I was sitting inside a tacos and tapas place on East Boulevard recently with my best friend and Pretend Husband Fitz Bailey and his boyfriend Jesse Hamilton.
My girlfriend, Lara Americo, was supposed to be there with us. We had planned this Saturday double date a week ago. Between downing pomegranate mimosas and the gnashing of tortilla chips, I gestured at the empty chair next to Jesse, roiling as if I was an actual current of boiling water. A hard boil.
"She has a good heart," I said between swigs, my eyes willing to fill the seat with her presence. "I know she's not being a dirtbag so WHY IS SHE DOING THIS?"
When I was single, I never worried about my partner showing up to anything. That's because I rarely had a partner at all. As a floating lothario in a sea of one or two date moments, I'd do dinner, then go home.
As soon as I was behind my front door again, I'd throw on my pizza onesie with more enthusiasm than I had putting on a safe first date outfit. Then I'd fall asleep on my couch, often waking up at 3 a.m. in a pile of crushed chips.
It would seem being single meant you could do whatever you want, while being coupled up meant you had obligations. But alas, that's not the case.
While I fumed about Lara not being at lunch, I still knew in my heart it's way more freeing to be a twosome than a onesome. And Fitz reminded me about one of the best parts as we finished eating our you-pick-two tacos: your increased mutual capacity to be slobs together.
When you do it alone in your own home, it's possible it didn't happen at all if there were no witnesses. There is also no basement.
At least with another person, you have evidence that it happened — and can make that experience a memory.
"Jesse's my best friend, and so having him around all the time is just awesome," said Fitz. "So, I could spend all day watching Netflix single and be like, 'I'm wasting my life' and I could do the exact same thing with him and I'm like, this is a great day. This is fun. Doing even dumb stuff with people you care about puts you in a different frame of mind than if you were by yourself."
As long as the slob habits weren't at cross purposes, it seemed to work out fine, as Jesse and Fitz have made a tentative peace in the ongoing Water Cup Table Issue that has divided their bedroom: Jesse, a self-professed "water cup person," accumulates cups and doesn't bring them downstairs. He'll have a glass of water in the middle of the night and drink half.
Fitz wakes up, drinks the other half, either refills it in the bathroom and leaves it there or brings it downstairs, and then they clean up the cup pile later.
Sometimes, however, Jesse leaves out the party cup by accident.
"And then I'm drinking room-temperature, day-old vodka," said Fitz.
"With a squirt of lime for flavor," replied Jesse, always one to make a stale situation better.
Buoyed by a cheerful "On my way!" text from Lara, I remembered the first time she and I were sloths together. On our fourth date, she researched my not-so-secret love of nachos. She brought over a can of refried black beans, shredded Mexican cheese and a bag of chips.
We haphazardly put them together, heated them in the oven and watched my favorite Sex and the City episode: When Harry proposes to Charlotte at the temple mixer.
And being a slob doesn't mean you have to stop taking care of yourself. Lara and I went jogging together, shared a pair of earphones as we dashed down the sidewalk.
Working out takes on a new meaning when you're in a couple: You're not trying to attract, but to maintain what you have.
"The reason behind working out changes," said Jesse. "You transfer from working out to having the best body possible to attract the person you want versus staying in shape to please the person you're with, and you don't want to become a slob. It's encouraging to have someone who's just as health conscious but also isn't a tyrant about being healthy."
The conversation took a turn when I said the word "cool," which Jesse told me was a trigger word when Fitz said it. "It's not even 'cool,' it's cool, like a scoff is worked into that word somehow," said Jesse, which made me think of a trigger I had with Lara. Even though it's not a word, it's an action: She's always gotta go be Wonder Woman.
The whole reason Lara wasn't at this lunch was that she had to don her golden lasso and tiara. About an hour earlier, we were at an LGBTQ rights event, and she wanted to bring an activist to lunch. I didn't know this person. I had no idea Lara even knew them.
A double date is not an open invitation. While there were speakers talking about equal rights, I furiously typed into her phone's memo pad as she watched in horror. I wanted to feel free to be the monster I am in front of my best friends — not to be polite to a new person — was the gist of my message.
I'm no actual monster; Lara and I were named 2015's Charlotte Pride Power Couple in this very publication and we spent the better part of last summer canvassing and traveling to repeal HB2. I've had many a power lunch with an LGBTQ activist or 15 that I met day-of and had a delightful time.
I'm also an introvert who has limited people-seeing batteries, and that Saturday, they were absolutely shot. After the event, she insisted on going out to lunch with this person. And instead of going along like I usually do, I said no. She gave me the car and money for parking and I said the words, "Have fun." Have fun in couple terms, as we all know, means quite the opposite.
It was only after I left that she realized how much she had hurt my feelings. Even though I was driving angry to Babalu, I didn't want her to think I was storming off. So I still texted her while stuck in traffic from the circus coming to town, yet another irony of my weekend trying to write an article about being single versus coupled. I said, "Call or text me when you need to be picked up." I was like Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock: I didn't have the ability to be nasty even when I was mad. I wanted Lara to know I would always be there for her.
Being in a couple is like the hot queso I would eat that afternoon: It is spicy, it sometimes makes me gassy and it is my source of unconditional love.
After three pomegranate mimosas, Lara finally appeared in the once-empty chair. And there was her dark curly hair, almond-shaped eyes and whimsical smile and laugh that first drew me in on our first date on May 2, 2015, also a Saturday. Jesse and Fitz asked us about that night, and Lara's fanciful first memory confirmed why I can't stay mad at her for trying to be a saint to the community.
"As soon as she came into Common Market to meet me with her little flower dress on, I was like whoa, this girl's nice," said Lara. "We go outside, and she just starts snort laughing, and I'm like, OK, well, I'm done. You win. It's been five minutes."
"Yep, that was it," I said, and she gave me a sip of her pomegranate mimosa. It was clear Lara taught me to care about people in a way I normally wouldn't have. Do I always want to have lunch with these new people? No. I really don't. But I love the adventures and activism I've experienced. And Lara makes me a human woman.
"There are definitely some freedoms you lose not being single, and I'm not the kind of person who thinks you need a significant other to validate your life," said Fitz, "but it's pretty awesome to have someone to wake up to every day."