When we were young parents, my husband and I moved in next door to Ma Baker. A widow in her midseventies, Ma had raised thirteen children and still scrubbed her laundry on a washboard, pieced together quilts on a treadle sewing machine, and grew her own food.
Eager to start a garden, I called on Ma for expert advice. Following her instructions, I tilled an area to match the size of her large plot, and we spent many hours planting and cultivating our adjoining gardens. Ma’s gardening methods were not exactly scientific. “You can get more beans from a crooked row than a straight one,” she’d say. She worked in the early morning to avoid the heat and often knocked on my door, calling me out to dig potatoes or fight “the vine”: the dreaded creeping Charlie that constantly threatened the fruit of our hard work.
At harvest time I realized I’d planted more than I could ever eat. I was overwhelmed by this bounty. Again, Ma came to the rescue, teaching me to can and “put up” the abundant produce. When I didn’t think I could handle the chore, she came over and said, “We’ll just work side by side.”
We were a tight bunch: fourteen friends, seven couples in our thirties who lived life with abandon while raising families and holding down jobs. We gathered frequently for dinner parties, barbecues, ski trips, jaunts to the beach. Late at night we’d dance in someone’s living room, or take bong hits in the basement, playing music and laughing until the tears fell.
Our relationships were all long past the honeymoon phase. Wives complained about their spouses; husbands were looking for more action in the bedroom. But everyone seemed basically happy — everyone except me. My relationship had lost its fire, and I wanted to feel that flame again.
I found it with two of the other women’s husbands. We weren’t ending our marriages, we told ourselves, just making our hearts beat faster. Besides, their wives would never find out.
Eventually the truth did come out, and more disclosures followed. (I wasn’t the only one who’d been unfaithful.) My relationship with my partner ended, and friendships were severed. I struggled to repair what I could, but my betrayal had been too great.
That group of friends is no more. They were some of the most important relationships in my life, and I helped destroy them.
I’d never been friends with a soldier. In college, I’d walked by the ROTC building and felt an enormous divide between myself and anyone who would pass through those doors.
Now I was married and owned a home, and one day Tracy had stopped on the sidewalk to compliment me on my garden. A forty-year-old major in the army reserves, she was my neighbor, and a mom, like me. We met frequently for coffee. We grieved together when George W. Bush was elected to a second term. We shared mulled cider after taking the kids caroling at Christmas. When I naively asked why she’d joined the army, Tracy said, “I liked the idea of leadership.”
The day came when Tracy told me she’d been called up for duty in Iraq. How do you send a friend off to fight a war neither of you supports? I decided to host a going-away party. I hung banners the children had painted. A friend brought red-white-and-blue decorations, which I put up with ambivalence. I cut lengths of yellow ribbon for guests to take home and tie around a tree. The cake had candles (the children insisted), and we sang “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and toasted our brave friend.
Tracy gave a brief speech. Though the army had prepared her to leave, she said, no one prepares the loved ones to be left behind. She urged all of us who had an opinion about this war to make our voices heard.
One neighbor interrupted: “On the other hand, many of us are proud of what you’re doing.”
An excruciating pause followed. Then Tracy cleared her throat and went on with her farewell.
My first e-mail from Tracy in Iraq was a Q and A chain letter: last movie you saw, first car, favorite this and that. Then I came to: “What are you most afraid of?”
“Loss of limb or mortal injury in combat,” Tracy had typed.
We continue to correspond. I send news of neighborhood-association elections. She jokes that her vote should count more now that she totes an M-16. At times I feel envy: she is focused on matters far more serious than dishes, weeds, children’s homework, and an unfulfilling part-time job. After she survives this, her career is likely to advance. Deployment has also been a boon to her fitness: she’s lost thirty pounds. But when explosions wake her from her military bunk, I know she’d gladly be overweight and under the covers of her bed at home, grateful for another day of ordinary tasks in suburbia.
I may have missed knowing a lot of Tracys when I was a college kid shouting, “U.S. out of Latin America!” But now, later in life, she has helped me understand how a soldier can be my friend.
