Here’s why it’s important to have friends who aren’t like you

In the summer of 2012, Will Schwalbe met up with his old friend from Yale University, Chris Maxey, to celebrate their 50th birthdayu birthday at a restaurant in the West Village. “You know,” Maxie said. “I wanted to tell you two things. First of all, happy birthday. And secondly, you’re a crazy head.” Schwalbe dropped back but Maxey continued.

“You’re the head because whenever I say ‘I love you bro’ you never say that. You just don’t say anything or ‘Goodbye’.”

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.

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With a Prince-like hairdo, an Adam Ant look, and several Matt Dillon posters on his wall, Schwalbe was a New England bookworm who volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center in New Haven, Conn., where he both attended college. Maxey, meanwhile, was a star wrestler from Berwyn, Pa., who had his sights set on becoming an elite Navy SEAL after graduation. “The jocks and I were like planets in different orbits, circling each other but not colliding. I felt like if we did, I would disappear,” writes Schwalbe, who also wrote the 2012 bestseller “The End Of Your Life Book Club.”

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They first met when Schwalbe was a junior in 1983 at a Yale secret society that offered free food and drink, a pool table and cable TV. The aim of the society was to bring together the 15 most diverse children they could find, so they could meet people who were nothing like them.

When they first met, Schwalbe (center) thought Maxey (right) was too loud and brash.
When they first met, Schwalbe (center) thought Maxey (right) was too loud and brash.
credit: David Singer

Schwalbe was not impressed when they first met. “Maxi was the strongest among us. He was taking up space and knocking things over and drinking copious amounts of beer,” he writes. “Also, he was trying too hard, and I found that a bit too much – the high-fives and instant nicknames and asking everyone about everything.

“Whenever he went to one part of the hall, I went to another.”

Over time, however, the pair warmed to each other—the aforementioned beer serving as a kind 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 motorcycle, nicknamed The Bitch.

Yale University
Maxey and Schwalbe’s friendship began on the Yale University campus in the early 1980s and lasted throughout moves to Hong Kong and Eleftheria.

“The ride itself was so scary and exciting that for once I wasn’t overthinking everything. who was i Who I would be, I didn’t know,” writes Schwalbe. “At that point I was just a guy on the back of a motorcycle being ridden by a daredevil jock who wanted to push his machine to the max but didn’t seem like he wanted to die.”

In the decades following Yale, the pair often drifted apart as their lives diverged, even going an entire decade without seeing each other. “Nothing had happened between us: we had simply let a few weeks without phone calls turn into a few months and then years,” Schwalbe writes.

maxey and schwalbe
“Whenever I say ‘I love you, bro,’ you never say that,” Maxey told Schwalbe at a dinner for his 50th birthday. “You just don’t say anything or ‘Goodbye’.”
Credit to: Michael Lionstar, 202

As the book traverses the decades, there is plenty of laughter — but also plenty of mourning.

For a gay man in the 1980s and 1990s, Schwalbe’s story is also seen through the constant 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 illegal with life imprisonment the ultimate penalty. He lost many friends to the disease.

Meanwhile, Maxey had founded the Island School on the Bahamanian 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 that runs from his ear to his neck.

There were times when Schwalbe thought they might never speak again.

we shouldn't be friends

But Maxey’s brush with death had changed the rules of their engagement, with the pair maintaining weekly contact. As Schwalbe writes: “I realized then that in the last thirty years of our friendship I always felt like I needed an excuse or a reason to call Maxey.”

Not even Swallow was immune to ill health. In 2018, she was diagnosed with small fiber neuropathy, a chronic nerve condition that can affect everything from circulation and breathing to digestion and gland function. Not that he told Maxey.

That May, Maxie called him. “I’m really angry with you,” he said. I asked you how you are and you never say anything. “Well that’s kind of bull.”

At that moment, Schwalbe, who had been 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 faced some of the same fears, I hadn’t trusted him with anything,” she writes.

The following year, with the couple still struggling with their recovery, Schwalbe visited Maxey in Elefthera and the two sat on a dock, looking out to sea and drinking beer. As the night ended, Maxey wished Schwalbe goodnight, adding, as he always did, “I love you, man.”

As he pulled away, Schwalbe called after him. “I love you too, Maxie.”

“It was the first time, in nearly 40 years of knowing Maxey, that I had ever said that,” he writes.

“For both of us, at that moment, it felt great to breathe and be in the company of an old friend.”