Friends with benefits

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 24, 2010

Freeman got the hell out of Fitchburg. And when he started at UMass the following year, things started to look up.

Now, Kirby Hunter, a fellow junior with admirable posture, acts as his PCA two days a week. The rest of the time, she's his friend. The pair met last January through Freeman's bandmates in the Synaptics (he's the lyricist). Earlier this semester, Hunter started working for him, as did another member of their crew, Sarah Chiavarini. At last count, Freeman has five PCAs, all of whom he hangs out with.

Hunter and Freeman have a very easy rapport. Freeman flaps. ("I'm constantly doing the Macarena dance, but with no music," he said, describing his involuntary movements.) Hunter is unflappable. Even though they've only been working together for a month, Hunter seems to anticipate Freeman's thoughts and wants. As we waited for Chiavarini to bring lunch, we talked about what it's like to let your friends dress you.

I'll be completely honest: at first, I was shocked that Freeman would choose a buddy to see him at his most vulnerable moments. Peeing together has been a girlfriend ritual since time immemorial. Helping a male friend pee, not so much. "Other people feel very different about it," he said. "I don't like the whole clinical and professional thing. It's so rigid."

"It's better to be friends with a person before they become your PCA," Freeman said. "It's an icebreaker," Hunter interjected. Freeman's condition slows his speech, especially when he's excited. Hunter kept completing his sentences. Freeman didn't seem to mind.

For Freeman, the privacy he relinquishes is worth the trust he gains. "Some people make the mistake of thinking I'm inferior," he said. With friends, there's little danger of that. And in light of the horror show at Fitchburg, his decision to hire his friends seems yet more logical — a friend would probably feel guilty if they starved you or left you in a chair all night.

But when his friends are on the job, Freeman is the one in control. "I tell you what I need, not the other way around," Freeman said, encapsulating his ideal PCA relationship.

Chiavarini, a sly brunette, showed up with salad and chips. The girls inhaled their food while Freeman and I talked about fronting. Even though I was a college freshman over a decade ago, I still remember pretending not to like certain things. I would have died if anyone knew how much I listened to Pearl Jam, or how frequently I played Burger Time on my Nintendo 64. For Freeman, there's no room to like things in secret. I asked him about this.

"Do you mean porn?" he volunteered. "With different [PCAs], I have them do different things. I have to know how they'll react. I'm different around women than I am around men. I feel easier to be myself around men because I know how they're going to react."

Right — just like every other 21-year-old guy since the dawn of time.

"I'm more self-conscious around certain people," said Freeman. Who? "People who might hold very conservative religious views — odds are, they would feel what I'm saying is offensive."

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