Friends Without Benefits by Vito J. Racanelli
I ran into Lily accidently, after not having seen her for a long time. It was intentional. The not seeing her.
We first met 20 years ago, but after a few years into our relationship, I could no longer stomach her. Both of us worked then at an ad agency that specialized in entertainment, and we became fast friends. All these years later it’s hard to remember exactly why. I guess we both loved French movies, spoke French, her well, me sort of. We hated our jobs and wanted a future where we could start our own agency and control our lives. I hated to slave ten to twelve hours a day for someone else, my best ideas stolen by the conga-line of idiot bosses we had.
We both wanted to live in Paris. Not together. It was never like that. You see, I wasn’t attracted to Lily. Ever. She was thin, the ballet type. I leaned zaftig. She’d studied overseas, the Sorbonne. She was intelligent, though in a pedantic way. I attended Hunter. She wasn’t blessed with a pretty face. But that wasn’t it. She had no passion. I require at least two of these four things to get interested. Any two are good enough, but three to get serious. Lily always reminded me of a small tree branch that had fallen to the ground. Thin, brittle, ready to broken by the next passerby. There was a part of me that hated that vulnerability. So maybe there was something wrong with me.
She was a nervous type, always worried about the job, finding a husband, having a baby. She didn’t seem to have any female friends, or friends at all, so I became the repository of her life long pent up angst and my tank got full up fast. Within a year I was ready to dump her and then she met a guy and got married, so I was off the hook.
We were close friends for a short while, then, after she married, far away friends for a long while. Occasional phone calls, emails, dinner once or twice a year, that sort of thing. Acquaintances can become friends, but what do you call the inverse?
Anyway, yesterday I saw Lily on the street in Chelsea with a man, walking arm and arm. But it wasn’t the guy she’d married.
I’d moved away from Brooklyn not long after she got married, before the boro got deathly hip. I don’t think she was expecting to run into anyone she knew in Chelsea. Certainly not me. We hadn’t actually spoken in maybe five years, but we had many friends in common still, so I imagined she knew vaguely what I was up to, just as I’d heard snippets about her. One thing I hadn’t imagined was that she was single again.
The guy was tall, gangly, with a knit cap, maybe 10 years younger than Lily. I figured him for French.
Lily was obviously surprised. She quickly let her arm out of the man’s hold and came up to me. The move was too quick for me to think it was motivated by anything but guilt.
“Hey, Tomas,” she said, kissing me on the cheek.
“Lily, what a surprise,” I said faintly, not allowing that it was a nice one. I was embarrassed for all of us.
She backed away a little. Her smile was tight, just like the old days when she was bulldozing me with complaints about how hard it was to find a good man.
The tall skinny guy had a stupid smile on his face, the kind only a clueless 25 year-old could produce.
“Je te presente Guy,” Lily said, pulling him closer to us like a new toy she’d just discovered in the closet.
Up close, from the clothes, no gloves, black sneakers, the thin scarf over a wooly sweater, no jacket though it was probably only 20 degrees out, I was not surprised by the French-accented English from Guy.
“Allo,” he said, his brown eyes trying to avoid me.
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Tomas,” I said as best I could. That reminded me I’d forgotten a lot of French and put me in a bad mood. Never did get to Paris, though Lily and her husband had. For five years.
She tried to keep the conversation in French. An annoying habit of hers was that Lily would continue ala Francais with people who didn’t speak it well enough to be comfortable. She seemed utterly unaware. Another thing I hated about her eventually. All that distaste came flooding back to me, as she and Guy flanked me.
“Ça te plaît Manhattan?” Lily asked me. And before I could answer she added, “Ça fait combien de temps? Deux ans?” She said it as if the East River was the only reason we were no longer in contact, as if our friendship hadn’t self destructed years ago.
I had destroyed it. That started when she married Elon. I was happy for her at first. She’d met him in France on a cycling trip and six months later they were married. Done.
I was happier for me, though. I would no longer have to listen to her catalog the faults of men—told to me like I was a eunuch, unaffected by her low estimation. I will grant that men can be fucking assholes, but still it was rude and unaware to do that. As if I were a lapdog. Like I said, we were never involved. That was a fifth thing I needed for a relationship: awareness.
The main reason Lily had married Elon was to have children. Elon was a lawyer, so that looked good for all involved. Two boxes ticked. Shortly after the wedding, she discovered they couldn’t have children. What beautiful justice.
I found Elon’s greatest talent lay in that early part of their marriage, when I came to know him best. He was a bore but this was mitigated by his uncommon ability to fall asleep while sitting, just about anywhere, his home, my apartment, even expensive restaurants like Café Luxembourg. Elon liked to talk about tax avoidance strategies, but I preferred it when he was asleep. For all I knew, so did Lily.
Cupid’s joke was on Lily, for Elon, as it turned out, shot blanks. Shortly after the low sperm count was discovered, two children, a girl and a boy were promptly and legally abducted from Honduras. They weren’t orphans but children of a woman who was the country’s version of Octo-Mom. Instant family.
“So how are Sofia and William doing?” I asked Lily as we stood on 23rd Street.
Lily looked uncomfortable. “They’re great. Sofia’s going to Pratt. William is in Stuyvesant but he’s in the top 1% of the class. Harvard is next, maybe.”
“They’ve done well.”
“Took a lot of work,” she said with a shrug, feint but enough to be noticed. And I wondered if her kids had ever seen that shrug. I had. In the old days, when we were still friends, it was the kind of move she’d make when she thought something wasn’t worth it.
I thought that was especially funny since the “work” she referred to
wasn’t all hers. After her marriage, the next complaints were nannies and how bad an idea adopting the children had turned out to be. It didn’t take long to see that Lily was a terrible mom. I figured Elon’s sterility was Mother Nature’s way of keeping children away from Lily, but Lily did an end around the old girl.
