How could you not love a boy who faked a soft-shoe like Bojangles Robinson and called you “Miss Shirley” and sang to you at your locker? Or who pretended to have a dear friend, Ed, whom he didn’t realize was actually dead? Or who, when your mother made you cook dinner and you were furious just because you hated her, made it fun by turning a white-trash Kraft Spaghetti Dinner-in-a-box into a scientific experiment?
“I wonder how it would taste with raisins in it?” he would query, peering down into the tomato sauce as it became slowly animated in its pan.
“Raisins!” I would respond from my socially retarded corner. “James, that’s ridiculous!” He never paid any attention to my socially retarded corner. He knew I’d come around eventually.
He had faith in me.
James also wore purple socks, and took a lot of drugs with his other friends but not me, and had long hair that wasn’t straight or just a little wavy like the cool kids, but kinky and snarly, like a lot of Oklahoma hair is, and which called all kinds of attention to itself when he walked, but he didn’t care. That’s how it looked – Dr. Zorba-out-of-control — in the picture I took of him on the little push-yourself merry-go-round at the park, which we often rode as we tried to figure the world out.
James smiled a lot, for no apparent reason. He had fun, when no fun was to be had. And he had sex with our friend Sam, sometimes in my bedroom, when the three of us were supposed to be watching Mazzeppa Pompazoidi’s Uncanny Film Festival, the local late-night movie and sketch program, out in the den. That’s just rude.
James was my first gay friendboy. We met in our junior year of high school, in 1971, when he started walking me home for no apparent reason. We had a couple of classes together, and suddenly everyone knew we were friends. When they saw me they would ask where James was, and when they saw James, they would inquire about me. I was so clueless in those days I neither supposed he wanted to be my boyfriend, nor realized he was gay, until I overheard someone remark on the Valentine delivered to Sam in home room. “It’s probably from James M——-,” they said, and everyone tittered.
It seemed an outlandish proposition, but pretty soon after that I realized it was true; James was in no way reticent about his feelings for Sam, or vice versa. Those feelings didn’t come up in conversation that often. They just were.
Despite the occasional annoyance of having to wait for him to finish having furtive sex with Sam, James was a great friend. He introduced me to the writing of Robert Benchley and the films of Laurel and Hardy (he had his own 16 mm. projector). He played Tyrone Power’s movie swordfights backwards to prove the actor knew what he was doing. He got us assignments writing articles together for the underground newspaper at school. We started reading the Bible together, so we could refute it. And, there were those Kraft spaghetti dinner experiments. He was ridiculously fun.
In the meantime, my mother warned me that, and I quote, “One day some nice rich boy with a red convertible might want to ask you out, and he won’t because you spend so much time with James.” Whether this meant the rich boy would think I was dating James, or would shun me because I was friends with a fag, I don’t know. I was stunned to find out my mother thought any guy with anything at all going on would even think of asking me out. I was a junior and had never had a date. I wore no makeup. I was afraid of everyone and everything. Of course, another time she casually revealed over lunch that she had “always” thought I should be a pharmacist.
Anyway, I answered that I didn’t think I would be interested in a rich boy with a red convertible, especially if he failed to ask me out because I was friends with James.
She said, “But you’d get a free dinner!”
Eventually, she would send me to a therapist, who would also delve into my insistence on being friends with someone who made me laugh and think rather than someone who wanted to get me alone in a car.
I dated. I’m not saying I didn’t date. Karen C. set me up with a friend of her longtime boyfriend (who would marry her senior year when she got pregnant with his child). Ron, I think his name was. We ate an awkward dinner — we had nothing whatever in common — then he parked the car under a tree near the school. We kissed for a while and I guess I was so bad at it, so inexperienced and passive — I know I was — that he finally just started the car and took me home. I later dated Drew, whom I met through my job behind the concession stand at the movie theater. He liked for us to dress up and see a movie there, to somehow show off, though no one was the least impressed. He once invited me for dinner at his apartment. He cooked a dinner, low light and candles included, we drank wine in front of his fireplace, and then he also took me home. Okay that one was on him. Around this time a boy from the theater told me Drew had sat down with him in the stock room one lazy Sunday and offered him some pornographic magazines to peruse. So he was gay, too. Still, I didn’t know that. Once, a boy I thought was really cute, Randy (no kidding), suggested we leave the party and go to his house, absent of his parents that weekend. We made it as far as his bedroom, but again, I was so sheltered, so devoid of information, I surmise, looking back, that he too didn’t want to take advantage.
Is it any wonder I was drawn to be friends with a gay man in the first place?
I did eventually figure all this out, just way later than everybody else. (I have done pretty much everything in my life later than most people — college, career, marriage, child. I’ll probably die when I’m 110.) But I finally married the best guy in America. (He’s so heterosexual, he knows how to fix electricity and plumbing. Rae Dawn Chong, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Elizabeth Warren are all on his list. I appreciate the variety there.) And we have managed somehow to raise a delightful, well-adjusted, daughter.
In my twenties, I was friends with another gay man, Joaquin. He, too, made me laugh, and had a little faith in me, and introduced me to books and movies and better food and a living space with a little panache. We were roommates for a time, and he would pretend to be a small child and drink chocolate milk while I read aloud from some horrible “teen” book from the fifties and we giggled at the double entendres. (“Peggy told Pete that she would bend over backwards to help him.”) We were as close as you can be, I think, and not be romantically involved, and to me, that’s one of the best things in the world. John Cassavetes’ movie Lovestreams, about a brother and sister, and My First Mister, wherein a desperately unhappy teenager and a socially awkward man become friends (I know, it sounds creepy, but that’s my point — it isn’t) are two of my favorite movies for this reason.
Friendship and “platonic” love should be honored, and deadly dishonest romantic comedies should be called out for what they are, templates for unhappiness, for those who believe in them. It’s especially true that friendship is one of the overlooked needs in life when so many of us are from families that don’t work. My mother was married six times, and my father five. My brother is a thief and a drug addict. And my eldest sister is just plain mean as a street dog (no disrespect to street dogs intended). So many of us have families who are unloving, or selfish, or dispersed by divorce and circumstance, that we naturally form our own families. Sure, we need romantic alliances, but we need mentors — fake parents — too, sometimes. And we always need those substitute brothers and sisters, the people who are loyal to you no matter what. The ones who might be so competitive they jump over the chess board to punch you out, but would never fail to stand beside you in conflicts with the outside world.
So I have often been friends with gay men. Friends, allies, brothers in arms.
Recently, Joaquin was about to marry his love of over thirty years, so we were contemplating the whole marriage, gay marriage, Susan Sarandon/Tim Robbins no-marriage thing, and I joked, in the hick accent I use to denote sarcasm, “Homosexshuls are okay, Ah guess. Ah just wouldn’t want mah sister to marry one.”
“Yeah,” Joaquin said, “for the sake of the homosexual.”