I just want to be friends

One Friday night, I was eating dinner with Rob, Bear, and Jonathan at Obie’s Pizza, an excellent dive on Elliston Place in Nashville that served Chicago-style pie two inches thick. I had only two complaints that evening: 1) the sour part-egg, part-cabbage smell of sewage in the air; and 2) leaving early to go out on a date with my girlfriend.

I was usually eager to ditch my buddies to spend time—translation: make-out—with a pretty, warm, soft, and sweet-smelling girl, but I must have known that Gretchen and I were approaching a break because imitations of our eccentric teachers at David Lipscomb High School and incessant quotes from our favorite movie Friday were especially funny.

I picked her up, and she reminded me that I had promised to show her “the view” from Saxon. The Treemont neighborhood off of Tyne Boulevard and Lover’s Circle off of West End also had nice ”views.” Views, of course, meant a romantic or secluded place for making out. I didn’t feel like kissing, but Laurel was similar to a cat. The less I liked her, the closer she wanted to get. I tried to stall, talk, ask her questions about her day, but she got the Glint. The Glint was the dating-illiterate Christian girl’s way of saying, “I’m going to try to be sexy now.”

Wrigley's Spearmint GumShe snuggled as close as the center console in my The Toast—aka, my champagne-colored totaled-out-and-refurbished Honda Accord LXI—and tilted her chin up at me.

This was getting so predictable. I wasn’t having déjà vu; I was watching a movie of myself. I was the anti-hero trapped in his own life. I was a young Paul Giametti. Either the pizza was sitting heavy, or an edge of angst was creeping into my mind. So as not to appear standoffish and tip her off to what I was thinking, I gave her a few obligatory kisses.

Wrigley’s Spearmint is too sweet to taste good in someone else’s mouth. It lacks the freshness of a true mint-flavored gum and the curiosity factor of cinnamon. She left that acrid bite on my tongue that follows artificial sweeteners like Sweet’N Low.

Renting a movie acquired a new urgency.

By the time we got to Blockbuster, I was already thinking about how I would start the conversation. She reminded me that it was her turn to pick out the movie, and in choosing 10 Things I Hate About You, she unwittingly gave me the opening that I needed.

I spent five minutes making my list, and the rest of the movie trying to forget it. I tried to pay attention to her. I tried to snap out of my funk and be present in the moment. I tried to enjoy muster up some kind of warmth and affection for this sophomore from another private Christian school whom I first met at a basketball game. She was cute? She liked me?

She was a success story. I’d always played it safe by pursuing girls at DLHS, many of whom I’d known for years. I had met Laurel at a basketball game and surprised myself by first, not saying anything that later made me cringe, and second, by later approaching her at the reception desk where she was working at the YMCA and asking for her number. I walked out to my car and kept taking that yellow slip of paper out of my pocket to make sure it was real. A girl’s number. A girl’s number! From another school! I was a young Humphrey Bogart.

“Help me, Laurel, help me get her out of my heart.” “Her” was my first serious girlfriend who first broke my heart by saying that she thought we needed to kiss dating good-bye. Thanks for nothing, Joshua Harris. After we got back together, “Her” broke my heart a second time by saying that she had always just considered us “kissing friends.”

Hmm. Wish you’d told me that two years ago. I never would have kissed dating hello.

Asking for Laurel’s number was my way of taking a risk again.

While I was trying to calm the storm in my brain, my risk-experiment was busy quoting 10 Things I Hate About You word for word. I asked her to stop. She ignored me. I asked her to stop again. She thought I was being flirtatious. I asked her to stop a third time. She gave me a catty smile. I finally walked over to the VCR and stopped the movie.

“We need to talk,” I said.

My mistake was not in asking her out. I’m glad that I manned up and took the risk, which helped restore my confidence. I’m also glad that I broke up with her. Like every girl I dated, Laurel deserved to be with someone who was excited to be with her. If I could not be that guy, then I needed to clear out and make room for him.

Also, the thought of kissing her again upset my stomach.

My mistake came in the form of this cop-out: “I just want to be friends.”

No, I didn’t.

That was selfish. Perhaps all lies are selfish, but the closer they are to the truth, the easier they are to accept. The easier they are to accept, the more deeply they penetrate and the more damage they can do. Rather than look her in the eyes and say that I didn’t plan to have any further contact with her, I “let her down easy.” I fed her a little pill to get out of that conversation as quickly as possible, but both of us paid for this act of selfishness. Credit cards offer a similar kind of easy. They provide a momentary reprieve but grows into a ball and chain. I stopped returning Laurel’s phone calls, so she contacted me via email: “I wish you were here so I could scream at you and beat you up.”

I was glad I was there. Easy wasn’t easy anymore. I decided that I would never feed a woman that line again.

Seven years later, I was living in Knoxville with a guy named Lucas who was interning with a campus ministry called Reformed United Fellowship (RUF). We were hanging out one night with some of the freshmen he led in a bible study. The idea of letting girls down easy came up. I told the story, and told them that I regretted not being completely honest. “Don’t add insult to injury by ending a relationship with an empty promise,” I told them. “Don’t do what I did.”

One of the freshmen happened to be interested in Laurel’s younger sister and happened to tell her about the conversation. The younger sister happened to tell her older sister. I received a venomous note on Facebook saying that I’d better be careful who I talked about to whom because I never knew when it might get back to that person.

I tried to explain that I was using my actions and words as an example of how not to end a relationship, but I left out the part about we all laughed at the email threatening violence.

Just tell her you’re not interested and watch the pain and embarrassment of rejection register in her eyes. Don’t soften the blow. Don’t put sugar in the vinegar. Tell her the truth, and even though she might hate your guts for awhile, she’ll come to appreciate your courage. She’ll heal faster because you won’t have injured her respect for men in general. The same holds true when the roles are reversed. If you don’t follow a break up with a clumsy pantomime of friendship, you may be able to salvage the real thing. Pay him or her the respect of the bitter pill, not the placebo.

Dating is like the flu. It makes you weak, nauseous, and needy. Unselfish communication is Ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep. I’m glad it’s over.

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