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Dealbreaker: We Were Friends With Benefits

We’ve heard it all before: Straight men and women can’t be “just friends.” Our interlocking body parts get in the way.

In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.

She started it. Her text message read: “I had a funny sex dream last night where you gave me spectacular head, haha.” The prudent response would have been: “haha, weird.”

Instead, I wrote back to Brett—an old, dear, platonic friend—that her dream sounded remarkably accurate. That launched a long, textual argument over who was better in bed. We concluded that it was a question that could only be decided non-electronically. As Brett lived several states away, it was also one that could not be decided immediately.

So naturally, we passed the time with drunken bouts of awkward phone sex, always giggling over each session the next day. Our friendship quickly developed a thrilling new dimension. The distance allowed me plenty of space to fantasize about the possibilities spelled out in those texts and late-night phone calls. It also gave me time to weigh the conventional wisdom passed down to “just friends” since time immemorial: Do not sleep together.

We’ve heard it all before: Straight men and women can’t be “just friends.” Our interlocking body parts get in the way. Decades of cable sitcoms and summer rom-coms have warned us that any attempt to acknowledge a case of mutual attraction will inevitably end in tears, acrimony, and a ruined friendship—or marriage. I always thought that was all bullshit—I have wonderful friendships with women that aren’t remotely sexual, and wonderful friendships with women that are bursting with sexual undertones. It had never caused me any problems.

But I soon found that the nagging cultural cliché even had a following in my pseudo-bohemian social circles. Whenever I confided to a friend about the unfolding flirtation between Brett and myself, I received an ominous warning in response. The word “doom” repeatedly wiggled its way into these conversations. Also, “ idiot,” as in “you’re a.”

But when Brett finally flew south, we didn’t fool around—didn’t even kiss. The circumstances had shifted: A bottle of gin into her visit, both of us sprawled across my bed, I told her with slurred excitement about my new relationship (lifespan: four months). When I visited Brett five months later, I met her new boyfriend and slept on the couch.

Then, years after the inciting text, I visited Brett when we were both fresh from especially jarring splits, a situation best assuaged, we felt, by a road trip. We hadn’t flirted much in the last year, and we didn’t discuss the possibility of sleeping together. Our conversations circled the emotional fallout from our recently concluded relationships. When we were done wallowing, we went out on an epic binge. Late that night, we eyed each other woozily over Thai curry—it had a very Will-They-or-Won’t-They vibe—and then finally, definitively, ascended the stairs. The results were energetic and clumsy, but thoroughly well-intentioned. Fun was had by all.

The next morning, we hopped out of bed and got back on the road as though nothing had happened—no hand-holding, no surreptitious smooching, no more physical affection than we normally exhibited. Just the usual comradely tour of the city’s used bookstores, museums, and bougie little art galleries. We fell into bed again that night, and agreed that the contest had ended in a draw. Then, during a conversational lull, Brett said, in her painstakingly deliberate way, “Do you remember Freddie, my painter friend?” She hadn’t seen him in years, and we happened to be passing through his hometown the next day. “I thought it might be fun to stay the night,” she said. “I won’t, of course, if it makes you feel weird.”

I absorbed the query carefully, waiting for my heart to skip that obligatory beat, for jealously to work over me, as popular wisdom had assured me it would. But it never came. I knew Freddie, and liked him, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if I didn’t. My little fling with Brett was just that. We were attracted to each other and had fun sex. That didn’t trump friendship. Our last night in town, Brett and I talked late into the night, disarming each other’s anxieties. We fell asleep, clothed, in one another’s arms. The affair was over. We never considered turning it into anything more.

I was impressed with us. We were not doomed idiots. The whole thing had gone so well that I felt capable of navigating a sexual encounter with damn near anyone, especially if the friend in question lived far away. When Kim, another close friend of many years, visited from Memphis, we happily and causally indulged. “So, been dating anyone fun recently?” she murmured drowsily, head on my chest, afterwards. No problem.

Then, Martha visited from Chicago. We’d fooled around at parties before, but had never ended up in bed together. Like Brett, Martha lived states away, and the distance provided a firewall against complication. Or so I thought.

“I felt like I could have been just anyone you brought home on a Saturday night,” she told me the next morning. I didn’t know what to say. Martha asked me if we had just used one another. I told her I didn’t think of sex that way. But in my rush to fit our dalliance into my own narrative, I hadn’t stopped to ask about the way she saw it.

Martha and I are fine, but we don’t make out at parties anymore. Brett is still the first person I call to celebrate a new love, or mourn an old one. I’ve still never lost a friendship to a fling, or spun one into The Grand Romance We’ve Both Been Waiting For. These affairs all tend to loop back around to where they began: just friends.

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