The Odd Couple: How Two Opposites Formed an Inspiring Decades-Long Friendship

It was disdain at first sight. Forty years later, they’re still best friends.

By the time I was a junior at Yale, in 1983, I’d already met everyone I cared to know. I was friends with most of the other gays and lesbians. I knew the theater people. I knew absolutely everyone in my major—there were only a few of us who had chosen to get degrees in Latin and Greek. And I knew a smattering of visual artists, a handful of comparative lit majors, the odd philosopher and three mathematicians.

I also knew who I didn’t want to know. The jocks. And they didn’t seem to want to know me either. In the dining halls, they filled boisterous tables. They wolfed down epic platters of scrambled eggs. They wore baseball caps backward and moved in packs. The jocks and I were like planets in different orbits, circling one another but not colliding. I felt that if we did, I would be obliterated.

All that changed dramatically when I collided with one jock in particular: Chris Maxey, known to everyone as Maxey. From the start it was clear that Maxey and I should not be friends. What was less obvious was that I was much more prejudiced against him than he was against me.

The first impression of a future friend

Everything began with a visit from my friend Tim. That’s when he told me that he was in a secret society for seniors. Had I ever noticed a granite building on the edge of campus? That was the hall where they’d been gathering twice a week all year. Now they were in the process of choosing 15 juniors to replace themselves. Those juniors would inherit the hall and would meet there twice a week for dinner throughout the coming year.

“We try to bring together the 15 most different kids we can find, so you’ll meet people who are nothing like you.” He asked if I would want to join.

Two nights a week? With 14 kids I might not know—or might not like? Even worse, what if I liked them and they didn’t like me? I decided that I could just avoid the ones I didn’t care for. And as for their not liking me, that was easy. I wouldn’t let them get to know me. Why should I?

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I didn’t know Maxey was a wrestler when we met that first night in the hall along with the 13 other secret society inductees, but he was clearly some kind of athlete. I’m 5 foot 8 on a good day, and I’ve always been nervous around big people. Maxey was much taller. His biceps were so large that he’d cut Vs into his T-shirt so his arms could fit through the sleeves. He had a big grin on his face and was looking around at everyone, taking everything in. The rest of us were pretty quiet, but not Maxey. He shouted hellos to all of us before bounding up to people and introducing himself.

Maxey had neatly combed strawberry-blond hair, a classically square jaw and a mischievous nervous energy. His pointy ears made him resemble Peter Pan and gave you a sense he was just about to pull a prank.

When Maxey walked up to me and stuck out his hand, I shook it quickly. He said he’d seen me before; he remembered my crazy hair. He said it with a smile, but it sounded almost menacing. We stood awkwardly for a few minutes. Someone was trying to get my attention. Maxey smiled again and politely backed off.

I talked with just about everyone in the group that night. Maxey was the loudest among us. He took up space and knocked things over, and he was drinking vast quantities of beer. He was trying way too hard, and I found it a bit much, the high-fives and the instant nicknames (mine would be Schwalbs). Whenever he went to one part of the hall, I went to another.

The next morning, I had a pounding hangover. I winced as I remembered talking too much about myself with everyone. I took comfort in knowing that there was one kid who’d behaved more outrageously than I had: Maxey. I vowed that when I came back to the hall, I wouldn’t do anything to attract notice. And I would give Chris Maxey a wide berth.

The foundation of an unlikely friendship

In order for all of us to get to know one another quickly, we were supposed to go away together for an entire weekend. I was dreading it. Seventy hours with a bunch of kids I didn’t know seemed like too much.

I had recently reread William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and I felt apprehensive when we arrived at the house: I knew how quickly things could devolve. The shocking thing that happened was that nothing shocking happened. We ate. We talked. We drank. I liked the other kids a lot, but Maxey still made me nervous. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him, and the feeling seemed mutual.

But then that last morning, as we discussed our hangovers, Maxey insisted I ride home on the back of his motorcycle. The air would be good for me, he said. I said I thought this was a terrible idea, that I didn’t like motorcycles, but Maxey wouldn’t take no for an answer. He threw a helmet at me.

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“Dude,” he said, “you just got to promise me one thing. If you feel like you are frickin’ going to puke, turn your head around and try not to get me or the ’cycle.”

He got on the bike and I got in back of him, worrying about the fact that I might need to wrap my arms around Maxey to keep from falling off, but also worrying that he might think I was coming on to him. However, if I didn’t wrap my arms tightly around him when it was obviously a good idea, then he might assume it was because I was afraid he might think I was coming on to him if I did. Which would have been accurate and awkward. Then there was my aversion to hugging people generally. Some people are huggers; I’m the opposite. It was all just too complicated.

