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Locked and loaded! Photo by Don Jackson Wyatt (unsplash.com)

The Wingman

This Valentine’s Day, my thoughts turn to the distant past. I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Andrew. If not for his presence in my life, my marriage to Erica might never have happened. Olivia might never have been born. More than a decade ago, for a brief sliver of time, my future dangled like a carrot from a stick. Only Andrew’s swift intervention saved me from being devoured.

The girl’s name was Rachel. Rachel came on strong to me during fall quarter of 2010. Some guys would have been flattered. I was not. My mantra at Central Washington University was “get in, get my degree, and get out.” I wasn’t looking for romance. Plus, girls who exhibited Rachel’s level of forwardness usually turned out to be stalkers.

Still, I was raised to be a gentleman. Rather than telling Rachel to pound salt, I chose to ignore the issue. No issue, no problem, right?

Denial, a river in Egypt

Ignoring the issue was easy, at least in the beginning. Rachel’s first tactic was to sit beside me in writing class. Innocent enough, I thought. Everybody likes a chair. Her second tactic was to encourage me after my professor marked up a draft of my story. Nothing odd there—my prose deserved a Pulitzer! Her third tactic was to help me collate and distribute drafts of my finished story to the class when I was pressed for time. She, uh… would have done that for anyone! 

Although I succeeded in deluding myself, my roommate Andrew was no dummy. We were in the same class, so he witnessed Rachel’s tactics firsthand. She would often chitchat with us after class, keeping pace until our paths diverged. Andrew saw every signal that I willfully ignored. Yet, he withheld criticism of my strategy—if ignoring the issue can be called a strategy.

In time, Andrew would prove an invaluable ally against Rachel’s machinations. However, our friendship was still in its infancy thanks to my degree-minded mantra. Thus, I was on my own when Rachel launched her first attack.

Numb and number

It happened on the eve of a poetry reading. My professor, a wet blanket named Lisa Norris, had promised extra credit to any student who attended and wrote about the event. Upon my arrival, Rachel was seated with several of our classmates. As a sign of solidarity, I joined them and braced myself for the evening’s “entertainment.”

Afterward, our little group commiserated. I felt numb inside and out, like a pinky toe repeatedly stubbed against a table leg. That’s when Rachel sprang her well-oiled trap.

“I don’t I have your number,” she said. “It might be helpful to compare notes later.”

Had the poetry not drained the color from my face, I would have blushed. Instead, my brain froze. Rachel was testing the waters. This was a sink or swim moment, and I drowned. Foolishly I shared my digits with her.

“I don’t really use my phone,” I added quickly, but the damage was done. The best I could do was dampen her enthusiasm. “I’m not even sure how to add contacts.” An embarrassing fact, but true.

“No worries!” Rachel assured me. “I just sent you a text. Now you have my number.”

Wonderful. The key to the Fortress of Solitude was now in my enemy’s hands. Soon Rachel would be inside, hanging curtains and rearranging furniture. Evidently, my denial strategy wasn’t working. I needed help.

Pride comes before a fall (quarter)

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of my phone vibrating. Still at half-mast, my eyeballs winced. A complex one-sided conversation lay before me—Rachel had loosed the Kraken.

Calm down, Jon. You’re probably overreacting. Read first, panic later.

Rachel opened with a friendly good morning. She was glad that we could finally “talk” via text messages. She hoped she hadn’t sent me too many. Was I OK? She hadn’t heard from me in hours. Should we meet up and talk about it?

Across the room, Andrew stirred beneath his bedsheets. A lightbulb switched on in my brain. Andrew was a decent-looking chap with enviable fashion sense. No doubt he had leagues of experience beating back throngs of desperate women! Plus, he already knew about my Rachel problem. Should I ask him for help? Would my pride allow it? Hmm.

Next, my thoughts turned to Ryan. Ryan was our third roommate and the architect of our merry band. At his suggestion, we had secured a two-bedroom, one-bath, brick-and-mortar domicile in the Stephens Whitney residence hall. D6, if memory serves. Many were the nights that Ryan would linger in my doorway, urging me to abandon my hermit’s ways and enjoy college life. It wasn’t difficult to imagine his advice.

