He told me I had to come. This was his only instruction, which was a good instruction because had I not received it, I would have stayed home and watched "Flight of the Conchords" while knitting. I am not good at meeting people in large groups. More simply, I'm not good at meeting people. But my best friend was insistent.
"She is going to be there," he said, emphasis on the she. And that is when I knew that my attendance was no longer optional. My best friend had acquired, for the first time since I had known him, a full-fledged girlfriend.
An odd truth as he was one of those very solitary, withdrawn people. The Lone Cyprus of humanity. And he seemed to like it there, out on his ledge, with no one to tell him he was drinking too much whiskey or putting in too many hours at the office. So this girlfriend bit -- commitment to another human being -- was a tremendous accomplishment, and I had to acknowledge it by going out in public and shaking her hand.
The group met at a coffee shop downtown full of mismatched tables and tattooed baristas. My best friend saw me out of the corner of his eye and stood up, hoisting his hands in the air as though he were signaling a touchdown.
"You made it! ... Come over and meet everyone."
This unnerved me slightly. My friend wasn't the type to hoist anything, much less his hands. He was cynical. Unanimated. Blessed with two wrong sides of the bed. The only thing I'd seen him affectionate about was Yankee baseball and me. I walked over to the table, and he gave me a peculiar pat on the shoulder. Like I were a small child or an estranged cousin. I don't have Lyme's disease, I wanted to say. You can hug me. But instead I smiled politely.
Though there were a dozen or so people at the table, it was easy to pick her out. I had one of those déjà vu feelings. Like I had seen her before in a past life or a Dove skin commercial. She was in her early thirties, rather pretty, and I imagined she enjoyed doing things like sitting on her couch and being picky about sushi.
My best friend cleared out a spot beside her and told me to sit down.
"There's plenty of room here," he said and waited for me to pick my way around the table and into the three inches of space.
My best friend was excited. Ralphie Red Ryder BB gun excited. I had never seen him wear such a preposterously large smile. It hadn't occurred to me until then that this could be real. Important. That he could even love her. I had just assumed she was a girl. Who would come and then go. The equivalent of a qualifying lap in NASCAR. I dug deep and endeavored to be as charming as possible. I made excessive amounts of eye contact and tried to appear extremely interested in her job as a paralegal. I knew this was an important moment, and I should ask her about all sorts of things like what kind of cul-de-sac she lived on and how she liked her stir-fry.
But something was wrong. Off. I could feel the tension on my fingernails and in my kneecaps. It reverberated off the mismatched chairs. Every time I turned her direction in hopes of forming a kindred bond over Woody Allen, her eyes were staring at me glassed over. Her aura didn't feel like roses; it felt like airport security -- I was entirely certain I wasn't carrying a homemade bomb, but her face told me otherwise. I sat there, stunned for a minute, until I finally realized what was happening. The likeness was uncanny. She was the human equivalent of a fainting goat.
Now, admittedly, I've never seen a fainting goat before, but I've heard about them in reliable places like National Geographic. They're mystical creatures like unicorns. Or gnomes. When they're startled or put in a very awkward situation, instead of reacting like normal, spine-filled animals, they stiffen their whole body and immediately stop functioning. The extreme ones keel completely over, weighted down, I imagine, by the emotional exhaustion of the moment.
I knew immediately this was a large misunderstanding. She had me pegged all wrong. It wasn't that I wasn't her type; it was that she thought I was her boyfriend's type -- she suspected me. I might not be as good at socializing as Jackie Kennedy, but that certainly didn't make me a Marilyn Monroe. I wanted to set the record straight. I wanted to tell her that my best friend and I were as platonic as Will and Grace. We never kissed, never held hands, and never so much as thought about uploading our portraits on MakeMeBabies.com just to see what might happen. I would never in a million years, even if offered ownership of Italy, contemplate doing the no-pants dance with a taken man. But she just started at me, her eyes judging what she could only assume were my lethal intentions.
I looked at my best friend hoping to see some recognition. Are you witnessing this? I wanted to say, raising my eyebrows suggestively in his direction (which, on later evaluation, probably didn't help). But my best friend seemed unaffected. Happy even.
