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These are the fifth and sixth letters in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. 

photo-38N—

Persistence in loving is a good thing, except when it isn’t. I’ve woken from a kind of stupor in my thirties, like, you know what? I don’t need to be so fiercely loyal to every girl with whom I ever felt even momentary connection. It’s been hugely liberating, ascribing to Maya Angelou’s dictate that when people show you who they are, believe them. I used to take a certain degree of shit from “friends” because they were my friends! They might be hurtful or fake or competitive or passive-aggressive or thoughtless or never return phone calls or or or and it’d be cool with me because of that time we got stoned and ate ice cream and laughed for what felt like hours. Or because of how long I’ve known them. Or because they turned up in my life at just the right moment and seemed like the real deal. Or because, most simply, I needed them. But those days are over. And I gotta say, I’m really getting off on limiting my relationship with people who aren’t great. By which I mean competitive or passive-aggressive or undermining or just not up for meeting in the middle somewhere. It’s a muscle I didn’t realize I had. (Did I mention I’m slow?) And what’s interesting is that people tend, once you make clear that you have no room for their shit, to shape up or ship out. So you actually have less work to do in separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

To make a friend, be a friend, as the old saying goes.

Don’t make enemies out of friends, goes another.

They both sound true and yet neither actually makes sense when I apply it to my own experience.

The fucked-up need friendship is certainly a theme; what I am amazed by is how those friends tend to be absolutely outraged when you pull yourself up and out of the muck and get happy/okay for a spell. It’s such a primal betrayal: You were supposed to stay miserable! We were supposed to maintain the worst attitudes imaginable about ourselves together! Oh, things are cool for you now? FUCK YOU.

And will you judge me if I say, despite how damaged it is, that in truth I miss those girls the most? That while I’m glad to be in a good place (knock wood), it’s hard to achieve that kind of intimacy and immediacy and high drama and joy with regular old girls like me, who are, in the most triumphant manner of speaking, managing okay?   A few years ago, in a postpartum haze, deeply and darkly miserable, I spent more time than I’d like to admit threatening to burn my life to the ground. And I cannot tell you how present and rapt and supportive several friends were. They wanted every miserable detail. They seemed undaunted by yet another hour on the phone with me, crying, reiterating the same boring bullshit about how awful everything was. And I was deeply grateful to them. But things slowly became pretty okay and we don’t talk anymore, because some people only want you one way. And if you’re another way, well, that’s kinda threatening, maybe?

Dear, I would never have called you up during that time because of… what? Basic decorum? Decency? Shame?

Is that “boundaries”? God, I’m slow.

I can plainly see, looking over our correspondence, that I’m a mess of contradictions: I don’t like women, I like women way too much. I prefer boys, I abhor girls who ditch their girlfriends for boyfriends. There’s more at stake with girlfriends, true friendship with a woman is hopeless. I keep banging my head up against these ridiculously stupid binaries – in life and writing – and I bristle against the latest cultural iteration of SISTERHOOD – the imperative that we SUPPORT EACH OTHER because NO ONE ELSE WILL. It seems like a bullshit way of saying “don’t fuck with the girls or we’ll cut you.” “Maintain a relentlessly positive attitude toward other women or you’re going down.” “Rah-rah sisterhood unless you’re not joining in, in which case go fuck yourself.” In or out.   Which side are you on? I’m not on any side. I’m on my own side. I’m on the side of okay people who treat me with respect and kindness and who demand my respect and kindness in return. I’m on the side of truth in writing and art and filmmaking and music made by whoever the fuck has the temerity to hazard it.

Binaries are terrifically dumb, is my point. My biases are profoundly personal and twisted. But I’m not going to disown them. To do so would be the worst kind of oversimplification, and a betrayal of self. I’ll continue to have these contradictory ideas and feelings and express them as best I can, then stand back and say to myself, no girl, you have it all wrong, and try again.

It’s nice to find that one still has in one’s life friends from many moons ago, but one remains pleasantly surprised by just which friends have survived the journey. My mom and her loyalty-sworn group from girlhood, with their sixty years of monthly dinners, confound me. Is it luck? Is it persistence in loving? Is it failure of imagination? Maybe it skips a generation, whatever it is.

This is why I love our correspondence, dude. This specific correspondence, undertaken at Miranda’s behest, and the one we maintain generally, which is more personal and particular and about our daily struggles. There’s room in our correspondence for contradiction and half-truth and whole-truth in half-light and whatever else. There’s just room in it for our whole secret, messy inner lives. No one’s being held to anything but honesty; all that’s offered is I hear you, girl and okay, I have to go pick up the kids from school now. To have creative differences, household differences, political differences, etc., and to not be threatened in the least by any of it: what a cool thing. Your triumphs don’t undermine me, and your sorrows don’t embolden me. We’ve spoken of our correspondence as a long-term goal, like Auster’s and Coetzee’s (I guess I have to be Auster in that line-up, which is fine; I can well imagine your prose growing ever more stripped and essentially beautiful like Coetzee’s until the day you write your Disgrace), and I’m telling you now, for all the internet to see so long as the backup generators for the backup generators have enough of whatever to keep going, that I’m going to hold you to it.

Xoxoxox

E

***

My beautiful pictureDear E.,

I think you are far too much your own fine self to be Auster, and I cannot even aspire to be Coetzee. But lately I’ve read the letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell – or I should say, I’ve read nearly all. I closed the book before I read the last few rounds, since I couldn’t bear for the letters to come to an end. We can’t be like those two either, for the obvious reasons but also because they speak a special horticultural language of rose varieties, which makes it sound as if they are constantly meeting minor aristocracy or enjoying very brilliant sunsets. But mostly the correspondence is an amazing portrait of a friendship over decades, in which they are both so glad, over and over again, that the other is in the world. I think that’s what I’d like best of all.

Love, Nalini

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night is Different.  Her new novel, After Birth, will be published by HMH in early 2015.

Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter; and other short fiction and essays. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize, she is currently at work on a novel.

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This is the fourth in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. This letter is written by Nalini Jones. 

My beautiful pictureE,

I think it is about boundaries, definitely, but also what comes with them – maybe as simple as the possibilities of candor and grace? Or a kind of graciousness? It seems to me that when I was younger, it was dangerous to be honest with friends about the actual friendship. Other things were okay—by high school, there were regions of white-hot honesty—but to speak too directly to each other: danger. You could hurt yourself or someone else, you could expose yourself as a fool, you could appear (perhaps rightly) selfish, you could hurt and be hurt. You could think, oh, high-school-friend with such lovely hair and clothes and house, but no mother, you are so much cooler than I am, with your unmonitored parties and your prom date from Westport and your strapless dress which you can hold up all by your body’s sheer magnificence: I dare not say to you that perhaps you are pouring hard alcohol into diet soda cans and putting them back in the family fridge because you need something from your father. Maybe he should be around more, rummaging through the kitchen, picking up a Diet Pepsi and learning something new about your National Honor Society self. Maybe it is unfair to you that he’s off in some nearby town with a girlfriend who probably means well, trusting you to sort out way too much on your own. Maybe you should not have to hold up more than a prom dress on your own when you’re sixteen.

It is worth pointing out that this kid did it—thrived, successful career, happy life. She seems in many ways an impressive woman. So is the girl who was my friend for two good years in the muck of high-school, 10th and 11th. We could not drift apart, though we ought to have—different proclivities. But everything was more abrasive than that, an edge of metal shorn-off, sharp enough to tear the skin. In the last of a series of damaging conversations, she explained that my early acceptance to a college to which we had both applied was—let’s be honest, she said—because I was brown. She got in herself a few months later, and went. I chose someplace different. We were friendly through all that; it had not occurred to me to be otherwise. I knew you were supposed to be grateful for friends. You were supposed to be a certain kind of honest, a way that risked as little as possible. You chose what risk you could bear. I think you’re too competitive, she told me once, because we’re always competing. What remarkable logic! And completely unassailable at the time. Because if she could not risk being at fault, I could not risk being friendless.

Not that I was any prize, or any better. At least she said something. At least booze in the soda cans had a kind of flair. I was a series of bad strategies: desperate for approval, too attached to teachers who might offer it, living on caffeine and a kind of churning teen urgency, in hideous need of sleep, and dressed relentlessly, as my history teacher in junior year pointed out, “as a boy.” He did this to be kind and I knew he was being kind. Oh, how I loved him! Still, every day, jeans, long sleeves, a way to hide. For me, the danger was less friends who were girls than the idea that I might be a girl myself, or worse yet a woman someday. I suspected that in an America which prized (prizes) beauty, popularity, a certain kind of ironic ease, I’d be no earthly good at womanhood.

So I didn’t stand up for myself, or even bother to really know myself. I didn’t say some of the things that worried me about myself or other people out loud, for fear of a ruckus. But here is another kind of honesty I would never have risked: pure abject admiration. That would have left me far too susceptible to ridicule. I didn’t outgrow this for a long time. In college, I slipped into the library to read the creative thesis of a marvelous someone, who graduated the year before I did. For days afterwards, I felt amazed. I was in my twenties, a newly minted adult; still, I never told the writer how impressed I was.

If I met again that person today, I would. I revel in that kind of candor now, the kind that allows me to tell my friends how smart, interesting, strong or loving I think they are. That might be how grace comes in. Until I understood myself better, which perhaps meant that until I had developed a way of understanding myself that didn’t center on flaws, it was difficult to see the world or other people with any clarity. I was too busy, cataloging current flaws, hedging against future ones, worried that others would notice I had so many; in times of desperation, hoping that my flaws and someone else’s might offset, even cancel each other’s out. It was a kind of currency, which means, as you say, a kind of need—the bad kind.

Leaving all that aside meant a chance to enjoy people on their own terms. I think that’s how you and I are friends. Less need, more love. Some room to be gracious.

I still can’t really stand the camp girl gets boyfriend, ditches girl friends type—even though you are right about loyalties, marriage, certain regions of privacy and intimacy and connection. But I think the problem with the camp girl type is a kind of reduction of all that to a binary system, in which you ultimately choose your mate (swanlike term) or your friends. Lives are so much bigger than that. We all roll out in so many directions. I think that’s what I feel now, about all my friends, no matter how different they are from each other—a sense of expanding possibility, that I can be fascinated or dazzled or moved by so many different ideas and people. The absolute opposite of training the unruly self to grown in one direction, toward the narrow sunlight of a friendship you think you need. I still don’t like the sort of people who turn up as “friends” only when they are in need. Maybe because need is so effacing? What they really need is someone, not me necessarily at all. I become interchangeable with any other good-soldier-friend. I don’t mind fading a little, but I have to be careful not to shrink myself down the way I used to.

