Dorothy Parker's Ashes, 2024

The Break Up

“It was so romantic,” my best friend Jennifer said, “the way he’d walk you home after he made you dinner.”

Yes, and after I put my key in the door of my beach bungalow, Ian would sweetly hug me and say, “I love you.” I’d tell him the same.

I was so happy when he and I reconnected during the summer of 2022, hanging out at the Jersey Shore, catching up on all the decades we’d been apart.  We had not seen each other since 1975, the year we were both coming out as gay.

Ian’s surprise reappearance had been perfect timing. While I loved relaxing in the beach community where I’d spent every summer of my youth, I felt lonely living alone in the little vintage house I’d inherited.  My parents were gone and I was no longer young.

I missed Susan, my lifelong friend, who lived across the street until she died four years ago. Other beach buddies were busy that summer caring for family members. As I wallowed in nostalgia, I longed for a summer playmate.

While I was sitting in my yard drinking a beer, a man in a baseball cap had ridden  up on a bike and asked, “Are you Kate?”  It was Ian!  I jumped up to hug him. When I invited him inside, he teared up, moved that my family had not torn down the bungalow after Hurricane Sandy. Ian was a preservationist doing home restoration.

We texted and sent photos all winter, clicking harmoniously until my inept attempt at matchmaking.

In June 2023, we celebrated with an anniversary dinner, marking one year since our happy reunion.  A fabulous cook, Ian recreated the same delicious meal- cod puttanesca and salad-  as when I first visited his cozy place. I brought the pinot grigio.

After dinner and dessert of homemade fruit tart,  Ian played the piano in his living room.  We harmonized as I sat next to him on the bench and turned the pages of the music book. We sounded good singing to Carly Simon’s  “Anticipation”  and I anticipated our next date

Getting together again for dinner in July, I brought my ukulele  (my new musical toy) and strummed on his patio as the sun set into the bay. I played Elton John’s  “Your  Song.” My life felt wonderful now that Ian was back in my world.

My other gay friend, Peter, knew about Ian because he’d read my piece in Oldster magazine called, “My Surprise Summer Reunion.”   He thought maybe he’d met Ian years ago at a big party I’d thrown at the hippie house where I lived in the 70s. It was quite possible since both had been there but with much more hair on their heads.

Both around the same age (mid- 60s), I thought the two might hit it off, even just as friends, since they were both in Ocean Grove. Maybe we could all meet for a drink in Paradise, the gay club in nearby Asbury Park? Or we could go to the beach together.

Last year, when I’d mentioned writing about our reunion, Ian was wary,  yet he supplied juicy details from the past by pulling out his old journals.

I let him read the essay before I submitted it and I changed his name, as requested. He came up with Ian.  He didn’t want any personal pictures of us so I used a photo of my beach bungalow. When the piece came out in January 2023, I was relieved he really liked it.  

The next time I saw Ian in August, I mentioned Peter’s interest. Ian made it very clear he had absolutely no interest in matchmaking with anyone. I relayed this to Peter.  End of story. Or so I thought.

I didn’t realize it but when Peter took me to lunch, I must have mentioned that Ian was renovating a house in Ocean Grove.  A few days later, Peter was riding his bike through town where he  saw a man renovating a house on Main Avenue. He went up and introduced himself. They talked for less than five minutes. Peter thought Ian was a nice guy.

Right after that brief encounter, Ian stopped returning my texts. Was he upset about Peter stopping by? When I ran that past Peter, he thought I was worrying over nothing. “I just said hello,” he texted. “I didn’t ask him out.  It would be juvenile if he got annoyed. This isn’t high school.”

I agreed and thought Ian was just busy with work. A week later, as I was walking into the farmers market in town, I saw Ian outside his home, a few blocks away from my summer bungalow.

I waved, yelling hello. He called hello back but as I raced across the street to talk to him, he dashed into his house. Now I was really concerned.

