In the fifth grade, I was friends with a girl on my street. Best friends—though we did not wear those Be Fri / St Ends necklaces—a heart split in two—each friend wearing a half; each friend wearing a broken heart around her neck. Jessica lived three houses away from me.
We rode the same bus; we were in the same classes. Our parents had lived in the same apartment complex before moving to our street; my parents had even looked at her house when they were searching for a home. We moved to the same neighborhood within weeks of each other.
“Mean girls,” as a term or the name of a movie, did not exist then. (We did, however, have a table we called the Blonde Table—even though not everyone who sat there was blonde, but they were all wealthy, confident, and a little cruel.) Jessica wasn’t part of that table. I often walked home with her from the bus and stopped at her house for a snack, to play with Barbies (sorry to admit this), to listen to Men at Work or Toto (yes, “Africa”) on her record player. She had Rick Springfield and John Cougar Mellencamp, too.
Sometime in the middle of fifth grade, Jessica dropped me—she stopped speaking to me. I saw her—had to see her—every day: at the bus stop, on the bus, in every class, Monday through Friday. Fifth grade = contained classroom = not great for middle-school-aged girls. (The politics of middle school girls are not easy. I thought this then, and know it now—I married a middle school teacher.) I ate lunch in the library rather than sit alone in the cafeteria.
My friends that year included: 1) Indian friends who lived in other towns and went to other schools (so that was no help), 2) the books in our school library (and the lady librarians who overlooked the fact that I was eating my sandwich in the library). Books saved me. They gave me some dignity in the indignity that is middle school and they allowed me to travel and they promised me that there were other places and people out there—that my life was not only going to be in and about French Road Middle School. The next year my former best friend and I were in different classes; life changed, got better.
There are other girls in the world—just as there are other fish in the sea. But I never forgot what it was like to have no one to sit with in those awful two-person desks in middle school. I never forgot what it was like to be dropped. It was almost physically painful. Maybe it was worse. I made the decision then that I would protect myself—that I would never put myself in the position again of having all my eggs in one basket—I would have options, I would diversify. That I would have more than one friend—that I would have many.
I would say I have successfully done this—built and maintained friendships and various other levels of connection—but it hasn’t spared me any pain, and it has sometimes exhausted me.
Sometimes I think it’s just better to let things go. I’m not (by nature) good at it. When I’ve let things go—clothes and books both—I don’t regret it. I keep a lot of books. I do have a set of close friends. I counted up recently—and the last time I had done that was two years ago, when I knew I was going to get married and I made a list of people I’d want to be bridesmaids. We didn’t end up having bridesmaids or groomsmen at our wedding (and that’s another story), but it still felt important to have thought about who ranked and why.
I struggled more, I think, than my parents, my in-laws, and R, with finalizing my part of the guest list. R had a set list and it was small. A newish acquaintance of ours, Howard, told us several months before the wedding that a wedding reflects who you are and who you were close to (or thought you were close to) at that particular moment in your life. He mentioned, ruefully, that there were friends they had never seen after their wedding, which was over fifteen years ago, and friends they wish they had invited. It helped me to hear that. A year after my wedding, it’s how I feel, too.
I know my guest list would be different now. I suspect R’s list would not change as much. He has a small circle of close friends. He is very clear on who is a friend and who is not. Facebook complicates this. I am “friends” with many people in virtual land, but I’m not (in my real life)—not really—and they are not with me.
How do you decide which friendships to take with you and which to jettison?
When I think about writing that’s been important to me about friendships, certain books come to mind: the “Betsy Tacy” series, for example. In my essay, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” I insert myself into one of their stories. No accident that the series I chose to write about in my essay concerned “two best friends from the same street who made room for a third.” In that case it was Betsy-Tacy who made room for Tib.
On my street, there were four of us in the same grade, but our relationships were not simple—someone was always annoyed with someone else, not to mention allegiances, oaths, betrayals, alliances. I can see why I would have wanted to live on Betsy and Tacy’s street. In my essay, I wrote:
No one felt alone past the second chapter. A series about twins, one good and one slightly more interesting. Like every girl, I wanted a twin or a best friend. Like every girl, I wanted both.
What returns to me are books: Anne of Green Gables, Sula, the Betsy-Tacy-Tib series. I read the Betsy Tacy books in fifth grade and the Anne of Green Gables series then, too. Of course, it was Jessica, my friend from that time, who introduced me to both.
