My first close friendships were blisteringly intense.
I had one childhood friend, Emma, whose parents were both zoologists. Emma’s family let me come along with them on their family vacations. I can remember vividly, even now, lying with Emma under the covers at night in an old farmhouse as the wind made noise in the rafters, telling private jokes. Making up stories.
Together we even devised a secret language. It was a simple cipher letter substitution. A few extra vowels inserted here and there to make words easier to say. But we got very good at it over the years we were together. Able to talk to one another in a code that literally no one else could understand.
Emma was the first woman I ever loved. Even though it was chaste, we were completely intimate. I knew everything about her and she, me. And we spun an entire collective universe from shared secrets.
Two Smart Girls Turned Amazingly Stupid
Emma was shy, tame. I brought her out of her shell by having enough bravery for both of us.
Later, I had another best friend, Noelle, a girl who was a wild zany risk-taker like me. Or, as my mother liked to put it, “When the two of you get together, it’s two smart girls turned amazingly stupid.”
Whatever. We had fun. And the connection with Noelle was different in character. Didn’t stay chaste at all. It wasn’t my first same sex encounter, but it was intense and deep. We had the same kind of profound intimacy I’d found with Emma, but this time it had this extra erotic edge.
Unfortunately, Noelle was profoundly insecure (for a number of reasons, looking back), so there was always something destructive in our connection. Something that ensured that I needed to always scale myself back a little so that I didn’t overshadow or eclipse her.
It wasn’t that difficult though. Noelle was shiny. Powerful. An individual.
And I was something less sure. Less defined. I was insecure, too, but in a different way — a way that didn’t possess ambition. I thought I was worthless and more or less accepted it. Noelle worried that she was and did everything possible to struggle against her fear.
First Husband Wouldn’t Get Close to Me, Which Confused and Bothered Me
Anyway, time and distance (and my lovers’ own battles with their sexual and romantic orientations, the gulf between what they want to be and what they are) have intervened.
But I still love them. And I still love other friends who were just about this close to me once upon a time. Even if we talk only in passing, via Facebook or a rare email.
It’s part of why my first marriage was so disappointing to me. My first husband Seth was a natural loner. Just didn’t get that close to people. And nothing I ever did brought him as close to me as I had been with my childhood friends (whether those connections also turned erotic or not in that closeness).
While I did my best to take an interest in him and his hobbies, he seemed bored when I’d tell him about me. Or even occasionally threatened. When I’d speak about my history traveling with bands as a musician, he’d cut me off and tell me he didn’t want to hear about it. “It makes me feel like a loser,” he’d say, before adding, “You’re so insensitive.”
“But you did so much with juggling and were on a dance team and won awards for chess,” I’d counter. “I never did any of that, and it’s truly impressive to me.”
“Whatever,” he’d say and insist I change the topic.
I’d spend hours talking to him about video game strategy, his favorite films (even started playing an MMO that he was into, which thrilled him), etc. But when I wanted to talk about something that interested me, like analyzing a social interaction we’d seen play out in front of us among people we knew, he’d stop me. “You only want to talk about boring stuff,” he’d remark.
He just didn’t seem to like me all that much.
And yet, he insisted he did. That I was his closest confidant. The person who knew him best.
That he’d let me deep inside himself.
Meanwhile, I felt like I was still standing outside of him, past a large heavy gate.
And that he didn’t really want to come over to my house either.
When Our Marriage Opened Up, We Both Clicked With Other People
When we eventually opened up our relationship after eight years of being romantically and sexually exclusive, I worried a lot about him finding someone else he clicked with so much better.
I never once worried about the same thing happening to me.
Because while I remembered vividly romantically clicking better with people (usually women) in my past, I’d tell him this, and he’d reply, “Well, they were probably lying to you. This is as deep as people go. That kind of connection isn’t something that actually exists, not without a lot of exaggeration.”
And as the years went on, I began to wonder if maybe he were right. If maybe my memory of such things were faulty. I was younger then, after all. Maybe my view of people was more biased then, skewed in a hopelessly positive direction.
But when we opened up, I started to click with other people. Really well. Really deeply. A lot.
After some time, my then-husband admitted to me that his new girlfriend really did offer him something he couldn’t get from me: She made him feel special, important, and smart.
“But I think you’re all those things!” I protested.
