocation. Is unrequited love the rationalisation of fools? And if you never allow anyone else to come close, are you doomed to ride the merry-go-round of melancholy? Each new face, merely, traditionally handsome.