On Sunday night the next
weekend, I was working on a math assignment when Danny stuck his head
into my bedroom.
"Hey, buttface. Phone's
for you. It's Matt." He stood in my doorway, waiting for a
response from me.
I flipped him the bird and
said, "Okay, already. I got it. Go do whatever it was you
were doing. Then get some Kleenex and clean up the mess."
He laughed and said, "Fuck
you," then went down the hall towards his room.
Immobilized, I stared at my
phone for about
a minute. Danny called out from his room, "Pick
up, Andy, so I can hang up."
Finally I walked to my
nightstand, picked up the receiver, and said, "Hey."
Matt's voice, resonant and
jovial, sang to me through the wires. "Hey yourself. Where
you been all weekend?"
I swallowed hard. "I...I
was tired Saturday and just hung around the house, did chores and
shit. Then Angie and I went out to a movie and stuff."
He said, "We were gonna pick
up the girls and spend Saturday at the lake, I thought."
"I know, Matt," I said, "but I
never said it was a for-sure thing. I didn't know you even really
wanted to do it. I just thought you..." I couldn't finish.
He sounded annoyed. "You thought what? Hell, I wanted to get out
there; I told you I
did. Why would you think I didn't want to?"
"Look," I said, "I never even got around to
telling Angie about it. Anyway, I was fuckin' tired after Friday
night. And I didn't sleep worth shit."
The line was silent for a
minute. Then he said, "Well, why didn't you at least call me and
tell me? I thought it was a plan. I was waiting for you to
I snarled into the phone,
"Then why didn't you fuckin'
call, if it was that big a deal?"
"Look, goddammit," he said,
"If you think just because I..."
went quiet again. After a gap that felt like forever, I heard him
say, "All right. No big deal. I wasn't trying to rip on
"Okay, then," I said back to
him. "You shoulda just called Ruben and Ryan, or Ethan and
Justin, or some of the other guys if you wanted to go."
"Whatever," he mumbled.
After still another long silence, he spoke again. "Andy?"
"Are you...I mean, is
everything..." He stopped in mid-sentence.
"I need some help," he said
finally. "My math homework is fuckin' with my head, and I just
called to see if you had some time to look at it with me.
You...Shit, I don't know, it's always easier to understand when you
walk me through it."
"Well...okay," I said.
"I can be over in about fifteen minutes."
He said, "You don't have to
get out, I could just come over there."
"No. Don't," I said, too
quickly. "I mean, it's fine. I wanted to get out
anyway. But Matt...you got to handle up on your business by
yourself pretty soon, don't you think? I'm not gonna be around
There was a tinge of
indignation in his voice as he said, "Look, Andy, I wasn't asking for a
free pass through college, I was asking for an explanation on a problem
or two. Not next year; right now. And you may not believe
it, but I'm probably not too stupid to do college without you."
I winced. I hadn't meant
to imply that. "Anyway," he said, "it was just a thought.
If it's too much trouble, don't worry about it. I'll set up an
appointment with Mrs. Evans tomorrow."
"No, man, I'm sorry, I didn't
mean it like that," I said. "And it's fine. I need a change
of scenery anyway. I can be over in about fifteen minutes."
"Thanks, Andy," he
said. "We'll just stick to business, okay? Probably
it'll only take a half hour if I'm not being a total moron."
I smiled a little.
"You're not a moron, Matt."
"That's right. I'm not,"
"I pick up on things just fine." He paused; the subtext hammered
me. So this is my fault now?
But I ignored it. I said, "I'll see you in fifteen, then."
Stick to business.
Right. Well, I thought angrily, I guess I'm not too disgusting
him to call me over to help him with his math.
Six weeks went by. We
hung out once in a while, for small bits of time. But I'd
continued finding reasons to avoid him. When his eyes met mine, I
didn't know what I saw anymore. Was it low-grade disgust?
Or had I just become a curiosity, an oddity, a freak?
Sometimes when we were hanging out, he didn't seem any different
from the way he'd always been. At other times, I felt like a bug
in a specimen jar.
