– by Jay Shepherd August 7, 2014
[This is the first in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, a series I’m calling “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not easily identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
This is a story about a jock and an outcast. I thought I knew both of them, and maybe I did, once. But in the end, I certainly didn’t.
Terry was the jock. At the age of 12, he was the star on his Little League baseball team, and one of the few his age to make the cut on the local kids’ football team. But we’re in Canada, right? Neither of those things really matter. Being on the rep team in hockey was what really counted. Yes, he made that team too.
He didn’t look like a jock, then. Not tall, and in fairness you would probably call him a little pudgy. He could run pretty fast, that’s true (although never fast enough to be on the track team). Call him a jock-in-training: no abs, but fully committed to his sports.
Jonathon (don’t call him “John”) was the outcast. When he was 12, he was more than six feet tall, and at least forty points overweight. “Eeyore”, kids sometimes called him. Despite his size, he was almost clinically timid, at least in part the result of his social ineptitude (or maybe it was the other way around). He couldn’t carry on a conversation with a new person, period.
Needless to say, Jonathon was the target of bullies, and it didn’t help that such a big guy had very little strength or co-ordination. Perfect for bullies: a big target who couldn’t defend himself.
Terry and Jonathon were in the same class at school, and ended up going to the same high school. They didn’t interact much, though. Terry did reasonably well in school – he was no dummy, for sure – as long as it didn’t divert his attention from sports. High school was a continued saga of one sports success after another for Terry, and his naturally gregarious personality made him a central player amongst the popular crowd.
Jonathon, on the other hand, never really got into a social milieu. He remained large, ungainly, and un-coordinated, his tongue firmly tied whenever approached by others. He wasn’t bullied much in high school. He was just ignored.
Their paths diverged after high school. Terry spent a couple of years in university on a sports scholarship, but he was never going to be a professional athlete, despite his commitment to sports. After second year, he left to backpack around the world with this then-girlfriend. When he returned, he became an insurance agent, and within a year they were married. That was the last I heard of him for more than thirty years.
University was much better for Jonathon. He found some new friends, and it turned out he was a natural-born academic. After his undergraduate work, he was sought after for graduate studies in both history (his major), and philosophy (based on two journal articles in the field). With considerable anguish, he chose history, and eventually, PhD in hand, he became a history professor. He was still single – actually, still in graduate school – when he dropped off my radar.
A few years ago, I saw their names one after another on the attendee list for a charity event. It was too much of a co-incidence, so with the help of a reluctant event organizer, I tracked them down. Jonathon, still tall and ungainly, looked perhaps a little fitter, and lot better dressed. Terry, with a bit of a paunch, and shorter than I remembered, was casual and relaxed.
The story they told me, over that evening and a couple of others, was nothing like what I expected.
Terry was married for fifteen years, had a couple of boys, and made a reasonable success of his insurance business. After his wife caught him in an affair with one of his clients, his marriage ended, but his commitment to his boys, and particularly their sports activities, didn’t falter. He had lost some of his self-confidence, but none of his love of sports.
One thing that rankled him, year after year, was the widely-held perception that Terry, just a high school graduate, wasn’t really very smart. He didn’t mind being thought of as a jock, but he didn’t like being considered a “dumb jock”.
Thus, he resolved to go back to university as a mature student. There he met up with Jonathon.
If Terry had lost some of his confidence, Jonathon had gained much more. The respect that came from being a professor, and the constant re-affirmation by new students every year, were good for him.
Terry and Jonathon reconnected first as teacher and student, but their common history from middle school and high school allowed them to connect as friends as well. Funny how the distance between them as kids had disappeared, and they became just two guys in their fifties, talking about life.
They had gotten together three times before Jonathon felt comfortable telling Terry an important fact: Jonathon was gay. Terry, who at one time would have recoiled in horror from such a revelation, had grown over decades of life. To Terry, Jonathon’s new fact was nothing more than an explanation for why he had never married. Without the explanation, Terry would have assumed the reason was social awkwardness, even though Jonathon appeared much better socially than he had been. Sexual orientation was an easier cause to understand.
What was more interesting to me, though, was what happened after that; because it was clear to me from the moment I started talking to them that they are now a couple. The Terry and Jonathon I had known could never have ended up as a couple, at least not in this universe.
The way they explained it, with a laugh, was that they became lovers because of golf. Golf? Seriously?
As Terry got older, he shifted his attention from the more physically demanding sports, to one that made sense for his business. He was a reasonable golfer, and the regular exercise did him good. Jonathon was a less likely golfer. He took it up at the urging of one of his students, and it turned out he was good at it. The combination of his height, and his patient personality, overcame his poor hand-eye co-ordination. By the time he reconnected with Terry, he was an accomplished, twice-a-week player.
Once they discovered that they both played golf, they started playing regularly. If you had asked Terry at that time about his relationship with Jonathon, he would have said he was a good friend, and then later his best friend. More and more they started sharing their thoughts and feelings, what people call today a “bromance”. A round of golf gives you a lot of opportunity to get to know someone.
For Jonathon, though, when the golf season came to an end that first October, he was in the process of realizing that his feelings for Terry were more than friendly. He describes that discovery as agonizing. If he disclosed his feelings to Terry – who was relentlessly heterosexual – it was possible he would lose his best friend. If he kept it to himself, in his mind he would be giving up on what could be the love of his life.
Terry says that, when they were sitting around Jonathon’s living room, and the now self-confident Jonathon suddenly became a stammering idiot, he knew something was up. Jonathon had opted for honesty – “taking the risk”, as he said. Terry was less surprised than he might have been, but he says, today, that his initial reaction was an emphatic “not interested”. He was nice about it; he didn’t want to lose his friend, either. But in his mind he was a man who loved women, not men.
So Terry said no, but with enough sensitivity to maintain the friendship. They had some awkwardness, true. They dealt with it by agreeing to place the conversation in the category of “things that weren’t ever going to happen”.
What Jonathon didn’t know at the time was that Terry kept thinking about it, trying to better understand his feelings about Jonathon. He was excited when he saw Jonathon. Clearly his feelings were different from what he felt with other friends. But, were those feelings sexual, or romantic? That seemed impossible. Through his whole life, even those few times when he found another man attractive, he never once felt it natural to approach that man as he would a woman.
That January, they went on a golf vacation together, and they spent hours discussing their feelings. Jonathon was hesitant. To him, more discussions were not going to end with a romantic relationship. They were going to end with the loss of his best friend. But Terry was insistent. He was trying to understand if he was gay, or bisexual, or the straight male he had always assumed he was.
The trip ended with no conclusion, but a month later Terry moved into Jonathon’s house, and they have been together ever since. They both say nothing happened in the meantime. Jonathon felt they were in limbo. Then Terry moved in. They say they didn’t even talk about it. It just happened. They have no explanation.
I read back through this, and it sounds like a fairy tale. I’m not sure, even after hearing the whole story from both Terry and Jonathon, that I really understand what happened.
What I saw, though, is two men in love with each other. If you said in 1963 that this was possible, and with these two guys, people would have laughed out loud, and rightly so.
Yet in their late fifties they found each other. If they were a man and a woman, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. A sweet story, but quite believable. People reconnect with people from their distant past, and fall in love. These things happen. Why is it that, since it is a man and a man, it doesn’t seem possible?
I don’t know the answer, but I did enjoy seeing the smiles on their faces.