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Why I’m No Longer Jealous of My Beautiful Friends

I used to believe my love life was cursed. Then I told myself a different story.

Illustration: Cat Finnie

I’I’m driving from Pittsburgh to New Orleans because I might be having a midlife crisis. This is stupid, mind you. Not the driving to New Orleans, which is always a good idea, but the midlife crisis. I’m 39, I’ve published a bunch of novels, I’m an associate professor who’s recently earned tenure, and I’ve just been granted a one-year sabbatical.

I’m told I have it all.

And yet, the day before, I’d been sitting in my house, staring at my calendar and panicking. I’m out of contract and I want to write something new, something challenging. But I’m ricocheting between a half dozen ideas, none of which feel right. I’ve also been struggling, post-tenure, with the idea that I have no more ladder left to climb. What am I supposed to do with myself, now that I can do whatever I want?

As if by fate, I stumble across the perfect writing class in a city I love with a passion. I’ve always been terrified of writing personal narrative — of exposing my vulnerable underbelly. As someone who can’t resist a challenge, this means I’ve become obsessed with writing it.

Conveniently, New Orleans is close to an old friend, who has very recently become more than a friend. That said, it’s complicated, and not in the ironic sense. There’s the distance, his recent divorce, and our demanding careers anchoring us in our respective cities. I’m not even sure he’ll be able to see me, because he’s got a huge work event and I pulled this cockamamie scheme out of the air yesterday.

I tell myself I’m doing this for the writing course and not for him. It’s not entirely delusional. After all, I’ve built my life’s sundae on career and creativity, and romantic relationships are the cherry on top I often have to forgo. Sometimes I’m sad about this, but I can usually distract myself with book deadlines or stacks of papers to grade.

Until now.

To keep from ruminating while driving, I call my friend Loren, who I met my freshman year in college.

“Hey Kiki,” she answers, using her nickname for me. I tell her I’m somewhere in Tennessee, and why, but she’s not surprised. She’s used to my shenanigans.

Crazily, Loren is also still single. I say crazily because Loren is gorgeous, with cat-like features and a mane of luxuriant golden hair. Walking into bars or clubs that first year of college, I’d trail behind Loren, watching every dude pivot to clock her bright blonde head. I’d been so jealous! At 18, all I wanted to be was visible — at least to boys. I knew how to ask for and receive attention in the classroom, amongst other women, and in my family. But with boys, I felt invisible. This explains a lot of my behavior that first semester: dyeing my hair a bright red that demanded herculean efforts to maintain, toddling around in stacked heels till three in the morning, and promoting for a sketchy nightclub promoter’s super sketchy nightclub. He would aggressively hit on every single one of my female friends while I ran interception, apologizing profusely in between downing shots and dropping it like it was lukewarm.

Yet I could never keep up with Loren, who didn’t even have to try.

She’d walk into a club wearing her pink baby doll dress and white go-go boots (move over, Baby Spice!) and men would gravitate toward her, asking to dance, buy her a drink, or take a photo with her.

“It’s funny you called,” she tells me. “I was just thinking about when I visited you in Spain.”

My memory, never great, burbles lethargically at Loren’s prompting. Of course I remember moving to Granada after graduation. But that year was a whirlwind of firsts for me, and seemingly everyone had visited, leaving my memories a jumble.

“Tell me what you remember.” I sound like a mesmerist.

“I remember how hot it was. And all the food. I’d take a nap every afternoon while you went sightseeing.” I snort. Loren likes naps; I like museums. We are people who make friendships that are worthwhile work despite such differences. “And you’d wake me up for dinner by playing that David Gray album you were obsessed with.”

White Ladder,” I say, recalling David’s voice and a luxurious hotel in Seville that Loren’s parents had generously paid for.

“And we went to Marbella.”

“Oh, shit, that’s right.” I’d forgotten we’d dipped down to that glamorous seaside party town.

“We went clubbing. Like old times.”

“Did you wear your white gogo boots?” I tease.

“Jesus. No. I wonder what happened to those?”

I do, too. Those glorious boots I’d never have had the confidence for, at that age.

“Remember that guy accused me of being a prostitute?” she asks.

“What?”

“That German guy was flirting with me and his friend was mad because he wanted to leave. So he accused me of being a prostitute so the guy would stop talking to me.”

“Right, yes. He was awful.”

“The worst. So was his friend, though, and at least it meant they both left.”