So here is a happy note: I do have friends from high school, two of my best friends, and yes! my daughters know them both as aunts. But we were of a peculiar sort of high school friend, in that we didn’t usually move in the same circles. There was a lot of room to be different, become ourselves. We just persisted in loving each other through all those years, and we go on doing it. Not need, though it can resemble need when any one of us is in trouble or hopes to feel fully known. It’s what you might call a friendship sustained. And the best imaginable luck.

xoxo

N

Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter; and other short fiction and essays. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize, she is currently at work on a novel.

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This is the third in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. This letter is written by Elisa Albert. 

photo-38N,

It is so much easier now, being friends. Something about boundaries. It seemed for so long that my very survival depended on girl friends: acceptance and support from them meant life; denial or rejection, to be cast out entirely, meant death. Spiritually speaking, I suppose.

There seemed simply not so much at stake with boys. They either wanted to get their hands under your clothes or they did not. And either way, kind of so what? So my only memories of real camaraderie/fun in high school are with two boys, dork stoner misfits with whom I listened to music, drove too fast, smoked cigarettes, and sat on the corner outside the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Westwood Village all night talking about nothing/everything.

The stoner boys, despite seeming to like hanging out with me, refused, to my great sorrow, to sexually objectify me. So it was an awkward time. What was I? I did my best to better myself, got a French manicure for prom, bleached and waxed and otherwise tormented my body, tried to diet. Tried to barf up food, did not have the aptitude for it. We know now, in the dim safety of adulthood, that absolutely everyone (most everyone) suffers in some of these ways, growing up. But back then it seemed likely that it was only I who suffered so.

The girls at school were baffling. They were anorexic or incurably type A or hyper-competitive or very busy getting ready to apply to the Ivies or drowning in disgust with their bodies or too scared to speak or all of the above. I had a perfectly okay circle in high school, perfectly nice, mostly incurable dork virgins like me. My mom used to say “It’s good to have a few friends and be in the middle: not the most popular, not the least popular.” As though it were up to me to choose where I fell in the social order! And my mom had been very beautiful, very smart, very talented. Her girlfriends from elementary school, a circle of eight, remained close through middle and high school and college and to this very day. They’re my aunties; I love them all dearly. So I understood that I had failed when I went off to college and did not care if I saw anyone from school ever again. I was no one’s bestie.

The girls at camp I liked better; it was an alternate universe and we were all probably alternate beings there. What freedom in that! But at camp it was all about pairing off with a dude. Which I – could you have guessed? – failed and failed and failed to do.   And it made me insane the way the girls would ditch out immediately upon snagging a boy. The way they would just POOF disappear. And the way they’d play coy, loyalties completely shifted. Like they had crossed definitively over, were speaking a new language, knew secret things and refused to share the knowledge. I have such primal, intense disdain for girls who play that way. And there are plenty of girls in middle age who still play that way. It arouses both my rage and pity in heady concert.

Though (I’m goddamn slow) I’ve begun to see that, actually, in a good marriage the primary loyalty is to the marriage. That there are privacies and secrets, the good kind, between my hubs and me, and that even when I’m forthcoming with my best friends (for whom what can I say but THANK GOD?) I’m also protecting a fundamental loyalty to my marriage. (Did the camp girls already know that? If you grow up with decently-married parents, do you automatically know that??)   Which in fact might be why it’s so much easier now, with friendship. I don’t rely on you to be my central emotional, intellectual, recreational bud. When we connect, which we seem to, easily and regularly even if not always often, it’s like the cherry on top. I can live without it and still the banquet is full. I don’t feel deprived if you’re not there to witness my every turn of thought/emotion. I don’t resent you when other stuff is going on and we’re not in touch. So I guess I’m talking about neediness.

Unsustainable friendships (and oh, there have been several, and not all in the distant past) are always the ones that bear too much weight, that fill some incredible momentary need. They’re like love affairs (though it seems crucial that they never actually turn sexual). Immediate and all consuming and doomed. I give them everything and am then so confused when there’s a jagged edge to any separation. So my thesis would seem to be: true and lasting friendship has to be independent from need. Friends I make in times of fucked-up need are the ones who invariably don’t stand the test of time. (Also my judgment is terrible in times of fucked-up need! How could I ever have liked/trusted her!?)

And what is childhood/adolescence if not a time of fucked-up need? For me, anyway.

You’re probably right about us not being friends way back when, though I so wish I could argue otherwise. I would have intimidated you, I can’t deny that, but there’s no doubt it would have been a thoroughly defensive posture. UGH.

Xox

E

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night is Different.  Her new novel, After Birth, will be published by HMH in early 2015.

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This is the second in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. This letter is written by Nalini Jones. 