“If you like Rachel, tell her. If you don’t like Rachel, tell her. Don’t beat around the bush. Be a man!” And then, for levity: “Pelvic thrust, pelvic thrust!”

No, I decided. Asking Ryan or Andrew to solve my problem would be perceived as a sign of weakness. This wasn’t their battle. Somehow, some way, I would solve this problem myself.

Give an inch, lose a mile

For several weeks, I kept Rachel at arm’s length. It was no easy task. We met up on campus a few times, ostensibly to discuss class projects. Cordial but distant, helpful but aloof—this is how I conducted myself. My hope was that Rachel would be satisfied with camaraderie, abandoning her romantic aspirations. This was yet another passive, cowardly strategy on my part.

On one occasion, Rachel divulged her life story. She had been adopted, a fact that set her on a journey to discover her birth mother. The tale was one she hoped to turn into a novel—written by me, no less. Clearly, camaraderie was not enough. Meeting together was only making matters worse.

“Are you traveling home for Thanksgiving?” she asked me over coffee. We were seated in the student union resource center across from the gym. Fall quarter was winding down, so students were vacating campus in droves.

“I’m not sure,” I answered carefully. “It all depends on the weather.”

“My car doesn’t do well in the snow,” Rachel continued, forlorn. “If you go, can I catch a ride?”

Ah, there it was. The next tactic in her multi-pronged strategy to make me her husband.

“Only as far as Bellevue,” she continued. “My mom can take me the rest of the way.”

“I’ll let you know,” I answered. Make no mistake—I was intimidated by Rachel. She had a quiet and docile demeanor, but she asserted herself remarkably well. If we spent time together off-campus, what might transpire? Would she twist my brain into a pretzel, compelling me to become her boyfriend? Would she hold me hostage in a loveless relationship? Had my backbone turned to jelly?

A deeper, more puzzling question lingered. On paper, Rachel’s desire for a relationship made no sense. Unsociable, introverted, a loner. Not interested in sports or flashy cars. A nerd. Heck, I was already losing my hair. What did she see in me? Why this particular nerf-herder?

If I wanted answers, I would have to play Rachel’s game a little longer.

Highway to the friend zone

A few days later, I parked my 2008 Mazda Protégé outside Rachel’s apartment. Earlier that morning, I had checked the weather forecast. The snow-capped Cascades promised lots of sunshine—and lots of ice. At least in Ellensburg, the snow on the ground was dry and compact.

The first hour of our journey was serene. We drove westward along I-90 making smalltalk, carefully tiptoeing around the elephant in the car. Then we entered Stevens Pass. An impatient driver in a truck changed lanes behind us and attempted to pass on the left. Almost instantly, the driver lost control and glided horizontally into our lane. He missed us by inches before fish-tailing into a snowy embankment.

Seconds passed. We were fine. The truck driver was fine. I exhaled, loosening my grip on the wheel. The color was beginning to return to my knuckles when Rachel pounced.

“What are you looking for in a relationship?” she asked.

This is it, my brain encouraged. You’ll never get a better chance. Give Rachel a one-way ticket to the friend zone!

My mouth opened. Words escaped. They sounded something like this:

Jon: “Back, she-devil! Your interest in me is illogical. Your advances—unwanted! I will never be your boyfriend.”

Rachel: “Woe unto me! I am undone. I will diminish and go into the west.”

A helping of humble pie

The holidays soon passed. I found myself sitting on the side of my bed at Central, peacefully awaiting the start of winter quarter. That’s when my phone vibrated. It was a message from Rachel. She had gone radio silent following her drop-off in Bellevue.

“We need to meet,” her message read. “I think this is our DTR moment.”

Bewildered, I gaped at my phone. DTR? What did that mean? Quickly, I Googled it. Defining the relationship. Hadn’t I told Rachel that I didn’t want a relationship?

