Less Than Butterflies, No. 17
The funny thing about friendships–especially close friendships that are intense and that challenge us–is that you get so swept up in their euphorias that it never crosses your mind that they might someday end. Whether it be a silly disagreement, a change in location that puts space between you, walking down different paths that cause you to drift apart, or another loved one coming between you and your friend, these conflicts–or maybe just these changes–are typically unexpected, seemingly inexplicable, and lightning fast.
A person–someone you speak to daily and care about with great propensity–can out of nowhere be removed from your life without you ever having expected it. And more often than not, the situation, even if the fault is partly ours, is out of our hands. That’s because, no matter how we feel about what someone else did to us or how our behaviors affected them, other people’s feelings matter, too, and just as much as ours do. Unfortunately, when we’re so caught up in those feelings, when we are blinded by tears or rage, we act just as blindly. We speak before we think. We thrust power into the universe that–once cast out of our persons–is often irreversible and irreparable.
That said, this is not a story solely about how my once-best friend Stephen hurt me, but instead one about how I hurt him, even if in a small and stupid way that in the grand scheme of things really played no part into our demise. More so, it’s a story about two people who cared about so many of the same things so much that, at some point, they lost sight of how much they cared about one another.
It is, like most things in this column, a story about love and about heartbreak.
The friendship of Stephen and I began in a similar way to most of my relationships with men. At first, neither of us really knew what to make of the other; it wasn’t that we disliked one another, but we weren’t sure that we needed to be friends; we discovered our similar interests, and we fell quickly into each other as friends. Our dynamic was anything but simple. Together, it always made sense. We were both intelligent, thoughtful, educated, successful, gay, creative, and goal-oriented. But our differences often made that dynamic all the more exciting. Stephen was seven years my senior and had been out of the closet his entire adult life. He had experiences I hadn’t lived. He was social, charismatic, serious, and loved sex. I, on the other hand, was not a people person, joked around too much, and had sex less so because I enjoyed it and more so because I loved the feeling of being desired. And in a lot of ways, that made the time we spent together more fun. It was nice to talk to someone I considered an intellectual equal and could someone who could show me a unique perspective. A lot of people had a tendency to hide those perspectives from me when we had conversations, but not Stephen. He was, much like I, assertive with his opinions and wanted to make sure they were accounted for by others.
But the one thing that we shared in common with one another that made us most alike—and maybe the one thing that to which we clung ourselves so tightly as if to make it another layer of skin, an outwardly part of us we wanted everyone to see—was how deeply impassioned we were. It didn’t matter if it was with our work, with the people we loved, or with the topics we cared about. We were creatures of deep and heavy-flowing care. And for a great time, that made us a truly dynamic duo. We were a super hero team that could have accomplished anything together, could have ruled empires if we were careful to play off one another’s strengths correctly. Even once, during a discussion at Michael’s Outpost over many glasses of wine, Stephen looked at me in the eyes, smiled that big, sweet, knowing smile, and said to me, “You know … if we really wanted to and if we work together, in a few years, we could run this city.”
I don’t think I ever realized how right he was about that until lately.
I did, however, take it into consideration, and I let it galvanize me to work harder.
Unfortunately, and I won’t say why or what it related to, the vision Stephen and I shared blurred a bit for both of us. And in the process of trying to adjust our focuses, our heads had turned just enough away from one another so that the bigger picture was a bit different for each of us. In truth, and this never stopped being true, the image I saw never stopped including Stephen. While he may have shifted a bit to the side and sometimes into my peripheral, he was always still there. That much never changed. And to be completely fair and honest, I’d like to think that the same was still true of me when it came to Stephen’s perspective. Although, in the process of trying to get to certain places, trying to make changes in the community that we both felt needed to be changed, our paths branched apart a bit, and our relationship as friends changed because of it.
Gone were the nights that Stephen’s boyfriend, Leo, would be out of town leaving Stephen and I to drink an entire bottle of vodka alone, talking politics, boys, and work. No longer were there dinners at Barnaby’s upon which we sat on the patio drinking wine until after the restaurant inside had closed and the wait staff had to come and ask us to leave so that they could lock up the back gate. The nights of walking into bars in Montrose as if we owned them and everyone around us were just our loyal subjects had become just distant memories—dreams that turned difficult to recall.
Stephen and I were no longer Stephen and I.
And that hurt me a little bit. A lot, actually. And it may have hurt him, too, or maybe he just didn’t notice how different things had become between us the way that I had. That didn’t mean that I hadn’t noticed, or that I didn’t want to try to fix things. But I guess if one half of a whole hasn’t realized that the whole is different, or that maybe its even a little broken, it’s difficult to mend it. Acclimation, natural and inherent, takes over, and because the new perspective is just that, one has a hard time realizing that the new has pushed aside some of the old.
