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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Friendship — and pain

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I don’t date much. I have all the usual excuses – too busy, not into “the scene,” but really, I’m just a lazy dater. I’m like the fisherman who waits for the fish to jump into
his bucket. I don’t go to bars or join groups, but if someone comes my way, I happily pursue.

That’s what happened with Patrick. In December, 2004, a friend offered to put my profile on a dating Web site. Easy enough. I’d wait for the fish to come to me.

And a few did. Including Patrick.

Patrick is caring, intelligent, well-read and fun-loving. He’s tall, lean, muscular, sports short straight blond hair (except when it’s long, curly and mussed up) and is about 18 years my junior.

He responded to my profile, and soon I found myself in a virtual world, instant messaging until 3 a.m., as we got to know one another. I’d go to bed each night with the swirling, euphoric feeling that I’d found true love — or that it had found me.

You’re probably thinking: Get a clue, Jeff. Surely you know that virtual words and pictures are anything but reality. But as someone who hadn’t been dating much (read: My last relationship was when a Democrat ran the country), I was determined to approach this optimistically.

After several weeks, I was determined to turn this relationship from virtual to actual. But Patrick (code-named Aharon by friends who couldn’t accept that I might date a non-Jew) wasn’t ready. I was reluctantly patient, overly empathic and beginning to doubt we’d ever meet.

Then, two months after our virtual relationship began, I again suggested meeting, and instead of no, he said, maybe. As fast as you can say Rip Van Winkle, he was driving to my house for our first date.

I prepared with eager anticipation. He arrived, we talked, the chemistry seemed an extension of our up-to-then instant messaging relationship, and six hours later he left, I knew that what I felt in our e-mails was becoming reality.
We shared guilty pleasures like “Survivor” and “Desperate Housewives,” had many common interests and on and on. Our second date also lasted six hours.

Sometimes, it seemed, the fish does jump into your bucket.

Well, before the third date, he e-mailed that my bucket wasn’t the one he was looking for. In person, he said he felt I was too emotional and our ways of looking at the world were too different.

I was sure there was something he wasn’t telling me.

“Is it our religious differences?” (He’s agnostic and was expelled from Catholic preschool.)

“No.”

I summed up my courage: “Are you not attracted to me? If not, just say so. It’s really OK.” (We all know how OK that would be, but I needed the truth.)

“No,” he said.

My ego breathed relief.

I became lead attorney for my own defense, while trying to remain unemotional.
“Well, that doesn’t seem like a deal-breaker. A deal-breaker would be if we weren’t attracted to one another, or if I were a sociopath. And I’m not emotional. I don’t cry. Not when it counts, anyway. Maybe at a Hallmark commercial….”

Anyway, there was an unspoken agreement to continue to give it a try. Unspoken because he didn’t say it until six months later.

In the intervening months, we got together once a week or so. It was always wonderful, and I always ended the “seems-like-a-date-but-is-it-a-date?” hoping it would lead to more.

June 30, just before I went to Israel for a month, we had the most memorable romantic “is-it-a-date-date-to-date”: a hike in Topanga Canyon (seeing deer up close); a picnic lunch on the beach; drinks at the LAX bar; Encounters; and dinner. Afterward, as we walked to his car, I felt the sadness that the day had to end and the ecstasy of this perfect day.

Patrick was my fish. We hugged at his car, and he said the hope-filled words that would echo in my head ever since: “I’m really going to miss you, Jeff.”
OK. So it wasn’t a vow of love. But it expressed to me how much our relationship meant to him.

After a month of little communication, I returned with purposely understated but meaningful gifts for Patrick. He was in and out of town in August, and I was disappointed that his e-mail responses were few and my voice mail messages went unreturned. Yet I thought about him all the time, and “I’m really going to miss you, Jeff” continued to echo.

In September, we finally saw one another for the first time in more than two months. I was clearly more excited to see him than he seemed to be to see me. When he left that night, I was heartbroken. I spent that week wallowing in self-pity and resolved that I would ask him the question to which I already knew the answer.

At the end of our next get-together, I told him I wanted to talk. Patrick told me he had in fact given it a try (who knew?), and he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, but that our friendship was really important to him. (I think they call this the consolation prize, though it offers little consolation.)

Ironically, I felt better when he left that night. I knew where we stood. Patrick and I continue to get together weekly, and he continues to be among my first thoughts every day. I know that he likely doesn’t think about me as much, and that when he does, it isn’t the way I think of him.

Some friends believe that I shouldn’t see him again; that it would be easier. But I’m not ready to do that. Perhaps I think I should be stronger than that. Perhaps my heart simply refuses to accept the telegram from my head that says: It’s over. Stop. He’s not interested. Stop. He never will be. Stop.

I love my friendship with Patrick. Perhaps one day my heart will catch up with my head.

Jeff Bernhardt is a writer living in Los Angeles. He has written “Who Shall Live…?” a play for the High Holidays, and his work appears in the books “Mentsh” and “Rosh Hashanah Readings.”

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