Fort Collins, Colorado
I came from a strict Baptist home; Carol had grown up in a ramshackle hovel out in the country. At fifteen she was married and had a daughter. She and her husband lived in a new trailer — their “mobile mansion,” we called it. I thought she was the luckiest gal in town, not having to answer to anyone, no strict parents tracking her every move, no school.
I was dating a friend of Carol’s brother, and lately my boyfriend had grown sullen and possessive. He’d throw me against a wall when he got mad at me and sometimes threaten to kill himself. I kept quiet about it until we had a fight at my parents’ house that ended with my father ordering my boyfriend off the property. He refused to go, and it took four sheriff’s deputies to subdue him and shove him into the back of a patrol car.
A few weeks later my boyfriend and I were back together and watching cartoons when we started to argue. He stormed out. I waited to hear his car race down the drive, but instead I heard a loud pop. I ran outside to find him standing on the back porch gasping for air, a bullet hole in his chest. Someone called an ambulance, but he died before he got to the hospital.
Carol prevented me from cracking up. She kept me busy and would stop by the house and say, “Come on, girl, get your ass up.” With her help, the fog of grief lifted.
When I turned sixteen, my parents helped me buy a car. Carol and I rode around in it, listening to Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” On weekends she’d drop her daughter off at her mom’s or a neighbor’s, and we’d go to the beach and smoke pot.
We worked a stream of crappy jobs that did nothing but interfere with our social lives. I blew our gig as lawn-care workers when I mowed between the customer’s house and the air-conditioning unit, severing the electrical connections.
Carol eventually landed a high-pressure sales position in which she thrived. I went into law enforcement at nineteen, became a traffic cop, finished my college degree, and curtailed the drinking. Though we ran in different circles, we stayed in touch. Whenever I heard “Boys of Summer” on the radio, I thought of Carol.
Years later my sixteen-year-old daughter got into an auto accident when she ran a stop sign on her way to school. She was in a coma with a broken neck and wasn’t expected to survive.
I don’t know how Carol found out about it, but when she burst through the doors of the ICU, I’d never been so thankful to see anyone. “We’ll get through this, girl,” she said. I believed her.
And we did. After nine months in the hospital and thirty-six surgeries, my daughter came home. She still has difficulties that break my heart. I cry to Carol about how I want things to be back to “normal,” but Carol only reminds me that my daughter survived.
Now Carol faces embezzlement charges from an employer and will go on trial soon. Whatever happens, I’ll be there for her. I wish I could whisk her away to a time when our biggest concerns were scraping together pizza money and applying suntan oil.
During college I spent a semester in London, but a tight budget and a busy class schedule kept me from exploring. As spring break approached, I made plans to experience the delights of the city, and I knew just whom to call to join me.
Nicole was my best friend back home in the States. She had just purchased a ticket to Ireland for the break, but I asked if she would visit me in London instead. She said she’d change her flight and see me in two weeks.
Ecstatic, I bought tickets to plays and concerts, stocked up on our favorite foods, and prepared my flatmates to meet Nicole: a six-foot-tall, transgender woman with dreadlocks who often wore suspenders, plaid pants, and purple sunglasses. She was in Narcotics Anonymous and had been sober for two years. She was also the funniest person I’d ever met.
The day Nicole arrived, my mother called to tell me my father had ruptured a lung. She asked me to please come home. Nicole helped me pack and buy an airline ticket. I left her in a city of strangers.
My father died a few days later. At his funeral, still jet-lagged and bewildered, I was forcing myself to greet friends and family when in walked Nicole, dressed in an elegant man’s suit. Weathering the curious stares of our nosy, small-town neighbors, she brought me water and squeezed my hand as I endured the receiving line.
I asked her how she’d gotten there, if she needed a place to stay, if she’d spent all the money she’d saved for her trip. She told me she couldn’t imagine not being there for me. She was staying at the local inn, where she had negotiated a room in exchange for fixing a bathtub. She showed me her hands, stained with grease. I collapsed into her six-foot-tall body and wept.
