Broke My Neck
It was during the crimson nights of August last year when Pete Sergeant made the biggest mistake of his life. When he tells the story, he omits many of the details, because of embarrassment or pride or some such, which is understandable. But my version is the more accurate one, so that’s the one I’ll tell.
Pete was starting his senior year of college. On a whim, he’d decided to go to college far from home, to a school where no one knew him. He’d arrived on campus feeling charged with a fresh energy, free to start over from his childhood and reinvent himself as an adult. But his excitement faltered when he realized that not knowing anyone meant a certain strain of loneliness. Pete had always had an enthusiasm for life tempered by an intense shyness that left him rushing one large stride forward and retreating two strides back through his days. Sitting in his dorm room, drifting in and out of classes, wandering the paths of the campus, he wondered if maybe his complete break from his old life had been a mistake. Maybe he should have stayed closer to home and gone to school with people he’d known all his life.
He was wrong. Going away and starting over again, shy or not, was one of the best things he’d ever do. But it will be at least a decade before he understands that.
Pete’s first semester in college was a rough one. Every time he tried to talk to a classmate or start up conversation with another student on campus or in his dorm common room, his heart froze, his hands shook, his mouth went dry, and he withdrew into his shell. He got along with his roommate, Eric, well enough, but Eric never invited Pete along when he went out on weekends.
And then Pete met Lucy. Pete remembers it as one of those romantic comedy “meet cutes,” where they literally bumped into each other one night before semester finals. Pete leaving the library and Lucy going in when they collided, books tumbling everywhere, the two of them apologizing to each other and then laughing at it all. But what really happened is that Lucy was heading into the library that night because she was sure she was being followed by some guy, and campus rape statistic being what they are, she decided the well-lit, well-staffed library would be a safe place to hang out for a while. When she ran into Pete (literally), her heart started pounding out of her chest (figuratively), her fight-or-flight instinct kicking up to 11. Even after Pete smiled and started picking up her books for her, she wasn’t sure he wasn’t a potential rapist and she kept one hand in her pocket, clutching her keys defensively. Cute, right?
A week later, after they had finished their final exams, they met for coffee and talked well into the night, closing out the coffee shop. They exchanged phone numbers and while they were home with their respective families for the holidays, they texted and talked every day. Boom! They were friends, in that accelerated way that seems to happen more when we’re young than when we’re old and more suspicious of new people in our lives. His friendship with Lucy gave Pete a boost in confidence and his second semester was much better than his first. He talked more in class discussions, struck up conversations with strangers in his dorm, and began to build a circle of friends. When Lucy told him she’d started seeing a guy she’d met in her Renaissance Art class, his heart broke a little, but he forced a smile and told her he was happy for her. Soon after, Pete asked out Heather, a girl he’d met in the dorm common room, and much to his surprise, she said yes. And much to his surprise (and disappointment), Lucy gave him a big hug and said she was proud of him when he told her about it. Even when dating people, Pete and Lucy talked and texted every day.
But let’s get back to Pete’s senior year. After an intense summer romance, Pete was dumped by his girlfriend, Tara. Lucy had recently broken up with her boyfriend, Nick, and she took it upon herself to console and commiserate with Pete. The two of them sat on her sofa, watching Die Hard and sharing a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream and a bottle of cheap, red wine. With the wine buzzing around his brain and shooting warm confidence through his veins, Pete turned away from the TV (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”), looked at Lucy, and said, “So, have you ever thought about, um, about us?”
“Us?” she asked, as if she did not know what he was talking about. But she knew. Her stomach sank.
“Yeah, us,” he said. “As more than friends. As girlfriend and boyfriend.” He took a large drink of wine and continued, “We’ve been hanging out for so long. You know me better than anyone. Anyone. And I think I know you better than anyone.”
Lucy nodded. “You do. You really do.”
“Okay, so, it makes sense, right? For us to be more than friends? We’re already past that awkward ‘getting to know you’ phase. We’re at the part where we’re…I don’t know, soul mates, I guess. Aren’t we?”
