Betty Duffy

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Gay Friend

In grade school through high school, one of my best friends was a boy named Bob*. Friday nights, after the football games, the cool kids went to parties and drank lots of beer. Bob and I gorged ourselves on fruit flan and donuts from Marsh supermarket, then went to the playground and practiced ballroom dance routines under the park spotlights. We were not total nerds, but like anyone on the fringes of the cool club, we occasionally received ridicule from our peers; Bob was called a sensitive pony-tail-man (though he had no pony-tail), and I, for reasons that are still unclear to me, was called “Banana-titties.”

We both participated in school plays. Over the years we co-starred as Cinderella and Davy Crockett in “Hooray for Hollywood,” Mrs. Boyle and Christopher Wren in “The Mousetrap.” At the curtain call for “Up the Down Staircase,” Bob having played a coworker to my character, Sylvia Barrett, dipped me nearly to the floor and zurburred my neck. It made the crowd wild, especially our grandmothers, who assumed that a ravishing romance flourished between us.

Not so. Though it came as no surprise when Bob first whispered to me that he thought he might be gay, it did come with some disappointment. Even the possibility of his same-sex attraction was too much sex in our pleasantly asexual relationship. I tried to talk him out of it, using rationale that went something like, “Even if you are gay, you don’t have to be gay.” And for awhile—not from anything I said—he kept the thought undercover. He dated several girls, one of them seriously, until he came out in full regalia during the college years.

There was already some distance between us by that time, as we’d gone to different colleges, but our relationship moved even further in opposite directions as we both took on, in our new schools, the alternate personas we’d secretly always desired for ourselves. Bob started using a more flamboyant tone of voice, and greeting old classmates with the news of his confirmed homosexuality.

I became a humorless poetess for a brief episode, until I decided I needed a more facile drama in my life and unwittingly bestowed my affections on yet another closeted homosexual. This one, I thought I might marry, and truly was shocked when I received his whispered confession. Though in hindsight, there was plenty of evidence: his secretive internet activity, the show-tunes we belted out to the neighbors from his front porch.

Anyway, I became sort of down on gay men after that. They kept turning on me, turning away from me. I thought these friendships would follow a predictable trajectory, but at the height of the good time, that trajectory stopped, changed course into completely uncharted territory, and the relationships fizzled. And there was no way to follow my friends into their new lives. The world of gay-man-sex was about as hospitable to straight, middle class Catholic girls as I was to it. No thanks, it was agreed, by all parties. Nor did I want to play the cheerleader to anyone’s illicit sex life. I couldn’t do that for my straight friends. I couldn’t do that for myself.

So years passed, and Bob and I didn’t communicate. I got married and had a bunch of kids. He moved to Japan, and back home again. Several years ago, he got a job in the town in which I now live, and bought a house here, not five minutes from mine. But for thousands of inadequate reasons, which we have tossed around on facebook and virtual elsewheres, it never works out for us to get together. He has ice-cream in his car when he passes on his way home from Wal-mart. I’ve misplaced his phone number and am not certain of his address. Blah blah blah. And I’ve wondered, at times, about the appropriateness of a married woman hanging around with a single man, even if he is gay. What would my husband think? My kids?

This afternoon, when my doorbell rang, I did not imagine it would be Bob. I’ve grown suspicious of that doorbell, as we don’t live in the kind of neighborhood where people drop in on each other, and the last time my doorbell rang, it was the police. But there he was, bleached blond hair, Elvis Costello glasses, and that gigantic 6 and a half foot presence, exuberant as a Labradoodle. “This house is so you! It’s so old-fashioned and full of weird little things!” he said, giving me a hug.

“You are so you!” I said, making coffee, “And you’re here, finally. I can’t believe it.” We once again exchanged excuses for our absence from one another’s lives. We sat at my table, amid the home-schooling mess and dishes in my sink, and the laundry and debris making trails through the house from the drop and go of the Thanksgiving weekend and its parties.

My kids looked on from the threshold of the next room, and Bob spoke to them with the same amused exasperation with which he’s always addressed me. We got caught up on his nieces and nephews, and my nieces and nephews, and how many kids I now have, and which of those were currently staring at him.

