In the style sections of more than one newspaper, I've seen features on how to divorce a friend. These articles usually ooze with self-congratulation over what they consider to be their bold form of tough-love pragmatism. ''Stop pussyfooting around!'' they command. ''Cut the cord!''
Most of us have at least one acquaintance we'd like to dump. Mine's name is Jesse. Jesse is a person who I met online for a potential date three years ago. But when we met in real life, it quickly became clear we weren't cut out to be boyfriends. Soon after that, it became clear (to me, anyway) that we weren't cut out to be just friends either.
Yet Jesse persisted. A somewhat lonely guy who lived far away in the Bronx, he'd call faithfully every week to see about getting together for dinner. He was gregarious enough, but socially awkward. He'd talk for 10 minutes straight, and then when I would try to participate in the conversation, he'd interrupt me. These bursts of monologue were separated by long stretches of tense silence. We had absolutely nothing in common. He mainly complained and I mainly listened. I didn't remotely enjoy hanging out with him, but I continued to all the same.
He had what sounded like a horrible job on Long Island working at a glue plant, with a two-hour reverse commute and a boss who came across like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of our time was spent talking about this job and how much he hated it. When I asked if he'd ever thought about looking for a new one, he'd snort and snap, ''Where?'' as if by suggesting as much I'd merely twisted the knife.
He'd frequently nudge my shoulder as we'd walk down the street and whisper, ''Check him out. Hot!'' Usually the guy he was referring to looked like a 19-year-old varsity lacrosse player. I wondered if this was why Jesse never seemed to date anyone. He seemed a bit na´ve about what was realistic. ''Yeah, hot,'' I'd reply, not really knowing what else to say.
At some point, I stopped taking two-thirds of Jesse's calls, not returning his voicemails, hoping he'd get the message. But this strategy only served to embolden his clinginess. ''Uh, hi there stranger,'' he'd intone when he finally got me on the line. His voice would be thick with accusation and resentment. ''Thanks for taking my call. I'm sure you're really busy.''
We would have arguments of the long-term relationship variety, smoldering with passive-aggressive bitterness. He begrudged me for taking days to return his calls. I loathed him for not taking the hint.
The relationship became untenable, and yet I couldn't bring myself to entirely cut him off. I kept hoping he'd find a boyfriend or a new job that would take up all his time. I began to suspect I was his only friend.
Then one night, we were eating dinner on the Upper West Side at an Italian restaurant. He was complaining about work. Then our food arrived. He took one bite of his meal and sent it back to the kitchen. Complaints about work gradually morphed into complaints about being single. It was suddenly all too much. I knew that I had to get rid of him for good. ''Jesse,'' I needed to say, ''it's over.''
But of course, I didn't say this. Instead, we finished dinner, parted ways and I vowed never to talk to him again. As the weeks wore on, his voicemail messages grew more angry and desperate. ''Uh, hello? Do you still exist?'' he'd say in his trademark guilt-inducing tone. And it worked -- I did feel guilty. But I continued to stonewall, and eventually, after a couple of months, the phone stopped ringing.
That was two years ago. In the interim, I changed jobs, changed apartments and essentially stopped thinking about Jesse altogether. My list of acquaintances was whittled down to people I genuinely wanted in my life. Then last week, a friend of mine, a freelance reporter, e-mailed me to see about getting drinks together. This friend's name also happened to be Jesse. We don't see each other that often, so I don't even have his phone number. I e-mailed him back and we agreed on a bar to meet at. When I arrived, he wasn't there. Thinking that I might be in the wrong place, I absentmindedly scrolled to the name Jesse in my phone and pushed Call.
''Will?'' said the voice at the other end. I froze.
''Uh, hey Jesse. How's it going?'' It was the wrong Jesse, the one from two years ago.
''It's okaaay...'' he replied. ''Why are you calling?''
My mind raced. Why indeed?
''I was calling...to see if you'd like to...get dinner.''
There was a moment of silence, and then, ''Okay. Sure.''
Three days later, we met in the West Village for tacos. Jesse, in an amazing bout of tact, didn't once ask why I'd ignored him for two years and then, out of the blue, called him back. Instead, we had a shockingly pleasant conversation. He was funny and polite and even charming. He'd gotten a haircut and better glasses. He spoke in less of a whine. He told me all about his new job in Manhattan, which involved graphic design and actually sounded pretty cool. He'd gone on a few dates with a few guys, but nothing serious. And he was looking for a better apartment, one not quite so far removed from downtown Manhattan.
When dinner was over, we said our goodbyes and walked off in opposite directions. As we were leaving, I told him I'd had fun and that we should get together again sometime soon. He said sure, that'd be fun, and told me to give him a call.
Will Doig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.