When I was at the stage when girls are expected to have best friends, I “rose above it,” in my mother’s arcane phrase. I liked being one of a bunch of teenagers—we all went to a girls’ school and spent a lot of time together—but I didn’t want to single out, or be singled out. It didn’t seem special enough. It was more special to be alone.
There’s a lot of pride in aloneness, and a lot of pain. Not to have a best friend to talk to by the hour on the back hall telephone, with the light turned out—so no one would see I was hogging the phone—meant pretending to myself that it would be a big bore to talk for hours on the back hall telephone, in the dark.
I had enough sense to know I was probably fooling myself.
Life has a wonderful way of offering us second, third and even fourth chances at all kinds of experiences we have missed along the way. And so now, at last, I have a best friend. As teenagers, we would have been delighted to note that we have the same first name. Now, it still seems a miraculous coincidence.
So what does it mean, now, to have a best friend?
Since no one talks on the phone any more, that particular form of aloneness—staunching is not available. Texting and emailing don’t quite do it; there is no voice, no sense of connecting, again, with the familiar sound of a friend—and after all the sound of a voice is sometimes the most salient aspect of character; people often recognize me by my voice before they see my face.
So, no voice.
That means that visits, rare in our case since we live with half the country between us, take on a special pleasure, the pleasure that is edged with anticipation of the visit coming to an end.
As all visits come to an end, sooner or later; but in this case, there is a larger hole left than when some casual acquaintance makes his way to the door.
What do we offer each other? Shared habits, shared likes and dislikes, an astonishing ability to chose the best possible presents for each other; and the frankness that never seems barbed by ulterior motives—to instruct, to reprove, to create distance. Frankness that is a bridge to closeness rather than a bulwark against it.
We are both devoted to men, in the singular and the plural; one of our common bonds depends on having learned, very early, that a large part of our time and the center of our emotional wishes and disappointments would be located in the other gender. My kindergarten teacher wrote on my first report, “Very adequate with the boys,” which my mother thought hilarious, but which was also true.
It may be that the closest women friends are those who are deeply drawn to men. Of course we can complain together about “them”—a lot of women base their conversations on that theme—but because we both know “they” are essential to us, the complaining is not very interesting. Basically, it boils down to “Why can’t they be more like us?”
And we both know the answer to that.
Because they can’t.
Close friendships between men seem to depend on shared interests: in sports, in drinking, in work; they also contain a certain amount of teasing, as though the exchanges would be emotionally flat without those little verbal digs and punches.
Our friendship isn’t based on any of those things. We don’t have anything particular to do together, or even anything to talk about, and we don’t tease. Bedrock, for both of us, is that we spend our lives with and on the written word.
Another wonderful aspect of having a best friend is that other, potential almost-best-friends cluster around us. A few days ago, my best friend and I had lunch with two other women, also writers, who seem about to move closer, in that wonderful pas de deux –or pas de trois or quatre—that is the setting for the central relationship.
And how we laugh! These friendships could almost be defined by laughter, raucous laughter that makes people at nearby tables stare.
What do we laugh about?
I don’t know. We don’t tell a lot of jokes.
Probably we laugh about the utter weirdness, and the utter rightness, of being best friends in lives that constantly whirl best friends apart, and may whirl us apart some day.
But maybe not.