This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I do not have a lot of friends. This statement is true however you define “friend”, but actually I am talking about female friends. Mostly, I am okay with this truth. It’s not a complaint so much as something I’ve found a bit curious about myself. As a feminist, I often wonder how my friendships with other women have shaped me. I wonder why these friendships tend to be rare.
Nowadays, I am not close with the person I consider my childhood “best friend”. But, I often think back on things she might remember, too. I wonder if she remembers the city we grew up in and that we both lived on opposite sides of a park. Does she recall that our parents let us ride our bicycles from opposite sides, meeting at the center of the park? Maybe one of my first tastes of freedom was this short bike ride to visit her. The park had a circular road that cars were not permitted to drive on, so we could ride safely once in the park. But the park was full of other types of traffic. There were colorful, determined pairs of joggers. There were streaming packs of lean cyclists. And there were friendly, chatty people out walking their dogs. Children were concentrated in the playgrounds and heard throughout. There were two lakes, one large and a smaller one I think of as the ice skating pond. I would pass these features, small, but on a mission, to meet my best friend in the middle of the park. When would I catch that first glimpse of her? That recognition and the smile. After greeting each other, it was a race to one or the other’s house to play. What did we play? I don’t know. But, the park is vivid. Despite having to ride on a few sidewalks and crossing at least one major street, I never thought to worry. Children are so brave. Modern, older me worries about this younger past me. Would I have let myself go? I do remember that I was afraid of the Canadian geese. There was that unpleasant experience with a goose who bit my hand. I was throwing it pieces of bread and couldn’t resist getting closer and closer. I learned something about boundaries after that day. My best friend knew I was eternally worried about the geese. What if they came up from the lake to the road? They did sometimes. What they were on the grass where we often met? The geese seemed huge to me and malicious. It’s nice when someone has your back. My best friend always told me that I was faster than anyone on my bike. She assured me that I could outpace any goose. Knowing she was with me, I was safe.
I had another very close friend in high school. She was the one we all had – the one my parents thought was a bad influence on me. (I am sure her parents thought the same about me). I met her at field hockey tryouts that were held in a perfectly manicured sports field behind our high school. The school was one story, red brick and had no windows. It was always a relief to be released from it. I didn’t think of myself as a team sports kind of person, but there was something about the woman who coached us. She was the first person who ever yelled “Well Done!” to me as a emphatic compliment. It seemed sort of foreign and I liked it. So I tried out for the team. After a somewhat exhausting pre-season practice, we walked off the field at the same time and it would have been awkward not to say something. She initiated the conversation by telling me that she was only playing field hockey because no one tries out and so you get to play a lot. I couldn’t imagine that being a good thing, but she continued to explain that she had an injury and that she wasn’t supposed to do soccer, so she was going to play field hockey until she was allowed to go back. I noticed that she had all her required gear in a bag with a soccer team logo and her name on it. Her name didn’t seem to fit her at all. She picked up her shin guards, making a comment that she never wore them, because she thought “bruises were cool.” I grabbed my bag and paused to consider how much I really wanted to join the team. These practices were several days a week and really I would rather be almost anywhere else. As she walked off, she yelled back in my direction, “come to 7-11 and get a Slurpee!” We walked past the prison-like school building and the mobile buildings for the overflow classrooms and down the block. We crossed the busy suburban intersection where one year later, one of our classmates would be the driver in a fatal pedestrian accident. We would all shiver for years thinking of the younger kid who ran in front of her car. We would also shiver at the thought of our classmate. Though it wasn’t her fault, she would live forever with the tragedy of having been at that place at that time. Not yet, though. We didn’t associate that story with the intersection after that first practice. We crossed the street at the light that day. We became less patient later and jaywalking would become the norm. The store’s parking lot was empty and we were the only customers that afternoon. I watched in amazement as my new friend grabbed a monster-sized cup and filled it to the brim with all four of the available flavors. I had never seen anyone do that before, but acted as if I was completely bored to be in a 7-11. I mixed two flavors – why not!? – and we paid the long-haired guy behind the counter. Outside, I followed her to a concrete barrier behind the store where we sat and slurped our sugary drinks. My head began to hurt from the cold almost immediately. The cars and buses passing by filled the silence. I wasn’t sure what there was to say to this girl. My lack of conversational skill didn’t seem to bother her. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one without saying a word. I declined, still quiet. Her hair fell down over her face as she looked for a lighter and then she squinted and lit the cigarette, blowing smoke toward the west where the sky was turning scarlet. I remember being so content at that moment. I had not been aware of my need, my loneliness until I was there sitting with this creature dressed in her school field hockey kilt, un-pretty legs sprawled on the concrete, hair shining in the sunlight, sucking on her renegade-flavor slushy between puffs of tobacco. I felt I should justify my response to the cigarette. I also felt I should try to say something. I felt I wanted to connect to her, even if talking was difficult for me. I told her I couldn’t smoke because I had a hole in my lung. Those were the exact words I used. In reality, I had just recently had a case of pleurisy and it had been the weirdest that had ever happened to me and seemed convenient to work into the scene. She gave me an impressed kind of eyebrow arch in response. I didn’t elaborate. When she finished her cigarette she got up to walk away. We still hadn’t really said anything to each other, but as we parted ways at the parking lot she commented that my sprints had been “pretty good for someone with a hole in their lung”. She walked off into the subdivision I would get to know so well in the following years. I went up the stairs to the pick-up area by the school where my mom would be soon. In a few months we would become close in a way only teenagers can be. We were sisters forging an alliance to survive high school classes and the less formal lessons of every American girl has to learn. There were days she was so depressed that her mom would send me upstairs in the morning to get her out of bed and dressed for school. I told her the only secret I had. The one that still defines me. Once, she betrayed me terribly. Several times, she probably saved my life.
