Charles and I have been best friends since we were ten, which wasn’t so much a problem then. Ten is still an acceptable age for such things. At ten our lives consisted of riding bikes until dusk, catching fireflies in my mom’s mason jars, playing tag and hide-n-seek in the woods behind our house (he had the edge in such games), swimming in our underwear in the creek, our toes squishing in the mud, gathering tadpoles and studying them until they morphed into frogs (at which point we'd set them free), sharing the Willie Wonka candy we picked out together at the 7-11 in town, spilling it out of the bag into the circle of dirt that formed between our open legs, learning how to blow bubbles with a mouthful of Hubba Bubba while playing H-O-R-S-E in the driveway, running through fields at top speed, falling on already scabby knees and elbows, camping out in thin, Snoopy sleeping bags under the stars, making up our own names for them, names only the two of us ever knew.
By 13, things were still the same between me and Charles, but everyone’s reaction had drastically changed. No longer was I allowed to set a place for him at the dinner table. I couldn’t even utter his name. No longer did my friends think it cute that I had an “imaginary” friend (“Invisible, not imaginary!,” I corrected). And so, because of this lack of acceptance, I spent more and more time alone in my room with Charles. We listened to the Grease soundtrack over and over on my tape recorder, Charles taking the Danny parts to my Sandy. We danced all over that room – on the bed, dressers, chairs – and sang into hairbrushes, waterglasses, anything that might serve as a microphone. Admittedly though, some changes had taken place in our pubescent bodies. Charles was still like a brother to me, but I had developed crushes on many of my male classmates. I spoke at length to Charles about them; he indulged me patiently. Sometimes we practiced kissing one another. I wanted to be prepared should I ever find myself mouth to mouth with one of my puppy-eyed peers, but more than anything else, we did it out of curiosity.
Charles took a backseat to my budding social life when I was 16. It pains me now to think of all the time Charles spent home alone in my room waiting for me, while I was at some party, drinking Old Milwaukee, making out with any number of dark-haired stoners in jean jackets. Upon returning home, it was often he who held my hair from my face while I vomited violently into the toilet; his shoulder I cried on when guitar-playing boys broke my heart. His shoulder I leaned on the night Mom and I had our knockdown drag-out fight, the night I found myself flat on my back on our kitchen floor, the tile so cold beneath me, her unforgiving hands tight around my neck. Once free, I ran straight to my room, to Charles, into his arms, his sympathetic voice immediately calming me as no other could, crying my eyes out onto his sturdy shoulders, not stopping to wonder where I would be without him.
The collegiate years were some of the most challenging for Charles and me. I was dating seriously for the first time, which caused a good deal of strife and confusion. There was one guy in particular, Fitz, who Charles held with great disdain. Naturally I dated him the longest. Fitz never knew about Charles, or at least, I never mentioned him, though he must have suspected something. Charles played pranks on us, trying his best to create a rift between Fitz and me. He thought it was funny – erasing important messages from Fitz on my machine, planting condom wrappers on the floor by my bed, putting scraps of paper with mysterious phone numbers into my purse. Once Charles got good and drunk on a couple of my wine coolers (he did not normally drink and thus had little tolerance for the stuff) and hid my diaphragm. I had a hard time explaining to Fitz why I couldn’t find it. After such pranks I would try to be mad at Charles, but it never lasted. In the end I realized he was right: Fitz was an asshole. We were better off without him.
After college I didn’t date much. I felt as though life was in limbo. It was about this time that Charles and I had our only breakup, a trial separation of sorts. After nearly fifteen years of being basically inseparable, we needed to find out what life was like apart from one another. It was during this time, during Charles’s absence, that it became clear that my love for Charles was anything but fraternal. I yearned for him day and night. I realized how incomplete I was without him, and prayed he felt the same.
The day he came home was like something out of a black-and-white movie. I was leaving our apartment, late for work, hiding my tears behind dark sunglasses, though it was the middle of winter and the temperature was in the single digits, the sun all but gone. In my haste I nearly walked right past him on the sidewalk outside my door. It was his smile that caught my eye, caused me to do a double take. Damn. That smile – the one that had made me smile for so many years, now brought even more tears to my eyes. Without thinking, I ran to him, throwing my arms around his neck, pressing my cheek close to his, my nose just beneath his ear, inhaling his essence. Then, somehow, once again after all those years, our lips met and I swear, there were fireworks, or, at the very least, sparklers – something involving flame and light and heat – igniting us both – and we knew. We just knew.
Since that day we have accepted the challenges that come with being together. For Charles, it is simply a matter of not being seen – by my mother, by my friends, by the doctor that delivered our baby, by our child’s teachers, by the pizza delivery guy – you name it. For me, it is more complicated. For me, it is a matter of not being thought mad. During my pregnancy, for instance, I played the role of the upwardly mobile, single mother by choice, like Murphy Brown or Ally McBeal. Charles and I had long before pledged our love for one another, vowing to remain united for all time, yet we could not legally marry. No state recognizes the union of such mixed couples.
The day our child entered the world, Charles and I were a bundle of nerves. Holding our breath, we watched as our child was placed upon my stomach for the first time. The nurse had already turned and walked halfway across the room when the flickering began. There our infant laid, a virtual strobe light of visibility, one second on, one off. The nurse caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye, wheeled around, and it stopped. Just like that. And to our great relief, our son has remained visible ever since.
Our second greatest fear was laid to rest soon thereafter, when our boy Henry was only a few months old. One day he pointed to Charles, stammered the loveliest syllables in the English language, “da, dada, da,” giggled, and clapped his tiny patty cakes, pleased with his achievement. Charles and I wept and mirrored his laughter with our own, knowing finally that everything would be all right: Henry could see his father.
And so our life goes on. On sunny afternoons we
take Henry to the park, lying beside him on the merry-go-round, remembering
when it was just the two of us riding together, all those years ago. Occasionally
a single father will see me there, seemingly alone with my child, and he
will approach, attempting to engage me. Unsuccessful, he will soon vanish,
leaving Charles and me to laugh at how strange life can be, and also, how
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