Then Maxey started up the motorcycle, and we roared out of the driveway. As the bike screamed down the highway, I wrapped my arms around Maxey and held on for dear life. We couldn’t talk or listen to music, but the soundtrack in my head was pure Bruce Springsteen with his “highways jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” Maybe I was born to run after all?

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Sunday, March 4, just before spring break, was a particularly dismal day that began below freezing and stayed that way. That evening, we gathered in the hall for dinner. Afterward, we headed downstairs to the pool table and television. My friend and I sat transfixed, watching MTV. Maxey was playing pool. I noticed that he was becoming increasingly drunk. He kept interrupting the game to chase Brooke, our group’s president, around the table. And she kept interrupting the game to chase him around.

I was enjoying being with everyone. I had since warmed up and was pounding back beers.

“You homo!” I heard Maxey shout.

I snapped my head around. He was directing the insult at a straight friend who had managed a legendary pool shot. I paused. Old habits die hard. Maxey can’t have meant anything by it. I decided to ignore the remark. Then minutes later, “You are such a homo!” I caught Maxey’s eye. He looked sheepish, but he didn’t apologize.

I was angry with Maxey, and even angrier with myself—for not saying anything, and for letting down my guard.

When we returned to Yale from break, one of the first people I saw was Maxey. He gave me a bear hug, thumped my back and asked how my break was. I had worked at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis hotline in New York. It was the ’80s, and fear of and ignorance about AIDS was rampant, along with terrible discrimination against people who had AIDS or who were thought to have it.

Whether despite his “homo” remarks or because of them, I decided I wouldn’t keep it light. I told him about the man who was sobbing on the phone because he needed to see a doctor but was afraid he’d be deported. And about the man who couldn’t find a funeral home to take away the body of his lover who was lying dead next to him.

“I’m sorry,” Maxey said.

Did he remember what he had said that night around the pool table? I wondered. I decided to take it as an apology. I realized I couldn’t stay mad at Maxey. Because I didn’t want to be mad at him. I wanted him not to hate me—and I didn’t think he did. I wanted him to like me—and I was pretty sure he did.

“You know, I’m realizing a lot these days,” he said. “And one of the big things is that I’ve got to stop saying so much stupid crap.”

A pivotal friendship moment

In the years that followed, I moved to New York with my future husband, David, whom I’d met soon after graduation. We settled into a social routine that revolved around a handful of very close friends, as well as family and work friends—colleagues I’d met in the book industry where I was an editor and author. We were lucky to have so many people in our lives.

Maxey, of course, had his own friends, from the Navy SEALs, where he’d served for six years after college, and a whole group of Yalies I didn’t know, including a few jocks I’d been so careful to avoid. But he and his wife, Pam, just didn’t have much time for socializing. They had four small kids and moved to the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, where they were opening a school.

My bond with Maxey remained strong, I thought, even though we rarely found the time to talk. I was sure that if I ever was in a jam, Maxey would be there for me. And I was equally sure that if Maxey ever wanted something from me, I would give it without hesitation.

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That belief would be tested in May 2016, when the phone rang. It was Maxey. He dropped a bomb on me: “I have a brain tumor.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’m sorry.”

“The first question I asked the doctor was whether it was a colloid cyst. That’s what my father died from. But it’s not that.”

“Do they know what it is?”

“They think it’s an acoustic neuroma. It’s usually a growth on your auditory nerve. Not cancer, not malignant, nothing like that. But if it grows too big it can cause major problems. Mine’s pretty big already.”

“I’m so sorry, Maxey. This sucks.”

“Yeah, it does suck.”

I realized that at this point in my life I was panicked by the thought of Maxey vanishing from it. So many times over the decades we had gone years without seeing each other or even talking. How was it that I was suddenly devastated by the thought of losing him? Maybe it’s because I sensed that Maxey held in his mind a picture of me that was better than I really was. I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a better friend: less judgmental and less afraid.

Friendship, tested—and strengthened

Seven months later, Maxey underwent an operation to remove the tumor. It left him dizzy at times and deaf in one ear, but all in all, it was a success. Maxey’s operation had changed our rules of engagement. I realized then that for the last 30 years of my friendship I had always felt I needed an excuse or reason to call Maxey. Now, during moments when I might have turned on the television, and Maxey might have stepped outside to fiddle with his boat, we found ourselves on the phone.

For me, the phone remains miraculous in a way that electronic ­communication just isn’t. The phone brings the voice of a friend. It’s live. Email is a movie—once you get it, nothing you do will change it. A call is theater—surprising and unpredictable. What’s more, your presence is essential.

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Months after Maxey’s health scare, I had my own. I had shooting pains and burning in my feet, and suffered dizziness, fatigue and vomiting. I was diagnosed with a debilitating neurological condition called small fiber neuropathy. I told only a few people. And in May of 2017, Maxey and I had a very different kind of call.