I took it hard for a lot of reasons, the most evident of which was that Stephen was really the only gay, male friend I’d made—Ezra aside—that had never tried to sleep with me, to date me, and that had never expected anything of me in a sexual or romantic sense. Sure, he’d kissed me on my lips once when he was drunk and upset at Rich’s when another friend had treated him poorly. But we were both drunk that night—or, at least, he was. I’d been drunk earlier in the day, but sobered quickly in an effort to go and help my friend. And Drunk Stephen and Sober Stephen were never necessarily the same person. So, maybe the kiss was meaningless. Maybe it was one of gratitude. Maybe it was simply that we did love each other as much as two friends could without crossing a line, and that particular moment was the approach of a precipice neither of us needed to cross. Or maybe Stephen was just drunk. [Shrugging woman emoji]
It didn’t matter to me why it happened, because something about that kiss changed the dynamic of my relationship with Stephen from then on until its close. I couldn’t quite explain it to myself then, but a part of me was taken by him and from myself in those few seconds our lips had locked. It was, after all, a really nice kiss. To this day, it was probably one of the best I’ve had in my life. And that could just be because it was from someone that I’d never had anything other than a platonic relationship with that I really did love and care about, and that I knew cared about me. Still, a part of me—maybe the part that trusted others—slipped out from between my lips and into his and stayed there for him to do with what he pleased. And in losing it, whether it had been taken away or I’d given it to him willingly or I’d wanted him to take it away, my feelings about him transfigured a bit. Not changed necessarily. It was sort of like I said before. The focus had shifted to inspect different parts of them. I still looked at him fondly and thought, I’m lucky that this is my best friend, long after the fact. But the view I took in was somehow different than before.
Working with Pride Houston meant that I went to a handful of Pride-related conferences throughout my time with them. The most recent of which was a conference of select Prides from cities across the country that made up larger organizations across the country that made up CAPI, or the Consolidated Association of Pride. There were two other regional Pride organizations that made up the rest of the country, and each breaking down into smaller, citywide nonprofits. CAPI, however, was the organization to which Pride Houston subscribed.
We met in Austin in the spring for the weekend conference amongst our peers we only saw sparsely throughout the year; and before we’d even gotten to the car the morning before to head there from Houston, Stephen and I had spent the evening before at Barnaby’s discussing our expectations, what we hoped to learn, and, of course, that we were going to make a point of rooming together at the hotel. However, I’d stayed up the remainder of the night before trying to get work done and found myself exhausted that entire morning.
The ride there was a bit irritating in my sleepiness. Stephen and our friend Johnny gabbed most of the ride in the front seat to themselves, excluding Courtney, Graham, and I in the back at many times. I found myself a little jealous, I’ll admit. I didn’t like my best friend possibly making a new best friend. Still, Stephen stole Graham’s seat beside me in the back later and I decided to let it go. I was just tired, I though.
“I’m going to eat,” I told Stephen when we arrived at the hotel in Austin. “And then I’m going to put my things in our room and take a nap.”
“I think I am, too,” he told me. We’d had a few bottles of wine the night before, so it was unsurprising that he was tired, as well. Still, I’d been through a phentermine, an Adderall, and a little cocaine and still wasn’t getting that pep in my step I needed. Still, I figured a nap would serve me well considering all the after parties these conferences had a habit of hosting and the fact that we were planning to do rails of coke later. Aside from that, I’d brought with me a $150 dollar of champagne to drink in case there was cause for celebration at all, which I was sure we’d create even if there wasn’t.
After lunch, Stephen retreated to the hotel room before I could, where upon my return I found him flailing around in his bed wailing like a baby.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked him as I crawled into my bed and closed my eyes. I was so comfortable I could have fallen asleep right then and there. Working overnight was one of the downfalls of being the boss, but it often proved necessary when there were things to be done before you left town for a full weekend.
But just as I was dozing off, the achy cries of Stephen only got louder.
“Damn it, Stephen,” I muttered, my blood-shot eyes flying open. “What is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” he groaned. “It’s my stomach.”
“Jesus,” I said, sitting erect and sliding over to stand up. I slipped on my shoes, found my wallet, and said, “I’m going to get you some medicine. I’ll be right back.”
“You don’t have to—ohhh!” he cried out again.
“Mhmm,” I mumbled, walking out the door and leaving him to die. I ran down to the little market in the hotel, found some Pepto Bismol, charged it to the room, then ran back toward the elevators. As I passed a bar, it occurred to me that maybe having a drink would help me sooth myself to sleep.
I walked in and found that my friends Courtney and Graham were sitting there drinking in the middle of the day.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to be drinking before the panels?” I asked them as I pulled a chair up next to Courtney and ordered a drink.
“Who gives a fuck?” she asked.
