I think all of us can claim to have had at least one or two best friends in our lives. I’m no different. And I realize these close personal connections don’t always last forever. Still, it’s much harder when your friendship is cut short by the untimely passing of the other.
Lester and I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood west of Houston. We knew each other in elementary school, but we weren’t particularly friends at that point. More friendly acquaintances. By middle school, our friendship grew as we seemed to have developed similar interests. We both had paper routes and frequently hung out with similar nerdy and awkward preteens.
As high school rolled around, we both got cars, and it seemed we had even more in common. That connection was suddenly broken when Lester was sent away to boarding school for two years. I’m not sure what caused the unexpected break in his living arrangements, but I’m sure there must have been some significant event at home that caused it.
When Lester returned to the neighborhood, we were both juniors in high school, and our friendship was happily resumed. For some reason, it now seemed like we had more in common than ever. I had a job at a local drug store as a delivery driver, and Lester took the days opposite mine. When we weren’t working at the drug store, we often traveled together, including a road trip to Mexico to see some property my dad owned. And a two-week vacation to California to stay with my grandparents.
All this time, Lester knew he was gay, and in my teenage innocence, it never occurred to me. We were just best buddies – that’s all there was to it. However, one day driving down the freeway, this guy waved at us as he clearly knew Lester. After he passed, I asked, “Hey, who was that?”
Lester didn’t answer at first, but after a moment of thought, he explained that he was gay and that it was a gay acquaintance of his. In other words, Lester came “out” to me for the first time. I have to admit I was surprised. I didn’t know any gay people, and he certainly didn’t look or act effeminate to me. So, after a few more minutes of thought on my part, I figured, what the hell? We’re still friends, and nothing had changed.
Over the next several months, Lester did introduce me to several of his gay friends. They all treated me with the same degree of respect that he did, and it wasn’t long before I began to accept their lifestyle. However, a significant change in my life was that I had a new girlfriend and a serious one at that. The first night we made out was in the front seat of Lester’s Pontiac Firebird as he drove us around town. The three of us quickly became friends as Lester became our chauffeur. Taking us to the beach, we even double-dated with my girlfriend’s sister once.
Once out of high school, Lester and I enrolled in the same community college and took many of the same courses. His father owned a drug store in the medical center, and I sometimes worked shifts to help them when needed.
However, as my girlfriend became my wife and Lester took on a long-term partner, things slowly started to erode. Clearly, our lives were going their separate ways. Lester and Chuck still came over for dinner occasionally, or the four of us would go out to dinner together. But I think we both knew that our carefree bachelor days were behind us. For my last two years of college, my wife and I moved one-hundred-fifty miles away, which separated us even further. Lester and Chuck came up to visit once, which was appreciated. But again, we had less and less to visit about.
Once I graduated and moved back to Houston, my wife and I almost immediately started having children. First, a son, and then all too quickly, a daughter followed. I began my professional career, and Lester continued to work in his father’s drugstore. Lester would come to my kids’ birthday parties and always seemed to bring the “best” gifts. But socially, we seemed to have less and less in common than ever.
Chuck, Lester’s partner, was a barber, and he cut my hair for several years until my wife and I, with our growing family, moved to Austin. Chuck was one of the best barbers I have ever had, and I just couldn’t imagine anyone else cutting my hair. Now that I’m old and bald, it’s funny thinking back. But at the time, my hair was as thick and wavy as an old dry mop. I absolutely hated it. Now I wish I had at least some of it back.
Once in Austin, I think Lester came up one time to see us. The AIDS epidemic had started, and Chuck did not come with him. As I was starting my own business, I had several clients in Houston, and occasionally on trips back to my old hometown, I’d stay with Lester in order to save the cost of a hotel room. Lester had a two-bedroom apartment, and as a struggling young professional, it made sense to save money whenever and wherever I could.
By this time, Chuck was no longer around, and I didn’t ask any questions. I figured that if Lester wanted to tell me, he would. But I got the impression that Chuck was sick and had moved back to Kansas City to be closer to his family. Lester did not look good either, but it was nothing you could put your finger on. He had lost weight, and the sparkle in his eyes had all but vanished.
He enjoyed my visits. We would go out to dinner and talk for hours about old times. But there was never any discussion about his health, his current life, or his friends. In fact, they all seemed to be gone.
I don’t remember the date; I wish I did. But Lester had a sister-in-law, and one night while I was at home in Austin, she called to tell me that Lester had passed away from AIDS. When I heard her voice, I knew what the news was, without her having to tell me. But still, my heart sank. My wife, who was sitting in the same room, knew as well. It was inevitable, but heartbreaking, nonetheless.
That was more than forty years ago. And though I don’t think of Lester often anymore, when I do think of him, I wish it could have been different. It made no difference to me that he was gay. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now.
But I do miss my old friend. There are times I just want to sit and have a beer like the good old days. For as I age, I realize that some of our most valuable, enduring, and complex relationships are totally platonic – and can be as enduring as romantic love.