This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.
Our friendship was unusual in its specifics — but generic in its demise. We had met the winter that we were both 9 years old, sipping hot chocolate out of Styrofoam cups on opposite sides of the community center’s kitchenette. As our mothers talked, we eyed each other’s messy ponytails and tomboyish sweatshirts, recognizing that we were, at some level, the same.
For a long time we went to different schools, but we saw each other on weekends and over the summer. In seventh grade, she helped me switch from my tiny private school to a suburban junior high where I was one of a thousand kids. At the time, my family had no money to spare for brand-name clothes, so she loaned me hers. She showed me how to roll my jeans the right way, and how to curl my bangs. As my parents’ financial problems escalated, I spent more and more time with her family, saying I wasn’t hungry at restaurants because I had nothing to offer when the bill came due. Her mother would order something for me anyway, as if she knew. Maybe she did.
At our high school, we both met the minimum requirements for social success: both skinny, both blonde, both clever, both pretty (but mostly unaware of it). For the first two years, we tried to place ourselves among the cliques (the usual suburban taxonomy: first cheerleaders and athletes, then partiers and stoners, artists, cool nerds, and punks, et al.) and hoped no one would notice as we tried to fit in.
But her popularity grew, and she began choosing other friends over me. She talked about me behind my back, and to me in terms that were supposed to knock me down a notch. Which they did. I know now, and probably guessed then, that it was all classic teenage-girl stuff, not really about me, but an assertion of will: I used to be a kid, but now I am not. Still, it was devastating. If that paints me as the victim, it would be a self-serving and incomplete picture. I had just as quickly kicked free of friends whose status I had come to see as a weight bound to my ankles. When I think of those I passively rejected, I shudder with regret.
In adolescence, you locate the beginnings of many things: your body, and what it can do; your mind, or the edges of it. Most of all, you locate your power. She, I think, found hers when she began to be recognized for her rebelliousness, her verbal retorts, and her inimitable, joyful bursts of laughter. And my power was discovered the moment I picked up the phone and told her that if she wasn’t going to apologize for shunning me, I didn’t want to be friends. This is a lesson I’m glad I learned as a teenager, when everything is so messy to begin with that you may as well get all that awkward self-discovery over with: There are times in life when you must walk away.
For a year and a half, we barely spoke, little more than a reluctant nod on the lawn at lunch. We made separate yet equal groups of friends, graduated, and moved to opposite sides of the country for college. We could have easily gone the way of so many childhood friends who break apart in high school. But then, that first week that we were both back home after freshman year, she called.
It was one of the first perfect days in May; the crab trees in my mother’s yard had just bloomed. On the other end of the line, she was asking, did I want to go for a walk? Sure, I found myself saying, surprised that she asked, surprised that I agreed. But it was so nice out.
As I pulled my mother’s car into her parents’ driveway, I took stock of my life, full of people and facts she did not know, the undergraduate failings and successes I’d acquired without her. It was defensive posturing, meant to stifle my insecurities, however old and damp. We wandered up an old closed road and the trees threw dapples onto the potholed concrete.“I was a total bitch to you,” she said suddenly. “You were right to cut me off. And I’m sorry.” There was a lightness in her voice, the irresistible release that accompanies honesty.
As soon as she said it, I became physically unable to maintain contempt. Her apology — particularly its unflinching thoroughness — was unexpected but also completely in keeping with the person she had always been: the girl who loaned me clothes so that I’d fit in, who included me on family trips, and who, even when she felt the need to assert herself socially, never revealed things that would have deeply embarrassed me. In high school, she had helped me locate my self-respect. Now she showed me something else: how to own your choices and ask for forgiveness.
“It’s okay,” I said, and apologized for hurting her, too. We agreed to be friends again and changed the subject, to the boys we were dating and the mildly objectionable things our mothers had recently done. We would stay friends — real ones — from that moment on, through the deaths of both of my parents and the births of both of her children.
But that afternoon, we agreed not to discuss the past anymore. We had done right by each other. Our juvenile records were sealed.