It's Friday night and I settle into a plush seat next to Aaron, a gorgeous, funny brunette who I've known since college. We're sharing both the armrest and the popcorn between us. Anyone in the row behind us, witnessing our whispered inside jokes and laughter throughout the previews, could mistake us for a couple. But we're not. Every time we go out together, we correct one wrong assumption after another, repeatedly telling people: We're just friends.
The movie we're there to watch is Olivia Wilde's most recent passion project, Drinking Buddies, a modern-day When Harry Met Sally with a lot more booze and a lot less happily ever after. The film follows the tides in a friendship between Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), co-workers in a Chicago brewery, while not-so-subtly hinting at an undercurrent of chemistry and a bit of verboten desire. Does their flirtation cross boundaries; will it be repairable? Also, what are these characters getting from their friendship if not romance, or a promise of future love and commitment?
Aaron and I leave the theater arguing our points -- not whether men and women can simply be friends, but why exactly they should be. I gravitated toward the opposite sex early on, when, at the age of 5, I pledged allegiance to my brothers' posse by publicly decapitating my Barbie Dolls. I'd surrounded myself with gross, sticky, amphibian-mutilating boys and loved every second of it. With them, everything was an adventure. In the morning, I'd be king of the hill, the neighborhood kids my slaves and by late afternoon, I'd be a burglar getting away with loot (carefully returning the contents of my mother's jewelry box before she came home). I'd watch girls on the other side of the playground and wonder just how long exactly they planned on pretending to drink their make-believe tea. Didn't they ever want to dress up as a half-man, half-reptile with super powers, rather than a princess, waiting around for frogs?
My choice in friendship gender preference carried on through all twelve years of grade school, when the only females to sign my yearbook were my English teacher and the lunch lady. Still, in college, I joined a sorority. Curiosity of my own kind had peaked and I hoped to have some bridesmaids if I ever decided to marry. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by more estrogen than I could tolerate for more than a few hours at a time. There were tears, drama and vicious three-way-calling that both shocked and disgusted me. But then there was also a beautiful vulnerability and honest conversations and candid questions that we all worked together to find answers to. By the time I graduated and moved to New York, men still maintained the top spots on my speed dial, with the exception of a few amazing women I let in along the way.
There is no doubt that female friendships hold hefty value in my life, but friendships with women exhaust me in a way that male friendships never have. They simply offer different things. Not to say that male-female friendships lack complication; that would be silly and untrue. I once lost a close friendship because I confused chivalry for romance and honesty for intimacy. And there have been a couple of instances when a night of drinking led to a platonic pal's confession of one-sided love, until he sobered up and remembered that I am a often a nightmare in relationships (as most people are). Over brunch, we laugh at the thought of a romance between us, split the check down to the penny and returned to our casual camaraderie. Friends know too many secrets and that knowledge limits the sexual chemistry to that of a houseplant.
Like Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, I agree that when you build a friendship that works seamlessly, no romantic relationship can hold a candle to it. Men and women can and should be friends with benefits... but not the ones you might be thinking of. Here's what the men in my life have given me:
1. Successful Matchmaker: Who someone matches you up with says a lot about what they think of you. Clearly, my lady friends think that I like shorter men who live with their parents, are part of some fantasy sports team and like to eat in diners. Only on rare occasions have I been set-up by guy friends and each time was a raging success. Why? Because my date was brutally briefed on what I'm really like: she has a great sense of humor but its dark, like really dark, and she is annoyingly independent, so don't offer to pay, but open her car door because she still thinks chivalry is a thing. Oh, and when a guy says his friend is good looking, he is.
2. Honest Cheerleader: When I see my girlfriends, I will be greeted with a compliment. My shoes, my hair, my interesting choice in a neon rainbow manicure -- it will be loved by someone at girls' night, but do they really like it or are women in the habit of being nice? You know who doesn't compliment just to compliment? Men. Getting a kind word out of them is like pulling teeth from a shark. I'm certain that when a guy friend says that I look like I've lost weight, I know they are saying it because it's true... not because they feel bad that I started Aqua Cycling a month ago and am still waiting to see results.
3. Life Saver: Your sister's wedding is next weekend and you thought you'd be in a committed relationship by now, but OKCupid has let you down once again. Luckily, your knight in shining armor is ready and willing to be your perky plus one and save you from what could have been a family firing squad. The looks of pity from your many aunts? Dodged. Sitting at the table in the back filled with lonely misfits and children? Not you. The inevitable inquisition as to when you might be settling down? Not your problem. Because for all they know, that guy twirling you around the dance floor could be your future husband. He won't be. But for a night, you can play pretend.
4. Problem Solver: A good friend, no matter their sex, will offer up their ear when you are in need of venting. Girlfriends will let you talk until you've run out of words, your tear ducts have dried up and you keep repeating, I just don't know while rocking back and forth. Not men. They want to fix things. Leaky faucets, bike locks or your broken heart, they need to resolve it immediately. Rather than let you re-read a breakup email for the fourth time, they will steer you toward a solution. Their impatience toward drama is really doing you a favor.
5. Moving Man: What's that? You're moving this weekend and don't want to hire movers? All of my male friends can attest to moving my belongings in and out of a U-Haul at least once over the last decade. They're men, they are stronger. It is not to say that women aren't strong, but unless your girl's night is filled with WWE Divas, chances are, only the pals lacking an extra X chromosome can come through on this one. Since they already like you, they'll happily take payment in the form of beer and pizza, which is how you were likely going to spend your weekend with them anyway.