Starting Small


I’d been thinking a lot about friends and high school and high school friendships lately, and it prompted me to write this piece. This essay didn't come as easy as the last one. I think you'll see that there's an unresolved element to this story that will probably never be realized. [Note: I have changed their actual name for this essay]


A GIF of Tammy and Tina from Bob's Burgers
I'll let you decide which one I was in high school.

Some friendships we escape, others we might let fade away until they’re almost erased, or maybe you wake up one morning and realize you’re nowhere near the person you were in high school, that that version of you doesn’t exist anymore. My friendship with Vincent was all of these things combined. We started out on the same trajectory, and little by little, year after year, our paths slowly diverged.


We met in sixth grade. I was a strange, queer, sullen kid. And Vincent radiated gay before even he probably knew. For me it started out as a friendship of survival, but it became more than that. We didn’t have to work at being friends, and I always had to work at being friends.

We were inseparable throughout elementary and middle school, and we had each other’s backs all though high school. Everyone says high school is the worst. Because it is. Regardless of the bullying, homework, the rampant hormones, gym class, and whatever the hell SATs were supposed to prove, the part I hated most was feeling like it would never end. That I’d peak during these four years and then I’d be just like everyone else, stuck in the vortex that is Erie, PA. But at least Vincent and I had each other.


An image from the film "The Craft"
And witchcraft. We always had witchcraft.

Vincent came out to me long before I came out to him, which wasn’t until our senior year of high school. It didn’t help that Vincent was into me. I think he always had been. I couldn’t say I felt the same. He sent many, many signals I tried to deflect. But then again, we were the only two gay men we knew. And we were horny high schoolers. You do the math. For me it was a comfortable means to an end, but I got the distinct impression Vincent was bringing something more to our occasional fooling around.


After high school, we both stuck around Erie. The vortex had claimed us both. I worked retail, but Vincent went to college near Pittsburgh...for a few months then failed out, moved back home and started working a series of unfulfilling restaurant and hotel jobs. He also got into the Erie drag scene, something he genuinely excelled at. It made me happy to see him doing something he was so passionate about.


But after working retail for six years, I had reached a breaking point; I was stuck in the Erie vortex and I needed to break free. I quit my job and went to Edinboro University, a small liberal arts college in Erie county, not Scotland. It wasn’t far away, but it was far enough to feel like I was plotting a course out of there.


I was making a new circle of friends in college. And as much as I tried to cater to Vincent, to bring him into my new social circles, there was a distance between us I hadn’t felt before. And I was convinced I was the one causing it. I was sure I was leaving Vincent behind.

Not that it mattered. The more I tried to make him feel included, the more he’d act out. He’d start ridiculous arguments and have dramatic outbursts about how he didn’t feel like we were best friends anymore.


Sort of like this, only with less cold cream. And cleanser.

He’d lament that we used to be like brothers and how he wished we could go back to that time. It didn’t make any sense to me. We were still good friends—still best friends. But I didn’t want to go back to that time. I wasn’t the same person I was in high school. I didn’t think he was either.


After graduating from Edinboro, I stayed the course and moved out of Erie. I needed to strike out on my own. I needed to be away from Vincent and my family and Erie in general. So I moved downstate with a friend. But I never strayed too far. I stayed in touch with everyone in Erie and visited all the time. Our friendship had eroded a lot by then but I didn’t acknowledge it; I had no reason to. The ease was still there, despite his increasingly temperamental attitude.


When he started hitting me up for money, it didn’t occur to me to say no. It wasn’t an issue because I knew him. I knew he was good for it. When I came to visit and we’d spend time together, it seemed like old times again, the distance didn’t feel as great. What did it matter that our quality time seemed to come with a price tag?


The money would be for seemingly innocuous things: car payments, bills, he was in between jobs (he had a temper and a problem with authority figures so he was always in between jobs). These requests became more and more frequent, so much so that it became clear to me that he wasn’t reaching out for me, but for my money. It got to the point where I was dreading every text message and phone call. Because he knew I wouldn’t—couldn’t—say no to him. As far away as I felt from the vortex, there was Vincent, like a tractor beam, keeping me tethered.


I suppose here, I'm the man in the tube? I don't know what metaphor I'm going for, I just really like this GIF.

Unsurprisingly, I was growing restless. I was in a holding pattern living in PA. So I plotted a new course and decided to go to grad school. After applying to a few select places, I was accepted into the writing MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was launching out of my comfort zone and I was terrified in the best way.


I imagined how wonderful it would be. I’d sway Vincent to visit and then he’d be just as taken with Chicago as I was and move here, too. Vincent, for all his issues, was a brilliant cook and fantastic drag performer. It made sense to me that he’d want to be a part of all that Chicago had to offer.


Maybe I was naive, but I assumed Vincent wanted the same thing. We both imagined living life together, like some Romy and Michele fantasy, living a fabulous life in a big city and showing up everyone at our high school reunion. I really thought we’d conquer the world together. I couldn’t imagine life without my best friend until it actually happened.


An image from Rome and Michele's High School Reunion
Eerily similar to how we actually talked (and dressed tbh)

The last time I saw Vincent was 2015. I was in town from Chicago visiting family, and the two of us went out to dinner. I’d just received my MFA, and was excited to celebrate with him. But sitting in that restaurant, I saw the friend I’d spent countless hours with watching Star Trek, playing video games, writing stories and making art. I saw that same friend look at me nonplussed. He sat there, listening to my achievements, barely cracking a smile. We sat across from each other but I might have been hours—light years—away in Chicago. The expanse between us was conspicuous. I went through the motions. Small talk. A hug at the end of the night. Of course Vincent made sure to ask me for more money that evening, too.


Adore Delano from Drag Race
How I feel every time I go home to Erie.

In 2016 I wrote him a letter. It seemed more personal than a text. And I wasn’t confident I could do this over the phone. I wrote about how conflicted I felt about everything, how sad I was about how our relationship had changed. I told him that I wouldn’t be giving him any more money. I desperately wanted to salvage our friendship, I wanted us to at least try to recapture what we once had, but it had to be without these sick transactions. I had gone from being a friend to being an ATM. I waited for his reply. Strangely enough, I wanted a fight. I wanted him to unleash his inner diva. I wanted to have a final, glorious falling out.


And if you get emotionally devastated, it's your own fault!

That letter was a parting gift. We haven’t spoken since.


I find what happened between us particularly egregious, not only because he was my best friend, but how he used that against me. I’d do anything for him. And he exploited that for years. I still don’t believe he was using the money for the reasons he gave. But I’ll never know for sure.


I don’t know where Vincent ended up. He’s not online: no twitter, no instagram, hell, not even facebook. For all I know he’s still in Erie, in that vortex. I hope he’s happy wherever he is.

High school fooled me into thinking we were on the same trajectory. And I tried to stick to it for as long as I could. But I had to free myself from Erie, from the life that kept me scuttled. I still love him but I am not responsible for his success or failure. I am not responsible for his happiness. I had to escape the orbit of our friendship, for his sake as well as mine.


Warp factor 10

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I suppose I should start with an introduction. Hi! I'm Kurt Conley. I'm a writer and designer and super-queer fellow living in Chicago. This is my first real attempt at a website/blog thingie. And I t