A cornerstone of romantic storytelling is the trope of “the girl who constantly overlooks her amazing guy friend in favour of a dick-brained guy, but comes to her senses at the last second.” It captures the timeless tale of not knowing what is underneath your nose until it is nearly gone. My favourite example is Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, from Anne of Green Gables. But I, too, have a similar tale in my backlog of near-romances from high-school. This however, did not come to my attention until a couple of months ago. The tragedy is, I did not realise that I should have dated my best friend until it was too late.
I was 15 when I met my real-life Gilbert Blythe, who we are going to call Matthew. Matthew was a completely devoted friend, despite my tendency to heartlessly dismiss him. He was actively interested in my well-being and not my status as a single teen with great hair. I blissfully ignored our apparent compatibility because I was on the manhunt for a love story worthy of a movie adaptation. I had romanticized the idea of a good woman being the force to change a man and awaken him from his wicked ways, due to excessive watching of Jane Eyre. I thought love was arguments fuelled by resentments, and romance was being convinced you hated someone until they proposed to you twice or nearly died. I thought interesting men were those with mood swings, secrets and tragic pasts. Matthew was none of these things. He was driven, kind, open, honest and personable—he was and continues to be, the best man I know. So when he told me he liked me at the optimistic age of 15, why did I not date him? Because he was too good, and that would make for a boring romance, right?
Don’t worry, I can hear you screaming “wrong” at your computer screens.
Matthew and I met at church when we were 15 and instantly became friends. We had everything in common—we were extroverted, optimistic chatterboxes, and thought we knew everything about anything. We were a good team (expect when we played paintball together because we talked too much and were always discovered). Matthew would always call “just for a chat” when he knew something was wrong. He always made me feel understood and remembered everything I said. For example, for my 18th birthday he gave me a jar full of coins he had collected because he remembered me saying that I would like to see how much change you could collect if you saved it all. That jar still sits on my desk five years later.
I could be guilty of romanticizing things because Matthew also drove me insane. In hindsight, though, my frustration may have been more attributable to the way our friendship was perceived, than the friendship itself. We were teased constantly. Everyone thought we were one life event away from dating and a couple of years away from marriage after that. Matthew did not let it get in the way of our friendship, but I, by comparison, hated the attention it brought to my life, and sometimes hated Matthew as a result. That is the thing about churches; everyone is invested in your personal life. It is like having Christmas dinner every week.
Despite being largely blind to our compatibility, there were moments when I stood back and thought, “Madi, isn’t he kinda perfect for you?”
When I was 17, a group of us went on a service trip to the Fiji islands. At the airport, Matthew and I checked in our bags together, bickering like an old couple. This is how we worked; we did everything together, while yelling. Later, when I was sitting in a hammock on the beach with a friend, facing a week of no electricity, cold water and isolation I said to her, “I think I like Matthew.” She smiled and said, “Well that would make him happy.” But my epiphany never developed beyond this discussion, as I ended up getting so sick I was nearly hospitalised. So any further beach sunset realisations were held at bay as I tried not to die.
Another year passed, high school was nearly over and I was studying for my biology exam when the phone rang. I knew it was going to be Matthew. I was ready to roll my eyes as he stressed about exams and then would expect him to listen to me do the same. Instead, Matthew was ringing me to tell me that his family were moving back to Australia. I got through the conversation without letting my voice betray the feelings that were demanding to be heard in a way that I could not suppress. I struggled with the realisation that I was losing my best friend, and maybe someone I could have fallen in love with. I thought as I got braver, I would work out how I felt, but time was up.
My response to this perplexing situation was to listen to Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” CD on loop. I listened to her lyrics of disappointed hopes with a new understanding. After a day of this behaviour I vowed to think of it no more. I decided the timing was off, always had been and always would be. When Matthew told me he liked me and I heartlessly told him he was “more like a brother to me” at 15, he showed more maturity than I did. It took three more years for me catch up, and it was too late. So I grieved my lost opportunity and enjoyed his company while I could. A few months later I watched him go up the escalator at the airport leaving me behind forever, I held back an onslaught of emotions and vowed once again, never to think about it. That is exactly what I did until this year—a whopping five years later.
I was visiting Sydney on holiday and I arranged to meet Matthew. In the five years that have passed, we have only spoken a handful of times. On the day we planned to meet, I was suffering all the apprehensive symptoms of someone going on a first date: uncertainty over fashion choices, clammy hands and general nerves, except I was not going on a first date. Instead, I was about to witness what a whole series of dates would have looked like.
As I approached the train station where we agreed to meet I heard Matthew call, “Madi!” and wave his hand confidently above the crowd. As I decided whether to run towards him or calmly walk, years of friendship played before me like the dramatic film montage I always wanted. I waved back with the gut-wrenching realisation I was seeing someone I wish life had not taken away from me so soon.
As we embraced, we became those 15 year olds again, just with the extra baggage of eight years life experience. We were so excited that our food and drinks remained untouched as we utilised every minute we had together to quickly cover all the important points of the last five years. I had just gotten a job at a top tier law firm, he was going to be a pastor of his own church. Never has the word bittersweet been more appropriate.
There was a moment when I exhaled, made eye contact with him and realised we were experiencing a small window of what could have been a part of our lives. In that moment a voice-over from my subconscious to my conscious mind announced, “And that is when Madison, realised she should have dated her best friend while she had the chance.” I wanted to grab Matthew’s hand and do it all over again. This time I would not take him for granted because I now appreciated what a rare find he was. Instead, I laughed, drank my tea and enjoyed our small gift of time.
We later dragged our feet back to the train station. We did not know when we would see each other again. Instead of drawing attention to this fact we made empty promises to visit each other. Our time had run out. So I hugged Matthew goodbye, grieving that life, and my own stupidity, had gotten in the way.
In the process of writing this, I have relished in the drama of this life chapter. Despite unexplored options, things probably worked out for the best. If we had embarked on a relationship, things would not have lasted and if they had, our lives would look very different. Matthew and I harbour no bitter feelings toward each other and our memories remain untarnished. Only a romanticized “what if” remains and maybe in this instance, that is the best outcome. There is nothing to regret. I experienced a true friendship during my turbulent teenage years, a lot of people aren’t that lucky. So in the absence of a dating relationship, Matthew is a powerful reminder of what a true friend is, and maybe what a soul mate should feel like.