My beautiful pictureDear Elisa,

Was there a time when it was all hearts and flowers? It occurs to me that we would never have been friends as kids, not just because I am older and that sort of thing matters in grade school, but because I would have been too shy to approach you. Around adults I was perfectly sanguine. I assumed most adults were friendly, interesting, and well worth cultivating. I was only really afflicted when it came to other kids, and not because I was actually shy, but because by the time I was in second or third grade, I’d come to certain realizations about my status. I was already going wrong, veering away from what cool girls knew. I knew that made me a kind of social supplicant, I knew I needed to be humble. I made the necessary adjustments, became quiet, the way a wild animal sniffing the wind becomes quiet. I tried to be alert to danger.

Some of this was about my hair. I was a seven-year-old kid, advanced reader, “gifted but not a genius” a teacher told me, to distinguish between my younger sister and me when I had happened to come across our different I.Q. scores. But somehow I couldn’t operate a headband with any real success. My bangs stuck out and everything else fell flat and hopeless. In my small parochial school (uniform jumpers, turning to pleated skirts in fourth grade) I was alternately an object of pity or derision among my classmates when we had to sit on the floor to listen to anything at all and as if in a musical-chairs-doubles-death-match, girls paired off, one behind the other: “Do you want me to do your hair?” “Will you do my hair?” I was a kid with no prospects in a world of tiny French braid savants. A year or two later, the era of braided ribbon barrettes fell upon me like a curse. I could neither make them nor place them with any grace. I still marvel at the way We-Will-Not-Mention-Her-Name, P., mastered that genre. And her hair was also straight! Shorter, the sort of cut future tennis players might favor, and a shiny nut-brown instead of my old-coffee-grounds. I wonder still if this sort of thing came naturally to her, or if older sisters were involved.

I don’t know if that P. fulfilled the great potential of her hair and grew up to play tennis, because we moved away before anyone grew up. Some of us had reached our full heights: me, catastrophically, at 12 or 13, an advantage I was too clumsy to make much of on Mr. Seed’s basketball team. By then, my status in a class of 30 or 40 girls had set like clay. Since Mrs. Dumont’s third grade project, complete with construction paper cover, I wrote rhyming poetry with terrifying speed. “When the Indians invented popcorn, the pilgrims shouted Hip Hooray, we’re so glad you came to our Thanksgiving feast today,” began one epic, in which it can be seen that I had no instinct for dialogue, or the proper instincts about the Puritan character, or any political savvy. But more damaging to the immediate social prospects: I was quiet. I did not have Atari. I had no older siblings to point me toward the right music. I achieved bursts of fellowship and respect on our soccer team, where I was reliably adequate, though I remained a failure in gym. I found recess painful. By seventh grade, I had contrived a way to escape it, by volunteering to catalogue biographies in a tiny library at the back of the science lab, where I read about Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and my favorite Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor. The second woman doctor was her sister Emily Blackwell, I learned. I wondered about those two. Was one a genius?

My sister was my best friend, until we moved right before I entered high school. But although I never felt quite safe among the girls in my own class, never quite on solid ground, there were girls who did not abandon me. I don’t know why. Did their parents insist on a habit of kindness where I was concerned? S. was exquisite – a child born to be an angel in an American Christmas pageant, golden hair, eyes that novelists of a certain age might have called gentian, a perfect face. I remember everything. I remember her birthstone, I remember her house, I remember the incredible appeal of her family, romantic and highly symmetrical: both parents had been married before! Both had two children of their own! They went on to have two children together! Oh, it was a kind of American dream in that house, the Brady Bunch in full living color; even the bitchy step-sister seemed thrilling. The full sister was in eighth grade and—wonders upon wonders—chose me to be her “little sister” when we all trooped into fourth grade to begin our sojourn at the Girls Middle School. (Goodbye, boys. Goodbye, jumpers.) I was a social animal, sniffing a new scent—had S., through the favor of her eighth grade sibling, just made me a kind of sister? There were sleepovers, science fairs. But though I longed to be her best friend, though I had a connection of sorts with the family (and especially the slightly grouchy, entirely impressive full sister), our friendship felt more a product of social attrition and local convenience. We lived nearby. My parents would drop off.

And so there was A. She was one of the de facto leaders of the other faction of our class, which gained its power by claiming to be leaderless. If the clique on one side of the room was led—entirely and without dispute—by one or two beauties, the group of girls on the other represented a hopeful egalitarian option. They were everyone else. Outside the fights and intrigues of the popular girls, they had discovered a kind of cheerful immunity. Did they know how cool they were? Never mind, I knew. I liked them all. A. had the curliest hair I had ever seen, and an older brother who was suitably brusque, and an older sister who was pretty and freckled and kind, and an older older brother who reminded me of the nice guys on Happy Days. We could make cookies or play Space Invaders or go to Decker’s Drugs for lip smackers and Jolly Ranchers. Often we ate at Zino’s, the pizza place, where some of us had a crush on the guitar player and the rest of us, still a few years away from caring, had the good sense to pretend.

This is what I remember: they were always the leaders, I was always the follower. I was sometimes afraid, sometimes ashamed. I was at other times, grateful, relieved, envious, hopeful, filled with awe, lonely. I was so thrilled to be invited to a slumber party that it escaped my notice entirely that I was usually happiest at home, being loud and not quiet. I imagine it was hard for my mother, who knew who I was and saw me fold myself up into something smaller when I was around girls my own age.

