The incredible beauty of unlikely friendships

As digital nomads, we have far more friends than back in Seattle.
As digital nomads, we have far more friends than back in Seattle. Photo: Michael Jensen

Last fall, a friend of mine died unexpectedly. Jeremy was young, still in his thirties.

He was an awkward guy, a classic Misfit Toy. He’d had a difficult home life, and I knew high school had also been pretty rough. But he was an amazing musician and a great filmmaker.

He was also among the sweetest, kindest, gentlest guys I’ve ever known.

My friend Jeremy.

Weirdly, no one really knew we were friends, because most of the time we spent together was just the two of us, doing prep work on various art projects.

I hired him to direct and edit a couple of different film projects I’d written, and we’d developed a good on-set rapport: he was great on the technical side, and I was better working with the actors.

I remember the last time I saw him in person. I’d hired him again to help me with a song I’d written and wanted to record — what I hoped was a clever promotional gimmick for the release of an upcoming novel of mine.

But I was shocked by Jeremy’s latest living arrangement. He was squatting in a house that still had electricity, but the water had been turned off. Jeremy told me he was showering at a nearby YMCA.

Of course, to use the bathroom, our choices were to run down to the gas station on the corner — or pee in the yard.

For three nights, we stayed up late in that house recording my song, and I still laugh when I think about how endlessly patient Jeremy was with me because I’m a terrible singer.

Here’s the song — and full disclosure: I know I’m not much of a songwriter either, but hey, I’m proud I took a risk and did something so far outside my comfort zone. Jeremy also put together this video using clips from a movie made from one of my earlier novels.

As we worked, we would often take breaks, so Jeremy could have a smoke out on the porch. And he told me of his future plans, how he was thinking about moving to California for his music or maybe joining some friends who lived out on a farm.

But I was worried about him. Squatting in a house with no water? And it didn’t seem like he was getting enough to eat. After the first night, I made a point always to bring dinner.

After I left the U.S., Jeremy and I chatted a few more times online. He was really intrigued by my new nomad lifestyle, and looking back, I think it would have been a good fit for him.

I wasn’t close enough to Jeremy’s fiancée to ask how he died, and I don’t really want to know anyway.

But now his death has me thinking about all the friends who have passed through my life, some only briefly. Looking back, they sometimes seem so unlikely.

How the hell did I ever end up friends with that guy?

Back in high school, my private school didn’t have a pool, so I swam competitively for the nearest public school. And over the next four years, I got to know another swimmer named Andy.

Swimming is an “individual sport,” which some people say is isolating, but that wasn’t my experience at all. Andy and I always shared a single lane, and working out side-by-side, I always felt such an incredible connection with him. We were competing with each other, but also pushing each other to perform better than we ever could have done on our own.

It was exhilarating — a lot like sex, frankly, even if it didn’t seem sexual at the time.

He and I connected outside the pool too. I never saw him in a bad mood. His face was like a window, always bright and open.

“Why so grim, Hartinger?” he’d tease me in the locker room. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

But we weren’t really friends outside of the swim team. I only went to his house once, and I found myself a bit overwhelmed by his large, boisterous Guamanian family. It couldn’t have felt more different than my white-bread suburban world.

On days that I didn’t drive myself to school, Andy drove me home. And I vividly remember saying goodbye after our very last swim meet during our senior year. We were both graduating, and I’d be leaving for college in a few months. But not Andy. He couldn’t afford it and wasn’t much of a student anyway.

I didn’t know how to say goodbye. We’d spent hours and years together, connected in the water. But we didn’t really have a relationship outside of the pool, and maybe it was classism, but I didn’t know how to start one now.

Andy just smiled. “Don’t be sad, Hartinger. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

I didn’t believe him. I figured I’d never see him again, and it was breaking my heart.

The following year, home from college, my parents celebrated by taking me to one of the nicest restaurants in town.

After we’d been seated, a voice said, “Hartinger!”

Our waiter was my old friend Andy! He looked so trim and handsome, his hair slicked back, totally owning his crisp white shirt and black silk vest. Seeing him again made me smile so hard that I thought I would break my face.

Later, Andy pulled me into the deserted coat room to talk.

“It’s so good to see you!” I said. “And this job — wow, it looks like things are going great for you.”

He grinned. “Yeah. I have my own place now too.” I told him college was going well, even if I had yet to find a decent swimming buddy, and he laughed and said, “Didn’t I tell you everything would be okay?”

But the following year, home from college again, I asked a mutual friend about Andy.

“Didn’t you hear? Andy died. Of AIDS.”

This was back in the 80s before anyone knew much about the disease. Even so, it didn’t make any sense. Andy couldn’t be gay! He was handsome and confident, working class, non-white, and a great athlete. And unlike me, he didn’t seem to feel angst about anything. He was the exact opposite of all the 80s gay stereotypes.

