The Closeness and Hope of Female Friendship.
“First of all:
I am tired.
I am true of heart!
You are tired.Dave Eggers
You are true of heart!”
I met Lizzy on the first day of gym class, almost exactly in the middle of high school. Having spent all of my adolescence concerned, and not particularly satisfied, with the ways friendship functioned in my life, making a new friend at this point was like coming to a clearing halfway through a long, uphill hike. As a kid my shelves were filled with stories of forgiveness and generosity, companionship a force so strong in these books that it shimmered above the page. I loved to imagine myself as half of one of those duos of friends who were completely fulfilled by the company of the other person and thus unafraid, even content, to stand together against the rest of the world. When the characters you hope to see in yourself pass loyalty between them like breathing, building secret worlds that resist all time and distance, it’s nearly impossible to keep your expectations from getting lost somewhere among the rafters of the library ceiling.
Then all of a sudden it becomes true: You meet someone, just as I met Lizzy on that morning many Januaries ago, and it feels like the most fortunate gift of chance you’ve ever received. I know now that luck is only good for the first few minutes; it’s not enough on its own to propel a friendship toward longevity. I couldn’t see then exactly how this friendship would take shape—you reach that depth of understanding only with time. But the class periods I spent getting to know her were pockets of joy in otherwise-monotonous winter days. Fifty-five minutes on weekday mornings turned into eating her Teddy Grahams at lunch and watching The Bachelor on Monday nights so we could whisper about it between yoga poses. And on Good Friday, on the first truly warm afternoon of what I remember as an unusually sunny spring, I took Lizzy’s school bus back to her house and sat around a bonfire with her family to hear stories of their days and lives.
If meeting Lizzy was a gift, each day I know her is a day I get to keep unwrapping it. I suppose we all wish our friends could see themselves in the ways we do, because everything Lizzy touches ends up better than how she found it. Being a witness to this magic makes me more sure of my words before they come out of my mouth, and pushes me to think longer about what is really the right thing to do. Her thoughtfulness forgets no one and nothing; her careful consideration borders on an indecisiveness we share. I hear her words of compassion and insight long after I’ve hung up the phone, but the look of tranquil concern on her face as she listens to me says enough. Devotion can be the simplest thing, so simple that we don’t need words for it. She shows me that a good friendship coaxes out the parts of us we may never see animated if not for a person who has taken the time to understand them.
All I’ve read has told me that throughout time, friendship has been a room where philosophical as well as emotional exchanges paper the walls and cover the floors. My own experiences confirm this idea; friendship has manifested in exactly the right places and in enough ways to prove itself a necessity that is, like all traditions worth observing, simultaneously changing and continuing. Yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve also seen how abruptly a friendship can shift—one person’s energies get redirected, a very different object of love takes up space where there was none, and time falls away.
Having a friend means you hope unequivocally, as you know she hopes for you, that the easiest, most comfortable kind of love finds her at the moment she most needs it. Lizzy and I have been there before, where something so wonderful fell into her lap that she needed to hold it with both hands. The hands that had been around my shoulders, that had reached down to pick up anything I had dropped. It was a dazed, disconnected year for me, feeling cut off at the knees, driving home alone after school. Not quite knowing how to carry Lizzy’s bounty and my loss at the same time.
And yet it passed. We hardly bring it up anymore; that time reflects harshly on us both, and it seems ridiculous, impossible even, considering all that we have now and all I have learned since then. Now, from the other side, I spend time wondering how life would be if we treated friendship and partner romance with the same reverence, two pillars of intimacy meant to bear equal amounts of our emotional weight. I have an idea of what that could look like; my future has a Lizzy-shaped space drawn into it. It’s a relief to know this expectation is not just an intention, but a fact I can take for granted. Now it seems the endurance of this friendship will make the unknown future ahead of us bearable, even welcome. In her memoir Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett writes about her late friend Lucy Grealy: “We were better off when we were together. Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all.” Lizzy and I talk of grad school together, of sharing an apartment, of our children tacking “Aunt” in front of the other person’s name. I have dreams of the two of us at a kitchen table, after all partners and kids have gone to sleep, the last night of a dreamlike summer week. (No doubt we will have deliberated all year between the beach and the mountains, each person hoping the other would just make the decision for us.) We are sitting beside each other in comfortable silence, mugs of tea between us, wondering which of us played every single one of her cards right.
