"I forgot how tall you were!" I say when he approaches me, standing at the end of the bar waiting for my Americano to be served. I rise on tiptoe to greet him.
I don't think about the gesture before it unfolds. Kissing is how I greet most people I know well. But he's not "most people" -- and as my cheek moves to meet his, my body pauses as if, having passed his lips, my own seem to suddenly remember that this is the only reasonable destination. The hesitation only lasts a nanosecond, but when our cheeks finally touch, both are burning hot with a nameless transgression.
Let's just be friends. I would never utter those words. Friendship to me is not a consolation prize to give out to people who fail to meet my standards. If I can't even agree to dinner with you, there is no way I am going to want to hear about your neuroses, help you move, or let you crash on my couch because you don't feel like being alone that night.
At a cafe via Shutterstock.
The dreaded phrase even affects the people who didn't get axed after a first or second date. "Let's just be friends," makes a transition from lover to friend sound easy, like friendship is a natural progression once a relationship concludes. This is quite possibly the greatest deceit our species has concocted to date. Friendship is built, stone for stone, from the foundation up. It may be the purest and most beautiful thing we have achieved as social creatures, and the closest we will ever come to unconditional devotion and loyalty.
Love is a process, too, but it is built with a different blueprint. While endowed with words like "eternal" and "unconditional," the devotion and loyalty associated with love are very conditional. There is forgiveness, of course, but love is demanding in a way that friendship is not. Friendship is built like houses near fault lines -- able to take on quakes as the plates of life tremble and shift. Love, on the other hand, tends to be built like a citadel to stand solid against invasion.
They are completely different things. To imagine that you can easily repurpose a fortress to stand the comings and goings of life, with all the tremors and turbulence that it entails, is to set yourself up for collapse. This is especially true if said fortress suffered structural damage during a breakup.
And yet there we are. Having coffee in the middle of what had been, up until this point, a typical weekday.
We quickly put space between the awkward greeting and the present. The ease into which we fall into conversation is surprising. I remember a bright-eyed Pollyanna reassuring me just this morning: "how can you not be able to be friends with someone who knows you so well?" But knowledge doesn't make friendship a certainty. If this were true, we'd all be best of friends with our therapists, hair stylists and manicurists. And yet we're not.
And then there is the danger, clear and present at all times. He doesn't look like a threat. But his jaw, his perfect jaw, is a threat. His mouth is saying nothing inappropriate, but his lips -- those lips don't need to say a word to be a threat.
Suddenly, a memory accosts me. A dark lounge poolside. "You could get me into trouble with words like that," he'd said. I'd smiled and leaned closer, "I could get you into trouble with one whisper."
Emotional time is not linear. You feel, therefore you are. At that moment in a coffee shop sitting with an old lover, I am also sitting at a bar with a man I am only now beginning to know. Common sense immediately rebels against the disorder, but curiosity placates it with Heraclitus -- surely if one cannot step twice into the same river, one cannot drown twice, either? That's when logic intervenes with an extensive discourse on the greats' understanding of time.
Just as pain lets the body know that it has suffered physical injury, intellectualizing alerts me of emotional injury. I snap back from my sojourn through the pre-Socratics, Plato, Spinoza, Descartes, and Leibniz and realize I am sipping coffee, staring vacantly at his hand as he waves it in front of me.
"Where did you go?" he asks me with a laugh.
(That laugh! How long has it been since I heard that laugh?)
I could tell him -- I'm sure time would make for an incredible discussion. But that carries its own risk; it comes too close to mathematics. Some people write love letters -- we used to cradle odes in the arabesques of formulae (because really, what is more descriptive of passion than tensors contracting toward potential and collapsing into sum?). Some call their love perfect -- we called ours the sectio divina. Some say "I love you" – we said Q.E.D. We were a curved geometry hidden in plain sight to anyone who cared to look beyond the thickets of superscripts and subscripts.
It's hard to build over ruins. It's hard to claim as yours a land littered with artifacts that belong to another self. You ask yourself how many peoples have taken a pickax to a city and raised their own structures where those of the previous civilization stood, and you calm yourself with the answer. This is the way of history. The problem is that this civilization you're destroying is a part of you -- you may have railed against it when you were in it, you may even have taken a torch to its relics and lexicon on your way out, but time patinates the ashes with nostalgia. Everything is so much more in retrospect.
But you can't serve both your past and your future, not at once. You have already made the choice, and the choice is the future. (And for the record, you can drown in the same river as many times as you have emotional lives.)
1.618033988749894848204586834... how many places can I go in one breath?
Why in the world can't one solve for this kind of transition? Wouldn't it be excellent if we could look at people the way we look at elements? Imagine we could determine the properties of individuals, that we had an understanding of the structure of our unions, and that we could easily infer the reactions necessary to alter the spatial arrangement of our bonds. Going from lovers to friends would require nothing but a reaction. Ready, goggles, go. Forget the Higgins boson. This is what I want.
