Gay Best Friends

On a mild-hearted evening in September 2008, I met one of the great loves of my life. Max* was standing outside the student bar wearing a red wool cap and an expression at once searching and dazed. Later, he would tell me that he was trying to work himself up to go inside. I intercepted him instead, and asked if he wanted to come up to my residence room and drink from a bottle of vodka collectively purchased by my floormates. We sat on my twin bed beside the open window and listened to MGMT on my laptop and told each other about the homes—the landscapes, the friends, the childhoods—we had just shed and left behind. When Max spoke wistfully about a male friend, his voice had a longing that I recognized intimately. It’s a teenage ache a lot of queer kids are probably familiar with—the specific loneliness of being in love with your pal.

Max was sincere and waifish and from a small hippie town in the interior of British Columbia. I was sarcastic and stout and grew up in midtown Toronto. We both played the cello, we both hated smoking weed, and we were both gay. We dated for over three years.

The thing was, we really liked each other. When I met Max, I felt something click into place—a shard suddenly etched in. It was an uncommon kind of kinship—the sturdy feeling of being known by someone before you actually really know each other. Often Max would fall asleep in my bed, rise hours before me, and then sit cross-legged on the floor reading until I woke up. We would have breakfast together, both wearing my sweaters. It seemed, at the time, only logical that this kinship should become romantic. I was no stranger to compulsory heterosexuality, and figured I’d just plod along kissing boys with the same kind of dogged close-mouthed determination I’d learned in high school. And Max was a different, lighter, better version of masculinity than I had ever known: at eighteen he moisturized and bought tulips, and thought Bukowski was the worst.

Max and I often joke about how much easier everything would have been if we had just been gay best friends from the start. And if it had been five years later, maybe it would have been possible. But at that time, the word “queer” wasn’t even on my radar, let alone an identity that was at all sexy or cool. The idea of being in a real relationship with another woman was inconceivable bordering on fanciful. So, instead of a cathartic mutual recognition of each other’s sexuality, we became a couple. He lived in the pint-sized pantry room of a purple clapboard house with a wood-fire sauna in the backyard. In that fall of our first year in Nova Scotia, we sat on Max’s back stoop a lot. He made me toast with butter and honey and cups of mint tea. He introduced me to many of the things I still love.

I often have a clumsy time articulating the character of my relationship with Max. It’s a specific kind of closeness, one that exists in the frictionless, liminal space between platonic and romantic love. It wasn’t until recently, when I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, that I found any kind of representation for this type of blurry and difficult friend-love. I read the book breathlessly, the fist of my heart uncoiling into some softer, more generous shape. And I thought a lot about my best friend.

When Max told me that he wanted to be with men, I did not feel surprised; I felt angry. Angry at him for stealing my thunder: the white-hot secret I had been nursing in its strange, malleable form since forever.

A Little Life follows four college friends after graduation. There are lots of reasons why I fell for this book: its unabashed sentimentality and large-heartedness—and gays at every turn definitely helped. But what felt new was its treatment of friendship as a viable alternative to romantic partnership. Yanagihara complicates the anticipated trajectory of a life: couple up, settle down, maybe have children. In these four lives, friendship is central to identity—it adopts the place of partners, of children, of family. The book seriously considers, in different iterations, what it means to be a good friend.

My relationship with Max has always felt precious, even though its trajectory has been unpredictable and indefinable. Part of the reason I have trouble explaining our relationship is because we’re socially conditioned to talk about our needs and expectations in romantic partnerships but not our friendships. We are accountable to our romantic partners in more explicit ways than we are to our friends. This is partially what makes friendship unique: we choose, and continue to choose, to nurture a relationship predicated on nothing but mutual support and affection. A Little Life’s central character wonders: “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.” I love this idea of the union of friendship existing somewhat outside societal laws and codes and boundaries, but this marginal space is also what makes friendships hard to talk about: we don’t have a vocabulary for the various stages and shapes of friendship. When they fizzle out, or their tone shifts and changes, we usually don’t speak about it directly. It takes work, and this work is hard and tiring.

It was in early spring of 2010 when Max first told me he thought he was gay. We had both moved to Europe (he to Germany and I to France) for a year to study. We were lying in a single bed in his room in Freiberg. It was a bleak tower-block of a residence building with the kind of showers that released hot water in thirty-second bursts, and a filthy communal kitchen. Some in-bed conversations happen leaning towards each other, faces close together, propped on elbows. Some happen lying flat-backed in the dark, eyes open towards the ceiling. This was the latter kind of conversation.

When Max told me, with his crystal-clear candor, that he wanted to be with men, I did not feel surprised; I felt angry. Angry at him for stealing my thunder: the white-hot secret I had been nursing in its strange, malleable form since forever. I felt like Max’s coming out undermined my own, making it somehow sound less authentic. How could I express that I resented him beating me to the punch, while at the same time feeling comforted by the fact that he understood? And also feeling almost unbearably sad at the idea of losing him? He was dealing with depression and sometimes I also worried about losing him in a different, deeper way. My instinct was to hold onto him.

