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Returning to the Past What Belongs to the Past

Last week I finally did something I have wanted to do for a long time.

You see, I had these cassette tapes that really did not belong to me. They contained demos of various songs I’d written, as well as rehearsals and performances with this punky / pop / rock group I used to sing with in my formative years. We were all best friends, had been since high school. We’d been playing together in various line-ups, under various names – having taken our love of music to what we thought was its logical conclusion, by forming a band.

At the time, we were all in our second year of college and living together in a house right across the street from the campus. Despite this proximity, I still managed to skip as many classes as I had enrolled in, frequently showing up only for mid-terms and the final. I was heavy into the theatre department and involved with a woman who saw something in me I did not see myself. The atmosphere in the theatre department did not exactly encourage one to embrace one’s homosexuality, and I was struggling big time. Still recovering from my first romance – with a beautiful Italian actor from the Guthrie I met when he visited our school on tour – I was pretty much an emotional mess. The actor walked into the backstage shop one winter afternoon and it was love at first sight. For the next six months I traveled around, meeting up with him whenever his touring schedule and my rehearsal schedule allowed. It ended badly, with me telling him I did not want to be gay. My cowardice broke both our hearts.

That was part of the reason of why I was a psychological mess. I even made a half-assed attempt at killing myself by taking a handful of sleeping pills. The other reason I was such a mess? I was also emotionally in love with my best friend. We’ll call him Robby. Robby was a farm boy with a great deal of intelligence and a thirst for anything rock and roll had to offer. No, we didn’t drink or smoke or party all night, but we did listen to the music of those that did. We also had a keen appreciation for the DIY attitude of the punk scene and got swept up in the idea of creating our own band.

In many ways, Robby rescued me from… well, I’m not sure. But he befriended me in 8th grade. At the time I had a few friends – three guys that it would turn out were the other gay guys in my class. Ironic, huh? Anyway, that clique – well, I guess we were the girly boys. Robby’s clique was the brains. I was not that great of a student, but I was somewhat clever. Not sure what he saw in me, but Robby adopted me. I remember very clearly the day it happened, for my former best friend – we’ll call him Martin, looked at me and shook his head “no” – as in, he would not be joining Robby’s group, even though I definitely gestured that he should.

Martin and I had been best friends since the 4th grade. I think we were rather emotionally enmeshed. We depended a great deal on each other and were probably in love with each other, in a non-sexual way. I was kind of upset that he wouldn’t sit with the rest of Robby’s crew, but I was also determined not to miss an opportunity to break away from the girly boys and get absorbed by a larger, much more highly-esteemed clique.

Martin and I drifted apart and Robby and I became best buds – much to the chagrin of his two former best friends. I think it was because I made him laugh and because I had a tendency of being borderline inappropriate and a bit loud. He turned me on to Bowie, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. We listened to anything we could get our hands on. One of our favorite activities was purchasing cut-out albums in bulk through the mail and dividing up whatever came in the box – some of which eventually found their way beneath the hub caps of our cars; an experiment in vinyl appreciation.

By our second year in college, I had become one of the walking wounded, while Robby remained blissfully upbeat and grounded. Moving into that house and sharing it with our other bandmates? A bad idea – one I regretted almost immediately. I had such a need for privacy and was hiding so much of whom I was… that, coupled with my struggle to reconcile my sexuality and my emotional ties to Robby, the situation became unbearable for me and I announced, rather abruptly, that I was moving out. My name wasn’t on the lease, Robby’s was. He never forgave me for ruining that situation. It was the end of our friendship. I packed my things quickly and in doing so, snagged a bunch of tapes – some original comedy sketches we created (we were obsessed with Monty Python), some song demos, some rehearsal recordings – that really did not belong to me.

As the years went by, these tapes came to haunt me. They represented Robby’s youth and I had robbed him of them. So, last week, I did an internet search – a little creeping on Facebook, Linked-in, and the like, and figured out where he worked. I knew he was in the cities. We’d run into each other once in the late 80’s in a video store. I was all glib and friendly, and he refused to talk to me (who could blame him). Years later I learned that he had been in a band and the lead singer had fallen ill and died. Robby gave the eulogy at his funeral. I think I read that in City Pages… anyway, for many years, I was aware that he was still living/working in the area. Also, based on his educational background, knew what kind of work he likely was engaged in. So I tracked him down, and sent the tapes to him anonymously with a short note thanking him for his friendship, explaining how much it had meant to me, and how sorry I was that things had ended badly. I signed it with only my first initial. For the return address I had used the name of one of the characters I used to play in our comedy sketches. I made it clear who it was from, but there is no way he could ever find me – not that he would want to.

I did want him to know one thing… that he had saved my life. His friendship and acceptance meant the world to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had kept me from drifting into despair for the longest time. Our love of music gave me focus, eventually leading to theater. That focus prevented me from feeling hopeless. It also got me out of the house and away from an abusive home life. Had Robby not chosen me? I don’t know what I would have become. Maybe just another gay-suicide statistic. I know he ran a lot of interference for me – he had sway with a lot of different cliques and therefore, they were less likely to pick on me. But aside from that, it was his clear, bright, shiny outlook that made me believe that life was supposed to be fun. We laughed a great deal and spent our high school years alcohol and drug-free. We got good grades and excelled at a number of things. His presence in my life made me a better person. I just didn’t appreciate it at the time enough and had lost sight of that completely by our junior year in college.

But that’s life. Our paths divided. I made some bad choices and hurt a number of people; something I would continue to do for a number of years, until the day came along when someone hurt me so deeply that I would see the destructive nature of my behavior and make some drastic changes.

Sending those tapes to Robby? It was like putting something to rest. Returning something to order. Gaining real closure. I can let that part of my life go now. And I forgive myself, too… at the time, I simply did not have a good understanding of how the world worked. I, like a lot of people, still spend way too much time mulling over all the paths not taken, the crappy outcomes, the missed opportunities. However, I don’t believe that regret is a total waste of time – it helps us not repeat the same mistakes ad nausea – provided we're willing to own those mistakes. It helps us recognize the wrongs we have done, admit that we’re terribly flawed and human, humble ourselves, and even give us ideas on how to make amends. I also know that when making amends one must tread carefully – as in, do no harm.

I don’t harbor any fantasies about repairing the many relationships that I have destroyed during my lifetime and resuming those friendships. I’m not the same person I was – I am better; more aware, more comfortable in my skin, more enlightened, less stubborn and selfish. And that person doesn’t fit well with those in my past – because they became better people, too. So, I won’t be showing up to my high school reunion – ever - or going back to some theatre to relive my glory days. I don’t belong with or to those people and places anymore. In this particular instance, I was able to achieve a type of closure – a closure not always possible.

Someone once said the past should remain the past. And I agree. But in order to keep the present free of distractions, sometimes we have clean-up those nagging leftovers from the past when the opportunity presents itself.

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