And then we talked about old times, resurrecting the names of people who at one time or another drove us crazy: Our class valedictorian with her basketball-honed biceps, JJ the skinny jock wannabe who mumbled insults every time he passed Bob in the hallway—two characters with whom Bob always felt drawn unaccountably into competition.

“I’ve got this new program in my life that I like to call ‘GROWTH,’” he said. “I think about JJ and all those people, and I forgive them. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I release them.” He made a gesture as though he were letting doves fly out of his hands and into the sky.

“That’s good, Bob. Growth is necessary.”

“Really, I’ve been concerned about all these bullying cases in the news lately, and I thought about contacting JJ, my bully, and maybe Steve, Mr. Popular who looked on but didn’t do anything to stop it, and maybe the three of us could get together and…”

“Go on the Motivational Speaker Circuit!” I said.

“YES! That’s exactly what I was going to say!”

“Never overlook an opportunity to take your hurts to the stage.”

“You never do.”

It was the time to break out into a song and dance routine about overcoming oppression, maybe something from Les Miserables. Or we could eat something terrible for us in self-congratulation, though we’ve both given up sugar. But I had to pick up a couple of my kids, and he had to move on to something else too. So he downed the rest of his coffee, while I gathered kids, and we all went out the door to our separate cars.

Farewell, Bob. I release you! I waved. And then I drove to the school wondering, if maybe he just needed to release me too.

*To protect the innocent, anyone about whom I write on this blog shall be called Bob.


karyn said...

I have/had a Bob in my life too. We were very close in high school and reconnected, of course, through Facebook. We live on opposite coasts, so we truly do have a reason we can't get together. I was surprised, however, when we did finally talk on the phone. It was nice to catch up and I'm glad we reconnected once more, but there was a definite feeling that this was an official nice-to-know-you, now goodbye. Our lives are just too different at this point and I probably seemed as alien to him as he did to me. But it does feel good to end on a pleasant note.

Peter and Nancy said...

I was surprised by a "Bob" at my 20th reunion last summer. He was a dear friend in high school, then we went to the same college -- and all during that time, he did a stunning imitation of a straight guy, even to the point of being a wee bit promiscuous. We were in lots of theater productions together (this is sounding like a little bit of a cliche!). We lost touch after college, and I was so happy to see him at the reunion . . . and then a little stunned when he introduced his partner, "Todd." We didn't get a chance to talk about much of importance during the evening, and he doesn't live close by. I'd love to talk more though. He was never a religious person, and was a little shocked that I'm married to a pastor. :o) I hope we will have a chance to have some real conversations in the future.

Misha Leigh. said...

For whatever unanalyzed reason, this made my heart ache. You write with so much facility and such beautiful depth.

Margie said...

I, too, had a Bob - rather, two. The first, my best friend for years, came out to me even before his mother. I don't remember how I handled it, but only later thought, "I should have known!" He's still close to his family, and though we are no longer as close as we used to be, life in general - his lifestyle, my move away and subsequent marriage - having pulled us apart, we still periodically touch base.

The second friend is fine, I'm told, but has been dismissed, of sorts, by his family.

Your conclusion - the probable release - seemed sadly, but understandably, true.

mrsdarwin said...

I don't have a Bob, per se -- no old friends are queuing up to come out of the closet to me -- but in the course of seeing old friends recently it's come home to me that the friends of youth are not always the friends of maturity. I've had a few "last visits" recently (or at least they feel that way) with people who were once my mainstay and now have drifted away into some other plane. And perhaps they feel that way about me too. At some point the life choices you make really do define you, no matter how you fight it, and right now I'm facing the fact that I have more in common with the girl who irritated me so much in high school (who now is happily married with seven kids) than with my best best friend (who drifted, followed bands, lost her faith, and just got married in a hot air balloon).

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't really have a "Bob," but there are many people who were once very dear to me whom I know I'll never be close to again. I think all of us have a secret, only partially understood hope of releasing each other with affection and hope for the future.