Sex column: Working without a net

Recently I went on the bumpy roller coaster ride known as health insurance selection. I sat on the floor of my living room surrounded by pamphlets explaining co-pays, deductibles and benefits. But just as I was feeling all grown-up, the phone rang. The call was from my friend of seven years, Keegan. Keegan and I were friends since college. Knowing he was living in D.C., the same city in which I am a grad student, gave me a sense of comfort.

About a year ago we became “closer” friends, sleeping together a few times a month. To outsiders, our dynamic mirrored Fred and Ethyl Mertz, but behind closed doors we became Dave and Carmen. Shortly into our conversation, he dropped it on me – he had a new girlfriend. My stomach sank, and I felt something inside me break.

What hurt was the bruise on my ego and the reality that I was losing the benefit and convenience of a fallback guy, a safety net. With Keegan, I never felt totally single. Now the safety net was ripped from under me. This would be the first time in a long time I was truly single. No man, no sexy glances in a Saturday night bar, no possibilities of sleeping next to someone. There I was, surrounded by insurance pamphlets, yet alone with no benefits.

After hanging up, I began to think about friends with benefits. Mostly everyone I know seems to think it’s a great arrangement – sex on call, no pressure and no commitments. But what they never tell you about is what happens to the friendship without the benefits or the price you pay for them. At least my insurance company billed me, but the price of friends with benefits is unspoken and never agreed upon. No one tells you about checking your ego at the door or that motionless slap across the face when he or she doesn’t call you five days after sleeping together.

This partnership does not come free. And your true benefit, the friendship, may be lost forever once someone moves on. Having signed up for my health insurance, I knew that under any circumstance I could walk into a medical office and a doctor would care for me. But would that be true with Keegan? Would I still be cared for as a friend? What happens to the friendship when the benefits expire?

That Saturday night we attended a work function. Since he now had a girlfriend, this was the perfect opportunity to examine our new PG relationship. As six o’clock approached, I became inexplicably tense. The anxiety of failing scenarios taunted me.

At the party, still feeling a bit shaky and uneasy, I proceeded straight to the bar. The anxiety gave way to friendly banter and we seemed to be like our old pre-sex friends again. On my second glass of Pino, I looked over at Keegan and questioned whether I had been tying myself into emotional knots for nothing.

My colleagues and I got properly zinged at the party and pushed onward to the bars, but Keegan had plans of his own. Dropping him off at his car was like taking off a Band-Aid – quick and painless. Still, deep down I felt something shift. There was a distance between us – something silent and alien to me.

At the bar I asked my feminist friend and colleague, Lynn, about her take on friends with benefits – do men and women both leave the relationship with the same level of awkwardness? Looking at me with deep brown eyes and sipping on her vodka, she answered.

“It is a leave-er/ leave-ee reaction. The person who finds someone special doesn’t feel awkward and confused because they have someone. It’s the one who has been ‘dumped’ that feels alone. The friend with the new significant other walks away clean, the other is left behind to pick up the pieces.”

I wondered if I would have been so concerned over my friendship with Keegan if I had met someone new. I didn’t know the answer, but I knew it was time to move on. But it didn’t sink in until I walked in my door alone. I would be going to bed alone. I would wake up next to nobody. I didn’t go to bed feeling good, but I respected myself in the morning.

That afternoon I met my dear friend Sonya for a Morgan Day. We talked about the night and the possibilities of friends with benefits, which Sonya compared to oil and water: they don’t mix.

“You can try to experiment and think you have the secret answer that will make it work. But it will never work out,” she said. “Someone always moves on, and the friendship will never go back to the way it began. Best to have the benefits of friendship that can last forever than an orgasm that is over within a matter of moments.”

I don’t know if Keegan and I will be the friends we once were. Hopefully we’ll find deeper benefits in our friendship than in our sex life. In my experience, friendship is a far superior benefit than sex. It lasts longer, you can have it in public and, if you’re lucky, it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.

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