I walked into the Y the other day and saw a sign saying that a friend had died. Not a close friend, but somebody who was important because of the time and circumstances in which we met – a certain time, a certain group of friends. Most of that crowd is gone now, felled by nothing so dramatic as death, just the usual indecencies of life – distance, depression, boredom, changed interests, hurt feelings, too much intimacy and too little.
Such losses are commonplace after a certain age but that doesn’t make them any easier to bear or to repair.
When you’re young you make friends quickly, easily and often thoughtlessly. The demands of friendship are not steep. As young gay guys on the make, you automatically have something in common. All you really need is someone to support you in the bars at night and to hear your war stories the morning after.
Failing that, you can always sleep together. In fact, one of the big advantages of being young and gay is that you sleep with a lot of people and some of them invariably become friends. The sex always complicates the friendship, even if it’s never repeated, but that’s okay. It also makes it more intense. No matter how little you know about each other, you always know just a little bit more than most people.
Until I reached a certain age, almost all of my friendships had sexual origins and it came as a surprise and a shock to find that nonsexual friendships required a different and altogether more onerous set of skills. They didn’t just happen and they were often more difficult to manage.
Worse, they’re harder to create, especially once you’re past the first flush of youth. As WH Auden once remarked, “At 20 we find our friends for ourselves, but it takes Heaven/ To find us one when we are 57.” The advantage of age is that you know yourself better; the disadvantage is that you know yourself too well to compromise.
At the peak of her fame in her late 40s, Virginia Woolf looked around her and saw that some of her most important friendships were rather sporadic. She didn’t see some people as much as she used to, especially gay men like Lytton Strachey and EM Forster. “We are all very much aware of life,” she remarked, “and seldom do anything we do not want to.”
Self-knowledge gets in the way of friendship. You know what you want from people, how much effort you’re prepared to invest, and it’s hard to pretend otherwise. Besides, just to be deeply bitter and ironic – who has the time?
In one of his memoirs Edmund White talks about spending half his day on the phone talking to friends about what happened the day before. It sounds idyllic. It also sounds very ’70s. Try imagining anything like that today. Most people can’t talk at the office because they’re too busy and their cubicle is too close to their colleagues’, and they can’t talk at home because there’s voicemail to handle that chore. Leave a message and you’ll sound like a nag begging for attention.
We expect technology to speed the flow of intimacy and yet it’s been my observation that the more gadgets we have – e-mail, voicemail, instant messaging, text messaging – the less people seem to get together. We’re too busy arranging it. Sample cell phone conversation: “Hi honey, I’m almost there. I’m just entering the subway, call you in five.”
History, too, seems out to get friendship. For a few decades in the ’60s and ’70s, friendship was the ruling paradigm of gay relationships. Romantic relationships seemed fragile or out of reach (perhaps because so many long-term couples stayed below the radar) and many guys took refuge in friendship.
Look at key works from the ’60s and ’70s like Boys In The Band (1968) and Dancer From The Dance (1978). Mostly they’re famous for sex and self-loathing. But scratch the surface and what you find is friendship; eight friends gathered for a tell-all birthday party in Boys; a young stud and an aging queen yapping away the last hours of the pre-AIDS world in Dancer.
The paradigm started to disintegrate in the ’80s and ’90s. You can see it in works like the British Queer As Folk and the touching American film Parting Glances where the key characters are essentially torn between love and friendship.
But what really did it in, of course, was the search for state-sanctioned coupledom. Now with the enclosed couple the new ruling paradigm, friends are at best an accessory, something to set off the landscaped deck, the gas barbecue and the new martini glasses.
I’m not sure what to do about this. All I know is that wishing never made it so. I met one guy several years ago who called me his “new friend” before he even got to know me. We lasted about six months. The friendship he christened so boldly never happened.