The other night I found myself Facetiming a guy I went to college with at 4:00 A.M. He lives in Japan but was on business in Singapore, and I was punch-drunk on negronis and in desperate need of male attention. I call him “a guy I went to college with,” because there is no technical label for our relationship. Are we friends? Sure. Have we slept together? Countless times. Is he my soulmate? Sophomore me might have said so. I categorize it as an “in-betweenship.” You know the kind. More complicated than friends with benefits, less socially acceptable than an actual relationship. A much messier liaison—and at its best, a deliciously romantic endeavor.
To be clear, what I’m describing is not a will-they-or-won’t-they situation. This isn’t Ross and Rachel, and it’s not Luke and Lorelai. Until this month I hadn’t ever found an accurate fictionalization of an “in-betweenship.” But then I read Irish author Sally Rooney’s new, much-anticipated novel Normal People, which conjured the dynamic so perfectly that I wanted it to run me over.
Normal People is the story of Marianne and Connell, classmates who have a semisecret tryst that begins in their senior year of high school and carries on (on and off) throughout college. These two are magnets. At one point Rooney compares their relationship to “two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.” But never once in their time spent hanging out, hooking up, and driving each other insane do the pair call each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Parameters for their relationship are never set. Other partners come and go, but their pattern persists. Even when they’re in large groups, it still feels like they’re having a separate conversation in a secret language. No prize, grade, or letter of acceptance could ever mean more to them than the other’s validation. In their banter, the smallest comment, even the most benign remark, teeters on the edge of innuendo; the world could end and all that would remain is my absolute conviction that these two would find a way to have sex again.
The actress and writer Mindy Kaling has also attempted to characterize these “weird as hell” not-quite relationships. Kaling has been in a “thing” with her former The Office costar B.J. Novak for over a decade. The pair exchange flirtatious tweets, comment on each other’s Instagrams, and attend awards shows arm-in-arm. But Novak isn’t Kaling’s boyfriend. Instead, he’s what she calls her “soup snake.” It’s a riff on a joke from The Office, but it’s also a poetic name for the kind of person who at once has no official status in your life and still occupies such a large portion of your brain.
I met my…whatever he is when I was 19. An extended group of friends had made plans to go to Coachella, which was just a three-hour drive from our school in California. At first I didn’t think I found him attractive, but when we all held hands while escaping Swedish House Mafia’s performance, he grabbed mine. We were friends after that, but he leaned in when I spoke, and called me “Saaaaam” as if one thousand A’s separated the S and the M. He would also brag to me about his bookish habits, like being “almost done” with Love in the Time of Cholera. (Reader, he never finished it.)
The first time we slept together was six months later. He’d come over after a party to watch the pilot of Freaks and Geeks together. Then we regularly started hanging out to “watch more episodes.” Slowly Freaks and Geeks bled into the fabric of our lives. Always at night, only after consuming alcohol, and never without a feeling of spontaneity. At first our friends didn’t know, so we’d catch each other’s eyes from across the backyard of the stucco ranch we called Casa Moreno, the party house on campus, and sneak off into the night. To me, the knowing glances felt like magic; as if watching his eyes turn into smiling half-moons contained more meaning than any real declaration of love ever could. What I didn’t realize is that we were just too immature, too insecure, too unsure to ever verbalize what was happening out loud. Thus an in-betweenship was born.
As an English major with a taste for melodrama, I loved the idea that I was involved in something that felt impossible to label—it seemed even bigger, more complex, realer. A Farewell to Arms and Wuthering Heights were some of my favorite books. I wanted a guy like Heathcliff to love me so much that he’d dig out my corpse from a grave. So on we went, silently but in tandem.
There were other people. Hurt feelings. So many tears. But it’s hard get mad at somebody for breaking a rule you had never set. You can’t really walk away from something that never truly started. Spoiler alert: Normal People ends with Marianne telling Connell to move to New York for graduate school. “You should go,” she says. “I’ll always be here. You know that.” It’s a romantic gesture. But it's also maddening. She knows that this thing between them is inescapable. Even the Atlantic Ocean is no match for it.
But in real life, these entanglements do end. You get older and learn that real relationships are built on communication; in fact, it’s the hallmark of a good one! And also that just because the drama is fun—if there’s a greater thrill than drunkenly screaming at someone in the corner of a party over nothing but also everything, I don’t know it—it doesn’t mean it’s good for a person’s emotional health.
It took me what felt like forever to get there. After college we both ended up in New York for the summer before he was set to move to Japan. I wish I could tell you that without the fog of patchouli oil and weed forever wafting across campus—or no longer having the Santa Ana winds (the California version of “mercury being in retrograde) to blame—that I finally wised up. But of course I didn’t. When he left, we sent each other essay-length emails that never said, “I miss you.”
Then about a year later, he came home for the holidays and I found myself yet again on the third floor of his parents’ house. And for whatever inexplicable reason, it finally stopped feeling sexy. It just felt really, really gross. Like being hungover on a merry-go-round. I’d stayed too long at the fair.
Most people aren't like Marianne and Connell. For most, the moment will come when you realize you deserve a Noah Calhoun, or at the very least our Noah Centineo—the kind of guy who gets mad because you don’t post enough Instagrams together, not the type of guy who puts his arm around you only in public after six beers.
Samantha Leach is an assistant culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @_sleach.