My best friend in the whole world is coming for a visit next weekend. With him will come nearly 25 years of shared experiences, highs, lows, laughter, tears….losses….and gains.
Joe and I met at an audition for a college production of “Equus” in 1985. He was a funny talented freshman who made a point to come talk to me after my audition to tell me how good he thought I was. I responded with the cool assurance of a sophomore who thought she knew the theater department ropes pretty well by then. We basked in our mutual admiration and went on our way.
Neither of us got cast. Turns out we weren’t as spectacular as we thought we were. But that failed audition brought a force of nature into my life I can’t imagine living without. My Joe. MY Joe. Having drawn a monosyllabic weight lifter as his freshman roommate (your basic nightmare for young gay theater boy), he’d show up at my dorm room door with a blanket, a pillow and a stack of books asking plaintively “can I study in here?” Both of us were English majors who spent far too much time in the theater department and as such were glued at the hip. We snarked our way through three years of poetry and drama classes together — one time even naming everyone in our contemporary poetry class after the poets we were studying. “ I think HE looks like a W.S Merwin don’t you?” I’d inquire. “ Yes but SHE is absolutely a Louise Gluck.” When a classmate asked for an extra bluebook during a test Joe snarked “boy, you’re optimistic aren’t you?” Like me he shared a deep love for really great writing, a passion for musical theater and Sondheim, and a strong desire to mock the uber-serious students around us who refused to see that the world was one big glorious playground if you looked at it the right way. In acting classes when we’d pile on top of each other for the inevitable soundbeast (where you’re supposed to become all inventive and listen to each others sounds and build a wonderful cacophonous noise) Joe would instead start saying the names of 1970s tv stars. Around us earnest young actors would be click-clacking and “ahhhhhh” ing and woofing and there he’d be calmly injecting “Gavin McLeod.” “Polly Holiday.” “Charlotte Rae.” When a new building on campus was dedicated to the memory of a woman named Edith Stein we promptly renamed it the Edith Bunker building. We insisted there had to be a way to get a MacArthur fellowship to study the importance of sitcoms and buddy cop dramas on American culture. We’d steal guns from the theater department prop room and play Cagney and Lacey or Charlies Angels in the hallowed halls of academia. Joe was beloved by everyone in his orbit and I was just grateful to be along for the ride.
Our friendship endured through a marriage (mine), a few relationships (his), a divorce (mine), death (my parents and sister), major career changes (his), a child (mine –but his goddaughter), a major life change (mine) and a sad and painful breakup (his). And through it all there is nothing that makes me smile more than to have my phone ring and hear on the other end “what do you think that girl who played Dee on What’s Happening? Is up to these days.” Or to receive an email with an attached photo of Joe dressed up in a kimono with the caption “do you think I’d ever get cast in Pacific Overtures.” Every Oscar night was spent glued to the phone with each other dissecting fashions and acceptance speeches. For me, nothing was sweeter than making him laugh so hard he couldn’t breathe. I’m often told I’m funny…but to make Joe laugh is the gold medal of humor.
One other thing bound us together. Our love of food. Lifelong struggles with weight and self confidence plagued us both. Life can really whollop you but a really good lemon cake never disappoints we’d say. I loved eating with Joe. When you’re a fat girl and you find someone you can eat with without self-censoring yourself it’s like manna from the heavens. Any excursion we took would be peppered with “you know, I could go for a snack” or “hmmm …why don’t we eat?”. We explored high-brow restaurants and diners, stopped for ice cream, and sat for hours over the Saturday morning breakfasts he and his (then)partner would prepare for Kelly and me when we visited. Of course we’d talk about how fat we are, joke about moving to Afghanistan where burkas were all the rage (“they’re so LUCKY over there” we’d say). Oh sure along the way we’d yo-yo at different times, I’d go through one of my many flirtations with Weight Watchers, lose a bunch of weight then gain it all back plus the requisite 10 more pounds. We’d always talk about getting up early to go for power walks but would sleep in and drive to get coffee instead. He had his time at the gym and I had my time at jazzercise and my attempts to turn my gigantic body into that of a cyclists. (Probably the most futile effort in weight loss history ).
Right now I’m heavier than ever. Always a stress eater I turned again and again to comforting carbs as I tried to deal with the most difficult work climate year of my entire career, parenting difficulties, and residual grief from the loss of my mother. Excessive snow and ice made it easy to stay home and eat and hide my fat under layers of fleece. The bigger I got the less excercised, feeling sure that everyone who saw me walking or at the gym was mocking me. Clothes stopped fitting. I bought an assortment of colored tops so people at work wouldn’t notice I only had two pairs of pants I could wear anymore. Photos depressed me. Life, as it always does with me, became about my fat. This cycle however, coincided with Joes renewed commitment to fitness. Stronger and leaner than ever he looks wonderful, healthy and handsome. But when we got together a few times in June something was different. He didn’t join me and Kelly for snacks, he didn’t want to stop for lunch. He was thin and had acquired a thin person’s sensibilities.
I felt like an alchoholic who loses his bar-crawling buddies. My food buddy had abandoned me. I felt awkward and self conscious about what I ate in front of him. Of course I made the usual jokes about my girth and panicked when he suggested we start off his visit with a trip to an exercise class. Near tears I wrote him begging him not to ask this of me. I couldn’t go back to that class. It was too hard to wheeze and groan in front of women I used to keep up with. I didn’t want to be the subject of the “what the hell happened to HER she’s bigger than ever?” comments. I couldn’t bear the conversations where people’s eyes would furtively dart to my fat rolls instead of my face. “Of course honey of course,” He replied. “It’s you I’m coming to see we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” He’s my best friend, someone who would never hurt me and who understands me better than anyone on the planet next to Kelly and loves me with a fierce devotion that humbles and honors me. But in the back of my mind as I look at the new photos of his lean buff physique and compliment him on how great he looks (for indeed I don’t think he’s ever looked better), I wonder what he thinks looking at my photos.
Yeah I know. It’s not all about me. I get that. Nor is this meant to be a pity party. I got myself this fat and sooner or later I have to get myself out of this cycle. The responsibility for my obesity sits squarely on my shoulders. And honestly I couldn’t be happier for Joe that he’s found such a great new state of health and fitness at a time in his life when he needs to feel really great about himself. But as I prepare for his visit next weekend, eagerly anticipating the laughs, the snark, the musical theater references, and the long quiet talks about what’s happening in our lives, there’s a part of me that will miss my food buddy. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time I learned how to navigate the world of food without him by my side. Maybe it’s time I finally learned to eat for one. And I know as I try yet again to make this journey toward a body that doesn’t shame me, he’ll be there for me as he always has been to make me laugh, let me cry, and love me for who I am and not my dress size. My Joe. MY Joe. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.