Lizzy and I have other dreams, too, ones not so much rooted in time but in feeling. Like maybe one day, we won’t have to wonder any longer when it will subside—that sensation of waiting for something, for our directions to line up with our destinations. The gauzy clouds of uncertainty that seem to surround us as we move through our lives will part, and we will find an understanding in the daily goodness of the world and our purposes in it that lets us forget about the looming what-ifs. And one day, the vague and fickle sadness that sneaks in through some drafty window is suddenly unable to push its way through, and the contentment we’ve been searching for will be just there—will have been just out of view this whole time.
As much as Lizzy and I may anticipate whatever lies on the other side of now, the past will always be next to where we stand; it’s true that we may be too comfortable there. In college they teach you that the more you recall a memory, the more vulnerable it becomes. Every time you think of it, that old image of what really happened mixes with your present state of mind to produce a more or less false account of the truth. But much of my time these days I supplement with remembrance; just looking at the way the wind moves through the grass makes me think of riding my bike behind Lizzy on Balcom Street on any given day last summer. And still, sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September, not fully imagining until it was too late what it could have looked like to spend four more years with a person who knew as well as I did that I would always ask for chocolate sprinkles on my cone.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences, that separated we have a feeling of incompleteness.” And while physical separation keeps me and Lizzy apart apart more than anything else (recently we realized there will be a single day between when she returns home from school and when I start my next semester), just layering a moment we shared many months ago onto a day we spend apart makes it complete. It isn’t that I want to remember my way back into the past so much as I hope to bring the past up to meet me where I am. That way, when the sun sets over the river I walk to every week, a hat pulled over my ears and my raw frozen hands stuffed into my pockets, the sky I’m seeing is the one Lizzy and I stared into at the beginning of last July. Each night that weekend we sat with our feet dangling off the dock, watching as a burning sun poured itself out for us in shades of pink against the sky, before it sank down to become the dark smooth ripples of the lake. I figure if such a moment of light lodges itself behind my eyes, why shouldn’t I let it refract onto an otherwise unremarkable instance and paint the whole thing a warm, Lizzy-tinted shade?
In some ways I feel no one knows what it is to have a friend the way I have Lizzy. Yet in other ways it is even more special to imagine there was a version of our friendship that existed between other people long before we came along. Because really, it always happens in the same way—Ann and Lucy, Elizabeth and Susan. First you find someone you can grow up with, and as you two become yourselves alongside one another you can’t help but take in parts of the other person. And the pieces of herself she decides she no longer likes, or has grown out of, or wants to change completely—you put those in your pocket. You keep the endless versions of who she was and who she hopes to be right next to those versions of yourself, so one day when you’re both old women, you can say to each other, “I saved this for you, because I thought you may want it later,” and you can spill everything out onto the table, sifting through the memories you share and the ones you don’t, because at this point it’s all the same. You will find that everything you have lived she has lived, because she has stayed with you in every way imaginable.
So the story of me and Lizzy goes on every day, whether we know we’re writing it or not. Thoreau offers that the language of friendship is not words, but meaning. And while what Lizzy and I do best is talk and listen, we struggled with how to say our most recent goodbye, with how to make the other person understand. Not that we didn’t have any words left between us, but what could I possibly say to express how I sleep better at night knowing Lizzy also has dreams? To express that when loneliness sits down with me at my desk, I imagine Lizzy at her own as if we are looking at the same wall, fixed to the same spot that exists somewhere between here and there, in which the other person is always reflected back to us. Why would I try words, when what I really wanted was to put stars from the summer sky into a jar, for her to take back to the place where it is always winter?
But that sky was far away now, in a state I won’t be backback to for a while. So instead of trying to make meaning out of a separation that, in the end, severs nothing, I stood on the steps of my apartment and watched Lizzy move farther and farther away into the landscape of a waning January. Just when I thought her back had turned for the last time, thought I wouldn’t see how the cold air flushed her face until the following winter, she would turn around and send out another wave, her shining eyes holding mine, until I had to be the one who climbed the stairs slowly up toward my room.