I’ve known Keith for nearly twenty years. We share a love of art and literature, and once discussed politics, science, and the nature of God. Now a series of strokes has left Keith unable to verbalize his thoughts. He’s reduced to a few phrases such as “Please,” “Love you,” “Thank you,” and “Oh, baby.” His frustration is plain to see.
At first I was scared of this new Keith. It was as if the friend I’d known was dead. Eventually I realized that Keith is still himself, and still my friend, despite his limited ability to communicate. To some extent, Keith can carry on a conversation using shrugs, nods, and head shakes. Smiles say a lot.
Several of Keith’s old friends have abandoned him; others talk to him only on rare occasions and speak loudly and slowly when they do. They’d be surprised to learn that Keith’s cognitive abilities — and hearing — are largely intact.
Although I’ve gotten past my initial discomfort with my friend’s diminished state, I know I’m not completely over it. One side of Keith’s body is now withered, his arm and hand drawn into a ball. He could use a massage, I’m sure, but sometimes I can’t even bring myself to touch him. Maybe I’m not such a good friend after all.
My husband was always a recluse. I was responsible for any social life we had. But when the school where we both taught transferred us to Spain, our roles reversed. Suddenly I was the one balking at partying all night and doing everything in big, noisy groups, as was the custom there. My husband began meeting people for coffee in the afternoon and drinks in the evening. He joined a friend to go running and biking, activities he had pursued only solo before.
When his running friend invited us to a masquerade party, my husband spent hours designing a costume. At the party I finally met the friend. I was amused to be introduced to a young man with a penchant for flattery and hair mousse. This was not whom I’d pictured.
As my husband became sociable, he also started to dress up more, as men do in Spain. One night I saw him standing in front of the mirror, pushing up the sleeves of a silk sports coat and running his fingers through his hair, preparing to meet his running buddy at 10 P.M. on a school night. That’s when it dawned on me that they were more than just friends.
I never felt close to my family and demonized them, which made it easier to leave home. When my father tried to tell me family was important, I told him that my friends were my real family.
Bernie was one of my closest friends. We met in college and took psychedelics and rode motorcycles together, often talking of how free our lives would be after graduation. One day when I was stoned, I crashed my motorcycle, crushing my left leg. The next hour was the longest of my life: I was brought to the hospital in an inflated rubber bag to hold my leg together. Only when my father showed up at the hospital did I feel safe.
During my two-week hospital stay, Bernie visited me only once. He brought me flowers with a hit of LSD in each petal. I didn’t see him or any of my other friends for the rest of the summer. The nonstop party went on without me while my parents nursed me back to health.
Today my father is dead. I long ago made peace with him and told him that he and my mother were my real family.
Bernie, who’s still my friend, is now a lawyer whose life revolves around banker boxes of insurance-company paperwork. On the phone not long ago, Bernie was voicing his work-related frustration to me when, out of nowhere, he brought up my accident. He asked what had happened, because he couldn’t remember.
“Oh, that was a long time ago,” I said. “It’s not important now.”
Recently I visited a cousin I’ve seen only occasionally over the last thirty-five years. When I arrived, she’d organized a backyard barbecue in my honor. All those family members I’d demonized were there, just as weird as I remembered, but also happy to see me. I was glad to see them too.
I grew up in the Bronx in the Amalgamated Houses, the nation’s oldest moderate-income housing cooperative, home to multiple generations of union members, labor activists, and socialist Eastern European Jewish refugees. As young girls, my two closest friends and I were deeply concerned about fairness and justice in all our interactions. We went to great lengths to ensure that our time together was distributed evenly among activities that satisfied each of us. If two of us wanted to skateboard and one wanted to play games, we spent two-thirds of our time skateboarding and one-third at games.
My friends both lived in an apartment building three blocks from my home. We often got together at my house, because it had the most space to play, but I was envious that my friends lived in the same building and could visit each other anytime, even at night in their pajamas. I often felt lonely when they left and wondered if they were having fun without me.
