George and I used to take the bus together when he was 14 and I was 15. Since we were both drama club nerds, we quickly learned that it was easier to sit together on the way home from school than to spend the long, rough ride fretting, alone, about what to do if anyone talked to us. We became friends.
It wasn’t just our shared love of librettos that united us. We also towered at least one foot above all the other students.
He wore big, white sneakers. I wanted to (gently) tell him that they accentuated his already clumpy feet and inherent awkwardness but I could never say that to him. After all, he didn’t tease me about my green eye shadow, my baggy sweatshirts or my penchant for hairspray.
We developed a serious fondness for McDonald’s cheeseburgers, despite the zits they gave us and the bullies who owned the place.
Now, of course, I try to spend my money in as few transnational corporations as I can but George and I grew up in a town of few options. Where else could we hang out for hours for only 89 cents?
During our after-school power meetings, we plotted our escapes. He wanted to meet Oprah and move to Los Angeles or Hollywood and get paid just for being awesome. I wanted to lead a hermit life and live in a cabin in the woods somewhere.
We both wanted happiness more than money and friends more than success. That’s what I remember writing down on the paper placemat beside photos of burgers and French fries and sundaes.
In my early 20s, my first serious boyfriend almost dumped me because of George.
My boyfriend took me out for dinner and when we walked into the restaurant, we were greeted by George, now stunning and grown up and working as a waiter. It had been almost 10 years since I’d seen him and he was the epitome of my idea of a beautiful man. He carried himself with grace and had the same boisterous laugh I’d always loved him for.
My jaw dropped. I ran to hug him and he squeezed me so tight my feet lifted off the floor.
My boyfriend, suddenly feeling quite average looking I’m sure, became irreversibly jealous. I suppose I should have stultified my reaction but I’ve always had a soft spot for those of us who emerge from cramped and awkward cocoons to shine as uninhibited butterflies.
It wasn’t the first time someone had confused our friendship for something else. In fact, for a couple of lowly dorks, George and I were honoured when rumours circulated throughout our high school that we were an item.
The actual rumour was that I was “robbing the cradle” but nevertheless, our names made the headlines in the cafeteria at lunchtime on one brief occasion before we sank back into our usual obscurity.
Half a decade after the restaurant incident, I had fully recovered from my heterosexual dating experiment and was out supporting my first girlfriend who was doing drag at a local bar. She ordered a martini for me at the bar and who should bring it to me but George.
“You’re here,” he said, motioning all around as though I might not know I was in a gay bar.
“You’re here,” I said and got up to hug him. That was all the discussion our respective queerness needed.
My girlfriend came off the stage and immediately got mad at me. “What’s going on? Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Why do you and the waiter keep smiling at each other?”
“We used to take the bus together, when we were geeks,” I tried to explain.
It’s hard to describe the relationship I have with George. I can’t say he was my closest friend. He certainly wasn’t a boyfriend, even though we did hold hands sometimes. It might seem pretentious to say it, since neither of us was openly queer in high school, but George was someone who made that time in my life a whole lot easier.
I’m not sure we ever talked about our feelings of not fitting in and we definitely never discussed dating and girls and boys and confusing emotions. Our bond grew out of all the things that didn’t need to be said.
A few months ago, I was lazing around with my sweetheart, flipping channels and watching trashy late-night television. Mariah Carey was talking about recovering from a recent meltdown. There was something familiar about the hand holding the microphone and, sure enough, the camera angle turned to George. I leapt up and turned up the volume and felt tears rush to my eyes.
It was a very Billy Elliot moment for me. My darling friend, shining like Hollywood bling, right in my bedroom. I was so proud.
“Jeez, I didn’t know you felt so strongly about Mariah Carey,” my beau said, passing me the Kleenex box.
“It’s George… getting paid for being awesome.”
I told my sweetheart about how George had been my first date when we went to the senior production of Death of a Salesman and how he had turned me on to opera and how I still can’t drink a vanilla milkshake without wondering where he is.
Last night, I was working at the gay and lesbian bookstore when George came in with a cute boyfriend on his arm. I ran over to him and hugged him through his designer black coat and hounds-tooth scarf.
I told him how proud I was of him and he brushed it off like it was nothing and asked about my life and how long I’d been at the bookstore and whether I liked it and did I visit the old neighborhood.
He has the gift, the genuine interest in everyone around him, like his hero Oprah. He told me he’d be interviewing Diane Keaton this weekend and still couldn’t wrap his brain around his new line of work.
My worries that he’d buy into celebrity worship were gone. He was as humble and lovable as he was back in the days of puffy neon ski jackets and acid-washed jeans.