But everything I remember—all of this—might be entirely wrong. I think of S.’s eyes as gentian, they impressed me as eyes so lovely that they deserve a book descriptor, but they could well have been hazel. Her perfect family was of course not perfect at all; she rarely saw her biological mother. I think maybe she had her older sister had been taken from her? Maybe for good reasons? Eventually that older sister—my eighth grade “older sister”—began taking too many showers. I was at dinner one night when the father insisted once a day was enough; it was not good for her skin, not good for her hair. There was a kind of argument; the sister was sulky, the father was annoyed. I probably thought—with a kind of exultation—here is a real teenager having a fight with her father. I probably thought this sort of thing happened to Marcia Brady or Joanie Cunningham. The step-sister complained about time in the bathroom, right on cue; the step-brother, in high school, said nothing. That story had already gone wrong too.

I think about them all. I can see some of their faces on social media, wish them happy birthdays. The one I ended up knowing best was the guitarist from Zino’s. We figured it out years later at a festival; he’s a blues musician, living in Texas. We run into each other sometimes, friends. A. has a little girl who looks to me as if she has her mother’s gift for innate happiness. S. ended up at a college near mine, still lovely, but more delicate than I remembered. Here and there, I had news of the older sister; things were bad, things got worse. I wonder how far back any of us would have to go to find a moment before what was bad seemed to become inevitable, if there was anyone she could have trusted, any friend she could have told. Friends? What do girls say to other girls when they’re so hopelessly young? Do you want me to do your hair? Two, three times a day, she washed her hair. She wore it down, long, the prettiest shield you ever saw.

“Will you do my hair?” She braided mine once, an almost mechanical kindness; she could seem absent sitting right beside you. Was she like that always? She was four years older, old enough to say to friends her own age, I hate my brother, I hate my parents. That wouldn’t cause a stir; that was probably the script for girls in eighth grade. It didn’t have to mean anything.

So when do friends become the people you can really tell? Not soon enough for her. She had already folded herself up into something so different, so creased and painful, that maybe she is someone I can only remember wrong. Maybe I never saw her at all, maybe I never saw any of them. Sometimes I still wonder, what did they see when they saw me?

But mostly I think about the friends I have now, friends like you, and what I wonder is so much simpler: when will I see you again, what will we talk about next? It is so much easier now, being friends.

love, me

Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter; and other short fiction and essays. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize, she is currently at work on a novel.

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This is the first in a six letter exchange on the subject of girlhood friendships, sent between Elisa Albert and Nalini Jones. This letter is written by Elisa Albert. 

photo-38Nalini, my friend.

Let us talk friendships.  The girlhood kind.

Was there a time when it was all hearts and flowers?  When sisterhood *was* powerful?  It’s so unpopular for a woman to say that she has a more natural affinity with boys (traitor!  Bitch!  No wonder other women hate you!  Change your ways!), but alas, I grew up with two much older brothers and they were who I wanted to keep pace with.  I wanted adventures and conversation and music and to be taken seriously.  I had this sense early on that the girls were kinda out to lunch, comparatively.  Or maybe I just felt them shrinking from me.

In kindergarten I fell in love with a girl, but looking back it seems less a friendship than a proprietary sense of “she belongs to me”.  I felt protective of her, and proud to be “with” her.  She was very beautiful and special and she was “mine”, my friend, so I had status.  Was I a five year old dyke?  Possibly.
She’s very cool, still, my first friend.  Incredibly creative and delicate.  She had a wild laugh I can hear echoes of even now, sitting in this silent room typing about her.  We remain connected, even though we have never lived in the same city as adults, and we went our separate ways in middle school.  I was a ridiculous awkward dork freak and she went kind of badass gangster chick in high school, with heavy dark lip liner and plucked brows, running with a crowd that honestly scared me.  Another world.  I couldn’t sell my virginity; she had a baby senior year of high school.  i remember going over to see her and the newborn (doula foreshadowing!?) in this seedy Hollywood apartment.  I never met the guy.  I worked at a giant corporate bookstore then, and brought her this ridiculous pile of children’s books, which at that moment was probably the last thing on earth she needed.
Fifteen-plus years later, when I had had my first baby and was reeling, I asked her how the hell she had done it.  “I never said it was easy,” she laughed.  That laugh of hers!
She lives in Austin now, and wound up opening a gorgeous store with an old family friend of mine.  Small world.
I tend to mythologize my own female friendships as uniformly troubled-slash-doomed, but here, look, even as I tell you about this first friend, I realize it’s not the case.  Which is not to say I don’t have (more?) than my fair share of trouble/doom with girls.  More on that later.

Tell me of yours.

love,
Elisa

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night is Different.  Her new novel, After Birth, will be published by HMH in early 2015.

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Paired Up

KHTraceyFSPic“Katie is my best friend,” says Georgie on the phone. “But you’re only like 1% behind.”

I am ten years old and everyone in my friend group has paired up. I’m the odd one out. Katie assures me I am just as much her best friend as Georgie is, but I can tell that even if there’s an official tie, there’s an unofficial 1% favorite. I don’t know what units we’re using to measure Friendness, but it’s very clear they can be scientifically calibrated and then compared, like an inch or a pound.

