Because of napkins, we’re no longer friends. We were sitting at the bar at—oh, what’s the name of that restaurant with the ridiculously absurd coconut sticky rice?—Ruby Foo’s, the one on the Upper West Side, near where I’d eventually live. I was still living on the Upper Least Side, and in the coming weeks, you’d visit me there, overnight even, and complain that you felt “icky” there. “It gave me the creeps,” you’d later say because his things were still there, because it was your introduction to our divorce. You were relieved once I moved across town, but of course by then, you and I weren’t what we’d been before.
I’d taken a cab across town to meet you at Ruby Foo’s. “Appetizers,” I said, and we shared some, I’m sure, with wine, but it might have been sake. Or maybe I ordered mine dirty, as I was apt to do back then. It was before we dated, before we stopped dating and became the kind of friends who said, “Yeah, we’re totally just friends,” and meant it. You drew a finger across my face and asked if I knew how beautiful I was. “You’re the one with the dimples,” I said smiling back. And I remember the light that night, rutilant, on our bar stools beginning to learn each other’s beginnings. “Let’s play, I remember,” I said perking up out of the smitten stir between us. You cocked your head and raised a brow. “Come on; it’s fun.” And I felt fun, like the creative one, like you liked me this way, adding to the relationship, enriching your life. Maybe you thought, “This girl’s on crack.” Maybe you though, “She’s fun and passionate and has things to add to my life.” Either would have been okay.
“We need something to write on, and two pens.” I looked toward the coasters, but they were marked with colorful logos. “Napkins.” And I handed him some. “Okay, write a bunch of sentences. Each one has to begin with ‘I remember.’ Just write whatever comes to mind. Do a bunch, and then we’ll trade.” This wasn’t something I normally did on dates, or ever did again. It was just happening, a written conversation where I learned his mother bought the dented cans because they were cheaper. I loved what came out, learning about him, hearing him tell stories as he was remembering them, about summers at the shore, his favorite smells, his atrocious time at jury duty, and the way he laughed in the telling of it. I felt high and giddy and infatuated, strung up in the bloom of a relationship when you’re usually busy restricting the conversation to “us talk.” Like the new gadget you just purchased, you noodle around with it, pawing your way through the manual, excited to master it. You want to get to it fast; you can’t get enough, and in the bud of a young relationship, you speak about future things, assuming it will always be this intense and exciting, even though experience has proved otherwise.
Many years later, the napkins returned, only this time we were different. We were friends, the kind who shared everything and asked eagerly for dating advice. “She read my email and signed on. So I know she read it. Shit, she’s online right now. Why hasn’t she emailed back? Should I IM her?” And he’d help me through my own anxieties, though now I was in a serious relationship, the kind that would lead to love, then marriage, then two babies in a baby carriage, or at least a designer jogging stroller. He sent his new napkins to Phil for my surprise Straight Up and Thirty scrapbook, where each of my friends wrote something, sharing with me what our friendship meant to them. He remembered our courtship and handed the words over to my man, speaking of our sexual life, remembered in private jokes. It was inappropriate and to say the least made me uncomfortable.
If roles were reversed, if I were accumulating letters from Philip’s friends for his birthday surprise, had an ex of his who really was now “only a friend” provided me with her account of their intimate lives together as lovers, how would I have reacted? For one, I’d probably still be hurt by it today. And I’d certainly want him to have absolutely nothing to do with her, ever again. “Disrespectful” is a restrained word I’d use often with my arms crossed. And even if I’d been in an extraordinarily giddy mood, it could turn, quite quickly, to closed and miserable at the mention of her name.
Despite our years as platonic friends, we stopped speaking, completely. Because he was disrespectful to someone I loved, and even to me. But also because as much as I hate it, I have to try to live by the whole “do onto others” code, and there is no way in hell I’d be okay with Philip still including her in his life, at any level. So the napkins were just the evidence that despite all we said, sometimes the “just” part of “just friends” just isn’t the case. And it was hard letting go of a dear friend, but it would have been harder to keep him.