We were supposed to be taking a group quiz in accounting lab, and the way Erik tells it, I was “being a gigantic nerd.” His bright-blue eyes darted back and forth as he snuck our textbook open on his lap. “You’re going to get us in trouble,” I said through clenched teeth. But our professor didn’t seem to notice.
Erik was broad-shouldered with pale skin, short wisps of blonde hair, and a long, straight nose, features that cumulatively reminded me of a polar bear. We were both sophomores at the University of Illinois, and once we became friends, I realized he was the only person I’d ever met with a taste for lowbrow culture relative to such a high-powered intellect. We’d sit together watching stoner flicks, like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, in between solving derivatives for our macroeconomics class.
I liked being with him, and didn’t find there was any sexual tension between us. I’d never had a brother, or any other kind of relationship with a man where there was no pressure to be anything other than myself.
Around the same time I met Erik, I started dating a tall, good-looking, clean-shaven guy named Mike with dark hair who resembled Bobby from Twin Peaks. A fifth-year senior and finance major from a wealthy suburb, he lived in one of the most expensive buildings on campus. When we were together, I found myself imitating his cockiness, usually to hide my own insecurities that I wasn’t pretty or sophisticated enough. Mike often commented on women’s appearances, remarking on their relative “hotness,” which made me feel I had to labor to keep up. I wore tight clothing and excessive makeup. Once, I teetered in wooden stilettos on my old stained carpeting, wearing a denim miniskirt and and off-the-shoulder blouse.
“We’re just going to dinner,” he said.
I was overacting for a role I’d never before been cast: trophy girlfriend. At the time, I found the idea that I could be seen as beautiful or valuable by someone like him to be thrilling. But in hindsight, I much preferred hanging out with Erik.
Aristotle believed that philia, or friendship — one of the many types of love identified by the ancient Greeks — required familiarity, virtue, and equality. This is not the same as what we call “platonic love” today, a concept originally rooted in Plato’s idea that through eros, or erotic love, one can transcend the physical and access the divine.
In Symposium, Plato theorizes that we desire what has been mysteriously omitted from us by a divine force, and thus to become more ourselves, we seek it out in someone else. Following Platonic logic, my relationship with Mike was doomed; he did not possess that which was lacking from my true self. I was still in the process of carving out my identity, and he made me feel less — not more — who I was.
Being with Erik, on the other hand, was like looking into a rare mirror that revealed both the attractive and unattractive parts, and somehow still left me feeling good about them. After Mike graduated college and moved away, we stayed in a long-distance relationship, but I got to spend the summer with Erik on an empty campus. We ate gigantic burritos at our favorite Mexican restaurant, then held our bulging stomachs groaning about how sick we felt. On the weekends, we drove to my grandparents’ lake house in southern Illinois, blaring our favorite Outkast album, Aquemini, as the flat prairie land morphed into rolling hills. Erik fished from a dock while I sunbathed on a raft. We paddled my grandpa’s Budweiser-branded canoe out to explore nearby coves using long wooden oars. Every once and awhile, I’d hear, “dammit, Kasbeer” because I’d somehow managed to get water on our stash or soak our cigarettes without actually paddling us anywhere.
When we returned to shore, we’d sit on the edge of the seawall and play a game we invented called the Plop Game. It involved taking turns dropping rocks into the water, and laughing when they made a “plop” sound. Each round, the more impressive “plop” garnered a point. I’m pretty sure when Plato defined the type of love that transcends the physical as a “pregnancy of the soul,” the Plop Game was not what he had in mind. He proposed a spiritual love that went beyond self-fulfillment, attainable only through the recognition of what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true.
In Rachel Cusk’s novel, The Outline, she writes of a similar ideal, a shared vision: “It is one definition of love, the belief in something that only the two of you can see.” Erik and I were nearly always in agreement on whose “plop” had won the round.