Being someone’s best friend is like having a birthday all the time that just one person knows about. On your birthday everyone fights to sit next to you at the dinner table. Everyone pays attention to you. When you have a best friend, you’re always the special one, at least to one person. Everyone likes me almost as much as she likes her best friend, but no one cares if I pick the seat next to her at lunch.

Well, so here’s me and Katie and Georgie and our friends Anne and Cassie and we are all together all the time. We dance to the Spice Girls together. We pretend to write books together. We sign onto AIM for the first time and chat with people who claim to be boys our age. Then Georgie moves away and Katie starts calling me a whole lot more. Katie is warm and kind and funny and I love her. We’re really best friends now.

Some days I go over to Katie’s fancy house with the red carpets and the giant paintings and the shiny baby grand and her mother says, “Katie why aren’t you skinny like your sister.” She says, “Katie why aren’t you smart like Kristen.” I tell Katie she is beautiful and smart. I don’t think she ever believes me. She flirts with more boys. She starts talking back to her parents. She gets prettier and more charming each day. She is never skinnier, however, than her sister.

I do love Katie. But I hate having to spend hours a day trying on clothes from everyone’s closet and flirting with boys from our class on AIM. I’m so bored when my friends visit, I start pulling out books to read right in front of them.

Finally they all stop inviting me over and (being somewhat less intelligent than I think I am) I’m shocked. Didn’t we say we were best friends? Didn’t that moniker have a “forever” attached to it? Didn’t we get each other’s initials monogrammed on our backpacks?

Bitterly, I watch from the sidelines as they trade different-colored Gelly Roll pens in class and choreograph sexy dances to Smashmouth songs for talent shows. They don’t even remember me, I realize. They’re not even trying to be mean.

Comparisons are odious, but we all live by them, all the girls I know. Am I prettier than that one? Skinnier than that one? More popular than that other one? It comes from ourselves, but not just from ourselves—it comes from our friends, our magazines, our movies, sometimes even our parents. Right now, newly lonely, I’m convinced that if I were thinner or prettier or knew more songs from the radio, I wouldn’t have been too boring for my friends. It will take me many years to realize that Katie was probably unhappy in her own way, just like I was; that I would probably have drifted apart from my middle-school friends even if I’d looked like Gisele Bundchen; and that I was probably better off not being in the popular, Cosmo-reading crowd that I so wanted to join, because it gave me more time to grow into the writer I would one day be.

And even after I figure all that out, getting dumped by boyfriends will still always remind me of that first tweenaged heartache. Who cares if the person who dumped you wasn’t right for you? You loved him or her anyway.

Kristen Hamelin Tracey is pursuing her MFA at City College of New York and is working on her first novel. Check out her oft-neglected Tumblr.

 

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Best Frenemies Forever

By Michele Karas

MKarasFSPic#2With some friendships, even the best of friendships, there comes a time when you have to wonder why you ever tolerated that other person. It’s an epiphany that is especially heartbreaking to fathom on your wedding day, but that’s what happened to me.

E and I met when we were twelve and struggling to negotiate the awkward, hormone-infused limbo years that were Junior High. I was all legs and feet and greasy hair, and I had no clue. I’d spent most of my life learning to step lightly over the emotional landmines of my chaotic household, but I didn’t want to be that girl at the lockers who everyone thought was standoffish or stuck up. E was friendly and generally well liked. She was also an excellent disco dancer, a talent I admired. Physically, she was my opposite, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and prematurely curvy figure. (I think she hated her body, even then.) Nearly a whole year older than me, she possessed one strange tendency that made me uneasy from the get-go: a compulsion to mimic others. I was surprised when she asked to be my friend, plunking herself down next to me in Mr. Whipple’s social studies class, but I was not surprised when she began imitating the left-leaning slant of my handwriting or using my favorite brand of pen. “You don’t have dibs on the color green,” she’d snap back viciously when I asked her—more out of bewilderment than anger—why she was always copying me.

We carried on a knotted-up friendship like that all through high school, with E’s odd behavior only increasing. If I came to school wearing, say, a new color of lip gloss or pair of crocheted espadrilles, the next day she’d be standing alone on the Freshman lawn, wearing the exact same thing. When I’d attempt to confront her, she’d give me the silent treatment for days on end, and I’d be left to wonder what I’d done wrong. Our friendship was of the love-hate variety, so much so that I often wondered if it was worth the emotional toll. People I looked up to told me I should be patient; that imitation was the highest form of flattery. But if E held any admiration for me, she had a strange way of showing it: She frequently mocked the “dramatic” way I described things or the way I put my outfits together. Most horrifying, she liked to call attention to the ever-present, nervous sweat circles on the underarms of my cheerleading uniform.

But I needed a best friend. My father had died unexpectedly my Freshman year in high school and I’d forgotten how to be young. When things were good between E and me, we were teenaged hurricanes of spontaneity. We would plot toilet-papering convoys, sneak into college fraternity parties to flirt with boys, choreograph winning modern-dance duets for the annual talent show, take dorky puffs of her big brother’s stale joints, and generally laugh until we collapsed. When I got my driver’s license, one of the first places I drove was to Planned Parenthood, so E could go on birth control. But my own need for individuation and self-expression was all too frequently eclipsed by her insecurities. When we were both nominated to be Sweetheart Princess and I unexpectedly won, my first response was guilt, because I knew how much that kind of recognition meant to her.

