Change of Heart

In college in the late 60’s, I was attached to two young men, neither one of whom were ever my lovers: Barry and Charles. Barry was beautiful, brilliant, hedonistic and gay, a literature major like me. Charles was a returned Viet Nam vet, edging toward alcoholism, a once-devout Catholic, a history major, and heterosexual. They had grown up together in a small Oklahoma town and were devoted friends. The three of us spent countless hours together, working and playing, sharing our problems, details of our romances and our plans for the future.

After college, they moved to New York City to share an apartment. Barry pursued his Masters at Columbia and Charles began a career in insurance, however Barry focused heavily on his social life. He lunched at the Plaza, attended parties on Park Avenue, traveled internationally and chatted with Nureyev at the ballet. Charles enjoyed the cultural offerings of the City and his ongoing friendship with Barry, however he eventually joined AA and pursued a quieter lifestyle.

I had become a teacher in Buffalo and was involved in a long-term relationship that was headed toward marriage, but each summer I visited New York and stayed with Barry and Charles. They treated me like a queen, taking me to restaurants, the opera, art galleries and shows. I looked forward eagerly to my yearly adventure with these dear friends.

The last time I visited, however, I became disenchanted with Barry’s lifestyle. He slept with anyone, and had ditched his academic aspirations altogether, managing financially by serving as a kept man to the highest bidder of the week. At least, this was my perception — who knows if it was accurate? Still young and attractive, Barry enjoyed himself thoroughly, but I felt he had let go of his future, and Charles seemed unconcerned. Although I did not speak of my feelings with either of them, I began to drift away.

When I decided to marry, I did not invite Barry or Charles to the small family celebration. I feared they were too alternative for my new in-laws, who had never fully accepted me. And I felt I could no longer relate to Barry and Charles as I once had.

My new husband and I left almost immediately for Peace Corps service in Africa, but I thought of Barry and Charles frequently, missing them and wondering how they were doing. I gradually began to write to Charles, who soon moved to San Francisco, but we seldom discussed Barry. I had crossed Barry off my list of friends, without an explanation, a proper goodbye, or a backward glance. I never stopped thinking of him, but he might have been a character in a film or a book, someone whose life was outside the scope of mine, someone with whom I had no real-life connection.

Five years passed before my husband and I returned to the US, and Charles told me that Barry had been diagnosed with AIDS, a disease we knew little about. By then, I had given birth to two children, had taught many students and had experienced both error and loss. I was humanized, and I could finally see clearly that I had done it all wrong with Barry, that I should have embraced him when I deserted him, that I should have summoned words to express my feelings, and shared them with him. It took a long time for me to put the pieces together, but finally I called Charles, asking for Barry’s contact information, determined to be straight with him about my concerns and reconnect the severed relationship.

Charles seemed surprised by my request, as Barry had died many months before. I was stunned and consumed by a guilt that I carry to this day. I had finally had a change of heart, but it was too late. Years and years too late.


  • Tui says:

    This one touched me, Kathi, played certain chords that resonated. When we are young, we are completely absorbed by experiencing the stuff of our own lives, all the drama, angst, wonder and newness. Motherhood alone – my goodness! It takes a while before our experiences distil in us, allowing us to use their lessons or understand better what it is that we want from ourselves.

    I don’t see your distancing yourself from Barry as “all wrong”. Yes, it’s sad that he went in a direction that broke the connection with you, spinning madly out there on the periphery where the madmen dance. It’s especially sad that he paid such a high price for where he went. The danger of AIDS really wasn’t understood by anyone. I lost several friends too. Great guys but guys who just ran wild with it all and had no idea. None of us did.

    Sometimes it really is this simple: you can’t relate to what someone is doing and you can’t save them. So you carry on as best you can, living your own life.

    As the I Ching says, no blame.

  • kambrogi says:

    Thanks, Tui. Yes, in our youth, we are very much wrapped up in ourselves. I heard once that we have children to save ourselves from terminal self-absorption.

    What I regret — beyond losing a friend forever — is my lack of honesty. At this point in my life, I’d say that’s the essential link between us and those we care about. Not just honesty in terms of expressing our opinion to them, but honesty in understanding, listening, caring and — at times — speaking. I owed him that much.

    But we learn through error, don’t we?


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