How can I connect to them? And what does it mean if I never do?
by Maura Kelly
My boyfriend C. and I had barely arrived at his former co-worker's wedding when I became convinced it would, indeed, be a long night. Almost immediately, we encountered two of C.'s old buddies from his last job. As he talked to one, the other circled over to me. I'd never met this guy before, but he looked perfectly nice in his fancy suit. I had nothing against him… until he spoke.
The first thing he said was, "So, I hear you're an adult film star." It took me a second to wonder if he'd mistaken me for someone else, another to remember what "adult film" was a euphemism for, and a third to realize he'd been trying to make a joke.
It wasn't clever. It wasn't relevant (I was dressed pretty demurely). Worst of all, it just wasn't funny. But since I like to take the path of least resistance in those kinds of casual interactions, I tossed my head back, thinking I'd manage a laugh.
What came forth instead was a roar. "No!" I said loudly. "Actually, I'm not!"
Who was it who said, You can pick your friends, but not your boyfriend's friends? Maybe I did. Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that I'm the real problem here. C.'s extended social network is made up of guys (all guys) who are well-adjusted and happy, while I'm neurotic and melancholic. They're social; I'm more introverted. They have high-paying jobs; I'm struggling to get by as a writer.
I don't dislike them (the adult-film-star joker not included). If it were only a question of seeing them occasionally, I'd be perfectly happy with that. But C. and I are pretty serious, and since our nuclear families are very small, we both think of our friends as familial. He spends a lot of time with his pals, and I feel like it'd be nicer if I did, too.
The problem is, I just don't jibe with them. Though I wish I felt more at home around C.'s friends, I usually feel like a stranger in a strange land — full of welcoming and friendly people who, nonetheless, don't speak my dialect. They all work in the tech industry, as engineers, developers, or programmers. They like talking about data systems, mechanics, and cold hard facts, whereas my friends and I — writers and creative types — want to discuss human psychology, personal narratives, and aesthetic opinions. They like to hang out in large groups and drink beers; we like going to see old movies and museum shows, and having one-on-one conversations. They have a tendency to pontificate — often, it seems, after memorizing some Wikipedia entry, or ten of them. (C.'s word for this behavior is "man-splaining.") And they enjoy talking about topics that I just don't understand, or care to understand — the finer points of search-engine optimization, or scaling up web sites, or how the next version of the iPhone will be better than the last. That kind of shoptalk makes me feel like I'm trapped in math class after weeks of not doing the reading; I can't wait for the bell to ring so I can get the hell out of there. My friends, meanwhile, male and female alike, prefer talking about the challenges we're facing — professional and romantic — or just plain old gossiping. And we're more likely to discuss some Coen Brothers movie or a Mary Gaitskill short story than the latest internet meme or Apple news.
Most of the time, C. and I simply sidestep the friend hurdle. When he goes drinking with his friends, I bow out; when my best friend and I plan a trip to the Guggenheim, I know he won't feel like coming. It's no big deal. And yet… maybe it is. I've always wanted to partner up with a person who would expand my world with his friends — people I'd feel as interested in, and as simpatico with, as I do my own. It disappoints me that C. and I don't have that. And, understandably, I think it disappoints him that I'm not more of a social partner for him. There are times when I wonder if all this is a dealbreaker.
But before C., I had one mini-relationship after another with guys whose friends were quite similar to mine — and I never felt secure and unquestionably loved in any of those relationships the way I do with C. I value him the way you'd value a cheerful, well-lighted space you could finally call home after a lifetime of sublets.
When C. asked me to accompany him to the wedding, there was no question I'd go. But once we got there, and the awkward jokes started the minute we stepped in the door, I once again felt like a fish out of water. I began to wonder, as I had so many times before, if the obstacle of our opposing cultures was one I could — or should — continue to surmount.
Nonetheless, I did my duty: I participated, smiled, and talked to everyone. By midnight, asking to leave seemed reasonable. To prepare for departure, I visited the ladies' room. As I was exiting the lavatory, a girlishly pretty woman with jet-black hair came in. I recognized her; she was the one who'd put a fair amount of effort into catching the bouquet. Slightly inebriated and very sweet, she was looking for ibuprofen. Unfortunately, though, there weren't any painkillers in the requisite wicker basket of hygiene products; I didn't have any on me either. So, after wishing her well on her Advil search, I went to the back patio, where C. was smoking a cigar with his buddies.
"It's getting late," I said into his ear. "Can we head home soon?"
He'd begun saying his goodbyes when someone behind me exclaimed, "She bumped into me and spilled an entire pot of coffee down my dress!"
Turning, I saw the raven-haired bouquet-catcher. My guess was that she'd bumped into the waitress in question, not the other way around.
With the coveted flowers in one hand and a pair of strappy black platform stilettos dangling from her wrist, the woman picked up the skirt of her gown. "It's ruined!" she said to her boyfriend.
In an instant, I felt for her; wrecking your outfit is so disappointing. And there really was something unusually sweet about her, almost child-like. So I said, "The stain's really not that noticeable, because of the fabric pattern. But maybe club soda will help?"
Stepping closer to me, she said, "Do you think?"
"I'm not a stain expert — but maybe it's worth a try?"
Her boyfriend went off to get some fizzy water. She sighed then, and confided in me something that made me realize she had a lot more on her mind than dry cleaning: "We came here straight from a funeral."
The friend of hers who'd died had killed himself by sticking a piece of dynamite in his mouth. She and her boyfriend had discovered the body. "I can't get the image of him out of my head," the woman said.
Years ago, my closest friend committed suicide. The police found him, not I — and yet, for months and months, terrible images and relentless questions haunted me as I tried to come to terms with the shocking loss. I felt that I should have some wisdom to share with this poor woman — but everything that came to mind seemed too trite, facile. Recovering had been a long, complex process for me. In fact, it wasn't until I met C. — nearly a decade later — that the constant fog of pessimism that had overtaken me after the suicide really began to lift.
I felt an urge to tell the woman to hang on tight to her boyfriend, who seemed like he was good to her. We can't always understand death, but it's easier to bear when love reminds us of our attachment to this world. Having someone you can truly rely on — someone whose patience and love helps your sadness recede naturally — makes life so much gentler, no matter how you feel about his social group.
But before I could say anything, she mentioned that this was the fifth bouquet she'd caught in the last year or two, and that this one wouldn't make any difference either; her boyfriend kept saying he didn't want to get married.
When C. came up a moment later and squeezed my shoulders, I kissed him, and then I kissed him again, and again.
Now that he's in my life, I no longer have to fight a feeling of hopelessness every time the sun goes down. I no longer have to defend myself from a ferocious sense of despair at the end of every weekend. These days, I don't suddenly start sobbing uncontrollably on subways because I'm so exhausted by the effort of living. All the little agonies are not quite as crippling or misery-making as they used to be. Everything is so much easier than I ever thought it would be again.
Everything but having an ideally shared social life, that is. C. hasn't expanded my network, it's true. But he's made the world that I live in easier to navigate. You might say he's helped me scale up — to take on new challenges (like writing my first book and getting off antidepressants) and live my life more hopefully.
In the moonlight outside my apartment building, when we got home from the wedding and found a parking space, C. and I danced our silent dance, heads on each other's shoulders. More than just making me happy, he makes me feel like I finally have a home in the world. I can't choose my boyfriend's friends, but I can choose him, and I do.