A Best Friend Is Good to Find, Keep

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

The darkest hour was just before dusk.

Almost every afternoon of their 49-year-long marriage, Emily Chase and her husband shared a private moment over cocktails. So with his death, what was once happy hour became the saddest period of her day.

"I still don't like being by myself at 5 o'clock," Chase said, nearly a decade after her husband died. But today, at least, she has a best friend to see her through bouts of loneliness.

Chase met Dorothy Gray in a widows' support group 8 years ago. The two women quickly discovered that they had a lot in common: they both lost their husbands in June of 1980, they live within a few blocks of one another in Mission Viejo, and they are similarly young at heart.

"I invited Emily to spend (cocktail hour) with me," Gray, 68, recalled in a letter to Single Life. "These little visits between us evolved into intimate talks, dinners, movies, shopping. We now are close friends. We help each other cope."

Although the 5 o'clock shadow's pain subsided, Chase and Gray continue to get together every Monday and Thursday--and often more frequently--for pre-sunset drinks and "nibbles."

Gray and Chase talk on the telephone two or three or seven or eight times a day. "We're concerned about one another," Gray said. "Living alone, you could slip in the shower and no one would know. I'll be outside hosing down the trash cans, and she'll call and say, 'Where have you been?' "

Their friendship has negotiated some curves over the past 8 years, yet has remained steadfast throughout. Chase, whose first husband, Alan Harris, was a character actor who appeared regularly on the television series "Dragnet," remarried in 1982. Phil Chase, her second spouse, died 3 years after their wedding.

"Even when she was married, Emily didn't forget me," Gray said. "We still had dinner together all the time. I loved Phil dearly. He was a sweet man. They were always trying to match me up with someone." That reminded her of a few stories about unfortunate blind dates, during the telling of which the pals giggled like school girls.

When Chase's second husband died, she had a bosom buddy to comfort her and help with funeral arrangements. "I don't know what I would have done without Dorothy during that time," Chase, 75, said.

It's just the two of them again. "We both have very attentive children, but they have lives of their own--there's only so much time they can give us," Chase said. "I think my children are relieved that I have Dorothy. She's the closest friend I've ever had. When you're married, you socialize as couples, but this friendship is much more meaningful."

"We don't have husbands to get in the way of our friendship," interjected Gray.

"In other words," Chase explained, "we really need each other."

Best friends do not take their roles lightly. Like Chase and Gray, they gush over each other, they adore each other, they really need each other. And mateless best friends really need each other all the more.

"A 'best friend' is important for anyone, but it's probably more important for single people," Santa Ana resident Gary Bowne wrote in a letter to Single Life. "We don't have a shoulder to cry on waiting at home.

"As a teen-ager, it would have been impossible to share the most intimate details of life with someone of the opposite sex. But today, as a mostly grown-up man, my closest friend is a woman."

She is Christine Castellanos--a striking 34-year-old blonde, whose Cuban accent and flashy mane earned her the nickname "Charro." The inseparable friends met 8 years ago at Walter Hill Junior High School in Long Beach, where they both teach English as a second language.

Their classrooms are next door, so they check in with each other constantly. They eat lunch together every work day, often conversing in Spanish so that other teachers can't eavesdrop. They socialize on weekends. They call each other to seek counsel about personal problems. They even bought cars together--matching Mazda RX7s.

"We spend more time together than a married couple," noted Castellanos, who lives in Long Beach.

Not surprisingly, rumors fly. "We hear little comments from staff members," said 45-year-old Bowne. "The counselor calls us the Bobbsie Twins. And my students call Christine 'Miss Kiss' because she gives me a kiss when she comes in the classroom. They just light up."

Alas, Bowne and Castellanos are "only" true-blue, devoted, mutually admiring friends. "I'm not her type," Bowne frankly admitted. "She wants a tall, blond, Nordic man." As fate would have it, he is a slight brunette.

If Bowne ever regrets their platonic relationship, he well conceals his disappointment. "I tried to fix her up with a friend once, but he has dark hair so it was doomed from the beginning," Bowne said. "I want to see Christine get married. I know she'd make a good mother, she's so maternal with the kids. And she'd make a good wife, too, so long as the guy did the housework because she's a slob."

"He pushes me; if I see a guy who I think is cute, he'll say, 'Go for it,' " Castellanos said. "I'll ask him advice about everything--even sex."

They share a private joke. When one spots a person who obviously is not the other's ideal of Mr./Ms. Right, he/she teases, "Tu tipo?"-- Spanish for "Your type?"

Laughter, the friends said, is the key to their relationship. That, and their ability to open up to one another. "We talk so regularly that I don't even think of it as confiding," Bowne mused. "Every detail gets discussed."

His life would just not be as full if Castellanos weren't in it, Bowne said: "On days when she's sick and doesn't come to school, it's very different, and not nearly as much fun. It's almost like it's not the same school."

Apparently, the teaching profession breeds close friends. Bellflower High School teachers Tom Hogan and Don Bell also met at the workplace.

"I feel that I have been blessed--if you will--with the 'one great friendship of the heart,' as Shakespeare said," 41-year-old Hogan wrote Single Life. "Ten years ago, the vice principal asked me to welcome a new biology teacher. His name was Don--a shy, quiet, green, typical just-out-of-college type, to be sure.

"In the past decade, Don and I have become as close as brothers. Two years ago, he married. I am, and probably will remain, single, but the honesty and pure joy of our friendship has not changed.

"There is nothing we can't tell each other, nothing too off-the-wall or serious to discuss, nothing secret. I feel that a love as healthy and as strong as our friendship helps us both to meet the world with a smile and a song."

For 7 years, the friends lived in the same apartment complex in Cypress, after Hogan informed Bell of a vacancy. Bell, 33, and his wife recently bought a house in Anaheim, but the two men still see each other outside of school frequently--at least three times a week, when they work out together at their gym.

"Before I was married, when I didn't have anyone to answer to, I'd sit in Tom's apartment until 11 at night watching TV and talking," Bell said. "I don't do that anymore, but we still spend a lot of time together."

"I went through the whole thing with him--the courtship, the marriage," Hogan added. "His wife is Catholic, like myself, and Don converted. I was his sponsor."

The men attribute their rapport, in part, to the fact that they both come from large families. "Our parents are cut from the same mold," Bell said. "We have similar stories about growing up with a lot of siblings and having to share everything. Like, when you got a walkie-talkie for Christmas, it wasn't yours --it was everyone's."

Just as important as their similarities, however, are their differences. "I'm either up or down--seldom in the middle," Hogan said. "Don is in the middle, and seldom real up or real down. He has an infectious calm about him that helps to calm me."

Also, their interests vary, and so they learn from one another. "Tom (an English teacher) has taught me about literature and classical music; I'm more the outdoorsy, athletic type--I teach him about things like insects," Bell said with a laugh.

Sure, his wife is his new best friend, Bell said. But there are times a man wants to talk man-to-man. "Even when there's just one woman in the crowd, it changes the conversation," he said.

Through bachelorhood and marriage, through thick hair and thin hair, through youth and through old age, the men vow to remain best friends.

"We'll sit in our rocking chairs talking and laughing," Hogan predicted.

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