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does this make me a mistress?
the socially gray place of being close friends with a childhood sweetheart
by alex b (@Lexistential)
3.21.12
writing

It's 2007. You're on the New York subway with your mother, and straining for a conversation topic that won't result in any telenovela-style fights. You write off money (those unpaid student loans), and also know mentioning God is a no-no unless you'd like to discuss going to Mass again. Therefore, you blurt out your childhood sweetheart's first name. Surely, your mom would be okay at hearing how he's doing, and the train ride to Little Italy won't feel so claustrophobic.

No such luck.

To your surprise, your mother arches her eyebrow and fixes you with the same gaze she used when you were in trouble. And, she tells you right then and there that you shouldn't talk to him anymore. After all, he's married.

You gawk. Then, your automatic indignant-at-mom response flares up: you say something snappy that makes pleasantry impossible to feign for the rest of the train ride, and drop the topic. You also decide to complain to the rest of your family when you have a chance. When your favorite cousin arrives in town, you bring it up. You figure since she's securely confident in her marriage and only four years ahead of you in age, she'll have your back.

Wrong again.

Your cousin repeats your mom's words. And, to hear her say so is an unexpectedly stronger form of rebuke than your mom's. But, unlike your mom, your cousin volunteers an explanation that's a little deeper than your mom's usual Catholic programming.

"Come on. You were his childhood sweetheart. I wouldn't be surprised if he still loves you. If I was married to him and knew about you, I wouldn't want him talking to you."

You are stunned into silence, and the conversation between you two dies shortly after. It's only when you are alone after seeing her that your indignance simmers down and you wonder if she's right. Were you inappropriate? Did your past love disqualify you from being a supportive player in his present days? Were you obliged to sever your friendship now that he was married?

You shake your head. You know, of all things, that you're not flirting with him during your occasional IM chats. Your conversation topics never stray past workouts, food, George RR Martin characters, his daughter, and your love life. You gladly don't discuss his wife apart from surface pleasantries; you are happy to not know her intimately. After all, you don't talk to him for the sake of wanting him to leave his marriage, but simply to cheer him along as he lives it.

Most importantly, you don't see him as a mere ex-boyfriend, but a dear friend. The window of your time as a couple had definitively shut long before he married his new girlfriend in 2005. You're not vying to take his wife's spot, and would like her -- and others critical of your friendship -- to know it. If anything, you're proud that you were both able to forge a friendship. (And, since you live on opposite coasts, you also feel it's highly unlikely that you're about to pull up your own roots for the sake of his.)

In spite of yourself, hissy fits outside your control still happen in 2009. When you hear that his wife engaged him in a screaming match in his office lobby for being friends with you on Facebook without friending her in turn, you are appalled; he had only used it twice (and friended three other people apart from you). And, the occasional quip from your friend lets you know that his wife would love nothing more than to stick your face in the middle of a dartboard for target practice.

In turn, you would relish saying, "For FUCK'S sake," to her face with a flogger or two from your dungeon days. And, your friendship continues on its usual easy IM pace.

Then, one day happens out of the usual in 2011. Your friend opens up and goes beyond the usual parameters of conversation, and confides in you a sore point to their marriage. Since it's a serious issue, you listen. But, as you hear of his unhappiness with his wife, you feel torn. On one hand, as a longtime friend, you know you are the one of the best people he could choose to confide in; you know your advice is solid.

On the other, you can hear your mother and cousin tittering away like a Greek chorus of morning birds. Amidst their repetitive, guilt-inducing chirps, you grasp that they would never want to be spoken of by their husbands to someone like you.

So, you decide you know best.

You don't cut off the chat, but keep listening. You allow your friend to vent while tossing advice options his way. You phrase all your remarks about the situation and his wife in either neutral or constructive language. And, when his temper flares with a few exasperated remarks, you parry them aside so that his head can stay on the topic of finding a solution.

But, part of you can't stop hearing your mother and cousin. And, though you finally understand the fear behind their words, you refuse to accept blame for any superstition they cast on your shadow. Even though you've been a mistress with a whip, you're not a homewrecker. You know that the love that characterizes your friendship does not compromise the promises he made to his wife; if your friend's marriage founders, it won't be because you shoved it off a cliff, but because one of the two of them decides to walk away.

At reaffirming this, your mother's and cousin's voices fade, and you remember that you have nothing to apologize for.

And the next time he says hi, you gladly chat away.


ABOUT ALEX B

An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b

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COMMENTS

reem al-omari
3.22.12 @ 6:20p

A very gray area, indeed. But one thing is for sure: sometimes we underestimate the power, or the power of our position, in someone's life. You are obviously someone very special to your friend, and that is threatening to an insecure person watching that admiration manifest itself in good communication.

My dos cents: I think in this situation, and perhaps even as a childhood sweetheart, you've demonstrated a levelheadedness that can look beyond the pettiness of worrying about social networking with exes, and that is something that makes any guy in his right mind gravitate toward you. Security is key, and if your friend's wife lacks security in her relationship with him, it has nothing to do with you. You're secure in knowing where you stand, and that's all you should worry about.

alex b
3.22.12 @ 9:09p

Clearly, I have a presence, and contrary to any of his wife's horrible fantasies or my family's criticism, I don't wield it badly. I can needle him about things like receding hairlines and being the sappiest dad on the planet. I can likewise convince him to read a new book or try a new restaurant, but that's nowhere near commanding a divorce.

As for his wife, I don't appreciate being made a target by someone who had a chance to meet me, rejected it, but thinks it's okay to throw hissy fits at my ghost.

Where my family is concerned, it's almost as though being married supersedes being related by blood. I was (and still am) amazed I was criticized. (So much for solidarity. If there's a new commandment at play here, I'm not aware of breaking it, but... well, there goes another one.)

dirk cotton
3.23.12 @ 10:18a

A girl I dated in high school has been my BFF for 45 years. I'm not letting anyone take that away.

alex b
3.29.12 @ 12:02a

Sorry for my very late response, Dirk. Though I haven't known my ex as long as you know yours, I'd like my friendship to reach the point where we can laugh at each other in our 50s.

At this point, I've known my friend for a bit over 20 years. I'd prefer not to let my friendship with him go just because the wives in my circle find my conduct "improper" and feel a need to over-criticize.



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