Maxey got right to the point. “I’m really pissed at you.”

I thought he was joking. “What did I do this time?”

“No, seriously, I’m really, really pissed off. Every time we talk, I ask you how you’re doing, and you always say you’re fine, but I just got off the phone with Singer [a mutual friend from the secret society], and he says you aren’t fine. I’ve been asking how you’re doing, and you never say anything.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I mean, it’s this weird thing with my small nerve fibers, and it’s pretty painful and makes me dizzy, and they don’t know what caused it, but it’s not going to kill me.”

There was a long silence on the phone. And then he said he had to go.

My first reaction was defensive: My illness was my business; I didn’t have to tell anybody anything until I was ready. But then I thought how much Maxey had shared with me over the past few months, before, during and after his possibly fatal operation. The nausea, the dizziness and the fears that he would never fully be better. He had allowed himself to be completely vulnerable with me. Meanwhile, I had trusted him with nothing. I had thought I was being noble, keeping my less dramatic medical problems to myself. But, in fact, I was being furtive and selfish.

The next day, I wrote Maxey a long email telling him the whole story about my small fiber neuropathy.

A few minutes after getting my email he left a message on my voicemail. “Hey, it’s Maxey. Pam and I are going to come to New York in July. You’re forgiven if you and Singer come to dinner with us. You have to let us buy dinner. And if I ask you how you are feeling, you have to tell the truth. Sending you strength. I miss you.”

40 years of friendship in the books—with plenty of pages left

A few years later, I found myself sipping beers with Maxey in Eleuthera, on a dock near the school he and his wife had started. We were now both 60, and I thought it was high time to ask Maxey something I’d always wondered: “Hey, Maxey, when I rode back to Yale with you, that first weekend, and had to wrap my arms around you to keep from falling off the bike, I was worried you would think I was coming on to you. Did you worry about that?”

“That you would come on to me or that you would think I thought you were coming on to me?”

“Either. Both.”

“Dude, I honestly just thought I’d give you a lift. You didn’t seem to like me much. I wanted you to like me.”

“Well, that hasn’t changed much. You still want everyone to like you.”

“I know. And you do too.”

“Maybe that’s why we’re friends.”

We sat quietly watching the stars. Drinking beers. I thought back to some of the things I’d worried about over the course of our 40-year friendship. The way I’d behaved the night I met him; whether Maxey minded that I couldn’t remember the names and ages of his four kids; who had last called whom, and whose responsibility it was to get in touch; if I’d said the right thing when Maxey confided in me and if I’d confided sufficiently in him; if I was too needy as a friend or not needy enough; whether I had listened as much as I should have and asked the questions Maxey wanted me to ask; if I had shared too much or too little, been too honest or not honest enough.

Ultimately, I worried whether I had been giving enough of the one thing that we have to give our friends: our true selves.

That night on that dock, I realized that most of the things I had worried about for the last four decades lived only in my head, and that while it was almost certain that I was the bigger nutcase, Maxey was a nut too. He had his own list of things he’d worried about. I also knew that all my friends carried similar lists in their heads.

Maybe that’s part of the reason my friends are my friends. We care enough to spend time worrying about the ways our actions affect one another. And, of course, we enjoy one another’s company. We like the people our friends are, and the person we are when we’re around them. After decades of worry, maybe it wasn’t more complicated than that.

Chris Maxey (left) and Will Schwalbe, soon after meeting in collegeCourtesy David Singer
Chris Maxey (left) and Will Schwalbe, soon after meeting in college

“You know, I think you know me as well as anyone knows me, Maxey. The truth is, and I mean this, there’s not much to know.”

“You know, Schwalbs, I’m pretty shallow too. I guess we are just two middle-aged shallow guys who are pretty frickin’ lucky to be here.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said.

Years ago, I’d read about a University of Virginia study that sought insight into the way friendship might help people cope with some of the less pleasant aspects of daily life. Researchers stopped students near a hill on campus and asked if they’d help with an experiment. The researchers had given heavy backpacks to the students—some of whom happened to be alone, others who were with friends.

The students thought they would be asked to climb the hill. But instead, they were told to guess how steep the slope was. The students who were alone thought the hill was very steep, while those who had been walking with a friend thought it far less so and guessed it wouldn’t be arduous to climb, even with the backpacks.

The study revealed something even more surprising. The longer the friendship, the gentler the slope of the hill seemed to both friends.

I had done a lot of things over the years I hadn’t anticipated doing—like sharing a motorcycle with a jock who I was certain didn’t even like me. Maxey had been wanting me to go free diving with him off Eleuthera without oxygen. Without Maxey guiding me—not a chance in the world. But with my friend, maybe it wasn’t impossible.

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