“Well, it’s not about telling me those things,” he replied. He told me that she didn’t understand the things that he said. At least not right away. He said that he was always teaching her things because she didn’t know them already. And he noted that she hadn’t won writing or music awards as a kid.
It dawned on me as we talked things over. That my early successes in life (even though they were coupled with a pretty rough home life that left me with no self-esteem in those years) made him feel as though he was small.
I made him feel small, just by being me. The new girlfriend, she made him feel big and important, just by being her.
It was a tough hit. I hated the whole mess of it. The implication.
My mother had told me many times, looking at my marriage, “Maybe you tone down the intelligence. I think it scares him,” and I’d waved her away because that was a sexist notion, and my then-husband was a feminist and surely didn’t believe any of that.
And yet. When push came to shove…
Tough pill to swallow.
When Someone’s Willing to Learn the Secret Language or Create a New One Together
About a year into our open relationship, I finally met Justin. He was another loner boy, like my then-husband Seth, but Justin was a lot different. Justin didn’t have that giant insecure chip on his shoulder. Probably because he, too, had accomplished a lot as a young person. More than I had, arguably. (At least more in ways that mattered and led him to a better life.)
We became great friends over the following year. I even told him about my childhood friend Emma and our secret language. His response surprised me: He wanted to know how it worked.
I told him. And then one day he shocked me by speaking to me in it.
At the time, I was dating four people (my then-husband and three others), and while I clicked well with the other three (more easily than I did with Seth), none of them had been remotely interested in talking about ciphers. And certainly no one had taken the bold move of learning the language enough to say anything in it.
And the first thing he said in it?
I love you.
Well, well, well.
It Had Been Devastating to Realize that Straight Relationships Weren’t Any Better than Gay Ones
He was dating three other women at the time, working full time, and running a non-profit.
I lived 900 miles away and was preparing to move in with two of my lovers (who were friends of his and lived across town from him) in a few months.
So it all waited.
But the friendship was enduring and intense and lovely. It reminded me of being under blankets with Emma gossiping. Or dancing on a beach with Noelle next to a one-legged seagull.
The times that I had truly felt connected to other people.
Romance — and particularly heterosexual romance (thanks church and Hallmark) — had been fed to me as the purest, deepest emotional bond. So I’d always assumed my early gay loves had been a sort of practice for “the real thing.”
It had been devastating to realize that straight relationships ran basically the same range as gay ones. That there are ones where the people in them are basically roommates, and one or both parts of a couple don’t like the person who share their bed all that much and simply tolerate them. Like my first marriage.
It was also odd to realize that there are ones in between, like a lot of people I clicked with well but not to the depth I’d experienced in childhood.
And it was a giant relief to realize that there are straight relationships that can run just as deep as gay ones (although it took a lot of effort to find one). Like the friendship — and eventually much more — that I developed with Justin.
Understanding in a Place Beyond Words
Over time, everything sorted itself out. Seth and I went on to divorce (fairly amicably). We live cross country from one another now, but we’ve talked every now and then and always on fairly friendly terms, although we were never exactly close in the best of times, so it’s never quite like talking to my friend-friends.
He’s in multiple good relationships, still dating some of the same people he did when we were married (and open).
I remarried after the divorce. After eight years, Justin and I are still great friends and amazingly close. We’re both more assertive than we were when we met. I’ve traveled all over the place with him. Pushed myself internally to places I didn’t think I could go. We’ve enthusiastically supported each other in our careers.
We aren’t roommates who simply tolerate one another. He’s a best friend who has a cute butt. And after all of these years, we’ve developed our own secret language, one we both speak to one another. It’s not a cipher, like Emma’s. But there’s an understanding now that takes place beyond words.
Maybe It’s Easier to Feel Like You’re in a Good Relationship If You’ve Never Really Been Close to Other People
Maybe it’s easier to feel like you’re in a good relationship if you’ve never really been close to other people.
Maybe you can get ruined by connecting deeply in childhood. By having emotional intimacy before you’re mature enough for it to be stable.
Maybe it sets you up with higher expectations for your adult relationships, ones that are frankly difficult to achieve.
Maybe I would have never had such a hard time in my first marriage if I’d never loved my childhood friends so intensely — and felt love in return from them.
Whatever the case, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
Books by Page Turner: