Not long ago, Elizabeth Gilbert revealed that she was “in love” with her best friend Rayya Elias. I use quotes not because I doubt the authenticity of Gilbert’s love, but because I am quoting her. Those are the words she used.
A few years back, I might have doubted her a little. I might have thought she’d either been a closet lesbian all along or that she was simply experiencing a momentary infatuation. Back then, I viewed relationships and sexuality in terms of dichotomies: Men versus women. Sexual versus platonic. Straight versus gay or some variation of it.
I knew about the Kinsey scale which says sexuality exists on a spectrum, but I was perhaps a bit suspicious of it. Comfortably entrenched in my straight, happily married, stay-at-home-mom lifestyle, I was confident that if the Kinsey scale applied to anyone, it applied only to other people — not me.
Until it did.
It hit me in the middle of the night, like someone tossing a bucket of iced water over my unconscious body: I bolted upright from sleep, sweating and shivering off the remnants of an X-rated dream about a female friend. This happens though, doesn’t it? Sex dreams? Just a silly dream, right? No big deal.
But it wasn’t just a silly dream. It was a heavy, suffocating glob of awareness — a brand-new cognizance of big, overwhelming feelings…all directed at her. It was wonder, reverence, respect. It was adoration and concern for her well-being. It was I want to lay my hands on her.
It was a dangerous thing, a thing that needed to be buried, a thing that wasn’t allowed, and worst of all: a thing that could destroy our friendship. Perhaps interestingly, I never worried that my feelings for my friend would wreck my marriage. I never said to myself, “I wish I were with her instead of him.” I think, similar to how you can have room in your heart for the love of more than one child, my love for her simply carved out a place for itself alongside my other loves. It was still terrifying though, mainly because it was so goddamn shocking. What does one do with such a feeling? Where does one put it? I thought I had gone insane. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was the first and only person in the world for this ever to have happened to. I told no one.
Because I had no place to “put” my feelings for my friend, I did what any reasonable person would do: I used them as the seed for a novel. It took me two years to write, and during that time, my relationship with my friend solidified and strengthened into something far deeper and more enduring than X-rated dreams and confusing infatuations. It grew into love. I am not in love with her, as Gilbert is with Elias; I simply love her. Over the course of that long period of writing my book, in crafting characters who were not me and not her and made very different choices than she or I would ever make, and then, since releasing the book, I realized something:
This is not an unusual thing to happen. I’ve lost count of how many messages I’ve received from women who identify as heterosexual telling me of similar experiences. They tell me of intense, passionate friendships that evolved into love and lust and sometimes became physical but very often did not, of connections so profound they felt like literal electricity. It is common. It is very, very common.
Then why do we not talk about it? Why do we not acknowledge this openly? Why, why, why would we crush something so beautiful? Because we fear it? Because it makes us feel crazy? Because it doesn’t fit into the narrow box society gives us for what constitutes “normal”?
I thought it telling that, in her Facebook post, Gilbert never mentioned the words “bisexual” or “gay”…only love. I credit her for acknowledging the depth of her bond with Elias without succumbing to the need to slap a label on it.
Because that’s the point, isn’t it? Labels require boxes and lines and precise definitions. But friendship, sexuality, love — these things defy description. They each exist on a spectrum, they overlap and intertwine with one another like an intricate triple helix, far more complex and multifaceted than mere words can depict. Friendship can sometimes root itself so deeply that it crosses over that invisible boundary into love or lust. Sexuality is not an immutable, carved-in-stone characteristic — it is fluid and amorphous and often has zero to do with genitals and everything to do with the mind. Love…oh, god, love. Go ahead and try to define it. Tell me the specific point at which it becomes dangerous. Tell me how to extinguish it. Tell me how to be better off without it.
The one thing I do know to be true about love is that it will always, always surprise us. Gilbert is considered by many a font of wisdom on matters of love — for shit’s sake, she literally wrote the book on it — and yet love still managed to surprise her.
Gilbert’s story, for me, has been the concluding lecture in a long series of life lessons I’ve been absorbing over the past few years since I began my novel — lessons that can be summarized thusly: People fall for their friends all the freaking time. My experience is neither as rare nor as dangerous as I first feared.
In fact, when I remove that fear from the equation, when I disregard society’s edict for what constitutes “normal,” I see the truth, which is that it’s okay for me to love my friend. It is okay to acknowledge that my relationship with her is one of the greatest things that will ever happen to me. It is okay that when I imagine myself as a wrinkly, senile curmudgeon, sharing a creaking porch swing with my dear husband as we shake our canes at the damn kids on our lawn, that I hope she’ll still be around, with her crude jokes and fierce loyalty and unwavering support for the underdog. “It’s only grass,” I can imagine her saying about the kids on the lawn. “Let them have their joy while they can.”
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