Years later, at my wedding, my two friends offered a toast. Reminiscing about our childhood, they told a story: One afternoon, after leaving my house, they determined it wasn’t fair for them to spend extra time together. So they split up and walked home via separate routes. They continued the practice for years, but never mentioned it to me.
I owe the success of every friendship that has followed to the example of this early model.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
My best friend and I met when we were twelve. We shared everything: secrets, failed diets, dreams about the future, anguish over blind dates. She married first and moved across the country, but we talked several times a week on the phone. When I married, I wore her sister’s wedding dress.
Our lives went in different directions. I juggled children, family life, and work while she focused on her career. But she was the first person I called when I was accepted to graduate school and when I decided to remarry. We wept together at the cemetery where we’d both buried our parents.
Then I developed medical problems, and open-heart surgery left me weak, housebound, and afraid of dying. In our conversations, I made frequent references to feeling old. One day my friend snapped, “You spend too much time on depressing thoughts.” When I explained that talking about aging helps me handle my fears about it, she said, “I rarely think about these issues, and they are not a topic of conversation amongst my women friends.”
I’m still hurt and angry. I want to ask why she dismissed my fears, but I am afraid of another harsh reply. Do my complaints about aging remind her of anxieties she avoids?
How am I to restore our intimacy if I cannot fully reveal myself to her? I wonder if our friendship can survive this, or whether it will die before either of us.
My friend had three abortions when she was young and later in life worried that it would be hard for her to have children. When she got married, she immediately got pregnant. Then, at eleven weeks, she miscarried. This was followed by another pregnancy and another miscarriage. When, on the third try, she made it into the second trimester, we were all happy for her and talked freely about the baby. But she gave birth at twenty-two weeks, and the baby lived only a few minutes.
My friend became afraid to leave her house. She told me her breasts had hardened, as if her body were punishing her for having no child to feed. For the first time I didn’t know how to be a good friend to her. I couldn’t fathom her sadness or what she might need while in mourning. Sometimes I just sat with her and her husband in their horrible grief.
A few weeks ago my friend told me that she’s pregnant again. I want to be happy for her, but I’m scared.
San Francisco, California
I met Judy in the early 1970s when I answered an ad to share an apartment in Boston. I soon learned that she, like me, was “into” drinking, the way other people back then were into photography or yoga. We cemented our friendship the first night we went to a bar. “You drink as fast as I do!” Judy said happily.
We got drunk often, had one-night stands with men, and used alcohol and drugs to mask our depression. Sometimes we would swear off drinking after a particularly vicious hangover or a humiliating blackout, but it wouldn’t last. One night we were on our way to a party when a John Lennon song came on the car radio. “One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside,” he sang. We looked at each other, unable to conceal what we were both thinking. But when we got to the party, we each grabbed a drink.
I moved away from Boston a few years later, and so did Judy. When she got married, I flew back east for her wedding. I was suffering one of the worst hangovers I’d ever had, and she spent the day comforting me. It was supposed to be her day to bask in the attention, and I didn’t want to take that away from her — but I did, with my neediness, a hallmark of alcoholism.
At the reception I got drunk again and acted wild. It was the start of a bender that continued for several months after I got back home. Finally I found my way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and I wrote Judy to tell her I was getting sober. She was happy for me, she said. Her own drinking wasn’t a problem anymore, however. She was much more contented now that she was married and living in the country.
I stuck with the program for about six months before I got bored, grew depressed, and went back to drinking.
Then Judy called to tell me that I’d been right: AA was great.
Her call inspired me to go back to meetings. It took me seven months to quit completely, but I finally did it. I’ve been going to meetings for more than twenty years. So has Judy. She and I are still good friends.
After I cut my foot surfing, I entered the free clinic inside the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Monarch Hotel, leaving a trail of blood on the floor behind me. The clinic mostly treated a few tourists with severe sunburn, but today a group of middle-aged women crowded the waiting room. As I took my seat, I overheard them say that their friend Beth had been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war while snorkeling. Beth was in with the doctor now.
Listening to the women talk on cellphones to their husbands, I pieced together the whole story: After Beth had been stung, two of them had helped her back to the beach. The side of Beth’s neck had looked “like raw sirloin.” The lifeguard had told them that someone needed to urinate on Beth’s wound immediately.