Uh-oh. Maybe I hadn’t. The memory of my exact words bubbled to the surface. “I’m not looking for a relationship.” My heart sank. That was a far cry from the knock-down-drag-out conversation I had imagined in my car. I had given Rachel an opening as wide as the Grand Canyon! Sure, I wasn’t looking for a relationship now, but perhaps I would be looking later.

Not for the first time, I felt powerless. The final phase of Rachel’s Operation Matrimony was in full swing. I could picture it easily. We would meet for coffee, she would profess her feelings for me, and then the two of us would be married in the morning. How had it come to this?

I was desperate. My pride dissolved like Belloq’s face in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Across the room, Andrew stirred. Andrew! Oh, thank God. Perhaps now was the time, time to finally ask for help. If Andrew accompanied me, he could be an objective observer. He could verify whether or not the words coming out of my mouth were the words I heard in my head. Maybe, just maybe, Andrew could free me from Rachel’s clutches.

But would he? I hadn’t done anything to deserve his friendship. Sure, we had several overlapping interests. We both enjoyed critiquing DVD slip covers and poking fun at Christopher Nolan films. We agreed that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was pitch-perfect. Was that enough?

“Andrew,” I began, my voice uncertain. “Would you come to coffee with me and Rachel? She wants to ‘define the relationship.’ I’m in way over my head. I need help. I need…  a wingman.”

Where angels fear to tread

After another message or two, Rachel and I agreed to meet at Starbucks. The location was along North Maple Street and East University Way. Bits of snow and ice crunched underfoot as Andrew and I approached the building. Without missing a beat, Andrew had agreed to be my wingman—or my anti-personnel wingman, if we’re getting technical. I couldn’t believe it! My odds of surviving this encounter with Rachel had improved dramatically.

The details of what happened next are fuzzy. Rachel was upset, that much I remember. I had mentioned that Andrew might join us, but she was still caught off guard when he appeared. Finally! After months, it was Rachel’s turn to be on the defensive.

Words can scarcely describe how skillfully Andrew burst Rachel’s bubble. He commanded the conversation. Every idea Rachel put forth was deftly routed toward a topic of Andrew’s choosing. She was out of her depth. So thoroughly did Andrew trounce Rachel’s plans that I half-expected her to slug him. I relished every moment.

On that day, my friendship with Andrew changed. On that day, iron sharpened iron. A better, stronger bond was forged in the fires of brotherhood. Andrew wrested Cupid’s bow from the cherub’s stubby fingers, snapped it in half, and then clubbed the troublemaker over the head. And so the battle was won in glorious fashion. Huzzah!

By showing up with reinforcements, I had sent Rachel a message. I will not go quietly into that good night! Although the battle continued in two further skirmishes, the war was over. Andrew’s intervention marked a turning point. No longer did Rachel hold sway over me. Her spell was broken!

Once more, I was a free man—thanks to Andrew. My future was intact. The timeline secure! Five years later, I would marry the love of my life: Erica.


I heard from Rachel briefly in 2012 via Facebook. We had collaborated on a project at Central, and she was hoping to add it to her portfolio. Courteously, I shared a draft and that was the end. We have not communicated since.

While writing this piece, I did manage to solve a decade-spanning mystery. At Central, I was a man marked for matrimony. But why? The answer is that Rachel was trying to turn her life around. A mutual friend had told her, “Jon is a good guy.” She latched on to me out of desperation. It was Rachel’s belief that having a boyfriend, who was a male, would solve her problem. Today, she is happily married to a woman.

As for Andrew, what more can I say? The lyrics to Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” are perhaps the best expression of my gratitude. Andrew could have left me warbling in despair, stewing in the juices of my personal quagmire. Every bit of misery I endured was deserved. But no, like the character Help from Pilgrim’s Progress, Andrew hoisted me from the Slough of Despond.

Thank you, Andrew.

So, here’s to friendship! Here’s to Valentine’s Day! May our friends and loved ones be sincere in their affections, embracing us despite our eccentricities—and maybe even because of them.

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