Besides, I thought, he told me everything was gonna be okay!

But everything wasn’t okay. And at age 20, his life was already over, even as mine had barely just begun.

Four years later, after I’d come out myself, I became an HIV/AIDS educator partly because of Andy. I ended up counseling and teaching safer sex to hundreds of LGBTQ+ youth, some of whom had been kicked out of their houses for being gay or trans and who sometimes even lived on the street.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I think Andy’s death is also part of the reason why I’m still alive today. And over the years, a number of those kids I counseled sought me out to tell me they thought I was the reason why they were still alive.

So who knows? Maybe Andy’s death wasn’t entirely in vain.

Not all of the unlikely friendships in my life are as tragic or sad as the ones I shared with Andy or Jeremy.

I remember when I was just a boy, 11-years-old, my mom said, “I’m going over to have lunch with Ellen Brewer, and you’re coming with me. You can play with her son, Daniel — he’s about your age.”

What? No! I knew Daniel Brewer. He went to my school, but he wasn’t “my age” — he was a year older, in the next grade up, which, in middle school, was a very big deal. More importantly, he was a popular kid, and I was a dork. I’d never said two words to Daniel, but I knew he was stand-offish and stuck-up.

Once at the Brewers, I was consigned to the basement with Daniel.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he muttered. He didn’t want to spend time with me any more than I wanted to spend time with him.

He nodded to a stack of loose paper. “Want to make paper airplanes?”

“Uh, I guess,” I said.

Looking back, I wonder: Is this the kind of thing kids did before video games? I do distinctly remember always trying to make something out of nothing. Either way, the two of us were only 11 and 12 years old, so it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do.

So together, we started making paper airplanes — for over an hour.

Soon, we were talking and laughing.

Before I knew it, Daniel and I had made — no joke — hundreds of paper airplanes. We had literally filled the floor of the entire basement! But to what end? What was the point of our making all these damn things?

Daniel picked up a plane and tossed it in my direction. It floated toward me and lightly butted against my chest.

I laughed, picked up another plane, and threw it back at him a bit harder.

Now we knew why we’d made all these airplanes. We bombarded each other with paper airplanes for the next fifteen minutes, laughing hysterically the whole time.

My mom called downstairs — it was time for us to go. She and Mrs. Brewer hadn’t heard a thing.

I quickly helped clean up the basement, and I left, and Daniel and I literally never spoke two words to each other again. He was a grade above me, and we ran in totally different circles.

But we definitely saw each other many times, all throughout middle school and also when we moved on to high school. And every time our paths crossed, our eyes would meet, and we would nod and give each other little smiles.

I knew we were both thinking: You’re the guy I spent that afternoon making three hundred paper airplanes withAnd then we had that random, crazy, wonderful paper airplane war!

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have collected a group of wonderful longterm friends, some of whom I’ve now known for decades. I’m still best friends with a guy I met in kindergarten, and I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons with the same group of five other guys for 45 yearsNow we play online even as I travel the world.

And as a nomad, I also have an ever-growing group of travel friends, some of whom Michael and I have met up with over and over again, exploring different cities all over the world.

I am so lucky.

But I also think about all my more unlikely friendships. Many of the local connections I’ve made in my travels have been like that — Duman, who took me to his hammam in Istanbul, and Mitko and Mimoza, who showed me their remote village in North Macedonia.

The older I get, the more I feel like that character at the end of the old Thornton Wilder play, Our Town, given one last look at her life before being brought back to her grave.

It goes so fast! We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize! All that was going on in life, and I never noticed.

Except now I have noticed, and I do realize.

It’s not time for me to say goodbye to Grover’s Corners, not yet, anyway. But I guess it is time to say goodbye to Jeremy, to Andy, and even to Daniel, who I haven’t even nodded to in 30 years.

So goodbye, Jeremy, and thanks for your help on all those projects and also your infinite patience. I don’t even mind I had to pee in the yard.

And farewell, Andy. All those afternoons we swam together, everything was okay, at least for the moments we were connected. Thanks for teaching me that all of life is lived in the moment and reminding me that one day these moments of mine will also stop.

And Daniel? Thanks for teaching me, very early on, that people are rarely what they seem to be — and you have to be a fucking moron to judge anyone based on impressions or stereotypes before you even get a chance to know them.

Which is the whole point of what I’m writing here.

We live in an age when people seem eager to jump to the worst possible conclusions about everyone else. It’s now cool to believe that other people are mostly assholes.

But the truth is, you never know a person until you know them.

When a friendship works, when you finally connect with another human being, there’s nothing more beautiful in this world.

And when it’s an unlikely friendship? Well, I think maybe that makes it even more beautiful still.

Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of Brent and Michael Are Going Places, a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Subscribe to their free travel newsletter here.

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