This was, I knew, the correct thing to do. The women, however, had been horrified — all but one, a woman named Connie, who was now sitting quietly off to the side, looking shaken. Connie hadn’t expressed any revulsion at the lifeguard’s suggestion. She had nervously pulled the crotch of her one-piece bathing suit to the side and peed on her friend’s neck. On a crowded beach. In front of the good-looking, bronze-skinned lifeguard. What else could she do? Beth was nearly convulsing. Someone had to relieve her agony.
In hindsight they all concurred: Connie had done the right thing. They even coaxed a smile out of her. She was a true friend.
Jay was my best (and only) friend. With my oversize glasses and homemade dresses, and his lanky build and geeky manner, we made a perfect pair. While our classmates were preoccupied with the opposite sex, we were fascinated by Mad magazine and national politics, and talked about the tattoos we planned to get when we were older.
One day after school, Jay asked if I would go out with him. I was horrified but afraid to say no. I said yes reluctantly, suggesting that we keep it a secret. That night, I changed my mind and thought of reasons I could give for breaking up with him: my church said I couldn’t date till I was sixteen; my brother might beat him up. But the truth is I didn’t want to date him because we were the ugliest, least popular kids in our grade, and we would be ridiculed. Besides, we didn’t deserve to be happy.
The next morning, before I could tell Jay I wanted to break up, I was approached by a nosy girl who wanted to know if I was going out with him.
I panicked. If I said yes, the ridicule would begin; if I said no, I’d be betraying my only friend.
“No,” I said.
Twice she came back to report that Jay insisted it was true. Twice more I denied it, too embarrassed to admit I’d lied the first time.
Jay never spoke to me again.
These days I am a woman who keeps her word. But I wish I could have learned earlier how to be a true friend.
Brian and I grew up together and supported each other as only good friends can. When I couldn’t stay in my parents’ house, Brian’s mother would welcome me into her home and take care of me for months at a time. He and I were like brothers.
At fifteen I ran away to travel the country. I became addicted to cocaine and learned about life’s seedier side. When I returned, Brian and I picked up our friendship as though I’d been gone only days, instead of years. I introduced him to cocaine, and we got high together.
Over the next year my habit grew, and my income shrank. I couldn’t keep a job and started bumming money from Brian. He trusted me, but I never paid him back and even got caught stealing from a friend of his. Eventually Brian stopped answering my calls. If we saw each other, he’d wave or nod to me, but he wouldn’t talk.
It’s been ten years since I’ve spoken to Brian. My parents run into him now and then. They tell me he is married, has a college degree, and has traveled the world.
I am in prison. I have written to Brian several times, but he never writes back. In my last letter I mentioned that I was going before the parole board soon and might be coming back to our hometown if I got out.
At my parole hearing the officer told me she had received letters of encouragement from several of my family members, and also one friend: Brian. Thanks in part to his letter, I’m getting out two and a half years early. I still haven’t spoken to him, but his show of support proved to me that he is still a good friend. I pray that I can be one for him.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
After several unsuccessful attempts to heal a sports injury, I decided to have a hip operation. The specific surgery I chose was being offered only in Nevada. My doctors told me I’d need someone to stay with me in the hospital and help with my post-op checkup and my flight home. I couldn’t think of anyone I felt comfortable asking, so I figured I’d survive somehow on my own.
Ten days before the operation, my ex-husband’s wife called and offered to come to Las Vegas and help out. “I’ve done this before,” she said. “You definitely need someone.” I was touched. Our relationship was cordial, but I never would have thought to ask her for such a favor. I gladly accepted her offer.
She and my ex-husband both met me at the airport in Las Vegas and brought me to my hotel. The next day at dawn she drove me to the hospital and sat with me through all the preparations for surgery. When I woke from the operation, she was there with a notebook to keep track of what the doctor said, what I ate, and which medications I took. She sat with me at night and placed the bedpan under me when no nurse responded to my ringing. Her care was one of the most unexpected acts of kindness I’ve experienced. Without the operation, I never would have known what a good friend I had.