By the end of football season,
Friday nights on the football field amounted to the largest block of
time I ever spent with him on a consistent basis. I didn't want
him to feel any obligation to continue being best friends just because
he felt he owed me something. So I found reasons to
hang out more with my other teammates, reasons to need to be with
Angie, reasons to need to study.
Reasons to stay away from him.
We ended football season with
a decent record and just missed being district
champs. Our teamwork on the field, his and mine, was direct,
powerful, and effective. It was the one area where I wasn't
afraid to let him in. But week after week, when the game was
over, after we'd all gotten showered and dressed, as often as not I had
somewhere else to be, something else to do. Something that didn't
At first, he tried to
get me to talk about what was going on. His efforts never failed
me angry. He was the
one with the fucking problem, why was he trying to act like I was the one ruining things?
What the fuck did he want from me? Actually, I thought I
knew. What he wanted was for me to stop loving him the way I
did. What he wanted was for me to be somebody I could never
be. He resented me for taking his best friend away from him and
putting some weird queer guy in his place.
Well, fuck him.
If he couldn't deal with it, fuck him. I couldn't take back that
night on the beach, but I never ever did anything to make him think I'd
make a move on him. The only thing preventing us from being back
to normal was Matt, I thought. And I wasn't going to let him
guilt me into feeling that this was all my fault, that I was the one bringing problems
into our friendship. So whenever he started asking me if
something was wrong, trying to make things my fault, I'd always answer
those questions by insisting that there was nothing wrong; I was "just
busy." I "had to spend time with Angie." I "needed to
study." I was "tired." I "wanted to do some stuff with all
the guys" ("after all, they're my friends too.").
All perfectly legitimate
reasons. Nope, nothing wrong here.
Gradually, he stopped
asking, stopped waiting for me to show up in the parking lot after
school, stopped phoning me for the late-night
"I-need-a-break-from-homework" run to the Sonic. At school, we
were cordial in the halls. Once in a while I'd help him with his
studies. Occasionally he'd come over and we'd shoot some
hoops. But I spent most of my leisure time with either Angie or
the other guys from the team. I didn’t want to have to feel his
condescension every time I looked at him.
Mid-December came. Matt
and I hadn't spoken in three weeks, hadn't hung out together in about a
That week, the week before
Christmas break, I came down with the flu Sunday night. My fever
shot up, my head stopped up, and I ached all over. I was out of
school on Monday and Tuesday, and I was scheduled for a doctor's
appointment on Wednesday. The days were bad enough; the nights
were intolerable. My fever soared at night. Aspirin helped,
but I was chilled to the bone from the fever.
Tuesday night, I was lying in
bed in the dark. I was wearing just a pair of boxers--I never felt
comfortable sleeping in more. My fever was high. I'd just
taken a couple of aspirin, but they hadn't gone to work. And even
the blankets pulled up around me, I was so cold I couldn't sleep.
As I lay there shivering, I heard my door creak open and saw light from
the hall pour into my room. I rolled over to face the door so I could
see who had come in.
Matt was standing in the
doorway with a stack of books in his arms. I nodded at him; he
nodded back as he set the books on my desk. He closed my door and
walked back over to my bed.
"What's up with you?" he asked
"I can't fuckin' get warm," I
said. "I have a fuckin' three-hundred degree fever and I'm so
goddam cold that I can't even get to sleep."
He stared at me for a minute
longer, not speaking. Then he sat down on my bed and
pulled his shoes off. I watched, uncomprehending, as he stood up
and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"What the fuck are you
doing?" I asked.
He laid his shirt over my
chair, then unbuckled his belt, slipped his jeans down over his hips,
and stepped out of them, laying them on top of his shirt. He stood at
the foot of my bed, naked except for his boxers. "Shut up and move
over," he said quietly.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
I repeated, obeying him nonetheless.