Lucy paused the movie and sucked in a long, large breath. “Pete,” she said, taking his hand, “I have. I’ve thought about it. I mean, I did, when we first met. I thought you were going to ask me out for more than coffee. Or maybe I’d ask you out. But–”
“Oh no,” he said, “there’s a ‘but.'”
“But,” she said with a nod, “you’ve become such a dear friend for me…you’re my best friend, my best friend in the whole world. And I love you like that. But I don’t love you in a girlfriend-boyfriend way. I’m not in love with you. I just don’t think it would work between us as anything other than friends, and I think you know that, too.”
“No,” Pete said, his voice rising, “I don’t know that. I think we’d be amazing together. I know we would. How can you not see that?”
“I just don’t feel that way about you. What’s wrong with being friends?”
Pete yanked his hand away from hers. “Are we friends? Friends understand each other, but you’re not understanding me.”
“That’s not fair,” she said curtly, frowning. “I do understand, I just want us to stay as friends, as best friends. Why can’t you understand that?”
“What I can’t understand is how you can do this to me.”
“Do what to you?”
“Reject me like this,” he said, his face flushing, his eyes tearing up, his voice edging up to shouting levels, “I’m opening up to you! I’m baring my heart to you, and you’re rejecting me!”
“Dammit, Pete,” she said, matching his volume, “I’m not rejecting you! If anything, you’re rejecting me! I want to stay friends, and suddenly that’s not good enough for you? What the hell?”
Pete sprang up from the sofa. “It’s too late to stay friends,” he growled. “I’m in love with you. I’ve always been in love with you. I can’t stand by and watch you get involved with other people and pretend to be happy for you, when all I want is for you to want me. But you don’t. You don’t want me. You’ve broken my heart.”
“So our whole friendship has been a lie?” she stormed. “All this time, you’ve just been biding your time, waiting to get into my pants?”
“No, it’s not like that,” he said, tears streaming down his hot cheeks. “This isn’t about sex, it’s–”
“Oh, it’s totally about sex,” Lucy said. “You might dress it up in your mind as some chaste, romantic thing, but what you really want is for me to throw myself at you, to beg you to fuck me, to want you and only you. You say you love me, but if you really loved me, I mean really loved me, you’d respect my feelings and you’d be happy to have my friendship. But no, you want to make this all about you and how you want us to have a physical relationship.”
“Fuck you!” Pete yelled. “Fuck you for making this about sex! That’s not…that’s not what this is about! I’m not that kind of guy! I love you, I do! I love you so much! I want to make you happy! I want to hold you when you’re sad!”
“So you don’t want to have sex with me?”
“No!” he said. “I mean, yeah, I do, of course I do. But that’s not what this is about. I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t base everything around sex. You know that!”
“I thought I knew that,” she said coldly, “but now I’m not sure. I thought you liked being my friend, but now it looks like I was wrong.”
Pete looked at her, his face fallen, his eyes red. “I just don’t understand how you can do this to me. I just…I don’t get it.” He turned and walked out of her apartment, slamming the door behind him, stumbling out into the warm, humid August night. Lucy, feeling like she’d been punched in the gut, gulped down the rest of her glass of wine and tried, but failed, to hold back her tears at losing her best friend. She hoped he would cool down after a day or two and text her to apologize, but he never did.
Like I said, Pete tells this story differently, leaving some parts out and changing others, so that it sounds like Lucy led him on and then turned him away, humiliating him and breaking his heart. He doesn’t realize he had the kind of close friendship many people only wish they had and he threw it all away, but he will someday. He’ll understand and he’ll feel like an idiot, full of regret.
I know I shouldn’t be so obvious, dropping the moral of this story like an anvil on your foot, and I apologize. But I feel for Pete Sergeant, I really do. I know he’s going to realize some day that he made a huge mistake with Lucy. He’s going to wish he could go back and do it over again. He’s going to search for Lucy online and think about sending her a message, apologizing for his mistake, but he’s going to be too scared to follow through.
I know this because I used to be like Pete and I lost a friend the same way he did. And to this day, the regret hangs heavy in my heart.