I was in my habitual “get ready for work” mode: I made my bed, brushed my teeth, threw in a load of wash and drank my coffee on the fly. If you are a working gal, you know that multi-tasking is in our DNA. I had just showered and was getting ready to blow-dry my hair when my cell phone rang.
Most gals know that when we leave our hair to dry naturally in humid weather, a case of the “frizzes” aka “bad hair” day is guaranteed. With this in mind, I was going to let the phone go to voice mail, but something compelled me to answer.
Before I could say hello, the voice on the other end uttered: “Hi, Ceil. This is Lollie, your over-the-fence friend.”
Without preamble, Lollie blurted: “Kevin is dead.”
I, who can talk faster than a NASCAR car can race, remained mute.
“Ceil are you there?”
“Yes and how?”
“It was quick.”
The all-too-familiar feeling of loss and sadness covered me like a wet woolen blanket. I thought: “This is the end of an era.”
I texted my sons, Greg and Jeff who expressed shock and disbelief. They too agreed it was the end of a chapter in our lives.
Folks, I am going to tell you a love story — a story of a couple whose love and devotion to one another other defied the societal norms of those times.
My husband George and I moved into the house next door. In tow were our two small sons, one overprotective big dog and a neurotic cat. The first encounter with our new neighbors was not of the ideal “meet and great variety.” Forget the traditional loaf of fresh baked bread or welcome wagon that usually welcomes new neighbors. Instead, we made ourselves known through our dog, Teddy. He made a beeline into our new neighbor’s back yard terrifying the two poodles who were minding their own business. Not one to be left out of the fun, our neurotic cat decided to join the fray.
We meet formally (?) while trying to separate the dogs and our calm down our cat. It was a noisy chaotic meeting: Poodles yelping, big dog barking, cat hissing and my husband and I apologizing. And this, folks, is how our life-long friendship began.
Over the years the names Kevin and Billy became interchangeable. Back then, I was a tad younger and my brain had not reached the level of maturity that I have today— well, most times. Funny, I was not disturbed by their relationship, I was simply curious. After a time, my curiously vanished. “Kevin and Billy” became household words that were synonymous with “great neighbors.” However, back then, not everyone felt the way we did.
When my husband had to shut down the water in our house for a day, I sent my sons over to Kevin and Billy’s to use their bathroom. The nosy neighbor, who lived across the street, near had a stroke when she got wind of this. She marched across to my house and began berating me on the dangers of “those kinds of people.”
I went back at her with what my kids call the “Celia-nator.” “How shallow are you? They are gay, not pedophiles! Do not tell me how to raise my boys. If you educated yourself you would find that they are folks like you and me!” She turned red, became flustered and stopped talking to me for nearly a year.
Kevin would tie Greg’s tie for school pictures; Jeff would play with their dogs. When I was at work, Billy would call me to let me know that Jeff arrived home from school. We watched out for each other as good friends and neighbors do.
On a whim, I decided to join the current trend and have my hair frosted (frosting back then was akin to highlighting.) Mind you I had dark brown “virgin” hair. Next thing I knew, I was a blonde—and a cheap looking one at that. My hairdresser told me I looked like one of the ‘Hollywood Wives.” (The Hollywood wives was a TV miniseries circa 1985.) I literally freaked out. I wanted to be me!
When I arrived home, Billy was in his yard. The look on his face when he spotted me said it all. I began crying. Billy was a counselor and comforted me; he was also licensed hairdresser. He mixed a magic potion that returned me to my brunette status. Afterward he told me he was worried that my hair would break off and fall out. Yikes! Glad he kept his thoughts to himself.
On Saturday mornings we engaged in music marathons: I would blast Neil Diamond records, while the resounding disco beat emanated from their house. Imagine the cacophony of sound between the two houses?
One day, Kevin came over to tell us that he had to go to the hospital and have a heart valve replacement. He asked us to watch out for Billy. In that magical moment, a new reality took hold of my heart: They were a couple who loved and cared for one another. It was the same love that I felt for my husband George.
Kevin and Billy eventually moved to Florida. Billy’s sister, Laurel (Lollie) moved into their house and became my “over-the-fence friend.” Over the years we kept in touch. One “cold water morning” I received a call that Billy had died suddenly. Kevin was devastated — as we all were. Little did I know that a mere six months later George would also be dead.
Kevin and I supported each other through our grief. Kevin called and invited me to Florida. I said, “I can’t do that, and how would it look?” With a chuckle and I imagine a twinkle in his blue eyes, he replied, “Ceil, I am the safest man you know.”
In 2013 Kevin visited his family in Greenport. We spend a wonder-filled day reminiscing about the “good old days” on Staten Island. We agreed that it was a golden time- a time that is lost forever, except in memory. I promised to get to Florida to visit him. Regrettably, I never did.
Back then, being gay was better left in the closet. Kevin and Billy were brave souls who chose to live their lives out of the closet. Their love and devotion for one another was a defining time for me. They taught me, by example, that love is love is love.
Recently the Supreme Court ruled that same–sex marriage is the law of the land. I believe that Kevin and Billy are celebrating with all the company of heaven. I envision them dancing under a canopy of stars to Sister Sledge’s hit: “We Are Family.” A glittering disco ball spins slowly reflecting its brilliant colors throughout the galaxies and lo and behold! A magnificent rainbow is created that embraces heaven and earth. And, for one brief shining moment in time, heaven and earth rejoice as one.
This column is written in memory my forever friends, Kevin and Billy, who taught me that love wins.
Celia Iannelli is a native New Yorker enjoying a second career — in ‘retirement’ — as a freelance writer. She lives in Jamesport.
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