"You're cold," he said, as he
slipped into my bed. "You're sick. This'll work. Turn
over." I turned onto my left side again. And he pulled
himself in close to me, his chest against my back, his arms around my
upper body, his legs entwined with mine.
"You'll get sick, moron," I
said over my shoulder. "Nobody asked you to..."
He rubbed my shoulders gently,
interrupting me as he replied, "Nobody had to. Ever. Now
try to sleep."
His warmth flowed into
me. As he held me, I stopped shivering, and began to relax and
let sleep take me. Lying next to him, with his body against mine,
wrapped in his arms, I felt warm for the first time since Sunday.
Maybe since September.
And, warmed, I slept.
When I woke up Wednesday
morning, he was gone. I tried to consider what it all meant, but
I didn't have the energy. Around eight-thirty my mom knocked and
came into my room. "I have to go to work, Andy," she said, "but you
have an appointment with Doctor Harrison at nine-thirty; how do you
feel? Can you drive yourself?"
"I'm better," I said, "but not
great. Good enough to drive, though." My fever had broken
some time in the night. I hesitated for a minute, then asked her,
"Hey, what did Matt say to you when he stopped by last night?"
She frowned. "Matt
wasn't here. You must
have had a high fever."
Perplexed, I stared at
her. It had seemed so real. "Well, whatever. Go on to
work, I'll be fine," I said.
"Okay," she said. "Call
me if you need me."
Just as I opened my mouth to
say "okay," I saw the stack of books on my desk. When she left
the room, I got up and walked over to them. There was a piece of
notebook paper on top of the stack. He'd scribbled a note on it:
with all your teachers. Look on the back. I
wrote down your makeup assignments. I think I
got all the handouts and books. Get well.
The bottom of the paper was
But he'd had the sheet on top
of my stack of books when he wrote the note, and indentations from each
letter had been pressed into the cover of the top book. There had
been two more sentences, sentences he'd torn off. I could make
out the words from the impressions left on the book cover:
stop doing what you're doing. It hurts.
My chest heaved.
But I wasn't going to be
weak. I'm not the problem here, I said to myself. I don't
care how nice it was.
As if to emphasize the point,
his words from that September evening came back to me: "I'm not
like you," I heard him say; and as if to reinforce that, I saw the
Dream-Matt in my head, curling his lip, and adding with a sneer, "you
I started feeling lots better
on Thursday. There was a lot to catch up on, though. School
had recessed for Winter Break, and I had lots of back-assignments and
study to take care of. The high school soccer team was going to
be participating in a tournament over the break, and there were a
couple of practices called for Monday and Tuesday, the 22nd and
23rd. I wasn't in the best of shape and wasn't really looking
forward to the workout.
And on top of it all, I hadn't
gotten all my Christmas shopping done.
I was restless, thinking about
all the stuff on my plate. I needed a physical outlet. I wasn't
completely well, but I hadn't exercised in days. On Saturday I
called up Justin and Ethan, who were behind
on their Christmas shopping too. We decided to meet at the Rec
Center for some basketball; after that, we'd hit the mall and finish
shopping. The company would make it more tolerable; I was never a
big fan of shopping. I enjoyed giving gifts, but I never liked
boredom of trekking from store to store.
I got in a good workout on the
basketball court. We showered and hit the mall. When we got
there, we split up and agreed to meet an hour later. I bought
presents for my family and picked out a
beautiful silver anklet for Angie. By the time I'd gotten Angie's
gift it was time to meet up with my
friends. We met outside the sporting-goods store at the
agreed-upon time. After a brief conversation Ethan said, "Let's
go to the food court and grab some
pizza and Coke. Then maybe we could go back to the Rec and play
racquetball or something, if your sick ass is up to it."
'Well, I’m up for grabbing
food,' I said, "and racquetball sounds good. But I'm not finished
yet. I got one more thing to get."
We got our food and sat down
to eat it. Justin started asking me about the soccer team and
how I thought we'd do. That led to a discussion of athletic
scholarships and college, which led to a discussion about Matt getting
some serious looks from some colleges for a football scholarship.
