Time Illustration
Photo: Elvis Swift
For 30 years, S. has filled the dual role of favorite tennis partner and best friend. Eternally tall, lean, and sinewy, his appearance varies only with an on-again, off-again beard. Now in his mid-50s, he must have aged a tad, but I can't see it. I refuse to.

In our 20s, we sampled romantic involvement, from the casual to the deathly serious. Having both hurt the other grievously, we're even. For we've each fallen in love with the other—but not at the same time.

My turn: We went out for Chinese. Neither of us had tried it, so we sprang for Peking duck. Before the first course, S. announced that, as lovers, we were through. We sat before the Mandarin pancakes. We sat before the soup. We ate nothing. We said nothing. We canceled the other courses and paid the bill in full. In silence, I fetched my bike from his apartment and barely made it to the street before collapsing. My wailing was so primal that, contrary to oblivious New York custom, a woman leaned out an upper window to ask if I was all right.

His turn: Walking onto the tennis court, I informed S. with cheerful brutality that I'd started up with an old flame. I hit him a ball. He stood there. I hit him another ball. He stood there. He could no more play tennis than I'd been able to stomach Peking duck. Later he confided that when I threw in the romantic towel, he'd considered suicide—and S. is not a drama queen. He asked why I didn't find him suitable, and I will never forgive myself for telling him.

What brought us both back? Courtly love. However injured, neither of us could bear the prospect of losing our ideal tennis partner, thereby destroying a perfect match at least as hard to find as the romantic kind. Looking back I wonder if we instinctively realized that we were meant to be best friends, so far a more lasting tie than passion—more durable, more constant.

Any man I've been involved with has grown jealous of S.; S.'s women have grown jealous of me. After all, a gentle attraction persists.

Our dynamic does not, quite, mirror the feeling between me and my girlfriends. I consider S. a handsome man, as S. also finds my company physically pleasing. Yet the electricity is muted, domestic, without urgency, like the hum of a refrigerator. There's nothing scary about a refrigerator. Our history has inoculated us against temptation. We did that. We're not curious. Our spouses are safe. So after years of understandable wariness, my husband and S.'s wife have graciously accepted this friendship as part of the landscape.

If I need to dissect a fight with my brother, I go to S. If I need a recipe for skate, I go to S. If I need to hit for two hours against a nefarious net game, I definitely go to S. We have appetites for each other's tiniest stories—the best kind. We are honest to the point of appalling. Because anything either thinks is by definition of interest, we are never bored, never boring.

Friends rarely resort to the L word. But when you flush with joy laying eyes on a man and battle a continual, buried dread that he will die, what do you call it but love? 

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