It was early fall, or late summer really. It was homecoming season, and I wore a plum sweater in Bible class. He walked in during the lecture with a guitar and a harmonica and asked me to homecoming by singing to me. The song was written by him and about us going on an adventure together. We had always been just friends, but suddenly I was a goner. At the end of the song, he asked, “Anne Marie, will you go to homecoming with me?” I didn’t realize when I said yes that our friendship status would become very unclear.
The dance came. It contained awkward pictures, a slightly-less-awkward double date, and a barely-awkward-at-all slow dance. What it didn’t contain was any semblance of a confession of fancying from either of us. When fall break arrived, he treated me to food or came over to watch our designated television show almost every day. Still, neither of us mentioned what we were or weren’t. When fall break ended, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to wait anymore, so I didn’t. While everyone at school thought we were on the verge of dating, I knew better. Falling for someone has always reminded me of being at the bottom of the ocean. When you’re underwater, life looks different, almost magical, but you feel like you have to rush to do everything before you run out of air. The need for air, for clarity, tugs at the edges of your lungs and makes your brain go fuzzy. I chose to come up for air before either of us acted, and my feelings started to fade.
I baked him his favorite dessert and asked him to the Sadie’s dance as a last ditch effort to revive the feelings I’d thought were there. Yet by then I knew that even if he had once been underwater, he’d already come to the surface too. By the time prom season came, he was dating someone, and I went stag with my best friends.
Before that night, I had wanted to try swimming deep into the water to see if he’d be waiting for me on the ocean floor. I debated for months whether I would find him there, or whether he had been there at all. In my worst moments, I considered simply asking him about the fall before. About whether he had known what it was like to see a friend’s smile through the salt-blurred eyes of fancy. I would ask him whether he’d now found something he thought worth keeping among the ocean weeds and crevices.
Watching their relationship grow, I saw they were happy. They had both chosen what they found in the water. Sure, the initial phase of perfection faded and they had to come up for air. But they brought with them the treasures they had discovered on the ocean’s floor. Neither of us chose what we had found in that element. We chose the friendship waiting for us on land. In retrospect, I think if we had dated, our story would have ended with a sad breakup and an unspoken agreement to never talk again. The value of dating only to break up wouldn’t have been worth the cost of our friendship.
To this day, he has been one of the most constant and supportive friends I’ve ever had. We’ve been each other’s late night run for a lemonade because we’re sad. We’ve been each other’s midnight call to talk about our worries and fears. We’ve supported each other during the worst of times and celebrated with each other during the best. My trip through the waves for those few months pales in comparison to the strength our friendship has on land. Instead of romantic feelings destroying our friendship, as they are apt to do, my deep-sea dive strengthened ours. It showed me that what was on land was worth more to me than the alternatives the water held. For this reason, I believe a continued friendship with someone you’ve fancied is possible. Often, romantic feelings come after a solid foundation of friendship has already been built. When your hair dries and everyone catches their breath that foundation is still there, waiting to be further built upon.
It’s not uncommon to think that after desiring a romantic relationship with someone, a friendship with them won’t work. People argue you can’t return to that person without also returning to the water. That once you have romantic feelings for someone you can’t return to the platonic feelings without also feeling their romantic counterparts. I don’t argue that being friends with someone you once dated would not be a tricky endeavor at best and a downright damaging one at worst. What I’m arguing isn’t a friendship with a serious “ex.” I’m saying a friendship can survive its participants questioning their feelings for each other. Wondering about what lies on the ocean’s floor is natural, but even after seeing what’s there, you can still choose the friendship over a romantic relationship.
Going to the ocean’s floor in the first place doesn’t mean that everything has to change between you and someone else. What you feel in the water is just as real as what your salt-blurred eyes see and can be just as demanding as the dihydrogen monoxide crowding your lungs. Yet emotions are as temporary as being underwater. They won’t always be there. Who really knows why you put your head under? Maybe their shoulder brushed yours? Maybe they even sang to you? When you’re in the water, you have the choice to take some of what you find among the coral and seaweeds with you to the surface. You can take how they made your stomach drop and your pulse pick up. How they made your toes tingle and your cheeks blush. You can choose to keep what you’ve found on the ocean floor, or you can pick what remains on land. Neither option is completely safe, but they both have value. Emotions may not last, but what will last is what you choose to do when you’re not in the water anymore.