Ethan was talking enthusiastically about Matt's throwing arm and his
ability to scramble, when he stopped and said, "You know, I haven't
seen you two hanging as much lately. What's up with that?"
"Nothing," I said, stirring my
Coke with my straw.
"Just seems like...I mean, why
aren't you doing all this mall-hopping with him?"
"I don't know," I said.
"He has shit to do, maybe."
Justin eyed me with
suspicion. "Did y'all get into it over something?"
"You'd have to ask him," I
muttered, then added quickly, "No. Don’t. Let it go,
okay? It's nothing."
"Okay. Sorry, man; none
of my business," he said. "Anyway, it's not like me and my bitch
over here don't like your company," he grinned, pointing at
Ethan. "It's just that if you don't patch it up with Matt, he may
leave me and try to move in on you, and I'd be big-time fuckin' sad,
then, 'cause nobody sucks dick as good as Ethan." He slapped
Ethan on the back and broke into a laughing fit. Ethan shot him
both fingers, but even though the joke was on him, he couldn't keep
I wasn't quite as entertained.
"Well, if you boys want to
stay here and work on your comedy routine," I said, "you gotta do it
without me." I got up to leave; I still had one gift to go.
"Always somebody in the crowd
with no sense of humor," Justin said, grinning, as he and Ethan
followed me. "So I'll give you a chance to show me something you do have. Let's see if you can
beat my ass at
racquetball. Like that's gonna happen in your weakened condition."
We didn't return to the
subject of Matt for the rest of the day.
Christmas Day came. I
spent the day with my family. We opened our presents in the
morning; then we went to church and spent the rest of the day with my
mom's parents in Fort Worth. We got back home about eight o'clock
I had one more person I needed
to see. I went up to my room, grabbed a small wrapped present,
and made my way out the front door.
The mechanics of separating
two lives that had once been close weren't easy. The past kept
tripping me up. Memories and expectations complicated my resolve
to avoid Matt’s accusing eyes. I thought about that as I got into
my car and drove over to his house.
We'd gotten each other
Christmas presents and birthday presents every year since we were ten.
I understood that he didn't feel so good about me any more, and I was
definitely uncomfortable around him. But it's not as though we'd
talked about anything, acknowledged that things were different.
And you didn't just stop giving Christmas presents. That would be
calling attention to the elephant in the living room.
We'd had one halting, painful
conversation on the matter of Christmas presents a few weeks earlier in
hall at school.
He'd brought it up. I figured he was looking for a way out, some
way to pull back from me without making a spectacle of it. After
an excruciating half-attempt to come to some mutually palatable
decision, he'd said, "Look, I know we both got to be saving up for next
year. Let's just get each other CDs, okay? Just get me a
CD." He thought for a minute, and laughed and said, "Get me some
of your fancy-ass classical shit--something you think I could learn to
like. Then when I hear it next year at college it'll remind
me..." his smile faltered momentarily, but he recovered quickly. "It'll
make me seem all sophisticated. I'll be able to tell people what
it is, and damn, will they be impressed!"
"Yeah, reading the front cover
of a CD that you own is pretty impressive," I said, grinning.
He looked at me, stopped
walking, and his smile faded again. "I'll get you a CD I want you
to have too," he said quietly. Then, as quickly as it had faded,
his smile was back, lighting up his face. We started walking
again. "I'll get you something totally unexpected," he said as we got
close to our classroom, "and you'll have to love it; that's the rule
that goes with this present. We're required to love the CD that
"I've loved every other
dumb-ass thing you've ever gotten me," I said; "why would this be any
"Well, that's it, then," he
said. "CDs all around, and no pissing and moaning about what we
Outside the classroom door,
things grew uncomfortable, as they often did lately. I tried to
think of something else to say. "Hey, would you be
interested in coming by tomorrow some time and maybe going to the Rec
and playing some racquetball? I haven't hardly done shit since
football, and I gotta get conditioned for soccer season."