The summer after my junior year, Erik hurt his foot playing softball, and since no one was around to help him, he stayed with me. At the time, my apartment had a few roaches that mainly came out at night. There was also a squirrel biting through one of the plastic accordion arms of my window air conditioner. After a weekend spent with Mike in Chicago, I came home to find two beady little black eyes staring at me through a squirrel-sized hole.
“If only we could pit the squirrels against the roaches,” Erik said.
I put a cutting board over the hole, but the squirrel scratched at it every night. Since Erik couldn’t walk for a few days, he stayed at my place with his foot elevated. Having him there made me feel safer, given my double infestation. He refused to go to the doctor, despite the fact that his lower leg had turned purple and taken on the shape of a ski boot. I got us carry-out dinners and rented him the Civil War epic Gettysburg.
Because I was afraid of the roaches, I slept next to him and his undiagnosed leg fracture. I found my large, bearded slumber-buddy to be comforting. He was like a brother to me, and never stared at me creepily or anything. But it further muddied the definition of our relationship. I didn’t understand what I could have with a man if it didn’t involve romance or sex.
My senior year in college, I studied abroad in Italy, and Erik and I met in Amsterdam to indulge in our favorite activities. We played endless games of checkers at coffee shops, visited the van Gogh museum, and took pictures of ourselves with life-size wax figures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton. At a casino, I won 50 Euros on the slot machine. There’s a photo of us sitting at the bar afterwards, and when I saw it later, I noticed my own toothy grin in contrast with his downward gaze; the protective way his oversized hand gripped my shoulder.
After college, I lived in Chicago and remained in an on-again, off-again with Mike, depending on how bored I was with my alternative prospects. One night, Erik and I had gone out to a dive bar down the street from my apartment (“the one with the Schlitz sign in the window,” we called it). He was staying at my place to avoid having to drive back to the West Side where his mom lived. When we got back, buzzed, I set him up on an Ikea couch, which was about as comfortable as folded cardboard. He grimaced.
“Can’t I just sleep in the bed?”
I hesitated, remembering the Amsterdam photo.
“C’mon, dude,” he said. “Please.”
How do you set boundaries for a relationship you can’t even define?
“Are you in love with me?” I asked.
He looked offended.
He rolled onto his other side to face the back of the sofa. I walked back into my bedroom, cringing. What was I hoping he would say? “Yes,” so I would have had to tell him I didn’t feel the same, at least not in a romantic sense, thereby ruining whatever kind of relationship it was that we had? When I woke up the next morning, he was already gone.
Plato believed love to be selfish: The lover desires something specific from the beloved, and therefore the love is inherently conditional. But the condition is simply that the person become more himself. In this view, love is a kind of recognition, writes philosophy scholar Aryeh Kosman in Virtues of Thought. “It is seeing another as what that other might be, not in the sense of what he might be other than himself, but how he might be what he is. It is, in other words, coming to recognize the beauty of another.”
Mutual self-actualization, in this theory, is merely a pleasant side effect of dual selfishness. But just because you see the beauty in someone doesn’t make them the right person to self-actualize with. The summer after we graduated college, Erik moved to Poland for an internship — and ended up staying there. Before he left, he gave me a copy of his favorite book, Things Fall Apart. Afterwards, I sat in my car crying.
It’s not so easy to replace your platonic soul mate. Although I did try. Years later, I married a man I’d been good friends with first. But after the relationship became romantic, our egos began to obscure what was good, what was beautiful, and what was true. In order to see your real self reflected back, you have to be willing to show the other person who you are.
Plato’s inquiry into love revealed it to be an inquiry into the self — an endless discovery in which a final form is never be rendered. In the 15 years that Erik has lived across the Atlantic, we’ve stayed in touch. When we do get together, we tend to conform to our original roles, which hold a kernel of truth about who we are still: he the bold eccentric and I the gigantic nerd. The yin to his yang. Two mutually exclusive shapes that collectively form some kind of whole, whatever you want to call it.