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In the summer of 2012, Will Schwalbe met with his old friend from Yale University, Chris Maxey, to celebrate their 50th birthdays at a restaurant in the West Village. “You know,” Maxey said. “I’ve wanted to say two things to you. First, happy birthday. And second, you’re a frickin’ s–thead.” Schwalbe was taken aback, but Maxey continued.
“You’re a s–thead because whenever I say ‘I love you, brother,’ you never say that. You just say nothing or ‘Bye.’”
As Will Schwalbe explains in “We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship” (Alfred A. Knopf), the pair, now in their early 60s, didn’t exactly have a conventional friendship.
With a hairstyle like Prince, a look stolen from Adam Ant and many Matt Dillon posters on his wall, Schwalbe was a New England bookworm who volunteered for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center in New Haven, Conn., where they both attended college. Maxey, meanwhile, was a star wrestler from Berwyn, Pa., whose sights were set on becoming an elite Navy SEAL after he graduated. “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,” writes Schwalbe, who also wrote the 2012 bestselling book “The End Of Your Life Book Club.”
They first met in Schwalbe’s junior year in 1983 at a secret Yale society that offered free food and drink, a pool table and cable TV. The goal of the society was to bring together the 15 most different kids they could find, so that they’d meet people who were nothing like them.
Schwalbe wasn’t impressed when they first met. “Maxey was the loudest among us. He took up space and knocked things over, and he was drinking vast quantities of beer,” he writes. “He was also trying way too hard, and I found it a bit much — the high fives and the instant nicknames and the questions to everyone about everything.
“Whenever he went to one part of the hall, I went to another.”
Over time, though, the pair warmed to each other — the aforementioned beer serving as a sort of “lingua franca” for the two men. Their friendship was cemented when Maxey gave a hungover Schwalbe a ride back to New Haven on his Yamaha 850 motorbike, nicknamed The Bitch.
“The ride itself was so terrifying and exhilarating that for once I wasn’t overthinking everything. Who I was. Who I would be, I didn’t know,” writes Schwalbe. “At that moment I was just a guy on the back of a motorcycle piloted by a daredevil jock who wanted to push his machine to the maximum but didn’t seem like he wanted to die.”
In the decades that followed Yale, the pair would often drift apart as their lives diverged, even going an entire decade without seeing each other. “Nothing had happened between us: we had just let a few weeks without calling turn into a few months and then years,” writes Schwalbe.
As the book moves through the decades, there is plenty of laughter — but also plenty of grief.
For a gay man in the 1980s and 1990s, Schwalbe’s story is also seen through the ever-present fear of AIDS. While living in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, Schwalbe had met David Cheng, his future husband, even though it was a place where homosexuality was outlawed with life imprisonment the ultimate sanction. He lost many friends to the disease.
Meanwhile, Maxey had founded the Island School in the Bahaman island of Eleuthera and was dealing with loss himself, including the drowning death of one of his 12-year-old son’s best friends.
When he was a toddler, Maxey had lost his biological father, then 28, to a brain tumor. In 2016, Maxey was also diagnosed with one of his own that required six hours of surgery to extract, and left him with a six-inch scar running from his ear to his neck.
There were times when Schwalbe thought they may never speak again.
But Maxey’s brush with death had changed their rules of engagement, with the pair maintaining weekly contact. As Schwalbe writes: “I realized then that for the last thirty years of my friendship I had always felt I needed an excuse or reason to call Maxey.”
Schwalbe wasn’t immune from ill-health, either. In 2018, he was diagnosed with small fiber neuropathy, a chronic nervous condition that can affect everything from circulation and breathing to digestion and glandular function. Not that he told Maxey.
That May, Maxey called him. “I’m really pissed at you,” he said.” I’ve been asking you how you are doing, and you never say anything. “So that’s kind of bulls–t.”
In that moment, Schwalbe, who was there for Maxey throughout his brain surgery, realized that what he thought was stoicism was nothing more than selfishness on his part. “He had allowed himself to be completely vulnerable with me. Meanwhile, even though I was grappling with some of the same fears, I had trusted him with nothing,” he writes.
The following year, with the pair still battling with their recoveries, Schwalbe visited Maxey in Eleuthera and the two sat on a dock, looking out to sea and drinking beer. With the evening over, Maxey wished Schwalbe goodnight, adding, as he always did, “Love you, man.”
As he walked away, Schwalbe shouted after him. “Love you too, Maxey.”
“It was the first time, after nearly 40 years of knowing Maxey, that I’d ever said that,” he writes.
“And for the two of us, in that moment, it felt great simply to be breathing and in the company of an old friend.”