He said quietly, "Yeah, I'd
like that." With that we walked into class and sat down.
We ended up going the next
afternoon, and for once we actually had a good time.
This was typical of the fits
and starts we had during that time period: once in a while, it
seemed as though maybe things would work themselves out. It felt
good. Almost normal again. But then I'd catch him gazing at
me, or I'd hear something in his tone of voice when he talked to me.
Then the dream I had back in September would come back to me, and I
knew that with the way he felt about me now, things would never be
I reflected on all that as I
drove to his house with his present. When I got there, Matt's mom
let me in, and I went up to his room.
He was watching TV; when he
looked up and saw me, he smiled a little, and said, "Hey,
Andy." He saw the gift in my hand and said, "All
right! My holiday
dose of culture; what did you get me?"
"You’ll have to open it and
see," I said. "What did you get me?"
He got up and went to his
closet and brought back a gift bag with a card attached.
Damn, I thought. I'll
bet he wrote something. I didn't even get a card for him.
"You go first," he said,
looking nervously at me.
I slid the card out of its
envelope, read it, and doubled over with laughter. It was a
raunchy card about Santa fucking the reindeer. Trying to regain
composure, I asked, "Where did you get that?"
"New Fine Arts," he
said. I raised my eyebrows; he grinned. The New Fine Arts
Theater was an upscale porno shop in Dallas. "Have you ever been
"No," I said.
"Well, I gotta tell you about
it some time. Anyway, open it."
I looked in the bag and pulled
out the CD. It was a CD from an older metal band,
Extreme. The CD's name was "Pornograffiti."
I looked at the picture on the
cover. "A hair band, Matt? Didn't this
come out when we were, like, ten?"
"Hey; I put a lot of thought
into this," he said. "No pissing and moaning, remember the rules?
You take it home and listen to it. You'll learn to like it.
You're too much into the damn college-music bands. Listen to it
until your brain sucks it in. It'll be good for you!"
"Okay, I'll give 'em a
chance," I said. "Thanks, man."
I fell silent; the air was
thick with what once was. I tried to speak, but my voice caught
in my throat.
Matt came to my rescue.
"All right--hand it over."
I gave it to him and he tore
into the wrapping. "Bach. Brandenburgische Kon..." he
trailed off, unsure of himself.
"Brandenburg Concertos," I
said. "Concerti, actually, I guess, is the plural.
Numbers One through Three. The group is headed by a guy named
Pinnock, using the kind of instruments they had during Bach’s day
instead of modern instruments. It's a kick in the ass,
Matt. You'll like it if you give it a chance. Especially
the third one."
He looked at me. "You
"I know you will," I
said. "Let me listen to it with you and I'll help you..."
I stopped. "Maybe you
can give it a few listens and we could talk about it some day.
Oh, and be sure to read the liner notes. It’ll help you get the
A look of exasperation passed
over his face. "Andy," he began, "look, man..."
Then he seemed to change his
mind about what he was going to say, and sighed.
"Thanks. Yeah, I’ll
listen to it. If you gave it to me, it's gotta be cool. You
Da Man with the classical shit."
"Damn right," I said,
I needed to leave.
"We can hang out some over
break, if you want," he offered.
If I want? Don’t do me any favors, I thought
"Yeah, sure," I said.
"I'll call you."
He looked me straight in the
eye and said, "No, you won't."
Twenty seconds passed as we
stared into each other’s eyes.
I lowered my gaze to the
floor. "I will, Matt," I said quietly.
"Okay, then," he said.
"Or maybe I’ll call you."
"That would be fine," I said.
I turned to leave.
“Merry Christmas, Andy," he
I looked back at him "Thanks,
man," I said. "You, too. Look, we’ll get together some
during the holidays.
I mean it."
He smiled. "Of course we
I did spend some time with him
during the break. Usually at the rec center or at his house,
playing video games. We kept it light, superficial. It’s
odd to say that, because in a way, we’d usually kept things light and
superficial throughout the years of our friendship. But these days, the
good-times attitude seemed forced.
