This week I’m answering two letters together. Each letter is from one of the women involved in the situation detailed in the letters. I wouldn’t have known the two letters were connected but for the (unpublished) postscript one of the letter writers added, informing me that she knew the other woman involved had written to me as well.
Because both women included their email addresses, I was able to contact them and ask for (and obtain) permission to publish their letters together.
I recently had sex with a guy who has a complicated history with a friend of mine. I knew sleeping with him would hurt my friend’s feelings, and so I told her I wouldn’t. She didn’t ask me not to sleep with him, but it was implied. She would make references to “his crush on me” and once asked him if we had had a threesome with this other girl. Long story short, I broke my promise. I meant what I said to my friend at the time, Sugar, but I failed.
The man in question is a good guy. I enjoyed spending time with him and let’s just say my conjugal bed has been rather empty of late. My desire outweighed the potential hurt I knew my actions would cause. The guy and my friend have had many conversations since I slept with him, and they appear to have made up, whereas my friendship with her is still on shaky ground. I think it will normalize eventually, but I already feel like our friendship is something that’s not that important to her. I don’t even know if it’s all that important to me either.
Very recently, my step-dad had a heart attack. It was his second. It made me think about gravity and consequence and trivialities, and that if this one night of problematic sex forever alters or negates all the other ways I’ve been a good friend to her, then so be it. If that’s the case, our friendship wasn’t meant to last, and I have more important things to worry about. But at the same time I can’t help but wonder if I am losing my humanity a little. Because today, an ex/friend of mine basically said she hadn’t completely forgiven me for hurting her six years ago. I cheated on her like the dumb 22-year-old I was, and I have apologized a thousand times since then. We weren’t friends for a while, but we became good friends again eventually. Until today, I was operating under the assumption that we were okay. To hear her say she relates to me differently, that she withholds information from me because of how I behaved years ago, makes me profoundly sad and angry. Forgiveness isn’t something piecemeal to me, but clearly I am upsetting people in ways that have staying power. What does it mean if someone forgives you, but never forgets?
I feel both horrible and stubborn. And I don’t know how much of this anger is due to acknowledging potentially ugly truths about myself—that I value desire at the expense of my friendships; that I can’t seem to learn from past mistakes; that I am a person others deem untrustworthy. The last one stings the worst, and is a doubt I expressed to the guy shortly after our tryst. “She never trusted you,” he said, which was a confirmation of my fears, if not a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I would probably have done the same thing, given another opportunity. And I don’t know if that should worry me or if it makes me some kind of pleasure addict or just a terrible friend. I don’t regret my recent behavior, but should I? Am I throwing away solid friendships for stupid sexual gratification? Part of me feels selfish even writing to you, because I know you’ll call me honey bun and make me feel better when I don’t deserve it.
Friend Or Foe
I have two friends who I love dearly. One is a man I’ve known since we were teenagers. A few years ago, he and I started a brief non-monogamous romance. He then fell in love with another woman, who he rightly chose over me. Though I knew we were meant to be friends instead of romantic partners, my feelings for him ran deep, so I was crushed. Eventually the pain subsided, and we became closer as friends.
The other friend is a woman I admire greatly as a writer and as a person. She’s witty, sexy, brilliant. We support each other through romantic traumas and laugh constantly whenever we’re together. She was there to comfort me when my male friend told me he had met someone else. She sat with me as I unabashedly cried in public in the middle of downtown San Francisco.
Recently, these two friends met and hit it off. He started joking about sleeping with her. (He is single now.) I told my male friend that this idea made me feel uncomfortable, but he dismissed my worries. I didn’t press the issue because my female friend swore that she would never sleep with him. She said this to me, repeatedly, emphatically, even when I didn’t ask her. While I was over my attraction to this guy, the history was still a little too fresh, and I wasn’t finished processing the heartbreak. She saw how it was still affecting me. I trusted her.
But it happened anyway. They slept together. When my male friend told me, I got very upset; I yelled at him for the way he’d dismissed my feelings in the past. We talked on several very long phone calls, and by the end of it I felt heard, valued and respected. He also forced me to come to terms with my jealousy and lack of claim I have over others’ actions. Since then, I’ve had to do a lot of hard looking at my own insecurity and desire for control.
Two weeks later, when my female friend apologized for breaking the promise she had made to me, I told her I no longer thought I’d had a right to that promise in the first place, even though it hurt and angered me when she broke it. She had done what she felt was right for her, and now I had to figure out what was right for me: taking time and space. Part of me felt at peace with this conclusion. But by that point, I also felt so emotionally exhausted by the whole situation, and so disgusted with myself, I wasn’t even sure I deserved an apology from anyone.
Sugar, I’m conflicted. I know what they did wasn’t morally wrong; I’ve felt desire before for the exes of friends, and the friends of exes. These two friends have a relationship that’s independent of me. Still, I was so hurt. And the worst part is, I’m ashamed of my hurt. I’m ashamed of the jealousy I didn’t know was still in me, even eighteen months after the romance ended. I want to be the person who can gracefully take joy in the fact that two people I love were able to share some sexy fun. I want to believe that the hurt is all in my possessive, competitive little brain, so I can just change myself and get over it. All I do now is beat myself up, for whatever choice I make. My internal compass on this matter is so broken. I need your wise, soothing words.
