by Nancy McDaniel
I was an only child. But my dad’s best friend had two sons, who were two and three years older than I. Over our growing-up years, we spent lots of time together, especially at the swimming pool, while our parents played golf. They became as brothers to me. Unbeknownst to us, our dads always dreamed that Mike (not his real name), the one who was two years older, and I would date and ultimately marry – each other! I guess it was meant to be sort of a best friend-dynasty-creating thing.
But we maintained our staunch friendship and nothing more. In fact, when I “came out” (not from the closet, but at a suburban hospital version of a debutante ball), Mike was my “second escort.” This was a slot typically filled by a brother or a close friend, the second fiddle to the boyfriend, my high school sweetheart, my “HTH” (Home Town Honey).
Panty Hose in My Pocket
Later, while Mike and I were still in college, we were visiting our respective parents in Florida on Spring Break. We all went out to a nice restaurant for dinner, about a mile down the back from my parents’ condominium. After dinner, Mike and I, having had just about enough “parent conversation” and in need of some fresh air and exercise, said we were going to walk back along the beach to the condo. I excused myself to the ladies room to remove my panty hose and put them in my pocket. Our dads were pretty excited about this turn of events. You could see the twinkle in their eyes, almost hear the mental calculations of how much the wedding would cost and whom they would each invite.
Foiled again, dads. It was just an innocent walk with lots of talking, comparing notes about college, past romances and bad behavior (more his than mine, it seemed). The dads were disappointed once again.
The Dating Game
One Summer, while Mike was in graduate school and I was still in college, we tried to date a little. It seemed like maybe we were missing in each other what everyone else (or at least “the dads”) seemed to see. We had pleasant times. That was about it. Once when we went out to a fancy place for dinner, Mike expertly ordered wine, apparently trying to impress me. But nobody drank wine back then, least of all us. So when the waiter poured a bit for Mike to taste, Mike thought he was being chintzy and asked the waiter to please fill his glass all the way up. I didn’t know that was odd at all.
We went to movies. One time Mike ended up with a terrible headache because of how moved he was by the story. Sometimes we kissed. No sparks. No big deal. But he was such a nice guy. Recently he told me that, in his heart he always wanted me to be the one, maybe just to please his parents, maybe because it would have been easy. Once he took me to his house and his dad made Caesar salad and his dad and I got on better than Mike and I. And Mike said he thought at the time, “It would be easier if she could marry him. I feel like such an odd ball.”
We Marry — Others
Time passed. Mike got married after graduate school, had two kids, stayed married 25 years and got divorced a few years ago. I got married when I was 26, had no kids, stayed married about ten years and got divorced a few years before he did. We stayed in touch. So did his parents and I. I was like the third child in his family, the only daughter to his parents. My dad died in the interim. I don’t know if Mike’s dad still hoped we would get together some day or if, sometime over the years, he finally gave up on us.
Three years ago, Mike decided to take his 9 year old son, 15 year old daughter and her best friend on a driving trip to Yellowstone, from their East Coast home. Pretty crazy, I thought. He called to see if they could spend two nights with me in Chicago. I quickly inventoried the sleeping quarters, and realized that between the guestroom for the girls and the sofa sleeper in the TV room for the boys, it would just about work.
July arrived and so did Mike and the kids. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, not since his divorce. It was a little awkward, especially for the kids, but we fumbled our way through conversations and plans. Not having children of my own, I had taken great pains to come up with activities that I thought the kids would like. Of course, they didn’t. The first day was pretty painful to get through. But Mike and I had lots of chances to talk and catch up on each other’s lives. He was still feeling a little emotionally raw from his divorce and I think it was comforting for him to be with a non-judgmental, don’t-have-to-explain-much-to, old friend.
Did the Earth Move?
After the kids went to bed upstairs, Mike and I went out on the deck with a bottle of wine, to keep talking. And in the time-honored question of “just how did it happen,” all of a sudden we started kissing – tentatively, exploratively at first. We must have decided that we liked it and pursued it a little more enthusiastically. One thing, as they say, led to another and we ended up making love. Not “earth-moving”. But quite lovely.
Hmmm, we said, now that was nice (maybe our dads were right, I thought). Then we went off to our separate bedrooms, slept and began the next day’s events, again, just as friends. It was a more successful day with the kids. They were feeling a little more comfortable with me and I apparently did a better job of figuring out what they liked to do (NikeTown, Hard Rock Café, retro 50s diner, etc.) We came back to my house, cleaned up and went out to to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, after which Mike and I hoped the kids would be tired. They were. They went to bed. So did we. Nice again. Nicer than the previous night, in fact.