In high school, Linda thought of me as her best friend, but she wasn’t mine. My best friend was Deb, the girl everybody liked. Nobody liked Linda. Deb’s parents bought a microwave oven before anyone else in the neighborhood, and after school we would go to her house to watch sparks fly off the staple on the Lipton tea bag while we zapped a cup of tea. Linda had to go home after school and put her drunk mother to bed while her father hustled cards.
Linda eventually moved to Sacramento, but she’d call periodically and tell me her latest drama: weight loss, weight gain, married lover, mother’s death, compulsive-spending sprees, bankruptcy. Every call ended the same way: “Patti, you’re my best friend. I love you.” I’d say I loved her too, but to me love was reserved for family and romance, not friends — and certainly not for a friend whose hour-long phone calls I’d come to dread.
After her father died, Linda became suicidal. Her psychiatrist stopped seeing her, and she was fired from her job at the DMV. Her calls became more frequent and desperate. I gave her advice and considered going to visit her, though I hadn’t seen her since I’d come out as a lesbian fifteen years earlier. Now I was living happily in the Northeast and planning to marry the woman I loved.
When the calls stopped, I felt relieved. I figured Linda was back in therapy. A few months later, I got a letter from Linda’s brother, who had found my name in her address book and remembered how she’d always talked about “Patti, my best friend.” He was writing to let me know that Linda was dead.
My heart ached for a friend whose loyalty, I now saw, had held me up at the same time it had weighed me down. I called Linda’s brother, who described how the paramedics had needed a hydraulic lift to get Linda’s nearly four-hundred-pound body onto a stretcher; how the clutter from her apartment had filled three dumpsters. I offered him my awkward sympathy. His letter now sits with Linda’s in a drawer. I may never read those letters again, but I feel compelled to keep them.
My friends and I are two drug addicts and two alcoholics in rehab trying to figure out how to play croquet. “This is called a wicket,” I say, but nobody listens to me, because I’m a crackhead.
“Watch out for Patty,” Gary says to the others as I give the blue mallet a practice swing. He was living on the street when a treatment-center counselor tracked him down. He’s been in treatment fourteen times. “I don’t have another drunk in me,” he likes to say.
Ron, an alcoholic going through a divorce, never shuts up. He’s got post-traumatic stress disorder from the Gulf War and cries every day in group therapy.
Amy is a nurse who got hooked on prescription meds. Like me, she was in the army and tries to avoid talking to Ron about the war. Amy and I do not take croquet as seriously as Ron and Gary, who are arguing over how to set up the wickets.
Ron goes first, but our brains are so fried we can’t stay in order for longer than one turn. After a while we just go when we feel like it. When Amy’s ball goes into the tall grass, she just hits mine instead. “Fuck it,” she says.
Ron hits the red ball through the last two wickets, where it triumphantly taps the wooden stake. I wait for him to cry.
I first met Harold in the spring of 1984. He had a devilish twinkle in his eye, a grizzled beard, and a bald spot like a yarmulke circled by gray curls. I thought he looked like a Jewish Santa Claus.
Harold possessed an irresistible joie de vivre, and we became friends despite our thirty-five-year age difference. My husband worked a swing shift, and my teenage kids had their own social agendas, so I began visiting Harold on Friday nights, bringing challah — a braided Jewish bread — and chicken.
Harold was divorced with four grown kids around my age. Like my dad, he had grown up in Chicago, but unlike my father, Harold had lived on the South Side in an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking clan of Russian immigrants. Both men had attended Northwestern University. Both were lifelong liberals and labor activists who traded Judaism for Unitarianism later in life.
Harold could be fiery, fearless, opinionated, and egocentric, which made for some spirited conversations. One Friday night I noticed a pair of brass candlesticks shaped like Chinese lions. When I suggested we light some candles for the Sabbath, he said, “Christ on crutches, you’ll turn me into a practicing Jew in spite of myself!”