I left that night with a palpable feeling of failure in my stomach, along with a very awkward side hug from The Fainting Goat. I had met the girlfriend and had not succeeded in securing a follow-up date, complete with friendship bracelet making and laughing about the state of Nebraska.
She'll come around, I told myself. She has to. And I tried very hard to believe it.
I asked her over for wine and invited her to my birthday parties.
I smiled at her and gave her warm hugs even when she turned me down. But it wasn't enough. She never could get comfortable with me. She always suspected me of things like treason and malpractice. Over the course of the next several months, she would repeatedly freeze and do the stiff-legged scuffle, then bumble off to my best friend to tell him all the horrible things I'd done. She would cry and nag until he bandaged up her insecure Achilles heel and then come lecture me.
"Why aren't you trying with her? Why don't you like her? Do you want to ruin this?"
I would purse my lips, unsure of what to say. After all, it's hard to like people who call you things that can be censored with asterisks.
I had wanted very much to like The Fainting Goat. My best friend's happiness was monumentally important to me. And because she was significant to him, she automatically became significant to me. I pictured us being like sisters, braiding each other's hair and having slumber parties on Saturday nights. But no matter what I did, the Fainting Goat didn't want to braid my hair. She wanted to shave it. After a spell of feeling more unwelcome than smallpox, I gave up being nice and began hoping she would age into Fainting Goat Cheese. I crossed my fingers excessively that my best friend would realize her deeply ingrained flaws and put her out to pasture. But instead he did something entirely man-like and regrettable: He bought her a ring.
I should have known something was wrong from the moment he invited me out for a double cheeseburger at six o'clock in the evening. When somebody invites you to eat dinner before its dark out, it's fair to assume you're a social appetizer, the palate cleanser for the real conversation that is to take place later. It was clear when he sat down, checking his watch and tugging at the ends of his shirt, that he wasn't staying long. Something had changed.
"I'm getting married, and . . . " his voice trailed off, "I don't think I can see you anymore."
The tone was stiff and learned, probably rehearsed several times in the parking lot by the light of his car mirror.
Surely, he couldn't be serious.
I laughed. This was funny. Hilarious. No one actually broke up with their friends.
"I mean it," he implored, trying to make me understand, but I still didn't believe him.
Over a few bites of a medium-rare burger, it became clear to everyone in the restaurant but me that he was serious indeed. He was really getting married to a woman who detested me, and he really didn't plan on seeing me ever again.
The Man Engaged to the Fainting Goat went on and on about how our relationship had become inappropriate and how he needed to focus his energy on the important woman in his life. I listened, craning my neck and nodding, all the while assuming that The Fainting Goat had just gotten her barnyard britches in a twist and that by next week my pal and I would be back to eating Buffalo wings and throwing darts. Then, when he had exhausted all of his most rational, adult words, he gave me a hug and the reality began to envelop my body. He wasn't kidding after all.
My best friend and The Fainting Goat did indeed marry. The wedding was in November in the downtown church. They looked happy and full of promise. She wore a long, form-fitting white dress, and he wore a perfectly tailored suit, and afterward they jetsetted off to Italy where they christened their matrimony with European cheese and wine. At least that's what I heard; I wasn't invited.
For a long time I absolutely hated The Fainting Goat. It's so rare in life that you make true friends, and to have one taken from you prematurely for reasons that seem unfair is quite paralyzing. But after a while, I began to understand. He had promised to love and protect her. He had promised to guard her heart. And intentionally or not, I had been causing it to rupture.
I read once that in order to write a great book, you have to be willing to kill your darlings. Everything, simply, can't fit in. And I suppose it's the same in all things of life. In order to have the best things, sometimes, along the way, we have to be willing to set some really good things aside.
When I walk past that coffee shop now or walk into the bar with the best cheeseburger in town, my heart stiffens in my chest and I can't help but think about the best friend I once had and how much I still miss him. And in times like those, I kind of understand what she must have felt like those many, many months ago. In life's tougher moments, after all, we can all be a bit of a fainting goat.
This post is adapted from "Awkward Moments with Men: Stories About the Sex We Can't Live Without" by Megan Leigh Byrd and Shannon Lee Miller.