Now What Was That About?
Mike and the kids all left the next day and I wondered to myself: now, what was that all about? Was it just dear, dear friends sharing yet another part of themselves and their lives? Being as close as close friends can get? Or was it the beginning of something else? Something more? I wasn’t sure how I felt and I wasn’t even sure which I wanted it to be. But I knew I had to find out, one way or the other. And I had the perfect opportunity, because my 30th high school reunion was coming up in September, just two months later. I had planned to go alone, but I decided to invite Mike to go with me. He wouldn’t know anyone, as we had attended different high schools. Yet, he had played football for a nearby rival conference high school, so I figured he might enjoy it anyway. He enthusiastically accepted, as the reunion weekend coincided with his 50th birthday, so we could have a double celebration.
Do You Believe in Magic?
The weekend finally arrived, as did Mike. We went to the Friday night party and had a good time. We went back to my house, but it was a little awkward this time, as there were no kids to act as a buffer for us. Neither was there any danger nor intrigue. This was just an awkward grown-up moment. We made love. There was less magic than the last time. Was this the answer I was looking for?
The next day, Mike requested we take a trip down Memory Lane. We drove to the suburbs, stopping to see his old high school and two of the houses where he lived as a child. We also went to the golf club where he spent most of his childhood: where the three of us swam and played, where he and his brother played competitive golf, and where they caddied for our dads. The reunion dance that night had a wonderful DJ from the 60s who played all the best of our music. And Mike and I danced and danced and drank and drank. We danced like our bodies had not forgotten what it was like and we drank like there was no tomorrow. Maybe we were conflicted over our feelings for each other. Maybe it was more complicated than that. As it turned out, it was more complicated.
We continued to reminisce and laughed and morphed back from our recent incarnation as erstwhile lovers into the roles in which we were most comfortable: close, dear, forever friends. Though unspoken, we both knew that was where we belonged. We did not make love that night. We hugged and kissed tenderly when he left the next day. And we knew who we were to and for each other. And would always be.
A Surprise Comes in the Mail
Two weeks later, I got an unexpected jolt, in the form of a letter from Mike. He thanked me for the reunion weekend and the antique “niblick” golf club I bought for his 50th birthday and had inscribed (I mostly just liked the name Niblick). Then he said something like, “…Last week I went to a Men’s Weekend that I’d been wanting to attend but couldn’t because it was all full. A cancellation occurred, so I took advantage of it and went. I met a wonderful man… a gay man. He allowed me to talk as I never had, to speak how I felt, and to accept who I was emotionally. To accept what I really wanted- an intimate relationship with a man. I had never been able to be what dad wanted me to be, the husband of a lovely woman. But now I could be what I truly had to be, a partner to a lovely man.”
He went on to say that, over the years, he had frequently wondered if he might be gay. But guys on the golf team, jocks on the high school football team in the 60s weren’t even allowed to think that way. So he didn’t, at least not consciously. But now he did. I was stunned. Not disapproving, not sad or crushed. Just stunned, because it was so unexpected. Because he had repressed the truth for so long, it ended up being as unexpected for him as it was for me. He said it was like turning to face yourself as you are and finding the truth that was there all along, like it was waiting there for him as some dance partner across the room.
Was It Me?
And my first formed thought was spoken out loud, with a wry grin: “Now, that’s discouraging. He makes love with me and shortly afterwards, he decides he’s gay.” And my second thought was: “Thank goodness I decided we were just friends and I didn’t fall in love with him.” Then I called him on the phone and shared those two thoughts with him. And we laughed. And I told him that I loved him and would support him always and in all ways.
And the Truth Shall Set You Free
Nearly five years have passed. Mike is happier than I have ever seen him in his entire life, with a wonderful partner. He has finally found what was there all along and over time came to be. He told me that there had always been a sadness in him, a longing because he did not want to be what or who he had become. He wanted to become what and who he really was all along.
We are still life-friends. If anything, we are closer than ever. I just joined Mike’s entire family at his father’s funeral. I am part of their family and I love them. And I love Mike. Unconditionally. Not the way our dads had hoped. But maybe in a better, forever-way, a way our fathers would have wanted us to be. True friends, as they were.