In 6th grade, he told Natalie Porreca that I French-kissed him, which was SO not true.
You’d think that one would be unforgivable. But apparently, I am a gentle and charitable soul.
He had the blond flip hair that reminded me of Zach from Saved by the Bell. He was a prankster, so I should have known what I was getting myself into. I had my first perm-gone-wrong, and that boy never let me forget it. How did we become friends again?
James and I have one of those…what do you call it? Evergreen. We have an evergreen type of friendship. No matter where we’ve gone, what we’ve endeavored to do, our relationship remains year after year.
His given name is James Russell Carter. Rusty to his family. But always James to me.
In high school we were mostly going about our separate ways. Not intentionally. It’s just that we had different classes and interests and such. He was a dedicated band nerd and I was all about my art classes and my boyfriend.
As most high-schoolers did back then, we had jobs at the mall. I worked at the one-hour photo lab. James worked at a men’s clothing store. And Jamie, our other amigo, worked at a place where they sell a bunch of glass and metal things you can engrave. Very serious work, you know.
Clearly I was the one with the best job out of all three of us, so at some point I convinced both of them to jump ship and start working at the photo lab with me.
That’s when the fun really started.
You know how the experiences you have with some friends pretty much ensure you’ll never be able to run for Congress? Yeah, that’s pretty much how it is with us. James, Jamie, and I had so much fun at that photo lab, it’s borderline inaccurate to call it “work.”
We spent our clock hours cracking up over everyone-in-the-universe’s pictures. Their life’s memories, people. Just hilarious. And the grown-ups in the mall, the ones who had worked there far too long, simply weren’t having it when it came to our loud, obnoxious horseplay. I am sure we doled out some measure of torment to them on a regular basis. And I’m pretty sure we developed as much of our own film as we did our customers’. Oh, and also, said photo lab (their entire company, actually) is no longer in business. Go figure. Total coincidence, I’m sure.
It wasn’t all fun and games with us. We also survived some awful moments together, such as the time an elderly woman brought in about 15 rolls of film she had taken while on her trip to Ireland. She had just returned from her trip where she had gone to visit her relatives and the site of her ancestors’ homestead. A once-in-a-lifetime trip that could never be replaced. And then, our film processing machine malfunctioned. All her film was ruined. RUINED. I mean, almost every single frame on every single roll. It was nobody’s fault, just simply a mechanical error that had happened at the absolute worst possible time. We salvaged what we could, but that wasn’t much. And the poor woman stood in front of us, quietly crying, while we offered her free-everything-for-life, which was completely useless in the face losing images of memories she could never, ever replace. That was a bad day to say the least.
We had a love-hate relationship with that photo lab, to be sure. But being together all the time at that job helped keep our friendship going when our separate high school pursuits might have otherwise caused us to drift apart. For that I will forever be thankful.
One night when we were sweeping the floor and counting the cash drawer, James said to me very soberly: I need to talk to you. I could tell this constant jokester was not joking this time. His face had never been more serious. We finished up our duties, and we sat in the small, poorly lit office in the back. I already knew what this 17 year old boy was about to say, but I prepared myself anyway.
I wish I could remember the exact words, how he started, and every little detail of what he said. Perhaps he does. But there in the back room of the photo lab, surrounded by boxes and the thick stench of chemicals, my friend opened up his lips and his heart, and said the hardest words he’d ever said aloud:
I would have liked to have responded with some profound, loving words. But all I recall saying was: I know.
I asked James this week what was one thing he’d want people to know about our friendship. He responded: “You were the very first person that I ever actually told I was gay.” He said, “I’m crying as I type this because I don’t know that you really know how much I trusted you and you never betrayed it. Ever.”
He was right. At the time, I had no idea how profound that moment was for either of us. After all the years of trying to understand his own feelings, and feeling as if he had to keep it all inside, he was coming to a place where he had to open up to be fully honest with himself and the people around him.
Can you imagine years of trying to mentally and emotionally prepare for something of this magnitude? Having no idea whether what you were about to say would walk you right into unconditional love or a backlash of rejection? Not about your job choice, or your style of clothing, but YOU. They might love YOU or reject YOU. I cannot fathom the lump I would have had in my throat.
James has said before that my reaction helped set the stage for the trajectory of the rest of his life. For my friend to entrust his biggest moment to me is humbling to say the least. That’s when he knew I was His People. He said after he’d told me, and then never once worried that he had, he knew we’d be for life.
James isn’t my gay friend. He’s my friend. He also happens to be gay. And brilliant. And hard-working. And stubborn. And sarcastic. And nostalgic. And tender-hearted. And the best uncle you’ve ever seen on the face of this planet. Those are just a few of the things that make him who he is. All the things together make him into the person that I love and cherish as one of My People.
We are now approximately a billion light years past high school and that little back office of the photo lab in the mall. But James and I are still close, and we always will be. We don’t see each other every single day. We don’t agree on every single thing. We have to make breakfast dates in advance to be able to catch up on each other’s lives.
He’s now a professor of social work at Wright State. His research and ideas have been published more times than I could count. He’s won awards for his work and advocacy. I’ve never seen anyone work harder to realize their dreams. I’m so thankful I’ve been along for the ride the whole time so I could see the beautiful, confident person he’s become. And he’s always been so supportive of my endeavors. He champions me as a teacher like nobody’s business. He’s encouraged me in my creative pursuits. He’s just there for me. Like a friend always is.
Friends, you just never know when Your People are about to let you into a profound moment of their lives. We all have something about us that requires a sacred trust to let out. When Your People give you the gifts of their thoughts and feelings, return the gesture with lots of love. It doesn’t matter if you understand everything they are going through. Just be there to show them that you’re going to love them no matter what. It may completely change the course of their life, and yours.
When we live through hard things together, and come out on the other side of them holding on to love and trust, we are sure to be each other’s People for life.
I love you, James. You are forever My People no matter what. And I thank you for trusting me to be part of such an important moment of your life. We are both very different people now than we were back in high school, I know. But my favorite part of us is that we love and respect each other for who we are. And that will never change.