By Elizabeth Beverly
Betsy 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.