Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Best Friend I've Never Met

Basically, I'm an altruistic person at heart. I can be skeptical and sometimes a little too blunt and honest in my perception of things. But I tend to, albeit naively, see the good in everyone. This was one of the reasons I liked my job at the Department of Education so much. This was back when I was 23 years old – way back in 1989! I began as an operator on a toll-free national hotline answering questions pertaining to Federal financial assistance for postsecondary education (that's the textbook job description). After six months of this activity, I was promoted to a supervisory position with the center. That would make me the one the other operators would come to for assistance whenever they did not know the answer for the caller. Well on one occasion, a woman named Cindy came up to me with a concern:

"I have a young man on my line who says the University of New Orleans is really dicking him over with his financial aid. I've explained to him what he needed to do, but he says the school won't allow him to do anything. Can you help me, PLEASE?!"
Yeah, transfer him to my line and I'll talk to him.

I got the guy's name and Social Security Number. His name was Joey Parillo from New Orleans. We started talking and Cindy was right, the school was dicking him over. I listened as he played out what had been happening to his Federal funding with the school over the last two years or so. It was really screwed up. This was something that needed to be fixed step by step. I told him to go to the school and speak to the financial aid administrator, whom I was going to call later in the afternoon to explain proper procedure. (Calling the school was a very unorthodox thing for us to do. We were not there to intervene on the student's behalf, simply to explain the regulations in laymen's terms. But this guy seemed so nice and really genuine that I went out on a very shaky limb.) I called the school and everything worked out fine.

A few weeks later, Joey and I talked again. The school was again doing some things it was not supposed to. I counseled him on what to do and to call me back the next day and let me know what happened. He called the next day with an update. This kept up for over a week -- to the point where I actually looked forward to getting his call everyday. And every time we spoke, we became a little more personal with each other.

About two months later, I was promoted to the writing department, issuing form letters to people who wrote to the Department with the same concerns the callers had. I ended up getting my own office and was removed from the telephone center. Joey still continued to call and ask to speak only to me (actually it would have been very confusing for anyone else to get involved in this matter at this point.) The operators were instructed to transfer all of his calls to me personally.

Because I now had my own office and a lot more privacy, our conversations became increasingly personal. We ended up exchanging telephone numbers and addresses and spoke almost everyday, some days for two hours or more!

In the beginning, I played the part of a straight guy (remember I was 23 at the time, just recently out to myself and still a little apprehensive about who knew what). I was afraid to tell him I was gay for fear he wouldn't call me anymore. I had really grown to like this guy and since we only knew each other from the phone, it would be really easy for him to just not call anymore. Every so often, I would gender-switch my friends just to add some females in my life.

We discussed our childhoods, our goals, and our dreams. He told me about Kimberly, the love of his life whom he would marry the following year. But I started to feel really guilty. Joey and I started talking in November of 1989 and I decided that I would not let 1990 pass without telling him the truth about me. So after 13 months of talking to each other, I sat down and wrote him a letter telling him I was gay and that I didn't mean to mislead him (this was before the days of email so there was no rapid response). Our friendship had grown so important to me and I feared losing it.

After receiving my letter, he called me at home and we talked for 5 hours. He said he certainly hadn't expected it at all. But more importantly, my being gay didn't bother him. He told me, "I live in New Orleans for crying out loud. You think I don’t know any gay people?" He even offered to fix me up on a date if I would ever visit.

After this our friendship became closer; for the next year or so we would call each other every Sunday night for weekly updates on our lives. He told me all about his friends and I began to know and recognize each one by name. I told him about dates I took, trips, family events, work problems – basically everything. We became soul mates. There were things we would only tell each other and no one else. He became my confidante and confessor.

He and Kimberly married in June 1991. I tried to get a flight to their wedding as a last minute surprise, but the fares were outrageous at the time. Joey has annually invited me down to Mardi Gras, but I never seem to make it. Likewise, I have invited him to DC, but he is always busy, too.

All this ...
and I have no idea what he looks like.

We wouldn't know each other if we passed each other on the street. All I know is he is about 6'0", slender, dark-haired Italian with a great voice and an incredible personality. Truthfully, it's almost as if I don't want to meet him face to face. I'm almost afraid that if we do, the friendship won't be the same -- like it will lose all of its mystery or something. For the last 16 years or so, I have had a friendship – a very close intimate friendship, with a man I would not be able to recognize even if we were standing next to each other. He has been married for 14 years and has a son and is a die-hard Saints fan.

I love him for what I know of him. He has proven to be a very dedicated and devoted friend to me. We've shared so much with each other and will continue to do so. He's always told me I should write a book about my life. He's told me I have more wisdom in my inner soul than most others. He's fallen in love with my philosophy of life (when life gives you lemons, make lemonade) and has adopted it as his own. I know that I can call him at any time for any reason and he will always be there and accept me no matter what happens in my life. Our friendship has become unconditional and respectful.

It's truly the most bizarre friendship I have ever had. But I wouldn't have it any other way.