New York was where I chose to escape when I thought running as far away from home was what you were supposed to do in life. In college I was lucky to find that friendship is often a result of proximity. I met lots of people and made more friend than I had ever had before or would ever have again. Standing out from the rest, were two friends. We were a “trio” of three very different personalities thrown together and sparking electric in response to the friction. Somehow it worked. We were away from home on our own, intoxicated on new ideas, free to be lazy when we felt like it, but uniformly committed to packing 25 hours into every day. One blond, one brunette, one redhead. Studying photography, dance, writing. We were young and bold. We were baby artists! We had been told we were smart by our teachers. Our professors told us we knew nothing. We were orchestrating an important revolution every Saturday night! This time in my life felt like a constant theater production. All these beautifully made up people and their exquisite rituals. Where had everyone else gotten their script? I was a mouse in their Paris Opera house. I went to the dive bars, the art house movie theaters, the nightclubs, the greasy diners, the venues of creative possibility, the portals to Life. I soon realized that life cost money. But renounced money. What did money matter to me when I had only fire that would burn it? We lived in squalid housing where it was a test of wills to hold out on washing the dishes. We lived in penthouses and had views of the Empire State Building. We held hands jumping across the chasm on the only path ahead; leaving behind the safety of our adolescence and venturing into the black and turbulent waters of adulthood. There were two friends. I am not describing their qualities well. One was the sort to take us sledding at night on campus. The other the sort who had moody, hilarious dance parties. One was the ringleader of our occasional nights playing with a Ouija board. The other took us to a church to take photos of dogs being blessed by St. Francis. The city was always with us, a dramatic addition to make us four. Mostly we were laughing. Mostly we weren’t jealous of each other. One night one of our boyfriends was persuaded into taking pictures of the three of us. We did this for hours, hamming it up together, posing. There was a white wall and a low couch. We cracked ourselves up. Looking at it now, I guess we were pretty sexy. We were perfectly imperfect in a way I have never been since. It was the three us of us, the merged power of our burgeoning femininity. It was there and gone in flash. Unpredictable, but powerful, much like our city. A book with the compiled photos from that night sits in the bookshelf of my library reminding me that I have not always been a solo traveler through life.
Woman can also be awful. Perhaps this is what scares me. I am sure I have been awful. I see the way some women use weaknesses in others to bolster their egos and agendas. It is easy to grow bitter if this becomes the norm. If this becomes what friendship looks like. We imprison ourselves by accepting and settling and I know the cracks in my personal lens got there through my own carelessness. Light still gets through. Pay close attention and somewhere near you right now, I would bet there is a woman thinking about standing up instead of slumping in the corner. I think I can hear frustration sighs turning into sentences. Words forming, lungs filling, bonds forging as the realization hits that nothing really matters if we forget each other in the process. Whenever we stand up for ourselves we call up an old song that reminds our friends to stand up for themselves, too. Voices get rusty without use. Creaky as my own voice may be, it has volume! I holler hello from my bicycle in greeting to the little girls we once were. I yelp as the field hockey stick hammers my shin – but I don’t stop running toward my teammates. I howl from the rooftops of the tallest building in the city as we refuse to be taken without a fight. I whisper silent thanks for the shared glance in the board meeting. Sometimes we need to skip sweet and go right to stinging. Because, that is what friends do for each other. Impoverished I am not. I shouldn’t expect to find this kind of love often. It is precious and costly and must be given to be received. My eyes, heart, and mind beckon. Perhaps we can meet halfway.