Yesterday, Katie Van Zanen wrote a beautiful piece on having guy friends. And as many a post calvin piece is prone to do, it led me to some pensive introspection on my own experiences. While Katie shed light on some less-than-glowing motives behind having guy friends as a female, I realize on the flipside that I might’ve missed some opportunities by ignoring half the population of my peers over the years.

Despite growing up the middle child between two sisters, I have always lived in a man’s world. I was never discouraged from spending time with girls, but I was never really encouraged or inspired to either. My childhood was spent tromping around woods, catching bugs, building LEGOs, and drawing monsters. Like a lot of ‘90s kids, I bought into the idea that boys were made of snakes and snails and puppy dog tails. I didn’t actually think about girls much, but when they did cross my mind, they seemed, more than anything else—boring.

Girls represented everything dainty and dull, enamored with Easy-Bake ovens and knitting and dollhouses. It wasn’t a knock against them; it just wasn’t—forgive the expression—my cup of tea. When you don’t have any experience to show you otherwise, you just assume boys and girls are wired differently, and female preferences just seemed uninteresting to me.

Now, I had heard tales of the mythical ‘tomboy’—a girl who liked “boy things”—and that sounded swell. But heck, there were plenty of boys in the neighborhood, so I didn’t need one.

Until puberty hit of course, and then we all began to see girls in a different light. Thoughout middle school and high school, more and more boys began to bridge the gap, extend the invitation to the ladies and vice versa, but it was difficult to view each interaction as strictly platonic. I still remember the first time I ever got dropped off at the mall with my two best buds, where we were meeting three girls. We watched a movie, perused the shops and kiosks, ate at Chili’s, and showed off by being rebellious. And afterward, the guys and I dissected what it was like to hang out with girls. Girls! If they’d been merely friends, it wouldn’t have been nearly so exciting.

That was in sixth grade.

It took a while for me to break out of my preconceived notions that girls only liked sugar and spice and everything nice, but the new hurdle was suppressing all those questions about chemistry. They reared their ugly heads over every “casual” conversation about track practice, weekend plans, or family camping trips. Flirtation always seemed to be lurking in the background, whether we admitted it or not.

In high school, as Katie implied, everyone was playing this game. Perhaps the girls were playing a little more sincerely than the guys, but everyone was playing nonetheless. Besides a rather cocky freshman year, my experience with the game was mostly on the sidelines. I wanted to avoid speculation, avoid drama, and avoid risk, so I rarely put in an effort. I went to a lot of parties, but I was always in that group of guys off to the side playing basketball or retelling inside jokes. I knew it wasn’t a good long-term strategy, but I was pretty content with my guy friends.

Of course, the downside of such limited experience with female friends is that every little flippant comment quipped in my direction was met with wild and ridiculous speculation: “Go Nick!” a random acquaintance might cheer I race down the backstretch of the 400-meter dash, unwittingly setting my head spinning. Damn, I’m getting cheered on by her?! Heck yes! What does it mean? Does she think I’m cute? Is she impressed? Or did I do something dumb? Could we be a thing? Is she suggesting we go on a date sometime? Should I go up to her later and ask her out? Man, I really needed to cool my jets.

Enter Taryn Borst, the game-changer.

I had a good conversation recently about becoming friends with your significant other versus falling in love, and which one tends to come first. With Taryn, I believe we became friends and fell in love at about an even pace. The attraction was immediate of course, but I like to think that if we weren’t married, Taryn and I would still be keeping up a friendship today, catching up over beers or going for a hike somewhere.

Taryn represented all the tomboys I had ignored my whole life, and she also had the audacity to take initiative, which I lacked. Her message was simple: “You seem like a cool person, I like a lot of the same things you do, ergo we should be friends.” It evolved into more than that, of course, but Taryn taught me a lot about friendships that crossed the gender divide. She had plenty of guy friends when we started dating, and I learned that I didn’t have to be suspicious of that. Guy friends have populated her peers ever since she was born, and I think that’s given her a leg up on social engagements in general.

I’d be doing all of my female friends a great disservice if I didn’t give them all a shout-out in this article; I have had a handful of close, meaningful companionships with women both before and after Taryn and I got together. But it wasn’t until after the dust of our relationship settled that the question mark behind ‘platonic?’ could be erased for good.  

The game changed in college. I was in a very committed relationship with a newfound optimism to befriend any woman with whom I shared interests. Did that mean I had more to worry about, or less? How would it be perceived when ‘Has-a-serious-girlfriend Nick’ hung out with other women? Did playing the Taryn card make me a disarming and refreshing presence, since there were no ulterior motives in play? Or was it kind of a sleazy, treasonous thing to do? Did having a girlfriend make me a non-threat and give me a free pass to be myself, or did it obligate me to tread even more carefully? Was I toeing the line? Taryn had navigated this path so easily for so long, but I was new to this.

I’m sure all the girls with guy friends out there are reading this and thinking it’s really not that complicated, just takes a bit of common sense, is all.

And that’s really where I think those of us who’ve restricted our friend groups by gender—or age or ethnicity or anything for that matter—have handicapped ourselves. It should feel more natural. It should be drama-free, guiltless, with no strings attached. I referenced a lot of the same speculations in “Sundays are for the Boys,” that we could nip a lot of problems in the bud by encouraging the next generation to spend time with the opposite gender from an early age. Growing up would be shrouded in a lot less mystery, skepticism, and suspicion about our counterparts. Respect and self-awareness would come easy.

So to all the ladies with guy friends out there, and guys with girl friends (er—women friends? Female friends? Lady friends? This also needs to be nailed down in a manner that doesn’t imply romance) I salute you.

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