Friends with Benefits, by Mary Ruefle

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April 2021 Issue [Readings]

Friends with Benefits


From the essay “Dear Friends,” which was published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Sewanee Review.

i have a friend who has never read a single word I have written. I love being with her.

i have a friend who is not a person I could ever be, even if I tried, nor would I want to be, and I love being with her.

i had a friend in high school, I had a crush on him, he was gay but I didn’t know it. I had other friends who were gay, and my favorite teachers were gay but I didn’t know it, and there were other teachers who were not gay and not my favorite who were having sex with students who were not my friends but I didn’t know it, I found out years later, my friend told me all about it, and I was shocked. We were in our thirties then, and he was dying of AIDS. I mean, he had AIDS and knew he would probably die but was not certain; he didn’t want to die, but he did come to see me, twice, in what turned out to be the last year of his life. We sat in a diner in the middle of Michigan and he told me all this stuff that was going on in high school that I had been completely unaware of. None of the gay guys in high school had come out, and he talked about that, about how he knew I had a crush on him but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me he was gay. We actually laughed about it, we were in our thirties and considered ourselves grown-ups, adults. Later I found out that I was not grown-up at thirty, but he never found out, he died before he could find out he wasn’t a grown-up. Sitting in the diner, I said to him, I am so sorry. And he said, Why, because I am gay? I said, No, not that; because you are going to die. And he said, I don’t want to die, but, you know, these things happen. After the diner, he wanted to take a strenuous hike through the dunes of Lake Michigan, he had had chemo and was weak but was determined to try this one thing while he still had the chance, to see if he could. He barely made it, we would stop every few yards so he could rest, but he would not give up or turn back, and when we reached the shore of the lake, he opened his fly and pissed right into the water, I saw his penis for the first time, he had a huge grin on his face and he took off his baseball cap—he was bald beneath it—and waved it in the air like he was riding a bronco in a rodeo. His lover was at the opera when he died, and his mother called me to tell me her son was gone. I had never met her, and she said to me, “He talked about you a lot in high school, and at the end, but I never understood—what was the nature of your relationship?” I could tell this was awkward for her, that in her grief she wanted to know everything she could about her son’s life and wondered if he had had sexual relations with women as well as men. I told her the truth, I said, “Your son was my friend, we were always friends, he was a friend of mine, and I was very lucky.”

i had a friend who died, yet every time I think of him, I smile and am never sad. How can you not smile when you recall a man who, given the choice, would eat only white food? His favorite meal, which he often served to guests, was boiled spaghetti with cheese sprinkled on top, cheese you shook from a can, and for dessert a boxed Boston cream pie with the chocolate glaze diligently scraped off. A man who was such a romantic that his idea of a pickup line was, “You have all the colors of October in your hair, come and have a doughnut in my car.” He also dumped a bucket of sand on the floor of his car so he could “take the beach with him” wherever he went. A masterful writer who had published to acclaim but fell out with the times and in his dotage announced with glee that a few paragraphs were appearing in Yankee magazine. A man who was determined to tap a maple tree for syrup, and upon tapping the lone, spindly tree in his front yard announced with pride that a cup of sap had produced a teaspoon of syrup, which he gave as a gift to his neighbor’s dog. The last time I saw my friend was the night of a full moon, and he desired us to view it from the end of a pier, so dangerously dilapidated it had been cordoned off by a chain and an ordinance. He drove as far as the chain, got out of his car, unhitched the chain, and drove us to the end of the pier, where we parked and sat in silence as the moon rose over the ocean. Finally he turned to me and said, “They can’t keep the moon out.”

i have a friend who used to be a dancer. She once choreographed and performed a dance I have never forgotten. She danced to Al Green singing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” She was alone on the stage, and a spotlight followed her as she moved. She was wearing a paper bodysuit, and as she moved the paper tore, at first in tiny slits at the seams, and then in big gashes, rip after rip until she was dancing in shreds, practically naked. It was so bold and beautiful and sad, and happened once and once only; it was something to behold, and then it vanished from the earth.

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