Her answer to her children’s repeated bad behavior was talk. “Honey, please don’t hit people with that stick.” This was after several people had been victimized. She was afraid of her children and they knew it. I still had a mark on my arm from when a four-year old Sofia thought it was a good idea to hit Uncle Tomas with the still hot fireplace poker. I forgot to mention that they bought a nice brownstone in Park Slope, with two fireplaces, but I guess that’s not much of a surprise.
So we stood there on the street, the three of us, but two of us obviously embarrassed and wanting this chance meeting to end as quickly as possible and yet not knowing how to do it gracefully.
Guy was handsome and not too stupid to guess what it meant for his girlfriend that she’d been found arm and arm with a man not her husband. He smiled and made eye contact with me briefly.
“Well,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I’ve got to make a meeting in SoHo, potential client, and now I’ve only about ten minutes. “
“Sure,” Lily said quickly. “I’ll call you,” she said, though we both knew she didn’t have my Manhattan home phone number. That had been on purpose.
“Yea, great,” I said, not offering the number. I moved off even before the “t” came out of my mouth. I was so happy to be clear of her and her problems. Like old times.
At work the next day a call come in from a phone number that I vaguely recognized. 718. I picked up.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, trying not to groan. A moment of quiet passed, enough that she realized I wasn’t happy about the call.
“Tomas, I want to explain…”
I interrupted. “It’s none of my business what you do. I don’t even know if you and Elon are still married.”
There was no reply.
“I see,” I said. “As I said…”
“Don’t talk like that,” she said. “I need to explain.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer your confessor. It’s been a long time”
That seemed to cheer her up. That we were once friends. That I once looked forward to seeing her. Looking back, I can’t believe that was true, but it was.
“Let’s face it, we don’t see each other much,” I went on, a little generously, “and I never see Elon. I wouldn’t mention it if I did.”
“That’s not it.”
“What’s it then?” I said.
“I don’t want you to think badly of me.”
I said nothing. I thought badly of her even before this. And now she was more worried about what I thought than about her husband. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t ever think of her at all, that if not for that accidental encounter I might not ever have thought of her again in my life. She probably figured I’d say something comforting.
“Please,” she said sadly. She began to cry.
Somehow, for once, I felt her passion, as if she really cared about Elon and what she was doing to him. Then I realized she was crying only for herself.
“I don’t think badly of you,” I lied. I looked out my office door. My secretary sat close, too close, to the door.
I rose and closed the door. “What do you want me to say, Lily? Really, I don’t give a shit about Elon. Never did and I think you knew that eventually. But I’m not going to sing your praises and tell you that it’s OK. You’ve been caught in a lie. What the fuck do you want me to say? Be glad it’s just me and not Elon that caught you. He works in Manhattan, doesn’t he?”
She didn’t respond.
The sobbing intensified. I heard her shudder and suck in deep breaths.
“I’m sorry for this,” she said quietly. “It happened so quickly, you know. The whole thing got wildly out of control before I knew what hit me.”
“You’re talking to the wrong guy,” I said coldly.
She hung up.
At lunch time the next day she showed up unannounced at my office. When the receptionist buzzed me that Lily was waiting, I half thought of having my secretary turn her away. What the fuck. I’m not her girlfriend, anymore.
As soon as I closed my office door, the tears practically exploded out of her eyes. I gave her a box of tissues and I lowered the blinds on the glass walls of my office. She sat on the couch. I didn’t want to sit near her or make her feel comfortable. I wanted her to leave.
“Elon came to me last night. He wants a divorce.”
I felt my eyebrows rise instinctively. I said nothing. I shook my head slowly.
She looked up at me, expecting something from me.
“Perhaps, it’s for the best,” I said quietly. I had nothing for her. The well was empty.
“Sofia and William aren’t ok,” she said, looking at the window blinds.
I bent forward.
“I mean,” she said. She stopped crying momentarily. “They are well….But they hate me. Their mother. They hate me.”
“I doubt it.” I lied again. That made me feel like her friend again.
“They do and you don’t doubt it. Stop lying to me. You’ve known all the time.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m not the only liar in this room.”
“Fuck you, Tomas. Why did you leave me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“We were friends, Tomas. But you haven’t lifted a finger for me. You don’t reply to my calls, my email messages…. You’re an emotional monster.”
“Lily, really, this isn’t the time to discuss our relationship.”
“There may never be another,” she said, standing up, her face ugly in anger.
I put on a plastic smile. “You’re right. There won’t be another. I’ve been avoiding you. For years. I fell out of … I don’t know what to call it…friendship with you. I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t want to be your friend and haven’t wanted to for many years. If I’ve avoided you it was out of civility more than disgust. But now you’re forcing my hand.”
“Ah, well,” I said, moving back to my desk. I wanted her to leave.
“You told Elon!” she screamed.
My lips were straight. It was true. I had.
“Time to leave now,” I said.
“Admit that at least you fucker.”
“Lily, I have work to do and you are keeping me from it.”
She spit at me, turned and left. As she walked down the aisle, past my employees, she continued to scream.
I rose to close the door and noticed my employees looking from her to my office. When they saw my face, they looked down.
© Vito J. Racanelli 2013
Vito J. Racanelli, whose short stories have appeared in The Literarian and The Boiler Literary Journal, is working on a collection of short fiction. He recently completed a novel about a terrorist attack that took place 30 years ago in Italy, where he lived for several years. His story “A Ride to the Forest” was a Fish Publishing 2013 Flash Fiction Prize finalist. He will read at the Boundless Tales Series in June.
Friends Without Benefits was read by E. James Ford for the Heroes & Villains Show on 1st May 2013