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.
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.
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.