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Forever Young, and eternally grateful

Last night, while making a long road trip back home after taking my daughter to Six Flags, I was devastated to learn what many of you are no doubt now finding out. My good friend, the one and only Amy Slater, has passed away.

The following is an article that I wrote about nine months ago for an upcoming book, long before any of us had any inkling that our friend would be taken from us. So excuse the fact that it comes off as more of a humorous memoir, and not so much a thoughtful eulogy. I’m going to think of it as both.

No one has read it yet, outside of myself, Amy and her significant other. Amy was my first crush, my bowling and tennis buddy, one of my best friends, and the girl who changed my entire outlook on life. I felt it fitting that I devote this week’s blog to her memory.

Ironically, one of the last times I spoke to her was when she approved of this story as written. The world became a little colder and much sadder as this amazing woman left us. I’m grateful that I had a chance to put into words how much she meant to me, and that she had a chance to read it. She touched a lot of lives over the years, and my prayers go out to her mother, her brother, her son, her wife, and all of the many friends and students she’s influenced over the years. While there will be many tributes given to the one and only Amy Slater over the next few days, I’m sure, I thank you for allowing me to share my memories as well.

This is a story about a girl named Amy, and how she quite literally changed my whole damned life. Let’s begin this tale with a secret that only my closest friends knew about me.

I’m sexually attracted to lesbians. God’s great practical joke on me.

Okay, wait a minute, that’s not entirely accurate, and it really kind of dances around the point of this story. I’m not only sexually attracted to lesbians, thank God. It just seems that a lot of the women I’m drawn too turn out to be gay. But there are dozens of other different traits I find attractive.

Honestly, physical characteristics have never been as important to me as someone who shares my common interests or personality traits. If you have that, then I’ll find you attractive even if you may think you’re plain. But besides a pretty face and a somewhat cavalier attitude towards visible cleavage, there are lots of things that catch my eye.

Women who use unnatural colors in their hair. Women who are much taller or shorter than most other women. Eyes with two different colors. Tattoos. Long hair----or very short hair. Basically, anything that sets them apart from others. I like girls who express their individuality.

And I love tomboys. Always have, mostly because it’s a great mix of someone I can play sports with, and still admire their curves. Growing up, some of my biggest crushes have been tomboys. Jodie Foster, Kristy McNichol, Michelle Rodriguez…

Okay, so you might see a trend. I like tomboys, and many of the tomboys I found myself crushing on turned out to be gay---so ergo, I must like gay women. My wife, thank God, is probably the one tomboy I’ve encountered that turned out to be straight. So she tells me.

I digress. Since I like the company of women who are not only pretty, but can also joke and play and get dirty, I enjoy the company of tomboys. There’s a little less pressure to impress them, it’s more important to just be yourself. Which is what I would want from a gal anyway. So I like tomboys. I don’t think my friend Amy would have ever described herself as a tomboy, but what she did was change my whole view of the world.

I wasn't a particularly popular kid in high school. No, I'll amend that. I was fine, I just wasn’t as popular as I would have liked to have been. For years, I just assumed that I wasn't attractive. In retrospect, I realized that I actually looked fine. I wasn't in with the popular kids because I was a hyperactive weirdo who was more into comics, theater, writing and video games than sports and cars.

But there was one girl who I seemed to bond with very early, and this was Amy. She had short red hair, a face full of freckles, a sarcastic attitude that never seemed to stop, and a natural way with other people. Why she picked me to be one of her main friends, I couldn't tell you. But I loved being around her. She was far more athletic than I ever could hope to be, and she drew me heavily into sports that I could actually compete with her in, such as bowling and tennis. She was the Peppermint Patty to my Charlie Brown, and the coolest girl I knew.

Up until Amy had muscled her way into my life, I had a pretty solid, unwavering picture for feminine beauty. Dark curly hair, soft feminine features, eyes with mascara and a little bit of color, and a flirty and girlish giggle. There was one particular girl in school who personified that more than anyone else, and while I ain't gonna embarrass her here by naming names, Amy would know who I'm talking about. And she was sick of hearing me lust after her year after year. (By the way, that girl ended up marrying the love of her life and has a beautiful daughter, and I couldn't be happier for her. We had nothing in common anyway, which is an important life lesson for finding happiness that most people don't learn in high school. That, and that popularity in high school is about as important in the long run as winning a daytime Emmy.)

Anyhoozle, Amy shook up my entire conception of who you can be attracted to, romantically or platonically. She had none of the physical characteristics I usually look for when hanging out with a gal, but I sure did enjoy her company. We laughed at the same silly shit, we had our own language. (We thought we invented the linguistic concept of dropping the word WHAT from certain sentences. So, WHAT the hell are you doing became "The Hell are you Doing?" Yeah, we were convinced that no one else thought of that before we started saying it. I still am, actually.)

At age 14, she was my first kiss. There were technically one before that, but I don’t count that one because the girl had been dared to do it. Amy was the first kiss from someone that I legitimately liked. We had been friends for a year now, and going into my bedroom closet one Saturday afternoon to experiment with this new thing called “necking” seemed like the logical next step for both of us. Unfortunately, being the awkward and inexperienced fellow that I was, I assumed necking just involved pressing your lips together and patting the girl on the back reassuringly.

