When I was young and the other kids called me names, my grandmother would console me with one of her favorite catchphrases: “Call me anything, but don’t call me late for supper.” It was funny when I was eight, when the worst name thrown at me was brainiac, but by ten, when the bullies’ vocabulary evolved to include sissy, faggot, and queerboy, Nana’s words of wisdom fell a little short of the mark.
So perhaps you can understand why I’m a bit sensitive about what people call me. And while I agree with Shakespeare that there isn’t much of substance actually in a name, the wrong one can still sting like a serpent’s tooth.
That’s why I flinched when, several months into our relationship, Chad was still introducing me to people as his “friend.”
His friends all knew who I really was, since he’d told all of them about me before I met them. So when the introductions got made, I was simply “Lewis”—my name enough of a marker so that their eyes would light up with a silent, “Oh, that Lewis!”
It was with casual acquaintances, or people we met together for the first time at parties, that Chad would say, “This is my um … friend, Lewis.” And suddenly that word—friend—usually such a positive term, felt like a subtraction, taking away the special nature of our relationship. There are dozens of people I call “friends,” but even my best friend doesn’t share Chad’s unique role in my life.
The ironically negative impact of friend on my ears, however, was oddly counterbalanced by the awkward um. It qualified the word, acknowledging that there was something special about me, after all—a point that Chad made clear when I expressed my concern about the word. He puzzled over my discomfort: the problem, he argued, lay not in the sentiment but in the language itself. Just what word would I have preferred he use? The one that first pops into mind, of course, is boyfriend. Intuitively, that seems like the right choice, but still it sounds a little too high school for a man in his forties. Who can forget the laughs generated by Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein, screeching out her melodramatic confession: “Yes, he vas mein … boyvriend!!” Now who wants to be painted with that Teutonic brush?
I’m a writer: words are important to me, because they’re how we tell the world who we are—as individuals and to each other. Words don’t hold quite as much weight for most people, I suppose; to a non-writer, words are more utilitarian: you pick whichever one seems right at the moment and then move on. Who has time to linger over the nuance? In fact, one of the things I love most about Chad is that he’s a man of action, science, the practical realm. While he loves to read and can appreciate the arts as well as anyone, I tend to see him as a man who moves from one physical thing to another. (Or is that just the role he plays in my imagination, prey to that inescapable tendency we all have to pigeonhole one another for convenience’ sake?) As I sit here at the keyboard, he passes back and forth through the house—tossing out old clothes, pulling weeds out of the garden, playing bridge on the computer, dancing, cleaning the hot tub, feeding the cats, cooking a mean risotto. He’s a man who speed-reads, while I pore over every word.
I’ve been known to do a little linguistic circumlocution myself from time to time. Last year I was asked to visit the home office in Minneapolis—my first visit to what happens to be Chad’s hometown. I asked him to come with me, to show me the sights over the weekend before my meetings began. My boss had scheduled the work sessions for Wednesday, so I asked if we could move them to Monday since I wanted to invite my “partner” along for the weekend. Instinctively, I knew that she would scoff at accommodating my boyfriend, but my partner would win her over.
That was only three months into the relationship—but, by dint of word choice alone, my boss assumed we had been cohabitating for years. Hence, the problem with partner: for a couple that still lives 45 miles apart and spends only 2-3 nights a week together, partner is jumping the gun (or the broom) just a wee bit.
So what’s in-between, a little more mature than boyfriend but not quite as irrevocable as partner?
Lover seems too sexual, suggesting somehow that we spend our lives between the sheets. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Significant other just sounds flat—significant seems to damn with faint praise, while other is just too … other.
Special friend sounds too much like Aunt Flo coming for a monthly visit, so we’ll leave that one to the lesbians.
Fiancé is what Dear Abby once recommended to console those homosexuals who are legally prohibited from marriage, but it applies only if one intends to get married—and if I ever hope to do so, I’d best keep my mouth shut about it for the time being, if you know what I mean.
In the end, words are what you make of them. Just last night, we were having drinks with several of Chad’s friends, who had invited someone I hadn’t met before. Chad took him by the shoulder and turned him toward me. “This,” he said, “is my boyfriend, Lewis.”
That’s the best thing about words: they demonstrate that you’ve been heard. Chad did not use the word boyfriend in order to clarify anything for the sake of this stranger. The word was, instead, a message for me. A message I should have been able to get without words.