A year of thinking about relationships
Recently, I’ve been thinking that intimacy might need to be reclaimed. It makes me think of the unnecessarily long “intimate relations” in place of far more concise terms like sex, hook up, fuck, sleeping with. Intimate relations as euphemism drags a beautiful phrase — to intimately know — into a swamp of muddled associations and judgement. Intimately know could mean sex, but needn’t be confined to it.
Recently, a close friend asked, “How does a shared intimate relationship work? Is it open? Have you ever tried that before?” She didn’t mean it that way, but my thought after the first sentence was friendship. I wrote her an unnecessarily long response that detailed the way my relationship worked. It felt unsatisfactory because happiness isn’t explained, but described.
The person who asked understands me intuitively, intimately in a certain way and for whom I hope I do the same. When we first met, I had to bring butter to cook in her flat and left with borrowed books. Her fridge now has butter and I still have a pilfered title or two. Intimate details that are too casual to be ferreted out intentionally, but too personal for just anyone to happen upon accumulate into a closeness.
My favourite marker for closeness is sofas, owned by the handful of friends that do not mind me phoning them just for a place to nap. I don’t recall weighing our friendship before asking the first time. I just knew they wouldn’t think it an intrusion, the way I knew certain people don’t mind talking about salaries. Everyone needs a friend who can keep your key.
Knowing how someone spends time is intimate. It could be knowing that this person has language classes on these days, and that person has volunteering on Saturdays. Or it could be knowing the hour that someone wakes, the jogging routes they take, the breakfast routine after. There was a time when I knew a certain friend’s schedule down to her work calls. I could ask her to pick up something from the particular supermarket by her office. When she walks in the door of mutual friend’s place and thrusts the item at me in a huff, it’s no surprise people have mistaken us for partners.
One place of easy intimacy for me is the kitchen. At a friend’s house party, I will eventually wander there when I am out of words. At my own party, I will make cooking the excuse to retreat there, leaving my friend to host strangers in his flat. I never hold back inviting myself to someone’s kitchen to make something, even if we’ve just met. I may feel so at home in someone’s kitchen, that I serve myself upon first visit. You can speak any language in the kitchen and still take my hand to show how something is chopped, spoon a taste of the broth into my mouth, read my face to see how your cherished dishes land. I can learn to recognise your home in flavours even if I have yet to stand on the same soil.
The intimacy threshold could be crossed by circumstance, like when I was huddling with two friends on a cot on a metal bed frame in a concrete room with bars for windows — the only night that trip where I woke up from the heat and not winter chill. Some friendships don’t survive that, but it was a foundation for ours. So that when I got my flat in Hong Kong, it was one them that slept in there before I did, balancing on the window ledge using two yoga mats because I didn’t have a bed. So that when I had cycled all day to reach the other earlier this year and found her more than tipsy on half a bottle of gin, I felt entitled to everything in her kitchen to make dinner for the both of us.
Distance creates possibilities for intimacy. The sizzle of a deep-fry you cannot eat will always be more clear from headphones — in-ear. Friends who would make time for coffee with me in person will only bring me along for their errands if I call. When I am not in the same place we do not say, “we’ll make plans”. The call is the plan and so much can happen that would not otherwise, like someone falling asleep through my monologue. I wandered through West Berlin listening to conversations in Japanese about sexism at work and expectations of women, perhaps because English provides a distanced neutral ground for difficult conversations. I may have spent more time walking Prenzlauer Berg with friends in Canada and Asia than people in Berlin. I am more likely to tear up writing to someone than seeing them in person.
Some intimacy is silken smooth, warm, buttery. That someone squeezes in as the third person into a two-seat sofa without noticing that their bare shoulder is rubbing yours. The casual entitlement of dipping a spoon into your soup. That they clatter their way through the kitchen until you complain. That we have our stuff handed to this friend, forget to tell them, and receive it all eventually. That we know someone is rolling their eyes without looking. Intimacy is in observation, like when my friends tell me they can hear the smile in my voice. It is a favourite pastry picked up on the way to see you.
You can casually know intimate details, such as when I messaged dozens of friends asking about their masturbation habits and repeated the same interesting conversation so many times I regretted it. People may feel the urge to share the private lives of colleagues you do not even speak to. What might seem intimate, you discover, is not to another: pooping woes, for example. Sometimes people offload the weights they’ve carried even if they’ve just sat down beside you at the park. Even impersonal intimacy needs to be held with care.
A certain type of intimacy necessarily comes with pain. It is working through a rough season, bearing witness to suffering and despair, listening. It is often a thankless task. Someone who carries this intimate knowledge of me I feel forever indebted to, though I likely do not have the energy to thank them in the moment. Someone who shows up to hold this intimate space is helping me climb out of a hole and knows better than to expect me to make it out immediately. But I will only let them show up again if I know I do not have to act as though I am better when I’m not there yet.
