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.
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.
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.
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.