A couple of years ago the Baby Sugars got into a vicious fight over the decapitated head of a black-haired plastic princess. My son was all but frothing at the mouth. My daughter screamed so hard for so long I thought the neighbors were going to call the cops. The decapitated head in question was about the size of a gumball, its neck not a proper neck, but rather an opening into which a tiny interchangeable torso was meant to be snapped. This torso was either the ancient female Egyptian my daughter was holding in her hand or the sultry skirted girl pirate my son was holding in his. Hence the uproar.
Neither of them could be convinced to relinquish their claim on the decapitated head of the black-haired plastic princess, no matter how gently or sternly or maniacally I explained that they could take turns, each of them attaching the head to “their torso” for short periods of time. Likewise, they refused to be consoled by any one of the countless items that clutter the room they share—not the bin of agates or the wooden daggers; not the stuffed kittens or alphabet flashcards; not the foam swords or half-trashed markers; not the ballerinas or Roman warriors or monkeys or fairy statuettes or fake golden coins or movie-inspired action figures or unicorns or race cars or dinosaurs or tiny spiral-bound notebooks or any other damn thing in the whole motherloving universe but the decapitated head of the black-haired plastic princess.
It’s mine, my daughter shrieked.
I was playing with it first, countered my son.
It’s special to me, wailed my daughter.
She plays with my special toys all the time, my son bellowed.
I talked and reasoned and made suggestions that soon became commands, but really, ultimately, there was nothing to be done. There was one head and two torsos. The indisputable fact of that was like a storm we had to ride out until all the trees were blown down.
I begin with this allegorical snippet from Chez Sugar not because I think your individual and joint struggles regarding your friendship are as infantile as a tussle over a toy, but rather because I think it’s instructive to contemplate in essential terms our desire to have not only what is ours, but what also belongs to those we love, and not only because we want those things for ourselves, but because we want the other person not to have them. That fervor is age-old and endless and a gumball-size piece at the core of what we’re grappling with here and I invite you both to ponder it.
We all have a righteous claim to the decapitated head of the black-haired plastic princess. We believe she is ours alone to hold. We refuse to let her go.
Before we begin disentangling your situation in earnest, I’ll say right out that I’m quite sure if the two of you continue talking silently to yourselves about this crappy and weird thing that happened with the man I’m going to go ahead and call The Foxy Fellow you’re going to regret it. And more than that, you’re going to hatch a whole slew of increasingly distorted beliefs about what went down and what that means and who did and said what and it will not only make you miserable and sad and bitter, it will also rob you of a friend who you really should be sitting on a porch with ten years in the future, laughing about what knuckleheads you were back in the day.
You both did something you basically know wasn’t so great. Your desires and fears and failings and unreasonable expectations and things you won’t admit to yourselves clicked into each other as neatly as a plastic head does into a plastic torso and when you put them together you both got pinched. The same thing happened to you from different points of view. With whom should our sympathies lie? On which woman’s shoulders should the greatest blame be placed? In what directions do the arrows of your narratives flow? How best do you find your way out of this place?
These are the questions I asked myself as I pondered your letters. Every time I tried to straighten the stories out in my head they got all tangled up instead. I made charts and lists with bullet points. I took a piece of paper and literally drew a map. I turned your Foxy Fellow imbroglio into a pair of mathematical equations of the sort I never learned how to do properly in school (which utterly frees me to use them for my own whimsical literary purposes). Here’s how they look:
Friend or Foe: “I solemnly swear that I will never fuck The Foxy Fellow because my friend still has tender and territorial feelings for him and I don’t want to hurt her” + [I am a caring person and fucking The Foxy Fellow would compel me to question the sort of person I believe myself to be] + fucked The Foxy Fellow anyway = eek/ugh2 x [but perhaps, when I really think about it, my friendship with this woman is “not that important”] ÷ and yet there was that time I sat with her in downtown San Francisco while she bawled unabashedly > so – fuck this shit! + how dare she be mad at me! + I was a good to friend to her in every other way! + The Foxy Fellow has not even been her boyfriend for, like, EVER! + I am attracted to him! + he is attracted to me! + I’m not even 30 and my vagina is growing cob webs! + who the hell is she to say who The Foxy Fellow and I get to have sex with in the first place? < I am a terrible person and a selfish sex fiend [will the damning ex-girlfriend please present her testimony to the court?] ÷ cheated, yes + lied, yes + to ever be trusted or forgiven, no, never, not by any woman in any time for any reason whatsoever = you know what? Fuck those bitches! + I’d totally do The Foxy Fellow again! ≠ Except. Well. [Damn]
Triangled: “The Foxy Fellow is a wonderful person” + [we “broke up,” though we were never really together, never monogamous, even though he crushed my heart in this really hard-to-exactly-define-way for which I do not fault him because I didn’t have expectations—why would I have expectations? etc] ÷ it’s pretty clear to me that he wants to fuck my lovely woman friend who watched me bawl unabashedly over him in downtown San Francisco and this makes me feel like puking2 + [what is the meaning of monogamy? what is love? do we ever owe anyone anything when it comes to sex? why do I feel like puking if The Foxy Fellow is “only my friend”?] = accept adamant and profuse promises from my lovely woman friend regarding her plans to not fuck The Foxy Fellow x [sisterhood!] – allow The Foxy Fellow to brush me off when I express my wish he not fuck my lovely woman friend = cry/rage when they fail to not fuck + [how could they? she promised! I thought she was my friend! he never listened to me!] < long, difficult, ultimately satisfying conversation with The Foxy Fellow that makes me feel oddly closer to him [and worse about my puny, insecure, control freak, jealous, uncool, dumbass, competitive, needy self2] x short, unproductive, decidedly cool conversation with my lovely woman friend [doesn’t it seem like she should be sorrier than this?/what right do I have to an apology? since when do I get to say who fucks whom?/but she promised!] ÷ fantasize that my lovely woman friend will take a long-term job in Korea + listen to my generation’s equivalent of Lisa Germano’s “Cancer of Everything” repeatedly while huddled into the pathetic ball of myself + [alternate with trying to cheerfully compose the phrase “to share some sexy fun” in relation to those two selfish assholes] ≠ Except. Well. [Damn]
In the math ignorant world of Sugarland, we call this a clusterfuck.
