The thing to know, really, is that I was in love with him. Head over heels, light in my eyes, couldn’t see straight, couldn’t walk one foot in front of the other in love with him.
That summer, the summer of 1990, I turned 21. It was a time to be an adult, but I wasn’t even close to being ready to fly the nest on my own.
College was looking more every day like a bad decision, dropping dollar bills in a bottomless well.
I’d skipped so much of high school to dodge bullies and bullshit, and it turns out that if you miss huge chunks of high school classroom time? You’re, like, totally left in the lurch when it comes to college classwork.
I’d met Jay a few years before. He and I lived in the same dorm and watched some of the 1988 Winter Olympics together. I was Team Debi Thomas, and we watched her struggle to win the bronze.
When I met Jay, I read him as a nice, slightly dorky guy who made a lot of jokes and talked about his girlfriend. He was wearing a Wendy and Lisa t-shirt, which led to the start of an ongoing conversation about music. (Because really, then or now, who doesn’t want to talk music with a dude wearing a Wendy and Lisa t-shirt?)
1990 was an apocalypse for me. We often think of that word in terms of the end of the world, and perhaps for me it was the end of one world, the one where I was pretending to be people I didn’t know to please people who didn’t seem to care.
1990 was the year I came out to everyone in my world. My parents. My siblings. My friends. I may have told the clerk at the deli counter and the mailman. I mean, EVERYONE heard my declaration.
It was exciting and freeing, but freedom in this case was like a cannon firing me into a huge abyss of uncertainty. There was no really obvious template for what to do next.
It ended up being a very necessary time for the future and foundation of my life, and I appreciate it now. But it was an awkward mess to live through.
For one thing, I was as sheltered as a Kardashian from the real world. I’d held exactly two jobs by age 21, and the concept of money escaped me entirely.
My father entrusted me with a savings account with money for my fall semester. A semester that, after final grades were issued, I knew I was never going to attend, because I’d missed so much class I’d landed on academic probation.
I lit the match and burned the possibility of another try at the college try to the ground by spending that semester’s funds that summer. I basically celebrated my 21st birthday all summer long….until the river ran dry and the jig was up.
My father was in shock. My life was in shambles, and my friends were the refuge from the flames around me.
By then, Jay and I were neighbors in an off-campus apartment complex. There was almost constant drama around who liked who, was getting along with who, who loved who.
He hadn’t changed much from when I’d first met him, but the cliches about Cupid’s arrow? Well…I was looking at the same person, but suddenly seeing so much more.
At some point, with no advance warning, I fell for Jay. Hard.
The same qualities that had made us friends emerged in high definition. He was a nice guy. He was a smart guy. And good grief, he was gorgeous: Clark Kent with a side helping of Christian Slater.
That was the summer Depeche Mode’s “Violator” was released.
It was a moody, dramatic album for a moody, dramatic time. It seems like a blip now, but to angst and booze-fueled college kids, it was all Extremely Important.
I listened to it almost every day, several times a day, and if “Enjoy The Silence” captured the beauty and the joy I felt whenever Jay was in the same room with me, “Policy of Truth” was the soundtrack to the shame I felt (and would feel for most of our relationship) at the stupidity I’d shown in falling for my best friend.
You had something to hide // Should have hidden it, shouldn’t you?
Now you’re not satisfied // With what you’ve been put through
“Policy of truth” took on other meanings. That summer, Jay confided in me about his bisexual experiences. I was a walking ball of want for him, and it was during that summer that we had our first sexual experience.
It was completely one-sided. For me, he was the end result, the top of the mountain. For him, I was a friend and, maybe, at rare and random times, a buddy who could help him get that buzz out of his ears.
I don’t regret that it happened. I do regret that I was caught in a loop — and he was caught in it with me — for several years, a loop of love mixed with shame for falling for him, a loop of struggling for independence and then joining forces again. We did that so many times, living in seven different apartments together in seven years.
Never again // Is what you swore // The time before
Yes, seven years. Bankruptcy, broken mirrors AND falling for your best friend all apparently take a person seven years to shake off!
