We haven’t spoken in years, but I almost always remember George’s birthday. The first day of summer. This year, it landed on Father’s Day. Without a message attached, he texted me a photograph of his family. Not the one that raised him when he and I were growing up. This is of him, his wife and three kids. Son, twenty-six. Two daughters: ages nineteen and sixteen (I wrote back and asked their ages).
The year I turned thirty, I went to his wedding. Not to the wife in this photograph but to a woman I got to know. It’s been decades, but I remember she was an Egyptian Jew, whose family lived on a beautiful, wooded property in rural Connecticut. I went to the wedding, proverbially kicking and screaming. It ended up being a time capsule reunion of us boys that hung out back in high school. It was the last time we were all together.
After the wedding day, George and I stayed connected for a few more years. As with many secure long-distance friendships, we hadn’t communicated in a great while, but I had not considered the dynamic as having changed. With my knowing nothing about it, George began seeing another woman while still married to his wife, now pregnant. I don’t know — and didn’t ask — if the twenty-six-year-old boy in the photograph is from the first marriage. I hadn’t known anything about the affair. But his first wife, whom we all considered to now be a part of us, took one of the boys to task. She called him, yelling into the phone, trying to find where the hell her husband had gone. He had vanished. Our friend swore this was the first he’d heard of it and had no idea where George might be. She screamed, “You’re lying!” and hung up on him.
When I found out George was seeing another woman, leaving his wife without warning, I stopped all communication with him. I don’t know what made me believe I had the right to take the moral high ground after my questionable behavior in certain past circumstances. I never got his side of the story. He never brought it up to me. I did meet who would become his second wife once they became engaged. George showed up at my office in SoHo and asked me to meet them at a nearby restaurant I visited regularly. We shared drinks and a meal. They left. I never spoke with him after that.
I have talked in general of the gang that hung out in a friend’s kitchen when we were in high school. I have rarely, if ever, gone into the specifics of our opposing personalities and the necessity of compromise that families accept as essential. Even without blood bonds, we had a parallel affection shared by siblings. Love, hate, like, disapprove, laugh, endure, insult, defend to the death.
Before George and I became friends, I had known his older brother, who was in one of my elective classes in high school. He threatened to hang me out a window. Back then, I knew George by sight and assumed he was as big a dick as his brother was. Later, at our friend’s kitchen table, he and I began to get to know one another. On a slow incline, we became friends. Good friends. Of all of the people who came and went during that three-year period, I became closer to George than any of the other boys.
George was raised in an upper-middle-class household, Greek in origin. I had always known his last name, since his father owned neighborhood liquor stores with their surname in bold letters painted above the storefront windows. They lived in a modern seventeen-room home in Maplewood, New Jersey, with plastic protecting the furniture and a work ethic that earned them substantial savings.
From early conversations, George proclaimed with overblown arrogance that he would never have a girlfriend. He was casually serious that he would simply pay for sex. At seventeen, I believed him. But a woman did fall deeply in love with him. And from what she told me, he was an attentive lover.
After hanging with him on a daily basis for an extended period of time, I never saw him as anything but my friend, George. Moving to Boston to go to school, he invited me to come up for a weekend. On a Friday night, he planned to take me to a party. We went to his bedroom to change clothes for the evening. With his back to me, George took off his shirt. He turned to face me and my knees buckled. I had to fight not to show any reaction on my face.
I’m gay. But this was not attraction. George had been severely burned as a child. I had become so used to seeing his scarred face, I no longer thought about it. But when he removed his shirt, exposing a chest covered in blood-red, tactile scar tissue, no nipples at all, I almost passed out. And I hated myself for it. I hope I didn’t give myself away.
I ask now that anyone reading this recognize that back in time, “gay” was sometimes considered a chosen, often whispered-about behavior, rather than discovered identity. In the case of George’s conservative family, this was not acceptable. I never met his father, and his mother was nothing but kind to me. But when his first girlfriend split up with him, he began to drown in a desperate rage. At that time, he believed she was his one and only chance for love. And as is not unusual, a first love can be highly emotional and hard to rationally get over.
Pointing out just how ignorant certain people are, I remember George’s mother was deeply concerned that his depression would lead him to falling into my arms. Which is insulting on so many levels I won’t address it. Even if I had had sexual feelings for George, what made his mother think that he would become gay because a woman dumped him?
Leaving the country to travel was life-saving for George. I was not there, and not invited. Once on the beaches of Greece, his scars were not a deterrent to his confidence. And soon he became involved with a gorgeous, blonde Scandinavian woman. What it didn’t yet influence was George’s skewed idea of what “gay” meant. He saw it as a suppressed shame where certain men had sex with other men in secret and lived unfulfilled lives as lonely souls. Odd that this prejudice didn’t change our friendship or his love for me — or mine for him. But I’ll never forget a certain conversation he and I had while sitting in his parked car one day.
In a deep sadness, he began soliloquizing the loneliness we compared — something we had in common. He went on, dark and intimate. I can’t bring back exactly how I responded, but I obtusely suggested something about his possibly seeing a plastic surgeon, now that he was an adult. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said, “That’s not what I’m talking about. My girlfriend from Denmark…she gave me herpes.”
Now, the whole conversation seems bombastic. He was comparing herpes breakouts with my being gay? I was comparing my being gay to his being scarred? All I can say about it now is that this was more than forty years ago.
In a separate conversation, George told me about the skin grafts and the unimaginable pain he endured as a child and adolescent. As he grew, his scar tissue didn’t expand. Doctors had to take live skin from his outer thighs and buttocks as he matured. He admitted to me he was scared to attempt any surgery now. He didn’t talk about the expected physical pain at all. He spoke about not knowing — and fearing — what the results would be. At one point, I had brought it up to his first girlfriend. She said to me, “Why should he have to do anything?”
Now, herpes is no life-altering stigma (it seems unbelievable today, but there was a TV movie released in 1983, starring Judith Light, titled “Intimate Agony” about how herpes ruined her character’s life). As for how “gay” is viewed, in most parts of my world, everyone knows or is related to someone gay.
Men will be men. Scars be damned, like so many others, George married the “wrong” woman, cheating on her while she was pregnant. All after he had been destroyed emotionally by his first breakup. I accept I haven’t heard the entire story and it’s not fair for me to judge what I don’t know. He has stayed with, and I assume, loved this wife for many years, proud of his beautiful children. Proud enough to send a long-ago friend a contemporary portrait. One that reveals time-stamped smiles of what appears to be a happy family.