You are both wrong. You are both right. You both know you can do better than you did. The fact that you failed to do so equals nothing unless you learn something from this. So let’s learn it, sweet peas.
Triangled, if it really hurts and enrages you that The Foxy Fellow fucks a friend of yours he isn’t your friend and you should not conduct yourself with him as such. He is your ex, the love you’ve yet to get over for reasons you may not be able to explain or justify even to yourself, the man who is an absolute no-go zone for anyone who’s even remotely in your inner circle. Lose the but-we’re-just-friends-now/free-love mumbo jumbo and own up to what you actually feel: if The Foxy Fellow is fucking anyone, you don’t want to be hanging out with her. Not yet. Not now. Maybe not ever. At the very least, heal your heart before you go introducing The Foxy Fellow to your friends, especially those you’d describe as “witty, sexy, brilliant.” And then brace yourself.
Though it may seem that Friend or Foe’s choice to break her promise and fuck The Foxy Fellow is what caused all this pain, her actions are not at the root of your sorrow. What’s at the root is the fact that you failed to recognize and honor your own boundaries. You tried to have it both ways. You wanted to be the woman who could be friends with a man she’s not over, but you are not that woman. I understand why you want to be her, darling. She’s one cool cat. She’s the star of the show. She doesn’t take anything personally. But you are not her. And that’s okay. You are your own fragile, strong, sweet, searching self. You can be sad a guy you sort of fell for didn’t fall for you. You don’t have to be a good sport. You don’t have to pretend you’re okay with sharing your interesting and beautiful friends with The Foxy Fellow, even if you feel like a puny asshole not being okay with it. You can say no.
But the thing is, you have to say it. You have to be the woman who stands up and says it. And you have to say it to the right person too. Not to the lovely friend who can’t possibly keep the promises she’s made to you while swimming in the shared waters of your wishy-washy ache for affirmation and orgasms, but to the man himself. Yes, The Foxy Fellow. The one who is, but who is not, your friend. You have to live with the uncomfortable reality that it’s from him—not her!—that you need time and space. And then you have to take it, hard as it is, come what may.
Friend or Foe, you made a choice you knew would hurt someone who trusted you—a choice, it’s worth noting, you explicitly vowed not to make—and afterwards you justified that choice with reasons you could’ve more thoughtfully discussed with her beforehand. This makes you neither “a pleasure addict” nor “a terrible friend.” It makes you someone who did what most people would do in this situation at this moment in your life—a woman who took what she wanted instead of pondering what she needed.
You are at once blameless in this and entirely responsible. You were sort of set up by Triangled and you were also basically a jerk to her. The reason all that other junk came up in your post-Foxy Fellow contemplations—(your ex, your feelings of being eternally punished for having wronged her, your sense that your friend never trusted you either)—is that, contrary to your claim that you don’t regret what you did, you know you could have done this differently, better, or not at all. What’s at stake here is not only your friendship with Triangled, but also your own integrity. You promised you would not hurt someone you cared for. You hurt her anyway. What do you make of that? What would you like to take forward from this, honey bun? Do you want to throw up your hands and say oh well or do you dare to allow this experience to alter your view?
We all like to think we’re right about what we believe about ourselves and what we often believe are only the best, most moral things—ie: of course I would never fuck The Foxy Fellow because that would hurt my friend! We like to pretend that our generous impulses come naturally. But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first. It’s the reason we have to fight so viciously over the decapitated head of the black-haired plastic princess before we learn how to play nice; the reason we have to get burned before we understand the power of fire; the reason our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they came the closest to ending.
I hope that you’ll do that, dear women, even if it takes you some time to stagger forward. I don’t know if your friendship is built to last a lifetime, but I know the game is worth the candle. I can see you on that ten-years-off porch.
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