And yet, I understand why it happened, and why the bond may have been so hard to tame (at least for me) into something more manageable, something healthier for both of us.
Jay was the first person not connected to me by blood or proximity who seemed to love me for who I was. As a friend, mind you, far less than the connection I was feeling. But still, he cared and acknowledged it. In public. Sober, even!
No one had ever done that before for me. No one did those sorts of things in our world, in the thunderdome of the Rust Belt, where men were made of stone and almost never dropped that expressionless mask.
It meant a lot to me to hear that validation, and stayed with me for a long, long time.
I think I did the same for him; I was the first friend who didn’t reject him when he started exploring his sexuality. I was the first person he’d met who didn’t expect him to stay as he had been in grade school, who didn’t want to keep reliving the past.
I suspect that’s why we kept crashing into each other’s orbit, why it took so long for us to brush off the dust and let things settle, why it took us so long to untangle the good DNA from some of the more painful parts.
I can’t speak for him, but for me, the power of that validation was utterly contradictory in my life.
On the one hand, I felt validation and self-worth. But sometimes, my fear of losing that connection overshadowed the relationship itself.
It got even more complicated as I watched him live his life from the sidelines. Being in love with someone, and then watching them happy with someone else, is a special kind of torture – one I willingly inflicted on myself, mind you.
The repeating cycle (which I like to call Lather Rinse Repeat) included, as hard as it is for me to admit, a fair amount of immaturity and jealousy on my part.
Jay got noticed by women and men wherever we went. When he spilled a drink on his pants at a party we attended, there was NO shortage of people who wanted to fix the mess – mostly by volunteering to help him out of his khakis!
Most of the time, we were a good team. But I didn’t always handle the natural ebbs and flows of our relationship well.
Jay wasn’t perfect — he could be mysterious and uncommunicative, and was prone to brief flashes of anger — but this is no itinerary of complaints. This was a no-fault deal. One of us was in love, and one was not, but none of it was anyone’s fault.
Jay mentions from time to time that the movie Beaches always reminds him of us. We watched it quite a few times back in the day.
But I have to confess, no disrespect intended, that I now loathe that movie. When you’re the wind beneath someone’s wings? Well, as the song says, it’s damn cold in their shadow.
I should have disconnected from the cycle earlier, but I didn’t think much of myself or my prospects at that point. I was willing to be cold in the shadow in exchange for the flashes of sunshine.
In Boy George’s autobiography, Take It Like A Man, he talks about a classic template of friendship pairings. I think he called it the “Sharon and Wendy.” Sharon is the beautiful center of attention, and Wendy is the chubby, schlubby best friend. I was SO the Wendy to Jay’s Sharon.
Never again was what I swore the time before, indeed. But I chose it again and again. We’d fall out, then we’d forgive, forget, be inspired, need a change from whatever place we’d last landed.
There’s a scene in Muriel’s Wedding that might explain the Lather Rinse Repeat of it all better than I can in words.
Friends Muriel and Rhonda have had a falling out. Rhonda – the force of nature, the Sharon, if you will – is stuck in her mother’s home (literally, as an accident has paralyzed her) with a group of mean girls from high school, people she loathes but is forced to be around in desperation in Muriel’s absence.
Then Muriel arrives and announces she wants Rhonda to return to Sydney with her. Rhonda’s mother and the “friends” are incredulous. “She can’t just barge in here and take you away!”
Rhonda looks around at where she is — a place she doesn’t want to be — and says, “Yes, she can!” They drive out of town, with conspiratorial laughs, looking forward to their next adventure.
And for me, that worked. For a while. Bur eventually, I realized I had to be the driver of my own adventures.
After several years of Lather Rinse Repeat, the pathways of our lives diverged with a finality in the late 1990s. It felt like an ending.
The spell had finally been broken, and there was a very natural sense of letting go. It was time for us to do our own thing.
I actually had a few other final paragraphs written here originally – tying up the narrative in a tidy bow – but the truth is, this is not a tidy bow kind of deal.
For a few years, I was gung ho about putting my past into proper context. But for some things, that really isn’t within reach. It’s healthier to acknowledge it, appreciate it, and move on.