I texted that I was sorry we did not get to talk and I hoped we could get together again before I went back to New York City in September.

Ian replied with a blistering text that he was furious with me and feels like he can’t trust me and I’d overstepped and violated his privacy by revealing his job site. He said he needs some space.  He said he was so angry that he ran inside.

I realized I’d screwed up. I was taken back and wanted to fix this. I sent a text that I thought he was overreacting  (in retrospect that line was insensitive). I apologized for overstepping, indicating that I’d made it clear to Peter that Ian was not interested in any kind of fix up. I told Ian I valued our friendship and hoped he’d get over being upset.

I realized we are opposites. I am an open book.  Ian is more guarded. And he preferred being single.  I went through a horrible break up of my 26 year lesbian relationship but I bounced back and would like to meet a new female partner. This break up with Ian triggered how I felt when she cut me off. Once again, I was powerless, at the mercy of someone else.

I was hurt that Ian felt he could not trust me anymore. I  didn’t suggest that Peter visit Ian’s job site. But maybe Ian thought it was my idea?

When I had an issue with someone, I talked it out, as soon as possible.  I wanted to hash this out in a conversation, but Ian wasn’t ready for that.  I didn’t want to go

through the long winter worrying about our friendship.  So I reached out for advice.

 “You didn’t understand his intimacy issues,” said my friend Sue, an expert at fixing people up. “Some people hate being set up, stay very private with love and keep boundaries that you unintentionally stepped on. I’d give him a time to cool off and apologize again at another point. ”

With my therapist, I drafted a short new apology.  In early September, I texted:  “Hi Ian, I’m sorry again for overstepping and sorry if I minimized your feelings about Peter stopping by your workplace. I did not know he was going to do that. I hope we can resume our friendship. You matter a lot to me. Love, Kate.”

I was devastated that I never heard back.  And it left me hanging.  Could we patch this up next summer? Did I even want to? Maybe we were too mismatched.

But why did this break up hurt so much?  I’d been single a long time and totally enjoyed this semblance of a relationship: dinner dates, beach dates, intimate conversations with someone who valued me.  Being with Ian supplied a lot of what I was missing as a single woman.  Ian had become my “gay husband.”

We shared an important history.  I even took Ian to his first gay bar in Asbury Park. We’d lost touch when I moved to Manhattan and he went away to college. I often thought about him but he lived under the radar and wasn’t on social media.

The summer we reconnected was special. Hanging out with someone who knew me in my 20s made me feel young and frisky. While we outlined major life episodes to each other as we sat on the beach, I couldn’t possibly grasp the emotional impact of what had occurred to him during the missing decades.

It turned out I didn’t know Ian that well. We had evolved in very different ways. I live by the motto, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”  Ian was a super private person with a need for definite boundaries.

In Ian’s mind, I was untrustworthy.  So he withdrew into his safe space. I feared that there would be no setting this right, no healing moment. Would Ian vanish as suddenly as he had reappeared?

I grew up with a mother who taught us never to hold grudges, so it was hard for me to grasp how one wrong move could screw up a relationship. I was forgiving in my friendships.

“You still haven’t heard from him?” asked my best friend Jennifer as we approached the holidays. “Maybe you should send him Christmas greetings.  Who can object to that?”

I decided to send him a card wishing him peace. When Ian replied, thanking me for the card and adding “See you in 2024”,  I was so relieved.

“Great to hear from you,” I texted, along with two photos from my Christmas dinner, including my grandnieces holding the plum pudding made with the family recipe.  After that, I decided to step back. I did not want to overwhelm him as he started to emerge from his shell.

Three months later, I couldn’t resist texting Ian the flyer about my upcoming reading at Joe’s Pub in late March. I was excited and wanted to share this big news. He never responded. That hurt and that’s it.  I’m done with being punished for an innocent mistake.

I went crazy trying to salvage this relationship because of our past connections, but maybe it belongs in the dustbin of history.