A born storyteller, Harold told me tales of accompanying his father in a horse-drawn cart to deliver milk and eggs early in the morning; or of how, as a teenager, he’d once hugged his mother so hard he’d cracked her ribs. Harold’s passion seemed tinged with the fear that it would outstrip any woman’s capacity to receive it.
Claiming he fell in love each spring, Harold would make me the object of his desire. When I resisted this escalation of our friendship, he’d banish me from his life. I came to accept this annual exile, knowing that by July a card would arrive, begging my forgiveness. We’d reinstate our Friday-night ritual cautiously at first, then with the old enthusiasm once more.
When Harold’s intensity began to take a toll on his heart, he lost none of his passion. After a triple bypass and surgeries to install a pacemaker and a defibrillator, he’d still beat his chest and roar, “I’ll live till I die!”
One August day in 1997, his heart simply gave out.
According to Harold’s wishes, his memorial was a celebration of his life, his loves, and his activism. Many mourners got up to tell stories about him. It had never been any secret to me that Harold had other women friends. Yet as one woman after another stood up to tell of her wonderful Wednesdays or Thursdays with him, my heart fell: Had I been merely his “Friday woman”? And how dare they compare their friendships with Harold to mine? Then I realized that this was simply Harold’s last joke, and a good one at that.
Harold’s children let me have a few keepsakes from his apartment. Now, on Friday nights, I burn candles in the brass Chinese-lion candlesticks and watch them glow.
When my marriage collapsed, I had no job, no health insurance, no child support, and no savings. With a one-year-old to care for and another baby on the way, I reluctantly went on welfare.
It was a struggle, but I finally found an apartment I could afford. Only after I’d moved in did I discover that the previous tenants had sued the landlord because the apartment had lead paint on all the woodwork. Heavily pregnant, I couldn’t look for another place, so I decided I would just have to keep a careful eye on the kids.
The day after the baby was born, my friend Jill, who’d been taking care of my son, stopped by the hospital with bad news: While I’d been gone, my landlord had sent workmen to my apartment unannounced. Without putting down dropcloths or giving her a chance to put anything away, they’d sanded the lead paint off the woodwork. They hadn’t even bothered to sweep up the dust.
I pictured the poison sifting into baby clothes and wool sweaters, onto the dishes, the toy shelves, the crib. Still exhausted from the birth, I felt weak and helpless.
“Don’t worry,” Jill said. “Carolyn, Sherry, Fay, and I went in last night and cleaned it up. We took all the dishes out and washed them. The cupboards too. We washed the toys and scrubbed all the surfaces. We ran everything we could through the washing machine and — remember the rain last night? We carted the furniture outside and let the rain clean it for us.” Jill flicked her hand like a magician waving a wand. “All done. Everything’s ready for you.”
During the time Jenny and I shared a small office, I was going through a painful divorce and would arrive at work each day in tears, grieving the end of my marriage. Jenny consoled me and helped me focus on my work. Our friendship grew, and we soon became each other’s regular “date” on Saturday nights.
One weekday evening, after dropping my two-year-old daughter at my ex’s, I called Jenny and told her I suspected he was seeing someone. She replied that he was.
“It’s me,” she said.
I thought she was kidding. After she repeated herself three times, I began to hyperventilate. My best friend and the father of my child were a couple. I imagined them creating a new family together — one that included my daughter. The very family I’d dreamed of having. I was devastated.
That was several years ago. Jenny and my ex are now married. I no longer consider Jenny my friend, but I have forgiven her and made peace for the sake of my daughter. Some days are harder than others, though. Yesterday as I left their house, I waved goodbye to Jenny, who smiled and waved back through the open door, standing over a basket of clean, folded laundry, the picture of domestic bliss.
For years I searched for a friend who was just like me: a mother of many children who breast-fed and home-schooled her kids and let them sleep in the family bed. But I seemed always to find breast-feeding mothers who didn’t home-school or home-schooling mothers who didn’t breast-feed.
After rejecting several potential friends because they didn’t meet my criteria, I realized that the women I felt closest to were not the ones who were exactly like me, but the ones who appreciated my differences and taught me to appreciate theirs.