It seemed mercenary and calculated to count up and sort my friends while making an actual wedding guest list and an imagined bridesmaids list (I couldn’t bring myself to rank the friends I counted up), but I think ultimately it’s not a bad thing to do—maybe even a good thing to do. We have friends that come in and out of our lives. Right? There’s that stupid Girl Scouts song: “Make new friends, but keep the old—one is silver and the other gold.”
I think I’ve stayed open and receptive, wanting new connections longer than most, but I can’t stay open forever. Things have changed. My life is different. I am trying to cultivate and maintain what I have in my life—my family and my friends—fewer friends than I can count on both hands. Or on no more than both hands. And yes, I know—most likely it’s less.
I had someone in my life I had thought of as a friend. I realize now that she was not and I am angry I spent so much time upset with her, upset over the conflict, the cooling, the fissure. Was she ever a friend? What wasted energy! I could have written five essays in that time, or cooked many meals, gone on many walks. I fretted a lot.
Why does it irk me so much?
My therapist brings up the idea of pruning. He took a botany class in college and mentions that one detail that stayed with him from the class is that pruning is necessary for growth. He brings this up because I am talking about this friendship, which is no longer working.
Figuring out when to let friends go—or at least no longer hold on to the illusion that they are (or were) friends—has been an obsession of mine recently. This happens during major life transitions—and I had many at once. I left New York City. I left academia. I moved back in with my parents in my hometown. I wasn’t sure what I would do next and where, but eventually I got a job teaching ninth grade English. (My former boss said it best: “Teaching ninth graders: it’s like herding cats.” The kids were great, but it was not a job that allowed me to write.)
Within a few weeks of landing my job, I met my now-husband; we were engaged the next summer. A few months later, my aunt’s cancer returned and she moved from Chicago to live with my parents, my grandmother, and me. That December, I called 911—my grandmother had suffered a stroke. We spent two months in shifts with my grandmother at the hospital and then rehab, until she recovered. In June, my teaching contract ended, I moved out of my classroom, I survived my wedding, and R and I moved into our own place.
At community acupuncture last fall, I filled out a sheet that asked if I’d had any of the major life stressors/events/life changes happen recently. I checked most of the boxes.
In my last Kenyon Review post about books—which we keep and which we give away—I wrote that I still, after all those life changes, had “the same friends.” I am not sure that is true. I am and I am not the same person I was five years ago. And I realize, when I interact with friends from that time, it is true for all of us. Yet, with the circle of people I know or hope are my real friends, we pick up the thread—we still see each other and are seen by the other, we can hear each other; we listen or we try to; we want to.
Maybe what I really mean to say is that I thought that I had more friends than I do. I should feel relieved to be paring down. It is a relief, but it did not feel good. It did not feel comfortable, but it was honest. Who is left standing? How many people can we stay close to? How many weddings, showers, funerals, graduations, and birthday parties can you attend—can you afford to attend and still attend to your own life?
My parents and one of my uncles have always said: most people are not your friends. They are associates. If you are lucky, you will have but one or two true friends. At the end of the day, and at the end of your life or at a bad time, when you need it most, only one or two. Is there any way to know ahead of time, who your one or two are? And whose you are? And if they are the same?
From Anne of Green Gables I learned these phrases: “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit.” I cringe (still) at the word “bosom” (that TV show, Bosom Buddies; the heaviness of the word; the cloying, old-fashioned, saccharine sound) and found the term “kindred spirit” to be enlivening. To connect from the spirit. One’s own kith and kin. One’s own flesh and blood. That’s what I wanted and looked for. When I think about friendships, I think of books. For one, the stories of Alice Munro and Alice Adams, although those are often more about the complications, complexities, and vexations within any friendship—and yes, those do, of course, exist.
But I’ve had Toni Morrison’s Sula since college (Women’s Studies 120—thank you, Susan Reverby!) and have read and re-read it many times. In the dedication, Morrison says: “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you. This book is for Ford and Slade, whom I miss although they have not left me.”
I feel that way about one or two of my friends. I miss them even though they are here. I miss them all the time though they are not yet gone from me.
The end of the novel is about love and friendship:
‘All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.’ And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. ‘We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something. ‘O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’ It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
In the best friendships, they seem to have no beginning and no end—it’s that kind of connection.
If there were a fire and I could only save the most important books—it would be the ones I return to, the ones that never left me—those I would not forsake. These are the books that were my friends when I was a child and are still my friends now. They are constant and faithful; they will not break your heart.