“Yeah. We’re fucking adults. We can do whatever we want,” Graham said as he ordered another beer. I shrugged and ordered both a drink and a shot.
“I need to get a little sleep. I may skip this afternoon’s panels and just do the ones tomorrow and Sunday,” I told them as I downed my shot and followed it up with a drink. “I’m so tired.”
“Why don’t you go take a nap while nothing’s going on?” Graham asked. I flashed him the Pepto. “Stephen is sick. And like a typical man, he’s whining like a little bitch baby. So I’m going to shove these so far down him I’m going to literally lay hands on his stomach ache.”
Courtney kind of looked at me funny for a moment, then said, “Did … did you come down here to get him medicine … and then stop at the bar on the way back while he’s upstairs in pain?”
I slurped down the rest of my drink.
“Blow me,” I said before tossing some cash onto the bar and rushing back up to our room. Inside, Stephen was snoring loudly, which normally wouldn’t have bothered me. However, since I’d probably begin snoring when I fell asleep, too, I elected to just let him get some rest. I set the Pepto down on the table next to his bed and slipped out, sending him a text to let him know it was there when he woke.
I wouldn’t end up taking a nap that day. I’d try to make sure Stephen didn’t die, go to my panels, get distracted by work calls from Houston, go to dinner and have margaritas, pop open that bottle of champagne with Stephen, and pretty much everything else I could have done. But I wouldn’t fall asleep.
After Mexican food at Uncle Julio’s in Downtown Austin, Johnny, Courtney, Graham, and Stephen—who had made a miraculous recovery at the sound of the word ‘margaritas’—all of us but Johnny were doing bump-after-bump of coke in the bathroom before going out. We had gone through the champagne and had a few drinks at dinner and were now bouncing off the walls for an after party hosted by Deep Eddie’s Vodka and Austin Pride. My lack of sleep, however, was turning me into a raging cunt monster from hell.
We made our way down to Fourth St. onto Austin’s gay strip stopping at Sellers Underground for the Deep Eddie’s party and then the traveled next door to the nightclub Rain for the after-after party. Graham, as he normally was at these sorts of functions, was silly drunk and had gone MIA. Courtney was being harassed by a girl from Austin who had grown infatuated with her in the ten minutes they’d known one another. Johnny was carrying on with Stephen as annoyingly as before while the latter was awaiting the arrival of Leo. At Rain we sat in a cabana, laughing with friends from Prides far and wide. The girl from Austin Pride and Johnny were working my exhausted, drunken nerves and I was without filter the entire evening. I didn’t mean to be hateful to them, but it was almost as though there was a pitching machine shooting hate baseballs at them every time either opened their mouths. At one point, Johnny even looked at me and asked, “You don’t like me very much. Do you?”
It was untrue. I adored Johnny. He was just … I don’t know … on my nerves. Even when the very-attractive bar manager approached me at a table, complimented my hair, bought me a drink, and gave me his phone number, I was a few smiles shy of charming.
Everyone sort of went their separate ways, and I was too tired to continue by one o’clock. When I went into the bathroom to do another bump of coke before walking back to the hotel, I found that it was gone from my cigarette pack, which was enough to send me back to the room alone. I entered the room just before two and locked the deadbolt behind me. I then crawled into my bed and grabbed my leftovers from Uncle Julio’s where I had barely eaten, ate them, watched something on Netflix and began to doze off.
Anyone who would’ve found me probably would’ve assumed I was dead.
I woke to the sound of the room door slamming around 7:30 AM. I peered through my eyelids to find Stephen stomping around the hotel room. I took note of the time on the alarm clock and then looked over toward him, “Where have you been?”
“Oh, I’ve been here,” Stephen snapped.
Stephen continued around the room in some sort of fit as I rolled around over something grainy in the bed beneath me. I reached between the sheets and grabbed a handful of what I was rolling over.
Rice. Mexican rice.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked him.
“Are you serious?” he yelled, spinning around on one heel to face me. “You locked me out of the room last night. I tried calling you like twenty times, beat on the door, had Graham and Johnny call you, and finally had to go downstairs to the desk to ask the management to let me in. But because you had the deadbolt locked, they had to break the door in.”
Whaaaaaaaaaat? is pretty much all I remember thinking to myself. It made sense though. A force of habit I’d practiced since I was a young seventeen-year-old living alone was always to lock the deadbolt. I flew out of bed and looked at the door, which had, in fact, been beaten in.
“Omigod, Stephen.” I said as both my hands flew up to my mouth. “I am so sorry.” I wasn’t even sure what else to say. I went back to the bed and pulled back the covers. Beneath them lay my Uncle Julio’s to-go box and the sheets were accented by yellow grains of rice. “What the fuck did I do last night?” I asked, trying to remember anything about what had gone on.