If I ever had met my twin friend, I probably would have found her annoyingly self-righteous.
I always called my father “Bernie.” He was the friend who could see right through me, the Buddhist who taught me that moving toward discomfort was the bravest approach to being human.
We laughed about everything. (He understood that farting at the dinner table is funny.) In my darkest hours of adolescence, Bernie listened to me. When, at twenty, I overdosed on Ecstasy and didn’t know what to do, he was the only one I could call. When I took a job at a large investment firm because I wanted to make loads of money, he never questioned my decision.
When Bernie was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, I moved closer to his home to care for him. I hadn’t called him “Dad” in twenty-nine years. As he took his last breaths in January 2006, I sat by him and whispered, “I love you, Dad.”
I was forty-three years old and anorexic when my friends Brian and Ted had me committed to a locked psychiatric unit, where I was forced to eat and subjected to round-the-clock observation. Having lost more than 20 percent of my normal body weight, I was brain-starved and frantic.
Weeks later I was released, twenty pounds heavier and raw from the humiliation of having had all of my freedoms taken away. Despite years of friendship, Brian and Ted and I didn’t know how to talk about what I’d been through. I was wary of them. What if they put me in the hospital again?
But Brian and Ted were wise. They brought me gifts: a perfect peach and a red rock from a holy hill. As I held the peach and the rock in my hands, I got the unspoken message: Taste and see the goodness of the earth, of life. I broke the charged silence by inviting them to dinner.
Before my family moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C., when I was eleven, we lived in rural Maryland, and I was best friends with Angel, one of nine kids from a tough, backwoods family.
When I was fifteen, Angel invited me for a two-week visit at her family’s new house, a double-wide whose dirt yard was littered with wrecked cars and chained-up dogs. She greeted me in skintight short-shorts, her big hair teased and sprayed into place. Her older sister was married at seventeen and working as a hairdresser. One brother was in Vietnam.
The first night I was there, Angel arranged for us to drive around with her boyfriend, Chuck, and his friend Bo.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Angel looked at me as if I were a total fool. There was only one place in that area to go: the local store, where we hung out and shot pool.
The next night Bo drove up in his truck and asked if I would go riding with him. I told him OK, but that I was not his girlfriend and didn’t plan to be. He said that was fine.
Bo had greased-back hair and wore a tight white T-shirt. My friends back home would have died if they’d seen me with this hick. He even listened to country music and was planning to join the army and go to Vietnam as soon as he turned eighteen. I had written a paper in school about why the Vietnam War was wrong.
During the day, Angel and I played with her cats and talked with her uncles (who all looked like Elvis Presley) as they worked on their cars. At night Bo took me riding. We watched beautiful sunsets at the local rock quarry. We picked blackberries along a country road and ate them so fast our mouths puckered. By the end of my two-week stay, he and I had become friends.
Six months later I got a letter from Bo, who was headed to Vietnam in two weeks. He asked if he could come see me before he left. I thought about calling him, but then I realized he wouldn’t fit in with my new friends. What would I have to say to him, anyway? We were too different.
Still, I kept thinking I should call. But then a few weeks had passed, and he had gone to Vietnam, and I didn’t have to think about calling him anymore.
I still think about him.
Asheville, North Carolina
When I started to deal drugs as a teenager, I chose my friends from among my most reliable customers. After a couple of juvenile busts, I learned that people who paid on time weren’t necessarily brave or loyal when the police showed up.
By the time I went to prison for life, I was looking for friends who would keep their mouths shut in front of the guards, or would carry an ounce of dope across the yard without trembling, or would dig up a knife and stand by me. I didn’t have time for anyone I couldn’t literally trust with my life.
I’ve been in prison twenty-three years. Right now my best friend is a few feet away from me, planting sunflowers in a bed we’ve dug up behind the prison chapel. We meditate together under an elm tree. If I have a problem, he brings insight instead of a knife. When I get stuck in my timeworn responses, he reminds me of who I really am. I’m getting better at picking my friends.
Polk City, Florida