As the years stretched on, we continued to circle each other like wary predators, continually piecing our friendship back together. In college, I applied and was accepted to an exchange program in New Hampshire. It was my ticket out of my unhappy household and my first chance to really discover who I was as an independent, young adult. Instinctually, I decided to wait until after the application deadline passed to tell E about my acceptance, but as soon as I did, she went to the head of the English department and lobbied to turn in her application late. Her acceptance into the program was a blow, but I decided to make the best of it, requesting a dorm assignment clear across campus so I could make new friends and enjoy my adventure independent of E. I think she found it hurtful at first, but she knew that I loved her. Didn’t she?

Throughout the coming years, I tried to be a good friend to E. I agreed to be the co-maid of honor at her wedding. I was the first one outside her immediate family to hold her baby boy. I was there to support her when she got fired from her dream job. I held my tongue when she began an undignified office affair, and when she ended yet another telephone conversation with the empty promise: “We’ll talk more about you the next time, okay?” I was there to comfort her when she began to regret (far too belatedly) having dismantled her marriage, despite my abiding affection for her ex-husband. With each new life drama, however, I could feel the lens of her scrutiny shift back onto me, each time with increasing intensity. When I’d go to visit, she’d rifle through my toiletries and declare that she’d found her new signature scent. The walls of her apartment were painted the same Martha Stewart “Natural Twine” color she’d admired in my home. Once, I walked into the guest room and caught her going through my coat pockets and checking the names on all my clothing labels—a pair of my size 6 jeans stuck half way up her thighs.

The biggest emotional shift came when I began planning my own wedding. Her emails became more stilted and her words less chipper. When I learned yet another one of her romances had ended abruptly, I knew she was pulling away. Her tolerance for me was fading as my wedding day drew nearer. By the time E set foot in New York, she was in a full-blown, depressive funk.

On the morning of my wedding, E declined to come to my hotel room to have her makeup done. I was wearing the stunning, ivory-chiffon cocktail dress I’d told her all about. I’d wanted her to be one of the first people to see me in it. I wanted her to sip champagne and get ready with my sister and me. When it was time to leave and we all went down to the lobby to meet E, she was standing there waiting for us, dressed all in ivory chiffon, just like the bride. I had read about things like this happening, and my heart ached for her. Was she really that desperate for attention, or was it an act of aggression? A lifetime of resentment, it seemed, had gotten all twisted up like the cherry branches I’d ordered to decorate the sanctuary, and I could no longer untangle hers from mine. She saw the look on my face, and we both seemed to understand this was the end. It wasn’t a breakup so much as a slow leak of caring.

E and I spoke just a few more times after the wedding. The heavy labor of our conversations had become a burden for us both. I went on to develop new, much richer and more balanced friendships, and went back to graduate school to fulfill my dream of becoming a writer. I went into therapy, which, not surprisingly, helped me come to terms with what had happened between E and me. I learned at our high school reunion that E had begun calling herself a writer, too, and that she’d remarried a quiet cabinet salesman from Chicago. I hoped that he made her happy, and that he would be able to provide her with all the reassurance and love she so desperately needed.

When my sister passed away and E sent me a sympathy card, more than five years since we had last been in touch, and said she was so very sorry for my loss, I felt her sincerity. I no longer had any hard feelings toward my former friend, but I had to make a choice. I could risk backsliding into a fraught relationship that left me feeling diminished, or I could keep marching down that aisle of self-discovery, trusting that I was headed in a healthier and more loving direction.

Michele Karas is a poet, playwright, and an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the City College of New York. By day, she works as an associate copy director, crafting national ad campaigns for bestselling authors. Her creative writing has appeared most recently in Right Hand Pointing and Pea River Journal, with work forthcoming in Promethean and Alaska Quarterly Review. Michele writes about simple happiness on her blog.

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In this occasional series, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore writes about girlhood friendships as they are depicted in pieces of art – film, fiction, photography, etc. 

I wasn’t really a Zooey Deschanel fan before the show New Girl came on the TV- all that it-girl twee-ness was a bit much for me. And I’ll admit that this season I’ve found it to be less hilariously funny than the first two, but I still chuckle now and then. What keeps me coming back for more? Schmidt’s odd zingers, yes, but even more than that, the friendship between Deschanel’s character, Jess – a neurotic, funny school teacher – and her best friend from middle school, CeCe – now a fashion model. That Jess is adorable and twee, and that CeCe is a gorgeous Amazon, doesn’t really matter to either of them, because they met when they were ugly ducklings (Jess, of the hefty, dorky variety; CeCe of the too-tall variety), and so- as it is with so many of us who meet at that age- they understand and love each other’s rawest, most unpalatable natures. I applaud show creator Elizabeth Meriwether for keeping this best friendship alive and at the center of the series. Yes, both women sleep with (and love) various men in the show, but in many ways, the central relationship- the heartbeat of the show- is the loyal love between Jess and CeCe, which, in spite of the laughs and hijinks, raises the show to a whole different level of honesty.

