I fear that the key to your hearts, Gentle Readers, will lie in the fact that I am finally done with this story.
My friendship with Jeff largely returned to its pre-disclosure condition, albeit with a bit more intensity. We were spending so much of our free time together --- and again, only with each other and never with other people --- until my roommates started asking who this new guy was that I’d been hanging out with so much.
Jeff and I did not discuss any of the issues that had come up between us earlier. It was killing me, but as I explained earlier, I had already disclosed my feelings and I considered the ball to be in his court.
As the end of the year approached and finals loomed, we started spending late nights together, hanging out, drinking beer, smoking pot and ignoring our hormones.
Several times things got a little weird --- as in, we were just one drink away from one of us making a move, a move that neither of us dared make. I distinctly remember him sitting in my room one day, sitting in the same chair where he had first confessed his sometimes-feelings-for-guys. I was prattling on about some nonsense or other, when Jeff just stopped.
“Tom, where is this conversation going?”
Where is this conversation going? Well, where do you want it to go, you maddening little tease?
At least that’s what I felt like saying.
Instead, unfortunately, I made some lame joke and changed the subject.
And then, a few weeks later, came the night I most regret. The night I really could have made something happen if I had wanted.
We had gone over to Carleton for the day to study, just to have a change of scenery. Jeff had ridden his bike and I hitched a ride with another student since I had a stack of books to carry and only one working arm. We chose different parts of the library to study in so as not to distract each other, but met up regularly for meals, snacks and any other diversion we could dream up to avoid studying. (Well, maybe not every possible diversion….)
Mid-evening we decided to call it quits for the night and head back to campus. Luckily I ran into a friend with a car who offered to drive me and my books back to our campus. I had the brilliant idea to offer to carry Jeff’s rather heavy book bag for him, so that he wouldn't have to lug it up the hill to St. Olaf.
When I got back to my room with Jeff’s bag in tow, I called him.
“Hey Jeff, I’m back in my room so you can come pick up your books whenever you want.”
“Thanks Tom --- what are you doing?”
“I don’t know Jeff. Hey, I’ve got some beers in my fridge. If you’re in the mood, you can meet me out on the hill behind the Old Main. I love hanging out there. Unless you just want to go to sleep.”
“No Tom, I want to meet you. Very much.”
My heart skipped a beat.
I remember my roommates looking at me strangely as I loaded up my book bag with a six pack from our mini fridge. “Where are you going with beers at this hour, Tom?”
“Oh, Jeff and I are just going to hang outside. See you guys later.” I tried as hard as I could to talk to them as little as possible those days because I didn’t want them suspecting anything.
When I arrived at the Old Main, Jeff was waiting for me and it was all I could do not to wrap my arms around him completely. We went out behind the old building and settled down on the grassy hill, bathed in soft moonlight. As we lounged on the grass drinking beer and enjoying the night air, we both stretched out and laid down side by side, propped up on our elbows, about six inches away from each other. We barely talked at all.
I totally could have reached over and kissed him.
But I could not bring myself to do it. And neither could Jeff, apparently.
After about an hour under the moonlight, we finished our beers and retreated back to our respective rooms.
As the days of the school year drew to a close, Jeff and I started finding every excuse we could to be together. One day in the middle of the afternoon we decided, for some reason, to duck into a little stairway outside the college chapel. Again, just inches from each other with no one else around, even if it was in broad daylight.
“Wow Jeff, so I guess we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” Summer break was upon us. I was going home to my parents’ house in Chicago, while Jeff was headed back to work a job in his home state. Worse yet, I would not be at St. Olaf the following semester because I was planning to study abroad in the USSR.
“I know,” Jeff replied. “I’m going to miss you.” He said it so quietly it sounded like he might cry.
The last time I saw Jeff during those magical days, I was in my dorm room packing up my belongings to go home for the summer. I had seriously pissed off my mom and my aunt who had driven to campus, prepared to load up the car and take me home. I hadn’t even begun to pack because I had been so distracted with my school work and pathetic non-love life. Not to mention a gimped arm which made every task take three times longer than normal.
Jeff came into my room and was immediately made to feel uncomfortable by my relatives because they were so irritated with me. So Jeff and I just said our goodbyes quietly at my door, and that was that.
Jeff and I never had another meaningful conversation again. We corresponded over the summer, but the magic disappeared and Jeff lost whatever feelings he had seemed to develop for me --- probably because I had written something rather mean and sarcastic in one of my letters.
I saw him sporadically on campus when I returned from Russia for my final semester at St. Olaf, but Jeff no longer seemed to have any interest in being my friend, and we barely saw or spoke to each other at all, despite my attempts here and there.
A few months after we graduated, I wrote Jeff a long letter and told him everything I wish I had told him during our magical time together, when we had seemed inches away from expressing our romantic feelings for one another. I told him I was confused about how he felt for me. That I missed his friendship, and that I wished I could understand what had happened.
Jeff never replied.
Several years later, both Jeff and I were living in the Twin Cities and ran into each other occasionally at parties of mutual friends. Our conversations were polite but distant. At times I detected a seeming thaw in Jeff's attitude toward me, but I was done taking any further chances with him. Been there, done that.
(Or wish I had done that, anyway.)
I recently heard from one of my friends in Minnesota that Jeff is now openly gay, partially bald, partnered with a nice man and raising kids in the Cities. I’m happy that everything seems to have turned out well for him. And who knows --- if I lived there, maybe we would even be friends. But for now, Jeff Henderson lives only in the dark recesses of my memories, alone with me in that private place where we guard the vestiges of our first loves.
And of course, he will now live forever on the pages of Coaster Punchman's World.
Thank you all for listening.