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    Connections

    Just friends

    Shortly after I met her, she gave me the “friends” speech. But I didn’t stop trying.

    Gracia Lam

    “I want to be just friends right now.”

    Those haunting words can signal the end of any romance. This beautiful woman sitting across from me couldn’t be ending our relationship already. It had not even started.

    When we were introduced through a mutual friend three days earlier, I knew our meeting was destiny. She stood in my condo wearing sweat pants with a T-shirt, no makeup, and bare feet. She was gorgeous, charming, and assured. I tried hard not to stare at her as we talked. When she left, I could not stop thinking about her.

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    I gathered the courage to call her. She accepted my offer to take her to dinner. I nearly swooned. Conversation during our night out seemed magical. As I was about to raise the possibility of a second date, she said, “I want to be just friends right now.”

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    “Just friends.” I pondered her words. Did she mean “just friends forever”? I was too shy to ask. I was afraid of the answer. Maybe I could change her mind. When she agreed to come over for a casual dinner, I spent the entire day getting my condo ready. I thoroughly cleaned the kitchen. I washed all the windows on both sides. I scrubbed every part of the bathrooms. The place was perfect.

    She halted at the entrance when she arrived. “What’s wrong with your carpet?” she asked. I followed her eyes and saw the perfectly straight lines left by my vacuum cleaner. Slightly embarrassed, I admitted I had cleaned up a little. Her next words increased my anxiety.

    “I thought this was going to be casual. And why are the blinds to the balcony closed?” The night was not going as I had planned. After setting the table on the balcony, complete with candles, I had closed the blinds so she would be surprised when we walked outside. She announced that I was trying too hard.

    I kept trying. We went running, we watched movies, and we talked on the phone for hours when I traveled. She regularly invited me to join her for dinner with her parents at their house. Still trying, I rigorously cleaned the dishes after every meal. Every pot was immaculate. The glasses glistened. Even the countertops and the kitchen sink sparkled when I was through.

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    Still no romance. Frustrated, I patiently told myself we were meant to be together. I knew we were soul mates, even if she hadn’t realized it yet. All this cleaning would be worth it if she would just give me a chance.

    Several months later, I was still dutifully cleaning up after we enjoyed another dinner with her parents. This time, she grabbed a dish towel and joined me at the sink. When I handed her a dripping pot that had been scoured clean, I noticed something different in her eyes. There was something about the way she smiled at me that night so many years ago. Something that told me I had proved myself. She gave me that chance.

    “Do you remember when I said that?” she asked me recently with a quick laugh and the same smile that had kindled the romance in our relationship. “Do you remember when I said I wanted to be just friends?”

    Of course I remembered it. That night was our beginning of what she now calls “the time we were just friends.”

    “I wanted to be sure we could be friends first before we dated,” she continued. “When we grow old, we are only going to have each other. We need to be best friends.” Looking over across our dinner table, I returned her smile.

    J.R. Anderson is a commander in the US Navy and a national security fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He and his wife, Amy, celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this month.

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