In many ways, it’s inevitable that we will be attracted to our friends’ significant others and exes. At the very least, they’ve already won a stamp of approval from someone we like and trust. This is even more true in the case of best friends. It’s mathematical. If person A was once in love with person B, and person B gets along swimmingly with person C, what’s the probability that person A and person C will end up having sex?
Will and I grew up together in a surf town south of San Francisco where we would sit on the cliffs, look out at the Pacific Ocean, and talk about girls. In high school, I moved away, but Will and I kept in touch, speaking on the phone at least once a day. At some point during our junior year, he started telling me about Kate, a sophomore he made out with during a school trip. A few months later, Will was in love with Kate. Two years later, she broke his heart.
Two years after that, Will and I were geographically reunited. Ambition brought us both to Berkeley over the summer, where some combination of dumb luck and bravado was resulting in the greatest summer either of us had ever experienced.
Will lived at a house called Afro (need I say more?), and I lived in the basement of a vegan co-op, in a dungeon that used to belong to a cult leader who would make people get naked and talk about their insecurities. Eventually, the cult leader sold the house (dungeon included) to a bunch of Berkeley students, who mostly did lots of drugs and threw parties with titles like, “The French Rave-o-lution.” Suffice to say: we were having a blast.
Then Kate happened.
Will and I were throwing a party, and accordingly sent out a mass text to everyone in our collective phonebook. When Kate texted him back, she said she had no plans, she’d love to come, and she needed a ride across the bay. Since I had still never met Kate, I decided I would give her a ride.
“You should fuck Kate tonight,” Will told me before I got in the car to go pick her up. I took him at his word, but later on, I realized he only said it to create an illusion of control, of distance.
“Is this going to be the worst decision I ever make?” I asked, only half-joking.
The thing about Kate was that it was impossible not to fall in love with her. It wasn’t fair how beautiful she was. It wasn’t fair that she was the funniest, most insightful, sweetest girl I had ever met. It wasn’t fair how talking to her made me forget I’d ever had a conversation with anyone else. She was really one of those accident-of-nature things.
It also wasn’t fair how she had dated my best friend, for two years, and how twelve hours after I finally met her, neither of us could shake that thought as we lay in bed together, cuddled in a pile of blankets in the warm July air. Then again, it wasn’t fair that I had slept with her in the first place.
We’d never gotten to the party. Instead, we had found ourselves driving around aimlessly, listening to Rilo Kiley, contemplating the mysteries of our passing luck, and then making out on wooden steps drinking Stella Artois and Racer 5. Neither of us had a bottle opener, so we opened the bottles on the steps and the beer bubbled out like champagne.
She was about to leave to go to France, she told me, to spend a year at Sciences Po, and I was about to leave for Semester at Sea, to spend my final semester of college on a cruise ship. We had no immediate future, and no hope of one. We both imagined ourselves in New York City one day, but that was at some indeterminable date in the future. So we had sex, because it felt right, and because we were attracted to each other, and because we knew we might never get another chance.
The next morning, she said, “I don’t want a relationship,” and after a pause, I said, “I don’t either.” She wasn’t lying, but I was.
At that point, I was already in love with her. I was in love with her the moment she stepped into the car, but I only fell more in love with her over the next few weeks. I was a total mess. I loved the way she trailed off whenever she finished a sentence. I loved the way she smiled. I loved that she had a favorite historical figure, and I loved that it was W.E.B. Du Bois. Eventually though, we both had to say goodbye, and leave for our respective study-abroad programs.
From the ship I sent her long emails about sitting alone on the back deck reading Gravity’s Rainbow, and how my anxiety was metamorphosing into contempt for my shipmates. She responded with equally long emails about feeling disgustingly American-in-Paris, and the loneliness that resulted from being sequestered on the outskirts of town with a neurotic host-family. Neither of us was happy, and for a time we found solace in each other’s discomfort.
Slowly, however, we each became accustomed to our strange surroundings. I found people on the ship I could talk to and she found a small apartment by the river. We stopped needing each other as badly. We stopped writing as often. At some point, I sent her a long email about how much our relationship meant to me. I may or may not have mentioned that the thought of her gallivanting around Paris with a cute French guy and a baguette made me physically ill. She responded curtly, asserting with minimal ambiguity that yeah, we had something, but it meant less to her. My long project of trying to convince myself otherwise ended, but for some reason, we kept writing.
Will was also abroad, in Moscow. While it wasn’t a secret that Kate and I had slept together, it was at least a sore subject. We avoided it religiously when we Skyped. On one hand, Will was one of the few people on earth who understood exactly how I felt. Not only was he my best friend, but he had been in love with her too. On the other hand, hearing about it made him want to kill me. When the conversation was finally inevitable, his position was, “Look, if you marry Kate, I’ll either fucking kill you, or I’ll fucking kill myself, or I’ll do both. Other than that, just do what you gotta do.”
Not surprisingly, things didn’t work out between me and Kate. If I were rewriting the story, I would make my best friend the obstacle. I would notice my nascent romantic relationship destroying one of the greatest friendships I’ve ever had and I would find a way to fix it. That is, of course, not what happened. The real reason that it never worked out with Kate is that she wasn’t in love with me. She didn’t need me as much as I needed her, and because of this, my friendship with Will survived — perhaps not intact, but ultimately, a little more resilient.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.