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.
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.
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.