We travelled together through the south of France; we fought often, bewildered and grubby, in old cities filled with good light. It has sometimes felt easy to romanticize this period in my life—being in Europe, feeling very young and thrumming with possibility. But a lot of the time it just felt grim and painful—wandering around with a cumbersome backpack looking for a hostel and feeling sexually repressed. At night we would share tiny beds and, depending on the mood, either whisper-fight or cry and tell each other that the person the other ended up with would be so lucky.

In September, we moved back to Halifax and began the slow and arduous process of breaking up for real. Like any loss, it wasn’t tidy. One night I got belligerently drunk and biked through a rainstorm to his house, calling him from outside his bedroom window. “Where are you?” Max asked, sleepily. “I’m dead,” I told him. I watched as he flicked on the lamp in his room and pulled the curtain, revealing me standing with my bike under the streetlamp right outside, my wet clothes plastered to my body. “Char,” he sighed. “Come in.”

Recently, a VICE headline appeared in my newsfeed: “Narcissists and Psychopaths Love to Stay Friends with Their Exes,” it read. And? I thought.

Around this time, I began to fall in love with the astonishing woman who remains the bedrock of my whole heart. Having a partner changed my friendship with Max, but it didn’t eradicate it. This is partially because we remained dedicated to our friendship in a singular way. We hashed things out a lot: what we needed from one another, what felt clogged and difficult and imbalanced. Sometimes it felt like too much. Too much work, too much mangy emotion. But I never wanted to stop altogether. When Max and I came out to each other we agreed to plough through this unknown, prickly thicket together. We didn’t want to lose our best friend in the process.

In April of 2013, I moved away from Halifax. Max brought me to the VIA station on a wispy east-coast morning. We clung to each other by the train tracks. We’ll live in the same place again soon, we assured each other. But that was three years ago, and we still haven’t. I moved to Ireland for a year with my girlfriend; shortly after I returned to Canada, Max moved to Peru. We stayed in close touch. We used Skype and Google Hangouts and WhatApp and Snapchat. We sent each other long emails and talked on the phone for hours at a time. But distance inevitably took its toll. What did our friendship mean, now? We were on different continents, with different people, living separate lives. In November of 2015, Max initiated a break. He needed space and distance. “Our friendship feels like it’s running on exhaust,” he told me in an email. I was devastated, furious, and hurt. I had recently finished reading A Little Life, and the only thing I could think to do was to send him this quote from the book, urging him to buy it and read it:

“The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, or cooler, but kinder and more generous, and more forgiving—and then appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad or good it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best as well.”

In this cultural moment, there are lots of emerging narratives and discussions about female friendship. This is very important and cool, but it also makes me wonder whether there can still be space for other models of friendship to flourish—ones that move beyond gender. There isn’t a lot of representation for queer friendship yet. Like many other people who use the internet, I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts last year. I appreciated Nelson’s phrase, borrowed from the poet Dana Ward, “many gendered-mothers of my heart.” The expression indicates the trove of people, who might be living or dead, unmet heroines or intimate friends, that lend texture, shelter, softness, and meaning to our lives. It captures the prismatic way that we love, and are loved. With melting, unfixed borders that defy many types of categorization, including gender. This disorientation feels especially true for queer love, in all its manifestations.

In early July of this year Max, who was struggling with mental health issues, returned to Ontario to stay with his aunt and uncle. I hadn’t seen him in person for almost two years, and during the past six months we had barely spoken. But when he called me to ask if I would come, I hopped on a GO train. On the way there I thought about how I had known him just shy of a decade. How tender and formative and strange those years have been. I thought we would be friends forever, but really, I don’t know.

He and his aunt picked me up at the station in the suburb where they live. We went to a Tim Horton’s drive-thru and drove around with the windows rolled all the way down in the golden-pink halo of dusk, drinking steeped tea and eating sandwiches.

Back at home, Max and I sat on the couch for a little while and read magazines. When his aunt and uncle went to bed he asked if I wanted to watch the series finale of Sex and the City, the one where Carrie is in Paris. We streamed it on a laptop, lying side-by-side. Not touching or talking. Surrounded by dew-softened lawns and minivans asleep in driveways.

Why do we cleave to the people we do? Often, the reasons are scruffy and impossible to articulate. The good kind of love is ill-fitting, slippery, vital, queer—we sometimes want to kiss our friends, or stop kissing them. We lose people before we’re ready or we hold on to them for longer than we should. It’s okay to stop trying to explain. Watching HBO underneath a top-sheet on a summer night with a mother of your heart is sometimes enough.

As we were falling asleep I remembered: “Max, did you ever read A Little Life?”

“I loved it,” he answered, without skipping a beat. I grinned into the dark.

 

*names have been changed