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On my most recent trip to Los Angeles, I had dinner with a good friend of mine. Calling him “a good friend of mine” makes me smile because, if you had asked 18 months ago, I certainly would not have labeled him as such.
If you asked about “my good friend” then, I would have told you about our devastatingly fantastic first date followed only by our devastatingly fantastic spur of the moment trip to Austin (three days later). I’d tell you about our charisma and spontaneity and you’d fall in love with it all. Then, just as you got invested, I’d pour a big glass of wine and tell you that our quick romance ended nearly as hastily as it began.
“He essentially ghosted me, but I was too prideful to reach out and ask why,” I’d say.
Our quick, romantic tango ended as fast as it caught on fire and I the only thing I could do was hide my disappointment behind a whole variety of “at least it was a great story”-isms. I’d go on to date other people and so would he.
Then, somehow over the past year, we reconnected. He apologized for ghosting and I apologized for being a little crazy. We waded back into friendship, first with drinks and then with dinner. Over time, he became a confidant of sorts, the kind of guy I went to for tricky advice and a stiff drink. Sure, I’d still look at him and think, “damn, you’re pretty,” but my desire to rip his clothes off wasn’t strong enough to jeopardize our reconciliation. When I moved to DC and we stayed in touch, phone calls and texts became a gleeful, mid-week surprise.
As we reconnected I always wondered, is this possible? Is a friendship between the two of us something that we can honestly pursue? Or, try as we may, will our friendship always be the pieces a broken, frantic attempt at courtship that didn’t work out? Will one of us feel unrequited, the other annoyed and ready to move on?
So, a few weeks ago at dinner, I took a moment to check in with myself. Could I forget the first kisses and drives up the coast? Could I move past the pillow talk and lazy mornings?
I thought I could, but as I sat across the booth from him, my gut responded with a resounding “No!” There was this lingering heat between the two of us, an imprint of the inevitable intimacy that comes along with dating, even if just briefly, that layered our conversation in a sticky amber-colored glow that I have never known among platonic friends.
The shine on our friendship was distracting. It felt enticing and rich, reflecting all of the things — his ambition and kindness and frank way of looking at the world that initially attracted me to him. This will never just be “friends,” I thought. The air is too charged, the delight to see each other too eager.
And just as I came to a decision, he said it. The thing I had most anticipated.
“I’m seeing someone nice,” he gushed.
I waited. I waited for the amber to vanish and for the squirming in my stomach to begin. I waited for the envy to flood in and for the previously charming glow of our reconciled friendship to curdle into green, spiky discontent. I waited and waited, and then, it didn’t come. The amber stayed amber and that’s when I knew.
He and I are something different. Our friendship isn’t platonic, but it is no longer romantic either. We have elevated to a different space, a space in the heart I couldn’t previously put into words. The third space.
The third space is rooted in trust. It’s reserved for the people that we trusted with our bodies and our crushes and our attempts at love. It’s for the people that made us giggle and swoon. The ones that we stayed up too late for, texted about nothing with, and unabashedly kissed in public. It’s a space reserved for the “what ifs,” the “almosts,” and the “damn, that was funs.” A space that allows you to look at a person and think, “God, you’re beautiful. I hope you meet someone incredible one day.”
You know you’re in the third space if, when you see each other, you smile big. If you look up between bites of a chicken sandwich and say “Yeah, but I know you!” You’re in the third space when you’re proud to have been with a person but equally as excited for them to move on.
“Kid, you’re gonna do great,” he says to me now.
In the end, the third space friendship will never be the friendship of those who weren’t once romantic. And really, how could it be?
Maybe this is why we advocate to “stay friends” after a relationship. Not because we need more platonic friends, but because we don’t want all of that squishy love to go to waste. Sure, there will be flings and one night stands and brutal exes that we hope we never see again, but there’s also a place where lust turns to friendship with an amber hue. It’s a select group of people that can live in that in-between.
That night at dinner, when I first realized the third space existed like a cavernous bubble in my heart, I was relieved.
I don’t have to choose. I don’t have to feel nothing or everything about him. I can savor the good times, all the while recognizing that there is no romantic future for us. I can snuggle into that comfortable in-between.
So can you be friends with your ex? Well, define “friend.” I dare say Liam and I have a long road ahead of us, and if that friendship stays a sticky, intoxicating amber forever – I’ll be one very happy girl. .