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True Stories: Friends With Benefits

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Maybe it’s the bourbon, but lately, we’ve been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? “Friends With Benefits” originally ran in 2010.

A few Octobers ago, a couple weeks after Tim and I first began seeing each other, we were lying in bed in a hotel room in Chelsea. We weren’t having an affair or on vacation; Tim just wanted to stay in a hotel for a few nights. It was a Sunday afternoon and we’d just finished having sex and were breathless and a little shy. I wasn’t entirely comfortable yet and we didn’t always have so much to say, but still I thought there was probably something between us, something that eluded language. We were lying on our backs, eating Pringles from complimentary containers (one bright red miniature stack on each faux-wood nightstand) and we were watching some movie about a family with a ton of kids. There was a lot of physical comedy — grownups slipping on banana peels and kids throwing balloons full of chocolate pudding at each other.

“This is all I want,” he said, gesturing toward the screen. “A house in the country, a handful of kids, and also, a pet baby shark.”  He was always saying things like this — things that were about to be predictable and then made some sudden shift or turn — and maybe that was why I liked him so much. I turned on my side and pressed my lips to his shoulder, so tan and broad.

We didn’t always have so much to say, but still I thought there was something between us, something that eluded language.

Our relationship was painful and lovely and complicated, and never quite right or enough. It was something like stop-and-go traffic; we were moving and then we weren’t. We’d be going along smoothly — going out for nice cheap dinners in the East Village, browsing bookstores after work, taking showers together, and lying around in bed — and then we’d break abruptly, stopping short. One of us would shut down and the warmth between us just dissipated. But we would drift back together and make up and fight, and it happened over and over again. After all that time I should’ve been able to anticipate the traffic patterns and sometimes I could, but even then I still felt that onset of frustration, the sudden jolt of heartbreak. The moments of intimacy were inconsistent and fleeting, impossible to hold onto — and so then had they ever really happened?

A few months later, it was one of those bleak winter days, a Friday afternoon around Christmas, air icy and sky the color of slate. I’d been sitting around in flannel pajamas reading the paper, and felt a flutter of excitement when the buzzer rang. Tim brought over a miniature Christmas tree with spray-painted gold pine cones and set it on the coffee table. We exchanged a handful of presents; he handed me a pair of earrings — small flowers encased in a glass sheath — and also a bulky, hardcover copy of a Denis Johnson book (which I would later, in a moment of helpless fury, return to him in the mail). And then we sat on the couch and undressed each other, slowly, carefully. My body wrapped around his, and he carried me down the hall and into my room. The air was frigid, but we had sex on top of the blue down comforter. My skin warmed and my pulse sped up — one of those rare moments of simultaneous thrill and utter calm.

Later, Tim took a handful of envelopes out of his back pocket and told me he’d stopped off at the post office after work. It was part of some ‘Letters to Santa’ project where strangers sent gifts to impoverished kids. It was sweet and seemed unlike him, but maybe not — maybe despite everything I felt toward Tim, I still didn’t know him so well. We opened up all the letters on my living room floor and then ordered gifts online — Dora sweatshirts and backpacks for sisters in Brooklyn, a bean bag chair of Elmo’s inflated face for a family in Queens, an ant farm for an eight-year-old boy in Inwood. Tim got one for himself too.

After that, Tim needed some space and I was bad at giving it to him. We ran into each other at a New Year’s party and I was drunk and indignant. We didn’t know how to interact in public, but I hoped he’d take the lead. Instead, we stood near each other but talked to other people, took shots at opposite ends of a long, wooden bar. Watching him laugh and flirt with a handful of girls, I became enraged, talked about him loudly, and got my friends to send over dirty looks. After we’d both been there an hour and had barely spoken, I went over to him.

“I think I’m gonna go.”

I was trying so hard to seem composed, but I was shaking slightly, my feet trembling in high-heeled boots.

“Why, Katie?” He only called me Katie in these sorts of moments, either to placate or further enrage me, I wasn’t sure which.

“I just don’t want to be here. I’m not having a good time.”

“Just relax, Katie, try to have fun.” He smiled this sweet, playful smile. I loved his teeth, their small imperfections. I wanted to have fun, I wanted so badly to not care about this. The bar was dark but intricately lit with tiny white lights. I watched someone besides me go down on an elf-shaped ice-luge. I was freezing and on the verge of tears.

“Well, I’m not, but I really hope you have a great time fucking somebody else tonight.” I used that line a lot.

“I hope you have a great time fucking somebody else tonight.” I used that line a lot.

That summer Tim headed to Mexico for a couple of weeks and I felt a surge of panic when he left, wondering if things would really be over when he got back. I didn’t know if there was any way to salvage what had become such a mess. And then it came to me. I spent hours in my office looking through eBay listings. There was an endless supply of felt Halloween costumes for toddlers and stuffed animals with spiky white teeth and flimsy fins, but eventually I found it: a tiny, fetal shark, preserved in a jar, floating gently in a light blue liquid. He was packaged and all ready to go, could be shipped out from South Dakota for only fifty dollars!  I was elated and flooded with a sense of calm, like I’d just found a lost key.

Tim came home on a muggy night in August, and I brought the baby shark over to his apartment. When I got there, he was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper. We didn’t kiss hello, but greeted each other sort of awkwardly, and I handed him a small brown paper bag. He smiled at me suspiciously and then lifted the jar out of its Styrofoam holder. The shark was a grayish yellow, waxy and bloated — like an inflated piece of gummy candy. We stared at his sleepy, ill-defined features, the way his face nodded solemnly toward his neck, how he seemed to fit so comfortably in a jar small enough to hold a couple dozen Spanish olives.

People do all sorts of things to show each other that they care. Whatever this thing was with Tim, it was unorthodox and unconventional and I couldn’t possibly buy him a pair of fourteen-carat gold cufflinks and say Here, this really says it all! So, instead, the shark. Yes, it was symbol of devotion — my somewhat desperate desire to make him happy, in however understated and bizarre a way. But it was also a kind of evidence for me, proof of whatever was so abstract and difficult to articulate between us. It was my way of trying to validate our messy, uncommitted, thing. For a while, it even seemed to work! We were swept up in the romance of something recovered, a love resuscitated. We stayed at a bed and breakfast upstate, visited a garden of sculptures, and spent hours in the Queens museum studying a miniature replica of our city. Sometimes we’d talk about the baby shark back at home — we’d been negligent, got caught up.

But of course, in the end, the baby wasn’t enough. Once in a while he comes to mind — the image of him tucked away in Tim’s bookshelf, resting in his little foggy vessel. I think about this thing between us that is forever stunted, precious and dead, but carefully preserved. I think, too, about all the sad and strange rituals people go through in hopes of saving something already decaying, already lost.

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