“I don’t know. You were in a bad mood. You left the club before any of us. And then this.”
“Shit,” I muttered. “God, I knew I should’ve taken a nap. I’m so sorry, Stephen. I don’t know how I can make this better but I am so sorry.”
“It’s whatever,” he told me as he rushed out of the room.
He’d come to get over it as the day went on, even laugh about it later on in our friendship. But what I felt about disappointing Stephen and putting him through that cut deeper than I’d expected it might. Part of me wanted to cry about it, another part of me wanted to go and find him in the hotel and beg for his forgiveness. Instead, I flopped back down into my ricey bed and thought about what I’d done. Stephen and I had gotten incredibly close over the last year. The idea of losing his friendship over one stupid night was like getting punched in the gut and having the wind knocked out of me. And while that wasn’t what would happen, or at least not why it would happen later, the guilt ate me alive for a long time to come.
That story is the one I always think about when I try to rationalize why Stephen and I couldn’t be friends any longer. It’s not the reason—not even close. But somehow remembering that first time Stephen was just sort of mad at me over something I’d done is a lot easier than thinking about the other times when I watched anger swell in his eyes and the veins on his neck stick out like snakes sliding under bed sheets.
The ‘why’ isn’t irrelevant, but it may be the one thing that’s too personal to share here. And that’s because I took it a lot harder than I did any sort of breakup or bad date. It probably wasn’t harder, but it was certainly different, just like our friendship after that kiss. The reason for that could be because Stephen and I only ever had a platonic relationship. But it could also be because he was—for better or worse—the one person in the world I really trusted for a very long time. But within that, we’d lost one another at some point. We’d fixated on goals that were important to us; I’d slumped into a depression I couldn’t seem to find my way out of for a very long time; and Stephen had taken on more responsibility than he’d had when we’d first become friends. We split like a hair and continued to split until we reached up to the root and all that held us together was the follicle from which we both stemmed. And even that part seemed temporary. Soon the head would molt, and we’d fall away and hit the ground or catch the wind and part ways forever.
I said and did things that I know hurt Stephen. I did them in reaction to things that Stephen had done to me—or, at least, that’s how I justified them to myself. Because Stephen was doing things to hurt me, too. And whether or not he was doing them on purpose, I was more comfortable telling myself I was standing up for myself—which, in truth, I was—than admitting that I was wrong. But even in defense of myself, I was still hurting someone that I loved very much. Someone I may have even been in love with a little. I don’t know. When I think about it now, it sure sounds like I might have been. The jealousy, the fixation on that kiss, the deep concern as to whether or not he’d hate me for locking him out of that hotel room. But if that were the case, I didn’t understand it then—wasn’t cognizant of it. Although it would’ve made sense, considering our friendship’s genesis did come from a crush I had on him that I thought had fled when we’d gotten close. Or maybe it wasn’t even that. Maybe I was so caught up in my shit with Ezra at the time that I clung to Stephen because he was the only man who had ever come into my life expecting nothing of me, stuck around for what felt like a long time, then left just when I’d convinced myself another shoe wasn’t going to drop. That said, it could have been something like both of those things. Not quite in love, not quite because he was the only consistent man in my life, but maybe in love with the fact that that’s what made our friendship so special. Maybe I was in love with our friendship.
All I know now is the moment that I noticed the change was that night that Stephen kissed me. And it’s funny to me to consider that, because I’m sure that if you asked him, Stephen might only vaguely remember it happening and laugh it off as drunken silliness. But it wasn’t silly to me. Because somewhere in that short-lived, somewhat uncomfortable, but nevertheless sweet kiss, I’d lost the part of me that trusted people. And after that, something I worked for years and years to gain, I’d gotten back. Maybe it didn’t change the friendship as much as I thought it had. Maybe it just changed me.
I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure. And Stephen and I will never—probably can never—go back to being who we were before. And whether I was in love with him or I loved who he was to me is irrelevant. What matters is that the end of our friendship was a heartbreaking thing for me, because it meant that that love—at least to some extent—had to be over. Even if I still felt it for him when I saw him, holding back the urge to ask if he wanted to go drink wine at Barnaby’s or gossip about our other friends, the sharing of it was over. And it must have been for Stephen, too, which I guess I have to understand. Because I did hurt him. I was a dick. He was a dick, too, don’t get me wrong. But there was more than enough blame to share and I didn’t do anything to fix it when I had the chance.
So, yeah. This is a story about love. And it’s a story about heartbreak. And somehow it might be one of the saddest ones for me to write, because I still do love Stephen, and I think about him every day. But as I’ve grown distant from the situation and from Stephen, I’ve learned something more important:
Loving someone sometimes means letting them be happy without you, because sometimes your own feelings stand in the way of their happiness and of yours.