"Let's have lunch at Balwoo to celebrate the new year." It's cute that S.U. comes up with this little pretext for a lunch date. He is one of the few people I like sharing a meal with in the close set of two. If it is with more than one person, then it is much easier--you don't have to bear the burden of unappealing conversation. But with just one person, it becomes a kind of labor unless that person is the kind of friend who you can be comfortable with, with or without words. I know enough to play by most of the social rules and go through with lunch meetings or dinner dates when necessary, that is, to pass for nearly normal. It just does not mean that I like it and I'd like to think that such is the feeling shared by many people if not expressly discussed. So, there really aren't that many who I like eating with in a pair. SU is one of those few. Every now and then he would call up and we would go have a bite or get a coffee or drink. We head out to a small vegetarian cafe where you get a simple plate of food in the Buddhist monk's style. He does remember my mentioning it in June.
SU and I went to elementary school together. He was a precocious, gangly boy who looked almost all grown up in the eyes of the small, undeveloped girl child that I was. He belonged to the group of tall, cool kids. But for some reason he deigned to hang with me and we would wander around together for no particular purposes after school. I think we talked about music a lot, for if there was one thing I was precocious about, it was my taste in music. I had discovered the Beatles and Led Zeppelin quite early on. We somehow got back in touch after growing up, after entering college. He had grown up to be a brooding philosophy major, very much invested in the college newspaper of his university, of which he later became the editor. Even then we didn't see each other very often, but we could talk about anything and hanging out with him was always fun. After getting older, I even developed this notion that being married to him would be all right. Strange, as I haven't been romantically involved with him and he had gotten married already in our mid-twenties. I was not very keen on marriage, and of all the boys I had anything to do with, there were only two that I could have married and wanted to marry, if at all. SU wasn't one of those two. With those two I was madly and desperately in love each time and they were both trouble in different ways. Sharing life with either of them would have been torture, which the intermittent hours of blissful love could never have compensated for. Then there are boys I am friends with, even close to, who don't give me ideas about anything other than the friendship per se, romantic or not. Of all these boys, particularly SU makes me think that I could live with him and even be married to him. Well read, funny yet not frivolous, emotionally very articulate, not bad-looking, clean and well-dressed. I don't see in him any weird eating habit or any other disturbng idiosyncrasies that you so often find in middle aged men. This is already a lot more than one could expect from a husband, I know from looking at all my friends' husbands. His wife must know many annonying things about him that I don't, but not being his wife I don't have to deal with them; that's one of the perks of the imagined marriage. With him I imagine it would have been a lifelong camaraderie in similar philosophical penchants and political inclinations. And I never saw a woman terribly unhappy merely because her marriage lacked "passion."
There is something else too. That je-ne-sais-quoi isn't romantic or sexual tension, though. There are male friends who like to flirt, who seem to indulge themslves in the sense of masculine empowerment outside their marriage, by creating or imagining sexual tension which they are in fact too scared or too busy or too old to follow through. I am an easy target, not because they find me particularly attractive but because they see no man to reckon with should things go awry, I suspect. Sometimes I would play along out of boredom, but mostly I get weary with those, and feel even used. SU doesn't make me feel that way. We never went out on a romantic date, and I don't think I ever wanted to. Sometimes with some guys, you just have to find out, even if sleeping or even making out with him would mean all hell breaking loose. Not wanting to jeopardize the friendship is usually a pretty (and lame) excuse for not being attracted enough. But I just never got curious about him romantically or sexually, at least not enough to want to try anything, although I always liked him. About 3 years ago, he told me that he had been crushed out on me back in our early twenties. That's twenty years too late a confession, I said, and after two minutes of awkwardness we had a good laugh. I don't know how serious he was twenty years ago, I had no idea, and looking back I'm almost glad that he didn't let it show then, that he didn't put me in a position where I am certain I would have said or done something cruel or rash to him. Blinded by my own youthful love angst directed elsewhere, I was unreasonably harsh to myself and to others back then. But this late confession didn't change anything in our dynamics. The trust I have in him has to do with this unchangeability, rooted in the fact that he knows me. He has known me since I was eleven, which makes him literally my oldest friend, and I don't have to be anything other than what I've been in these thirty odd years. That he grew up to be a successful businessman who still appreciates good books is awesome, of course. Even more awesome is that he's also cold-headed enough to criticize me for being paradoxically condescending when I'm overpolite to cab drivers and doormen, etc. The imagined life with him is always asexual, and very unrealistic, I am sure. As I do not pine for or lust after him, perhaps this comfortable friendship, where I can talk about all kinds of things with shared interest, is as close to a good marriage as it gets for a single woman in her forties. But is it all right to enjoy this kind of long-standing, emotionally intimate friendship with a married guy? Does this count as cheating? I have no reason to feel guilty, yet something about this chaste friendship makes me think that it may still not be readily approved of by everyone (his wife, for instance?). Hence the reluctant sense of guilt, different from the one I would have felt, had we had a sexual dalliance. But what a stifling, restricted world it would be, if we shouldn't really be friends with other people's spouses.
We talk just about anything, from the last month's general election to the Tom Burton Exhibition. I like it that we never run out of things to talk about, that our topics seldom approach such married adults' areas as children's education or real estate prices or...the abominable golf! After talking about work (he runs a PR company) and suffering the day's portion of my CEO jokes, he earnestly asks after my health. The hug is light and warm, as is the dialogue. Cheeks barely touch and I relish the last minute chat of idly contemplating a day trip to a Buddhist temple. I don't know if it is our age or what, but it's just so evident that we are way beyond certain things. The next day I pick out One Way Street from my bookshelves to lend him, remembering his recent interest in Benjamin's other essays.