Flirting with my friends

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She came up to visit me, just for a few days, on her way somewhere else. We had met through mutual friends in high school and had since kept in touch remotely. She was something of a phone crush — I’d call her on my walks back from campus in the dark, when I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t expect a reason. We never called with anything specific to report, really. Just to greet each other and catch up in the loosest sense of the term. We could spend a few hours a week like that, just seeing what there was to say and saying it. 

I took her to do my favorite things that weekend in July, during our brief and unusual in-person time together. We went to Lake Anza and she watched me fail the swim test. We walked up around Grizzly Peak, mostly to see which houses we’d like to live in. We ate kiwis, the golden kind, which are so soft you can cut them in half with a spoon. 

We went back home after my roommate had fallen asleep, and undressed in an exceedingly shy fashion, not wanting to make noise. In bed, our arms touched though they didn’t have to. It wasn’t explicit, but it was a conscious choice: No one moved, or turned away. Sleeping like that (and waking up like that) felt fitting in the context of our day and of our broader friendship, both of which were spent flirting.

I’m a serial flirter. It’s not something I’m in denial of, or in the dark about. It would be easier to say that flirtatious situations just seem to happen to me, but I know I enable them, even manifest them, with certain people and friends. For me, sexual attraction has always been a natural extension of obsession. And obsession is often what I feel at the beginning of an especially exciting friendship; a consuming infatuation with someone, a deep curiosity in and toward them. 

My friend (at the lake, in my bed) was truly just my friend. I didn’t even know, at the time, if she was gay or not. But honestly, such confessions matter little to my style of flirting, which has no particular form of identification or hang-ups about gender. In this sense, as you may suspect, the way I flirt is very different from who I am. But it is also one of the more stable parts of my personality; I’m frequently single, sure, but never have I gone without a crush, or a partner in flirtation. 

I realize that this scene (our just-barely-touching elbows) could be from any vaguely Sapphic period piece coming to theaters this fall. The tension and anticipation without reward. The material boringness of it. For something so slight and unactualized, I’ve been in this position repeatedly. That same summer with a different friend, too drunk to make the bus home. Or when I was 15 and spent New Year’s Eve with the first girl I would (later) fall in love with. These coincidental sleepovers led, in the moment, to nothing but the building of an unspoken tautness. An intimacy that, while quiet, is not complicated: It’s sexual. 

It’s almost stupid to write about this, and I know I do so at risk of contributing to the oversaturated lesbian narrative market of unrequited and tragically fleeting love stories. But I really think this has less to do with sexuality than it does with friendship, and its capacity for sexual desire: Nebulous, intimate relationships allow me to enjoy an ideal form of pleasure. I can live in that thrilling state of waiting without ever having to know if the reality of our physical connection would live up to its seeming potential — and without caring if it would, because it already has. 

Sexual connection isn’t something I have with all of my friends, of course. But where it exists, I find it irreplaceable. I like to feel wanted, and I like that friendship can be a method for experiencing desire. And for seeking it out: The kind of touching that happened in my extra-long twin bed after a day at the lake was, undoubtedly, erotic. Eroticism and friendship aren’t mutually exclusive, and I feel erotically toward some of my favorite friends. Even those I don’t want to have sex with.

I know there are plenty of holes in this claim, some more severe and problematic than others. In addition to being called a serial flirter, I have also been referred to as a “recreational” flirter, guilty of leading friends on with my willingness for physical and emotional affection. I respect this accusation and take it seriously, even though it’s hard for me to reckon with: I’ve always felt that what I do is exactly what I feel, and I subscribe to the doctrine that individual actions don’t imply further ones — holding someone is just holding someone, not a sign I want more.

I’ve come to this belief over many years, after experiencing, as many have, nonconsensual sexual occurrences, which have made me committed to a more radical model of consent. There are so many ways to feel sexually about someone, and eroticism is not always — or, in itself alone, ever — a promise of sex. But I know this goes both ways. Not everyone wants to flirt without a destination. I’ve damaged friendships over this, and only now am I able to articulate (albeit partially) why it keeps happening. 

What I don’t quite know is why this state of in-between (desire without demonstration) is so appealing to me. I’m obsessed with sex but also fear being used by it, or hurt by its user. Maybe this rote flirtation is a way to stay sensual while healing from other kinds of harm. Or maybe I just love attention; this I’m sure is true. 

I would, months later, kiss my Lake Anza phone crush after a candid conversation about our flirting. Almost immediately, it didn’t work out. This was for a variety of reasons, including her being in love with someone else. Which I actually take great comfort in. I know that she cares for me, and that our ability to flirt so easily and lovingly with one another is meaningful. But we weren’t meant to make our romance explicit — that’s something we both could have, better and more confidently, with other people. 

This is why the anguished, closeted protagonist of lesbian cinema doesn’t do much for me. Personally, I’m not suppressing anything. I know how to ask for what I want when I want it. And sometimes I just want to be close to you, and for us to enjoy that, and to let it be what it is. 

Just the other week, I took a camping trip with a few friends and found myself, once again, sharing secret touches between sleeping bags with someone. What is it about being in a tent that makes everyone want to fuck? I can still feel it, how good it is to be suddenly and unexpectedly wanted. What gets me best is just that: the feeling of desiring. It’s somewhat self-torturous — suffering just enough to get wrapped up in what could be, but won’t. Maybe I’m happiest like that, lusting a little bit, all of the time.

Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]