Baumgartner: Friendship, after the storm

I spent the summer in Saint Malo, my friend spent his in Lyon, and we met at the beginning of August in the south of France. But it was hot there, and the beaches were crowded, and he said, “Why not go to Paris?” So we went. We walked along the Seine and drank espresso from small cups and one afternoon, we visited Notre Dame.

As we walked across the plaza, the birds took flight, the sun on the undersides of their wings. The cathedral was immense and delicate, with white spires and marble moldings, the sort of building an artist would carve on eggshells. On the portals were scenes of the the Last Judgment— the naked demons, horned like goats, the sinners upturned, knives to their throats.

Parishioners knelt in the pews, heads bowed in prayer, hands busy with the rosary. We walked down the aisle and looked up at the stained glass, and I thought of how very far we were from home, where we spent the afternoons by the lake, pretending to know from the clouds if it would rain. If a storm formed in the summer heat, we ran to his house, hands over our heads.

Then, as we stood there, he took my hand. The family, lighting votives near the altar, looked up, but he did not let go, and for a moment, I was so frightened by the gesture that I did not hear the drop of the coin, the strike of the match, the whispers of children tired of devotion. I did not understand why he took my hand.

We were close friends — and only friends — but we were in France, where we had abandoned ourselves to other pleasures: a few glasses of wine, a cigarette or two that he finished but I lit and dropped in the river without smoking.

At the time, it did not seem like the frantic motions of early love — and it wasn’t. Later he told me that it was an expression of familiarity. Our friendship formed from the weather, but our friendship was greater than the weather, and watching an electrical storm no longer seemed to fit our closeness.

Friendship is not physical. (That is, after all, what distinguishes friends from lovers.) But it still demands physicality. The best of friends hold back your hair and take your hand. They pound chests and fake punches. But when it comes to friends of the sex to which you are attracted, such gestures sometimes seem like advances — and so they are guarded against, often at the expense of closeness.

These friendships are harder at college, where friends do not become friends by pretending to be weathermen and sex is more visible than it is in France. At college, some friends become boyfriends, and those who do not try. Such friendships have no rules, perhaps because the rules that might exist (not to kiss or touch or have sex) are so often broken.

But the problem is more than just sex. I made friends with boys because boys also play by the lake, but I have found it difficult to make friends with men because I do not know how men make friends. Is it by watching sports? Does it happen during a video game? I am certain though that they do not build friendships as women do. I do not understand the equivalent gestures. So, in college, I’ve become friends with women and gay men.

College has not taught me how to make nice with men. But it has helped to explain why such friendships are so difficult. Phillip Larkin wrote that “sexual intercourse began / in nineteen-sixty-three.” But sex was not the only innovation. That decade also made it possible for men and women to be real, honest-to-God friends.

There was not just a Sexual Revolution, historian Virginia Scharff ’74 once told me. There was a Friendship Revolution. Sex without marriage allowed for friendship without sex — a concept that my parents understand but my grandparents do not. (“How long have you been together?” They ask. “He’s just a friend,” I tell them. “A boyfriend?”)

I started writing sure that I would be able to define this line between friend and boyfriend. I define the difference for my grandparents.

But I can’t seem to define it for myself. It seems we haven’t gotten very far in 47 years, and I haven’t gotten very far in seven. I find myself with little precedent for these friendships, except the average of those with women and my relationships with men. So I go back to making my allegiances in borrowed ways: a weekend, a cigarette, a press of the hand.

Alice Baumgartner is a senior in Berkeley College.

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