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By Mandy Shunnarah
When I turned five and started kindergarten at a new elementary school, I didn’t know anyone. On the playground there was a jungle gym with two wooden platforms with a bridge between. As I climbed on top of one of the platforms, I noticed a boy crouched underneath, hanging his head low and looking sad.
I bent my waist over the edge of the platform, so I was looking at him in inverse while hanging upside down.
I don’t remember what he said, but he looked like he’d been crying.
“Want to be friends?”
“Yeah!” he said.
Twenty-six years later, Ethan is still my best friend.
At our private fundamentalist Baptist elementary school, our friendship caused a stir. It was seen as strange that a boy and a girl would be best friends without one having a crush on the other. We were both smart and finished our work early, so we’d write notes. The kids whose desks were between ours got endless joy out of intercepting our notes, convinced that they were love notes. In actuality they were updates about what we did that weekend and synopses of movies we’d watched. Our peers were convinced my signoff LYLAB (for “love ya like a brother”) had to be something more since it contained the word “love.”
Most annoying was when the teachers got in on it. One called me over during recess once and asked why Ethan and I played together on the playground.
“Because we’re friends?” I answered, lilting my voice up because I thought the answer was obvious. Why would we pal around if we weren’t friends? I would’ve added a DUH! at the end if I hadn’t thought it would earn me punishment.
“Aww, you like him!” she said, interpreting my questioning tone differently than I’d intended. Again, I was confused. Do people who dislike each other normally pal around together?
“Yes?” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“That’s so cute! I think it’s sweet,” she said. I stared blankly back. I’d never been told my friendships with girls were sweet and I didn’t see a difference.
This was the ‘90s, when even a show titled Friends had multiple hookups and rampant sexual tension. The lack of imagination around platonic opposite sex friendships during this time was astounding.
After years of constant barrage about our relationship, I started wondering if something was wrong with me for not being romantically interested in Ethan. Even in fifth or sixth grade I could envision us living together as adults, especially if we were both single as we got older, but that was more of a matter of convenience. Who wouldn’t want to live with their best friend?
Even in cartoons there was the stereotypical female character leaning with her elbows on a table, one hand cradling her chin, staring longingly at the object of her affection—often a male character she was friends with—and sighing with heavy-lidded eyes. I tried it one day in third grade, and after confusedly asking me what I was doing, Ethan told me to snap out of it. Having proved to myself that you can’t make yourself romantically interested in someone by staring at them like a lovesick sap, I wanted the world to snap out of it.
Things didn’t improve as we got older. I dumped a handful of high school boyfriends who were convinced that when I was hanging out with Ethan we were secretly on a date. I’m not sure why they assumed if Ethan and I were dating it would be secret or why I’d bother dating them if I was really only interested in Ethan, though a lot of common sense was lost on these boys.
“Ethan has been here long before you and he’ll be here long after you’re gone,” I told them.
Inevitably, these boys would give me an ultimatum then act surprised when I dumped them.
Ethan and I laugh about this now. These days we live in different cities, hundreds of miles apart, and have been happily partnered for several years. (Do I really need to specify we’re partnered to other people?) Though we don’t have people assuming we’re secretly in love anymore, I noticed that nearly every time I mention my best friend to someone who doesn’t know Ethan, they almost always assume I’m talking about a woman. The default is still that women are best friends and men are best friends, but never the twain shall meet.
I want a more expansive idea of friendship to be the default. I don’t want youth-driven media to assume that romantic relationships are the only ones worth pursuing. I don’t want adults, especially those in positions of power, projecting their own fears and insecurities about romantic love onto kids. I don’t want boy-girl friend pairs to feel as if they’re weird for being platonic.
Nearly two decades after the day we met on the playground, Ethan and I were recalling our memories of that day.
“What were you doing under there anyway?” I asked. He was surprised I didn’t know.
“I was praying for a friend. I looked up and there you were.”
It’s really as simple as that.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others, as well as an essay forthcoming in the New York Times. Her first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com