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First True Friend

By Elizabeth Beverly

EBeverlyFSPicBetsy was my first true friend, the first I made on my very own, in kindergarten at the age of four. I want to write about her, sure. But here’s the thing. You’ve got to know how to be a person before you know how to be a friend of a person, and before Betsy, I knew a lot more about dogs and babies and my own sister than I did about actual human persons. I could have practiced being a person on my sister but both she and I knew from the get go that Mary was supposed to be a dog or a horse because she wanted to be a dog or a horse. She didn’t even want to be a person very much. So she was as lost as I was. And I had scads of cousins to love and scrabble over and around and through, but they were a family swarm.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew how to behave. I knew how to please. But that didn’t help me figure out the whole identity issue, the consciousness issue, the fact that often, it seemed, gorgeous lights just lit right up around the heads of some grownups while others remained a dull matte, tinged with chartreuse or a bruisy purple. Stuff just kept crashing through my mind; I knew for sure I had a mind.

By the time I met Betsy on the jungle gym, I’d figured out that I was some sort of container. And if I’d had the words to put it this way then, I’d have said that instead of having a self, I had a colony of selves, and in that colony lived puppies and a specific shade of pink, and a turquoise scarf that sometimes fancifully appeared around the neck of the little blond girl who occasionally peered back at me when I looked in the mirror—even though I wasn’t remotely blond and my mother would have never ever tied a scarf around my neck for fear of strangulation. Also in there were my mother’s voice reciting Wynkyn, Blynkyn and Nod, and the sound of my father’s Strauss waltz, the taste of salt on my arm, Mrs. Pipe’s green gage plums. My mind itself was already a man with a British accent who was the smartest person I’d ever met. With him I’d muse over matters like God’s existence and why we spoke English if we didn’t live in England and why a horse penis is so huge.

Back to Betsy. I basically wanted to have her on my mind because she was so cute. Of course I liked her, but that hardly counted, because over the years I’ve learned that I really, honestly like just about everyone I meet, except mean bullies. Betsy was cute because she looked to me exactly like a cartoon bear toddler might look if it appeared in the guise of a scruffy little white girl all dolled up in human clothes. I loved her perfect eyes. Betsy liked me because she thought I was cute too, and I was even tinier than she was!

And then the strangest thing happened. Betsy went from being an idea I had on my own to being this other kid I could actually do things with. I could smell her hair, we could lick each other’s arms, we could hide a bag of cereal in a hedge on the way to school and then convince ourselves that fairies had taken it when it had vanished by the time we walked home.

In second grade Betsy and I hatched a plan together. Our teacher Miss Welker—the pretty one with long red hair who was going to get married during summer vacation—well, Miss Welker stood alone each day during recess on the edge of the tarmac, covertly smoking. She was supposed to be watching us, but we could see that she was just escaping into her own thoughts. And so we figured that she’d never notice us if one day we hid in the shrubbery behind her and then crawled out oh-so-carefully and, positioning ourselves artfully under her skirts, craned our necks upward and pivoted our heads and looked at what was up there, between her legs.

You cannot imagine how much planning this took. So many secret practice sessions when the playground was empty, our phantom teacher looming patiently above us! So many secret codes concocted to arrange these urgent meetings! So much secrecy! Of course, now it’s pretty easy to see that this kind of secrecy is really about intimacy—which is what good friendship is also really about, with or without the charge of mystery and risk and sex.

What happened to our plan was simple: we never needed to do the deed in real life not because we knew we’d get caught, or fail. No. What we realized spontaneously, mutually, was that talking about it, rehearsing it, was where the fun was located. We weren’t stupid. Talking and laughing and imagining stuff on your knees on the playground with your best friend is obviously a lot more fun than humiliating yourself in front of your teacher or, heaven forbid, the principal.

I still know how to behave, but I still have very little idea what a person actually is. I remain a colony of selves with some nineteenth century British guy directing certain intellectual pursuits and a big-bosomed Mandinko woman directing others, and a golden retriever certain others. I can’t help it; apparently everyone is some sort of neurobiological hodge-podge, but only some of us consistently notice and attend to the random hodge-podgery.

Betsy taught me about how people love each other. I can be a bigger, more fun person if I let other big, fun people full of oddities and rascally ways wedge their way into my tight little brain. Betsy was the first person I chose to ruffle my feathers and breathe some fresh air through my mind. She’s still in there, decades later, ruffling away.

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In this new, occasional series, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore writes about girlhood friendships as they are depicted in pieces of art – film, fiction, photography, etc. 

Alessandra Sanguinetti’s arresting photographs of two Argentine farm girls, Guille and Belinda, is one of my all-time favorite bodies of photographic work. Sanguinetti was on a farm working on her magnificent book On The Sixth Day (which I am also in love with), and happened to befriend the two little girls who were often playing at the edge of her photographic field. She decided to play with them, and specifically to enlist them to act out or demonstrate the particular stories and characters they were pretending to be, and then she took pictures. What Sanguinetti’s portraits of this friendship captures, then, is the honest imaginative play between two girls, that liminal space in which girls allow their minds and bodies to take them beyond the bounds of reality. Sanguinetti has now been taking pictures of Guille and Belinda since 1999.

Here is a link to Sanguinetti writing about photographing the girls.

And here is a link to some of the beautiful photographs she has made with them.

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