I remember now that Loren had laughed that night off, but it had upset her. In the high beams of hindsight, many of Loren’s interactions with men were upsetting. Dudes who wanted things were quick to call her names, or even threaten her, when rebuffed. Over the years, I’ve stopped being jealous of my beautiful friends. Getting so much attention from men also means attracting the jaundiced eye of the patriarchy, with its simultaneous desire to prop women up even as it tears them down.

“And you were talking to that nice guy,” she interrupts my reverie. “He walked us home. We went to the beach with him the next day.”

“Wait, who?”

“That guy from Liverpool, remember? The fireman?”

“Holy shit… that’s where I met him?”

The Liverpudlian Fireman. We’d stayed in touch after Spain and he’d visited me when I’d moved to Scotland for grad school. He’d been sweet and handsome in an off-kilter way, and he talked through a mouthful of marbles that miraculously disappeared when it came time for kissing.

I’m afraid that because I chose career and creativity, I don’t get to have love. At least not romantic love.

“He latched onto you as soon as we walked in. He wanted to fight the guy who called me a hooker. We thought that was sweet.”

We share a moment of silence for our past selves’ questionable logic.

“I remember looking over and you’re talking to this nice guy and I thought to myself ‘only Kiki would come to a place like this and meet a nice guy.’ You always got the nice guy.”

I was speechless. That wasn’t true.

You got all the guys,” I tell her.

And then the absurdity of the situation hits me. While I’d been watching men watch Loren, she’d been watching men watch me.

Neither one of us could see ourselves.

I tell Loren this observation, and we both laugh. But at the same time I want to tell Loren that she’s wrong. That I never did get the guys, at least not for long. I want to tell her what I’m really afraid of — what seems obvious now that I have all this time on my hands.

I’m afraid that because I chose career and creativity, I don’t get to have love. At least not romantic love.

Because men, Liverpudlian firemen included, just don’t stick. I didn’t choose any of the bad hats I met along the way, men with nicknames like “Bad Decision” and once, simply, “No.” But I didn’t choose the good ones, either. I chose degrees, and “opportunities,” and jobs that meant I had to move. I fear this means I no longer get a choice.

My therapist assures me this is crazy (she does not use that word), and logically I know she’s right. But in my heart?

I know I’m right.

My conversation with Loren, however, challenges my narrative. If I think my love life is cursed, do I believe my friend’s is, as well?

The answer is no. Just like I know everything is better with an egg on top, I know Loren deserves love. She’s not cursed, she’s just busy.

Busy becoming an amazing human being.

I tell Loren I love her and we hang up. I keep driving. My class opens what feels like a new world of writing to me. I hobnob with classmates, savoring New Orleans. Of course, I also see my more-than-friend, and it’s wonderful. He’s smart and creative, and we share a consuming desire to make stuff. For the first time, I’m experiencing how a relationship could involve collaboration, and this thrills me.

At the same time, getting involved with someone so far away seems insane. He needs to get back on his feet after his divorce, not plunge into another relationship. What we have can’t fit a tidy, confined narrative. He’ll probably want something easier.

I’m taking a risk, and I’m terrified.

But my class reminds me there are so many ways to tell my story. I can tell a single culminating tale of a trade-off, in which I’ve won career and lost relationships. Or I can see both aspects of my life as a series of small stories, in which I’ve racked up my fair share of wins and losses. I’m well aware that my career successes are built on a rockbed of risk, complete with many, many failures. I had to learn from each of them to get to where I am.

Similarly, I’m living with the fact that career hurdles like tenure or publishing novels are merely external validations. I don’t feel finished or complete in any way. My internal restlessness reminds me there’s no rest on a bed of laurels.

What if I reframe my relationship history in this light? What if I tell the story of a young girl indoctrinated in her society’s very traditional, and very unrealistic, expectations of love. She thinks it’s something that will complete her, that will culminate in a happily-ever-after kiss at an altar. (Preferably with David Bowie’s Goblin King, from Labyrinth, whose tight grey pants first make her feel funny in her no-no place.)

After this perfect kiss, everything will fade to black.

Instead, she learns that relationships are hard work. She dates a few princes and her fair share of villains. She learns a lot from all of them, starting with the fact that she has some shit within herself to work on before she can healthily love anybody else.

And so she does that work, even though it’s uncomfortable and sometimes tedious, until she finally feels she’s ready. Not as a perfect person, but as someone who stands on her own two feet, ready to share the adventure she’s made of her life.

Despite — or because of — this work, she knows finding the right person will be a challenge. Luckily, in this narration, her history suggests that she’s more than up to the task.

I like to think I’ve already started this new story, by getting in my car and driving to a humid, haunted city full of music, ready to take another risk with both my creativity and my heart.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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