This lead to an awkward moment that had all the sexual intensity of rubbing two popsicle sticks with crudely drawn faces together.

“Are you petting me like a cat?” she asked.

“That’s….not right?”

“It would be if I were a cat.”

We tried to resume our adolescent experimentation, but then the odor of something unpleasant hit us, and we realized that the family dog had chosen to take a massive shit in the closet, and we were about a foot away from it.

“Yeah, this isn’t working for me,” she finally decided.

“Well, it stopped raining,” I said with a shrug. “Wanna go play tennis?”

“Hell yeah,” she agreed.

And that was the end of the sexified chapter of our friendship, and neither of us ever regretted it. I think, in the back of our heads, we were destined to just be friends. Between my activities in drama club and journalism, and her activities in sports, we didn’t always spend as much time together as I would have liked. We always tried to get in a game of tennis when we could, and we ruled the junior bowling leagues together on Saturday mornings, but we definitely ran with a different set of friends as our personalities became more defined as high school went on.

By the time we were seniors, we weren’t seeing a lot of each other anymore. We were still close, but we didn’t have that many classes together, we had very busy extracurricular schedules, and things were getting pretty serious with me and my girlfriend Ginger. We were just starting to live our own lives now, and those lives involved very different experiences.

There was a day during senior year that changed my life forever. In fact, I think it might have been one of the five most influential days of my life. As close as our friendship was before that night, it was even deeper the next morning. I’ll get to all of the details of that later, anything I say afterwards is going to be a little anticlimactic, and I’m trying to write a nicely paced story here.

After high school, Amy and I went to the same junior college together, and we ruled the campus. At least, that’s how it seemed in my mind at the time, and that’s all that really matters. We made memories that I still laugh about to this day.

We discovered what we were certain was the intrinsic healing properties of Yoo-Hoo. We’d buy six packs of the bizarre chocolate water concoction and consume them throughout the school day.

We joined the college student senate together, where we unsuccessfully tried to start a slam dance mosh pit at a student dance function.

She gave me first glass of wine at 19, and after I admitted that I enjoyed the buzz I was receiving and starting to act all tipsy at a party, she came clean and admitted I was just drinking Welsh’s Grape Juice all this time.

In revenge, I took advantage of her growing distress of going two months without sex after having a rather steady and reliable string of lovers. I slyly suggested that each person is assigned a finite amount of sex by God, and she had probably just used her supply up. For weeks, I kept bringing this up whenever she whined about not getting any, and she was starting to buy it. When her dry spell finally got broken later that year, she happily reported that the drought was over, accompanied by a stern middle finger.

We considered joining the military together, and decided to prepare by going to the Du Quoin fairgrounds and running one mile together. We collapsed in the grass when we finished, struggling to breathe and regretting the decision not to warm-up before or have water ready afterwards. We looked at each other and, in unison, just said: “Fuck the Army.” (She immensely enjoyed the irony that I would, just four years later, actually end up enlisting.)

But before all these college shenanigans happened, there was That One Night early in our senior year in high school. At this point we were still close, despite the fact that we were spending a lot of our times with different friends. It was during this time that I noticed that Amy’s mood had changed. Something was bothering her. Her circle of friends had seemed to shrink a bit, and I saw her alone more than I used to. That’s when the rumors had begun to swirl around my good friend.

These were rumors repeated mostly by catty girls and douchy guys that I didn’t like and who didn’t like me, but for some reason they considered it their responsibility to make sure I was well informed about these things. I kept hearing the same thing over and over again.

“I think Amy is totally queer.”

No way, I thought. That didn’t add up. I’m pretty sure I told one of them to go to hell.

So my first thought was that this couldn’t be true. I had several pieces of evidence to support this.

1. Earlier that year, she had been dating a guy in my class. I think I saw him feel her up in the halls at one point.

2. My parents have raised me to understand that gay people will have to answer for their sins in hell, and my parents are never wrong.

3. She was just too “cool” to be a gay person. (For the record, we were living in a very small town in Southern Illinois, where The Rocky Horror Picture Show was considered tantamount to pornography.)

4. She was one of my best friends. She would have told me.

5. Hey. She made out with me in a closet three years earlier. Badly, sure, but still…

So as the rumors kept persisting, and Amy herself not bothering to volunteer any information, I started quietly scrutinizing my friend for little clues that I had overlooked so far. The guy she was dating was actually a very brief fling, and neither of them seemed all that broken up about it when it ended. Our occasional weekends to go to the teen friendly dance club together now often included another girl named Tara tagging along. Her bedroom was lined with photos of famous tennis stars. They were all women, but I had assumed they were her role models.

That whole hilarious experiment when she was briefly in the closet with me was now suddenly taking a new metaphysical meaning. Wow, I realized. I think she’s gay. I have a gay friend. Okay, I had dozens of questions for her, but I decided to keep them to myself.

