For over seven years we had no contact with each other, other than an occasional distant glimpse. I heard from a mutual friend that Joey was divorced and that the kids spent alternate weeks with each parent. Through friends who worked where he did, I would now and then hear how he was doing professionally and personally.
Every once in a while I would wonder about him. For example, parts of the story might come up in discussion with some other friend, gay or straight, about past relationships. If I tried to imagine what it would be like to talk to him, though, it always felt like there wouldn't be much to say.
Early in the interim period, Joey wanted to come back to our place to work. There was an opening, for which he applied. Despite the fact that I had quietly campaigned for him, to my great surprise he didn't get hired. Apparently, he thought he could blame me for that.
It soon reached me that one day he had showed up with a letter addressed to my boss. In it he reportedly explained that while sharing an office with me, his job performance had been adversely affected by my interest in him. Fortunately, he showed the letter to someone else first, who read it and told him, "You can't do this!" and talked him out of going through with it.
I would never have dreamed that an enemy, much less a former friend, would undertake a stunt as low as that. I just thought, "Well now, that is very fucked up!" I felt sorry for him.
But even so, somehow I had not reached the sort of finality that characterized other fizzled-out relationships. As I saw it, the many good times far outweighed the bad ones. In addition, a couple of my most prized and enduring friendships, ones that have lasted for decades, had encountered obstacles that needed to be overcome by deliberate concerted effort, so in Joey's case I was prepared to do the work if it ever came to that.
In the spring of 2003 a sense of nothing to lose or simply a feeling that the time had come led me to send him email inviting him to join me for the final concert of the Madison Symphony's season, which was to include Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis". Behind the thought was the reaction he had had to the Mahler symphony years before: maybe the music would somehow exert a positive, healing influence.
Following a short email exchange, tentative on both sides, we went. After the concert, we walked to a bar down the street and had a beer. The conversation was fairly relaxed and didn't touch at all on the past. The music hadn't had any effect one way or another, as far as I could tell.
A week after the concert, he stopped by my house with the girls, whom I had not seen since they were kids aged 5 and 4. In the interim they had grown, of course, and were on the cusp of strikingly beautiful young womanhood. In their demeanor towards me one would never have guessed that years had gone by. The three of them took me out for a 68th-birthday dinner.
What seemed to be a renewed friendship started up. At any rate we did things together with increasing frequency. It was great being around the kids again. The ambience was much more casual than before, mostly ordinary daily living, like feeding the dog and cat when he was out of town, holding up pieces of drywall in the new bathroom he was building at home, going to blues concerts or classical concerts, eating out or at his house or mine, etc.
In following months, often over some sort of meal or coffee at my house when the girls were with their mom, I tried a few times to discuss our past, as a way of understanding its problems, of venting and resolving leftover confusion, resentment or whatever that still lay there. Those conversations never developed.
In our early email exchanges, he had told me that his relationships had all ended in failure, yet he seemed altogether unwilling to elaborate. The past was clearly a taboo topic. I tried several different strategies for drawing him out on such matters, to build up trust, to void pent-up rage (he admitted having a deep well of stored anger), and so forth, but all without success.
In the spring and summer of 2004 Joey was very seriously training for the Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon, a gruelling competition consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a full 26.2-mile marathon run. It's a major international sports event held in Madison every September. It draws thousands of contestants, including the top professional triathletes of both genders.
A small coterie of friends provided support and encouragement for Joey, and I think we all gave it enthusiastically and unstintingly. In the run-up to the main event, there was the annual 20-mile Syttende Mai race from Madison to Stoughton, and not long after that the Madison Marathon. In both events Joey, at 40 no longer exactly a kid, turned in wholly creditable first-time performances. Together with the others, I was cheering him on in the middle and at the finish line of these races.
For my 69th birthday in 2004, Joey and the girls invited me to a party at their place, just the four of us, a dinner with a birthday cake and lots of fun. It was maybe the closest we ever got to the good-time ambience from the old times. The birthday card he gave me mentioned valuing my wisdom. A year later, that seemed ironic.
When Ironman day finally arrived, everyone was pretty excited on his behalf. I had had to drive out in the country a couple weeks earlier to retrieve him from from a bike ride that proved more than he could handle that day, so it was not a completely sure thing he'd be able to finish the Ironman in the allotted time. But he did, with just under four hours to spare. When he wants to be, he's tough as nails. It was a momentous, joyous occasion.
Through the remainder of the year we hung out together regularly, once or twice a week on average. For my part, the basis of the bond was apprecation for having a sometime companion for various activities and a huge respect for his grit in achieving these terrifically challenging personal goals.
There was, for me at least, none of the emotionally charged overlay that had complicated the earlier phase. Our social events were just that: spending time together the way people who've known each other for over a decade do.
The tenor of things seemed to me appropriate to our mutual and separate interests and styles of relating; it felt easy and relaxed. Of course, along with enjoying Joey's positive aspects, I no longer had anything at risk in what I saw as his less positive qualities, which afforded a much more balanced, detached view of him, based primarily on my own impressions, augmented by what I know of other failed relationships he's been involved in.
While necessarily schematic, what it seemed to be, basically, was that Joey was mainly about Joey. Other people existed primarily as adjuncts to his own passions and interests. He can be strongly supportive and involved when his interests are being served.
Those who give him support and caring may find it a predominantly one-way venture. It always seems to end the same way: if called upon to reciprocate or to explain, or if challenged in any significant way, he stops commmunicating and withdraws completely.
In my case, that happened again in January, 2005. At first I was puzzled, then miffed, and finally resigned. I have no clue what set him off, but things were what they were. On his behalf, I'd observe that if he keeps doing what he's always done, he'll keep getting what he's always gotten. He -- or for that matter, anyone -- deserves better.