Intimacy can just as often be imagined. It could be when you both notice the city lights along the waterfront in a late-night hangout, a breathtaking moment, but nothing more. Intimacy still leaves room for misinterpretation, such as the comfortable silence of one person unsettling the other. Sometimes intimate knowledge oscifies into a wedge that grows into a chasm of unspoken resentments.
You can know a part of someone intimately and lose intimacy. Friends from high school and university have access to a part of me that no amount of retelling can summon forth again. Whether those friends choose to see the person that I am now is another matter. Assuming closeness as a status can lead to a sense of entitlement to the intimate details of our lives — why didn’t you tell me? To know someone intimately once and be denied it can hurt. To know someone intimately is to know how they can be unsettled.
In the vacuum of time created by the pandemic, I have gotten to know someone intimately in a way unlike any other. Because of the countless hours we’ve spent together, I know she puts on audiobooks to fall asleep. I can spot her coming down the road even when her golden curls are covered by a hoodie. I know that although she says she can’t make choices, they come swiftly when forced upon her. One particular smile flashes her eyes a brilliant Mediterranean blue flecked with sunshine. I knew about her other partner the day we met, when there was no agenda other than ice cream.
There are similarities between them — the friend and the person I’m with. They have both recommended books that I love. Both of them are vegetarian. Both suffer from endearing lapses in judgement when fixated on an idea that I enjoy bearing witness to (climbing along the coast to lunch and cycling to a lake midday in summer). One got me to notice the freedom of emotional safety, and the other looks at the degree that one can feel safe to be open about the most trivial or fantastical of ideas. But one will list out dietary merits of ingredients while the other will finish a box of too-sweet cookies and feel sick. The former will easily work 14-hour shifts while the latter will only spend those hours on something fun. I have known one for nearly a decade and the other for less than a year. They have never spoken, but the tattered book belonging to one sits on the shelf of the other and a favourite title of the latter may have sat beside the toilet of the former.
With the right people, intimate knowledge undergoes alchemy to become intuition. One can read my frustrations through a newsletter even though we’ve not had a chance to speak for months. The other sees me often enough to feel the tension through the length of my body. The friend does not drink coffee, but chose the best filter for my lifestyle (a Tetradrip). The girlfriend does not watch anime, but chose a graphic novel (On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden) that reminds me of all the best cyberpunk anime.
When we had met, the person I’m with had made clear the centrality of certain friends in her life, to which her romantic relationships were adjacent. She had asked me early on about jealousy and if I were, it would be her friends rather than her other partner that I might feel threatened by. I am far more experienced in friendships than in romantic relationships, but having the latter changes nothing of the former. Her enjoyment of Asian dishes does not strike the same register as the Asian friends who savour the childhood nostalgia with every bite. Her empathetic listening does not replace the knowing cackle of a friend in Tokyo who has seen the same phenomenon. Though her bed would be available for crashing, I am past the point in my life where I would need to ad hoc ask for hers.
My exchanges are almost never individual. Present is another person by way of ideas, knowledge, recipes, and books. A friend visits a picnic in spirit by way of her vegan banana bread recipe. Some friends’ BLM stories on Instagram nudge other friends to find local sources to share with their communities. An agreed perspective with one friend can quickly turn into a heated debate when recounted to someone else. A phrase you like was likely borrowed.
I am extended by all the people I intimately know. All my relationships are shared. How a shared intimate relationship works remains just like any other for me: I chose to and making things work is just a matter of working through things together.
If you have thoughts after reading this, send me a reply. Better yet, subscribe and share with people to start a conversation. Listenings and Readings:
- “Cupboard love: my biggest romances always begin in the kitchen” by Ella Risbridger in The Guardian
- On a Sunbeam (available online) by Tillie Walden
- Emily Levine’s reading of “You Can’t Have It All” in Brainpickings
- “The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrendering the Languages of Home” by Sulaiman Addonia in Literary Hub
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Notes on Grief in The New Yorker
- “Reading Lessons” by Irina Dumitrescu in Longreads
- “Live Wrong and Prosper: Covid-19 and the Future of Families” by Laurie Penny in WIRED
- “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” by Rhaina Cohen in The Atlantic
When I reflect on the year, even though many of the articles I’ve shared are useful and tech-related, it is the pieces about people that I remember. I’ve included the ones that are more relevant to this reflection. You can get monthly book, article, and podcast recommendations in my newsletter Morning Bits. Here’s the latest issue.
Originally published at https://elsewhere.substack.com.