So the night in question was a night shortly before the holidays got started. We had made plans to go out to the dance club, and we were going to pick up Tara at her house just outside town. Now by this time, I had pretty much accepted that she was gay. I was just waiting to bring up the subject, which seemed a very prickly and delicate bridge to cross. There was no going back after bringing up the subject, and I didn’t want to offend her.

I drove to Tara’s house, and Amy walked into the house. When she came out, she was in tears, which is something my friend never does. Tara was screaming at her to come back. A heavy woman was standing behind Tara, someone I first assumed to be her mother. Everyone looked emotional and angry and embarrassed and damn, was it an uncomfortable moment.

“Drive the car,” she commanded.

“She’s not coming with us?”

“Drive the fucking car, man!”

I wasn’t that naïve anymore, I pretty much knew what had happened here. And although I promised myself that I’d let her spill the beans on her terms, something told me that it was time for to be a friend and intervene. It was jarring to see my friend so vulnerable, and I hated it. She looked so alone. I wanted to remind her that she wasn’t.

“So do you want to talk about what just happened back there?”

“Dude, I have something to tell you, but I’m not ready,” she admitted. “I think I’m gonna need a drink or ten before I talk about it.”

So I stopped the car and pulled over to the side of the road, so she could see my eyes and she could see how utterly serious I was. Up until this moment, she had always been the coolest girl in high school, and I had felt like her weird little sidekick. I wanted to remind her that I always had her back, just as she always had mine.

“We’ve been friends for a lot of years now,” I told her. “We’re always going to be friends. Whatever you’re holding back, I probably already know. And if it is what I think it is, we’re still going to best friends. You’re my favorite person in the world, and unless you’re into Satanism or stabbing people, that’s not going to change. So if you don’t want to talk, I’m not gonna make you. But I hope you know I’m here if you need me.”

It probably didn’t come out as eloquent as that. I was still a kid and this was over thirty years ago, after all. But whatever I said got through to her. She told me everything. She was gay, Tara was her girlfriend, and she’d been cheating on her with that dumpy broad I had seen.

So she admitted the truth. After that, the clouds seemed to part for her a little bit. I mean, just a little bit. She did just find her girlfriend’s face buried in some overweight woman’s tits, so she was a little moody for the rest of the night.

But she explained that she had really accepted that she was gay over the previous summer, and she had lost a lot of friends after admitting it. She was holding off on telling me because she didn’t want to lose me, too.

But after that day, when she realized that I was still in her corner, the two of us were nearly inseparable. Even more than we were before. I started making more time for her, which I should have done all along. Actually, I was sort of roped into it, because she broke her leg the next month and I got roped into carrying her books from class to class to help out. Actually, she was more than capable of doing that herself, but her disability (such as it was) got her out of class five minutes early to hobble down to the lockers, and I got to share in that benefit. It gave us a few extra moments of gossip time in the empty halls.

Oh, I just remembered that she was notorious for playing hooky. There was this one time that she tried to get me to forge a note from her dad, explaining that she had bad cramps and that she had to stay home. I had written one just like it the week before. And the week before that. “Jesus, Amy, I don’t have a uterus and even I know you’re don’t have a period every week of the month! Go to class!”

We were so tight that at one point, she jokingly asked me to back off for a few days, because the rumors were going around that the two of us were a thing, and it was ruining her new proud reputation as a proud gay teen.

After a few years of junior college, I got married and joined the army, while she attended university and made a name for herself. She ended up working as a guidance councilor at a college, she’s married to a beautiful woman, and she has a son that’s clearly the center of her universe.

We touch base often, but our lives have taken us to different parts of the world now. But if you’re wondering about how this girl changed my life, the answer should be obvious. Despite my upbringing, I discovered something about myself senior year in high school. Probably one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned.

She’s gay, and I decided I don’t care. She was still my favorite person. See, that was the year that I decided that if I’m not going to let her sexual identity interfere with our friendship, than I shouldn’t let any differences interfere with potential friendships. That was the year that I learned the lesson that I wish everyone could learn.

I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, black, Hispanic, asian or purple.

If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. If you don’t hurt other people, I’ll have kind words to say on your behalf. Do what makes you happy, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. We’re cool. I’m convinced that if every single person could learn that lesson, we’d have far less problems in the world today.

When I told Amy that we were still going to be friends, I came to a choice that very moment. I will strive to live my life without prejudice. I’ve been infinitely happier in my life since I made that choice.

Although I still haven’t forgiven her for making out with that girl that I was crushing on in college. You know the one, Amy. The girl with the freckles, brown hair, tomboyish looks, an affinity for wearing plaid flannel shirts……shit, why do I keep falling for that?

If anyone who knows me thinks, “Wow, that John is a pretty awesome and enlightened cat,” you have Amy to thank for that. She finally convinced me to watch GONE WITH THE WIND five months ago, which was the last beautiful way she touched my life. My heart is shattered over this unexpected news, and my prayers go out to her entire family. I will continue to take the lessons I’ve learned from her, to love deeply, live life to the fullest and harbor no prejudices towards your fellow man. I pray that you all do as well.

John Yeo Jr. is the writer of a bunch of books, and will be retreating to a corner to listen to FOREVER YOUNG by Alphaville for the rest of the morning now.

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