Nerve Classic: Friends With Benefits

Me, my not-quite-boyfriend, and the strange baby we sort of had.

By Kate Axelrod

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.

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