[Writer's Note: For ethical reasons, I've changed details regarding the friend described, and made her, more or less, a composite character.]
During my Syracuse graduate school years, a little over a decade ago, a straight female poet and I spent our nights drinking cheap wine, and eating at least three Weight Watchers desserts a piece in one sitting. That didn't include the actual meals. We ate and drank, drank and ate, the whole time resenting all the straight men who found a home for their books before us. It was fun despising everyone else. If you're attentive enough, everyone can become quite contemptible. Trust me.
We possessed a great deal of respect and love for one another. At the same time, our relationship didn't replicate the false romanticization of gay male-straight female relationships. There was an honesty to our relationship. We were not only a little repulsed by our privileged counterparts; we also found the other, not all the time, but on occasion, very rare occasion, of course, a sensible fraud.
As we watched all our MFA friends find publication, we undermined their work with one another, making up convenient justifications as to why their books found homes quicker than us.
“But you are on the verge,” I said to her.
“No,” she said, “You’re on the verge.”
"No," I said, "You're on the verge."
"Really?" she said.
"I feel that way about myself, too," she said, "It's tough for a woman to feel that way. Not that you wouldn't know. You're ultimately a man."
She smiled and then I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I prayed that she didn't win a poetry book contest for at least another six months. I needed to beat her. After all, I felt I was on the verge too. I knew it.
I can still remember the day my friend received her long-awaited news. Suffering from hypochondria, I was at the ER room for my biannual MRI tests. Tests done for really no reason. After the results came back, always good, and left the hospital, I always feel elated. Nothing’s going to kill me for the next few weeks. If you need a quick boost, and have good insurance, get an MRI. It's sort of fun. All one needs to know in this world is that their body remain safe a little while longer.
Or at least that’s what I thought. My best friend left an unclear message, telling me to call her back as soon as possible. I was excited; I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t suffering from a fatal disease. I needed to hear a congratulations.
“You won’t believe it!” she said.
“You won’t believe it,” I said even louder. Gay men fall into one of two categories: sentimentalists or histrionics. I'm hysterical. It makes me proud.
“You first,” she said.
“I’m not dying.”
“That’s great,” she said. I could tell she was jealous. What better news is that?
“Yours?” I said.
“I got a call today from a contest judge about my book. I won!”
“I’m so happy,” I said, “It couldn’t happen to someone more deserving.”
Of course, there was someone else who was more deserving. But I didn't say who. I felt that it went without saying.
It did me feel good that I was the first person she told. I loved her. I was touched when she expressed how excited she was to tell me, impatient about my somatic illness. One of the most important aspects of any friendship: to allow the other to indulge in their own stories. I loved that she began to obsessively repeat certain particulars: her surprise that the judge had such a distinctive voice, what poems they wanted removed, etc. I listened to her for at least an hour. Which was no time at all. How much time had we spent indulging our jealous towards people who were better and worse than us?
You can call anyone with bad news. People love to feel better about themselves. Good news though is a burden: happiness, even when you genuinely feel it for someone else, is hard to genuinely convey.
Routinely, when a friend found publication, I was selfish. I wanted to hear every detail. Every single detail. It was fascinating for me to find out how everything with publication works. I wanted to hear as much about my straight female friends' successes as I did about their romantic relationships. One always was excelling; the other doomed. Something always need some pity. Which I offered. It made everyone feel better.
“You know the judge was gay?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“You have to be sure to look and see what contests he’s judging. He is gay,” she said, "I’m sure he’d like your poems, especially the sexual ones. And how could he not? You're gay. He's gay. You have a step a head of someone, like say, me."
“You think?” I said, smiling. “Gay men often feel pressured to avoid picking other gay men. They don’t want to look prejudiced."
"Yeah," she said.
"In fact, I bet he probably would pick another straight female’s book. They’re no threat to him," I said.
She listened very carefully. Which was what I wanted. And then I added: "A straight woman’s vulnerability is always touching to a gay man. Their problems are always so obvious. That’s why we're there in the first place: to help her with the obvious.”
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