When I was kid I wanted to surround myself with best friends. I wanted, as so many of us do, to be popular. However, that was never the word I used. If you were to saw off the top of my head, blow off the dust, sop up the blood and gore and somehow manage to stop me from screaming, you’d find a young girl waving up at you with messy hair and chapped lips, just desperate to be liked.
I wanted to be seen, I guess. I wanted to be recognized. Didn’t you? I doubt I was thinking in such grandiose terms, but it’s like I wanted proof that there was a reason for me wasting my time being alive. Back then I probably just thought that if everybody liked me I would escape ever having anyone be angry at me at leaving forever -- my greatest fear. I was attracted to strange people. I was drawn to things that seemed interesting and different, and to people who I couldn’t immediately figure out.
This made me a couple of friends for life. It also meant that I met some people with their own brand of dark, their own type of trouble. Yvonne in fifth grade, who grabbed my hand and said, “I bet you never held a knife before”. Yvonne and Lashonda were best friends. Yvonne got suspended for something quiet and adult. No one knew what, exactly, but people had theories.
Lashonda was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was equal parts hair, cheekbones, and rage. She was the only girl in our class with a boyfriend, Frankie. He used gel in his hair and was a child actor. Lashonda dictated notes for me to write to him because she liked the way my cursive ‘L’s looked. I never looked her in the eye. She was this tightly coiled spring capable of anything but mostly violent words and deeds that she could not take back and she liked my handwriting. She is the only person on record who has.
Then there was the girl I worked with at a breakfast-lunch restaurant when I was in my twenties. She was beautiful and funny. She bought me a silk shrug. She had traveled the globe and she liked Leonard Cohen and she told hilarious stories and she tried to set me up with the guy at work I liked. That didn’t work out because we were both too shy and honestly I think I just dug him for his blue eyes and his excellent Sean Connery impression.
She was older than I was, and she showed up drunk to work some days. Once she went to take the trash out and I found her in the alley sitting on the bag, just crying and crying and staring at a puddle of her own puke. I dropped her because I was a stupid kid. Nothing overt and cruel -- what I did was worse. I just kept putting her off and putting her off until she left me alone. I joined some book-reading website not long after we spoke for the final time. It auto-spammed my entire email list. “Rebecca would like you to join her,” it chirped. She wrote me back, “Why would I want to do that?”
When I moved to New York and slowly spiraled down and out, I had a best friend. She was raven-haired and smart and midwestern. She was a highly intelligent girly girl and there was something really comforting about that. She introduced me to mani-pedis. She introduced me to red wine and cheese. She had no time for bullshit, she had very little patience, she got fiercely angry at stupid people. I thought she was a total badass. She is a total badass.
She liked me a lot for a few years because I went along with her on all things, though I don’t think she knows that. She wore her personality like a challenge, right was right, wrong was wrong -- it was great to be on the same side as someone who had their life so thoroughly sorted.
Then I lost the ability to hide the cracks in my veneer right when she really needed me most. I wasn’t able to be the person she’d gotten to know anymore. You know, the person I’d pretended to be. Soon after she friend-dumped me the way girls do, the way I’ve done -- with the slow fade. I don’t blame her, but I’m still not over it.
Some nights I think of what I could do or say to make it up to her. I think of the girl in the alley years before and I feel like the biggest asshole imaginable. It’s not my old friend’s fault. I was a breed of dark and trouble that she had mistaken for being of her kind. It could happen to anyone looking.
We find and break a thousand hearts before we find our people. I’m lucky, though I’ve probably only just lately started to realize that. I have three best friends. They are my sister Miranda, my college roommate Alex, and my New York family, Jesse. This year Miranda got married, Alex moved to New York from Texas to live with me for the first time in a decade, and Jesse had the best and cutest baby ever to be born. Two of these things happened in the last two months. Think of what I would have missed by not being here. Think of what I was willing to let go.
I remember the thrill I felt on the back of my neck and in the pit of my stomach when a girl I admired dragged me across a playground by the sleeve of my striped turtleneck more than I remember my first kiss. I remember the first time someone I thought was a friend prove that they weren’t and still get a kick in my gut that I didn’t get when a guy dropped me last year with no explanation.
This morning I woke up and I felt a little hollow, a little worried. SSRIs don’t fix everything. You are always still you, good, bad, anxious, in between. The hissing voice in me was whispering that it didn’t matter, nothing matters, we’ve got to find something that matters. I sat up in bed: Friendships, they matter. They are the community we choose to participate in, and building it, that’s fundamental.
When we are fortunate enough to find our people we want them to never go away. It’s a natural thing, the desire to create a soft place to fall. It’s even more natural to want to give of yourself in the hopes of like recognizing like and forging a connection. The most natural thing on the planet though, is to be scared witless at the very prospect of opening up that way. We get more frightened the older we get, because as we go along we understand the weight of the risk we are undertaking.
People change, that’s true. But it’s also true that there is something essential and fixed inside all of us that doesn’t. That can’t. That’s something we protect fiercely, something we’d have to saw off skull-tops to get to the bottom of. We aren’t sadists or amateurs surgeons. We just want to be recognized, and if we're very lucky, we are.