My heart was never far from
broken. I knew I couldn't--shouldn't--love
him. Not the way I did. I knew he didn't want that, didn't
want me to be that way, wished I wasn't that way. I'd worked for
months pulling my love for him back into myself and shutting it
tightly in a box. I didn't hold that against him--but why did he
have to feel the way he did about me? Why did he have to make me
feel like a germ? And since he did, why did he insist on going
through the motions of being friends? He clearly no longer had
the heart for it. I didn't know the answers to any of these
things, and I didn't know what to do about it. And while I was angry
about his attitude toward me, I didn't want things all fucked up the
they were now.
New Year's Eve found us
together, with our dates, at a party hosted by Kathryn
Squires, one of the cheerleaders.
When the clock struck
midnight, after we'd kissed our women, I pulled him away and we stepped
into the back yard. I took a chair by the pool and motioned for
him to sit next to me.
When he'd gotten settled in, I
said to him, "I just needed to say something. I needed to ask for
"Go ahead," he said.
"Matt," I began, "we can find
a way, can't we? I mean, with one semester left?"
He looked at me with surprise,
then said quietly, "We can do whatever you need."
Whatever I need? I
bristled. He was the
one with the problem. He was the one who was all bent out of
shape about me. And I didn't need his pity or his solicitude or
Well, at least he doesn't totally hate me,
I thought. He's trying; why
can't I just do my best to live with it?
Because I didn't want whatever
it was between us to have to be about "trying." It never had to
like that before. And I hated having him feel that I was
defective, hated him for making me feel that I was defective.
I said, "Can we please not
making a big deal out of this? Why does that...that night...why does that have to keep
fuckin' things up? Can't we just go on from there? We hit a
bump. Can't we just move on down the road? We do okay, and
then you always...I mean, I don't see why..."
I don't see why you can't let me love you
and not treat me like a virus for it, I thought. But what
I said was, "Look. Just be my friend, okay? Why should it
be so hard? I'm not any different from how I've ever been."
"You're full of shit," he said
angrily. "You keep acting like..."
He stopped, and I watched him
struggle to get hold of his temper. He took a deep, ragged breath, and
said, "I'm sorry. Of course I
can be your friend. I've always been your friend. I'll do
what you want. Just show me how you want me to be your friend and
I'll do that.”
"There's nothing to show," I
said. "I just want it to be like it used to be, back before..." I
choked on the thought and tried to say it another way. "I just
want you not to always be lookin' at me like you..." My voice
trailed off; I was too ashamed to say it out loud. Finally I
looked down at the ground and said, quietly, "I want it like it's
I raised my head; he was
staring at me. I grew uncomfortable watching him as he studied my
Finally he said, "You don't
even know what you're doing, do you?"
"I'm not fuckin' doing
anything, Matt," I said indignantly. "I told you what I want and I
don't see what the big deal is. You'll either do it or you won't."
"Andy," he said with a
tenderness that caught me off-guard, "you're lying. You're lying
to me, but worst of all, you're lying to yourself. I know you
don't mean to be and I know you don't think you are, but you
put his hand on my shoulder. "But I'm tired, dude. I'm
tired of doing this by myself. So we'll play it your way.
Sure. I can make it like it's always been."
"I'm not fuckin' lying, Matt,
and I don't know what the hell you're talking about," I said.
"But I don't care about all that. We can get past it. Just stop
making a big deal out of things."
"All right; whatever you
want," he said quietly. "Happy New Year, then." He smiled
at me, sort of. It looked for all the world like a wounded smile,
and that pissed me off. "I'll try to show you," he
said. "But I'll do what you want."
Show me what? I thought. But
I wasn't in any shape to get into it. Ever again. I'd said
my piece and he'd said he'd do what I wanted. Best to leave it at
"Happy New Year," I said.
We went back into the house,
found our dates, and began following the new rules.
Copyright 2005 by Adam Phillips. Thanks for all the
emails. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I'll
do my best to answer.