No such luck. At present, we're flying blind. Here's what we know: two people walked side by side until they didn't. They made a choice. There is no going back. They've made too many choices on top of that choice. They're building lives on top of that choice, lives that affect a set of variables outside the simple formula of "me" and "you." They know too much -- enough to be dangerous. And yet they crave one another's presence.
First question: why?
If the honest answer to this question even vaguely suggests that romantic emotions remain, evacuate the area immediately. Emotion is unforgiving. It will corrode everything you are and hope to become. It's not just a coffee if both parties would do well to don a Hazmat suit.
It's okay if you're not free and clear yet. Moving on takes time. Time, you will find, is a powerful decontaminant. Let it do its thing. Only when you are sure that the intentions of both parties are free of romantic emotion and desire, may you proceed.
Next question: how?
My answer for everything that has no easy answer is: protocol. Protocol imposes boundaries in situations that otherwise lack them (first I told you math is romantic and now I'm telling you boundaries are awesome. Have I completely alienated you yet? Just curious).
I consulted both Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt and, aside from not meeting with an ex if your betrothed opposes it, found nothing, but we can lay the groundwork with a little common sense.
Not too intimate
In order to maintain the appropriate space, one can limit meetings to public places, avoiding situations that may feel like a date (such as the movies, dinner, a walk on the beach, etc.). You may graduate to these in time, but for now, keep it simple -- and by that, I mean keep it business casual. If you wouldn't picnic with your boss, don't picnic with your ex.
And yes, you should pay for yourself as much as possible. You know all the signs that indicate something is not a date. Put them to use.
Not too comfortable
Spending time with an ex alone at his place or yours is risky for obvious reasons. A good rule of thumb is to avoid comfort (now I've alienated you for sure) -- but really! Being warm causes one to remove articles of clothing and a comfortable couch invites one to luxuriate. Behaving with such familiarity during this transition can send mixed signals and lead to awkward situations that are best avoided.
Think twice about wine, beer and cocktails: disinhibitors are the last thing you want at this juncture. A bistro for lunch or a café after work are an excellent middle ground.
Not too often
Keep in mind that an outing should not turn into an afternoon or an evening. Short is good. There is, of course, no hard and fast rule about how often you should have these get-togethers. Use some judgment here: if an ex is crowding out other people on your day planner, you need to go back to the question of why.
Not too chatty
Talking on the phone, instant messaging, chatting, e-mailing and direct messaging count as outings and are subject to the same guidelines. Keep it brief and sporadic for now, don't do it while intoxicated, and don't do it late at night. Not sure what "late" means? I consider 9:00PM a good cut-off point.
Also -- remember that retweets on Twitter, likes and shares on Facebook and plusses and shares on Google+ tend to notify users as a default. Be conscientious of how you engage their social media spaces. Keep it to a minimum and limit the amount of e-stalking you do. Don't you want to have things to talk about when you see each other? If you know more about your ex's life than you do about your best friend's goings on, go back to step one and ask yourself why.
Not too thoughtful
He's sick. Should you make soup and take it over to his place? Unless you're that person (God bless them, we all need one in our lives), the answer is no. Taking care of his pet when he's on business? Picking up the dry-cleaning on the way home? Driving him around when his car is in the shop? Helping him move? You're not the only person in his life. Keep the amount of help you give proportional to your interaction: brief and sporadic. If you find that it gives you a thrill to act as his personal assistant, revisit the question of why.
If a birthday or holiday should come up during this time, stick with a card or something small at most. And when I say small, I don't just mean size: too expensive, elaborate or rare a gift can feel inappropriate given the circumstances -- especially if one of you has moved on to forge another relationship. Often, a brief e-mail is more than enough in this situation.
Not too nostalgic
What if you're having a casual conversation one afternoon over coffee and the past comes up? It's bound to happen -- and perhaps it's not a bad thing. Boundaries are rigid so that you don't have to be. If you feel that talking about the time you shared might help you get some closure, there is no reason to derail the conversation. But if you find that all you can do when you're together is rehash the past, you're going to have to go back to the question of why.
Paying attention to language during these conversations can be helpful in reinforcing boundaries. During that first coffee meeting that I recounted at the beginning of this piece, we did have occasion to discuss the past. I was slightly disconcerted at first, but was quickly put at ease by the verb tense he employed when he spoke about his emotions. The past tense is an important way of keeping time moving in one direction. It reminds you: that was then, this is now.
Of course, if you find yourself thinking obsessively about what an ex said and what it means, you need to book it back to step one and ask yourself why it matters so much.
Not too fast
Let time pass and take it slow. Set guidelines, but be gentle. Establish boundaries, but don't be rigid. Understand that you know this person in a way few others do, but don't assume you know him better than everyone else, and especially not better than he knows himself. Change is natural. He will change, just as you will change. If he hasn't already, he will meet someone new. If you can't cheer them on, at the very least be respectful of her and the space she will fill in his life.
When it feels like it's too much, take a step back, give it some time, assess your motives, reestablish your boundaries, clear your head, and start again.
Humans are creatures of habit. Just as kissing my ex seemed like the most natural thing to do at first, so too will the space between us come to feel natural.