I still think fondly of Jay.
I met Jay at a student pagan gathering. When I’d called the office asking if atheists were welcome (how I identified at the time), I was assured that they were completely interfaith. Even practitioners of Abrahamic religions were encouraged to attend.
But I noted as soon as I arrived that I was surrounded by Wiccans. Except for Jay. He was the only other non-Wiccan there. And he was also an atheist. We gravitated to each other, clutching cups of cider as the bonfire roared. Passing easily from small talk into discussions about literature, art, and theater. We quickly found we liked the same things.
I’m sure we’d both sound self-conscious to me now. Pretentious. Sophomoric. Even arrogant.
But standing there with him then, I felt like I’d found someone very much like me. Except he was gorgeous.
He never identified as genderqueer (that wasn’t a thing we really even knew about, nearly 20 years ago in rural Maine), but looking back, that’s what he was. Some aspects of him so very masculine and others reading so incredibly feminine. I found the slope of his neck distracting. I kept losing track of what he was saying because I wanted to kiss him there. And his eyes were a silver that contrasted starkly with his light olive skin. I wondered how that skin would feel in my hands. Was he smooth? All over?
I blamed the momentary lapses of concentration on the din of the other voices at the bonfire, competing with my ears.
“We can go back to my dorm room if you’d like,” he offered. “I have some books I’d like to show you.”
I agreed, followed him there.
We didn’t even kiss that night. Instead we sat next to each other on his bed, thumbing through a bible he’d gotten at a swap meet, contrasting passages to another translation he’d had for years. We spent hours discussing the variation between one text and another. Like a game of “Spot the Differences.”
He made me some instant coffee, and we switched to talking about The Iliad, which we’d both read through the honors college. Apparently we’d been sitting for months in the same large weekly lecture but never spotted one another and ended up in different smaller breakout sections.
When the sun started to come up, I excused myself so I could get a few hours of sleep before a morning exam. I walked back to my dorm room, feeling like I was floating the whole way.
Surprisingly, out of nowhere, I had fallen in love.
Jay and I quickly became inseparable. We went to see The Tempest together. Went to hockey games. Grabbed pizza. We saw each other all the time.
I told him things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and he also confided in me. He was hung up on an ex back home. A girl who had broken his heart. He showed me pictures of her, and we both cried as he talked about the heartache, the suddenness of it.
Our relationship became physical. I was thrilled when we first kissed. His lips were just as soft as I thought they would be. Our bodies fit together well as we made out on his dorm bed. And yes, his skin was smooth. All over.
I continued to go on dates and see women, as I had before I’d met him, although nothing had really changed on that front. Despite my hopes for more, the women were mostly booty calling me. Or looking for a “third” to join them and their boyfriends. I was honest with Jay about all of it. We talked openly about what was going on in each of our lives, with other things, other people.
Prior to finding polyamory many years later, it was the closest I came to those layers — to the feeling of having deep intimacy with a person where you were allowed to acknowledge your connections with others.
And yet, Jay and I never talked about what we were.
Most people, seeing us together so much and the warm energy between us, assumed we were dating. But we weren’t exclusive. We hadn’t had that conversation.
It may sound weird now, but it never even occurred to me to go there. Jay and I had something that I understood. Deeply. Something I cherished. And I think I knew in my gut that it wasn’t going to be forever, because we were both at breathtakingly weird places in our lives.
But I also felt that it didn’t need to be forever in order to be meaningful.
And true to my suspicions, one day we reached a dead end. There wasn’t even a breakup, so much as we’d been driving somewhere for months and along the way just ran out of road.
It wasn’t devastation. It was disappointing but felt inevitable. Less like the world ended and more like my favorite show had been canceled.
I had nothing new to look forward to from him, but I could still look back on everything we’d done and smile — a lot like watching reruns that still make me laugh.
If It Isn’t an Official Relationship, Is It Automatically Friends with Benefits?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes hooking up and hanging out different than having a relationship.
If I had to give it some kind of label, I guess most people would say that Jay was my friend with benefits. But that’s not how I see him. Not really.
My heart certainly feels like what we had was romantic. He’s not just my friend. Never was. He’s an old flame.
But he was never officially my boyfriend. And we were never exclusive. We were too busy enjoying the moment to plan. It was like making love in a hurricane.
And Jay isn’t the only relationship I can think of looking back that wasn’t really a capital R relationship. That people might point to and say, “Girl, listen. That was friends with benefits, you dope.” I had countless ones with women who treated me in quite a casual way but who I’d developed deep feelings for.
And in all those entanglements, I never once had anyone sidle up to me and say, “Would you do me the kind honor of being my friends with benefits?” Where I could tip my hat and say, “My dear madam or sir, I accept.”
To me, it’s almost mind-blowing that there are “official” friend with benefits arrangements.
The best I can gather is that what we’re calling friend with benefits are instances where an official relationship is proposed (“Would you be my girlfriend?”), and they’re saying, “No, if it’s alright, I’d like to stay friends.” Or “keep things casual.” Or whatever way you want to put it. And in that case, though that never happened with Jay, I’ve certainly had that happen.
But what about the cases where you never even asked?
If it isn’t an “official” relationship, is it automatically friends with benefits?