I had dinner recently with Marie. Until a couple of years ago, we didn’t see each other much, though we shared the intimacy of proximity. I’d been looking for a place to write over long vacations, when my daughter was off from school. My daughter was in high school then, and in need of downtime, which often meant copious knitting in front of copious re-runs of Law & Order: SVU and The West Wing. Our apartment is small; it was hard for me to write alongside the constant presence of Christopher Meloni and Martin Sheen. The ominous two-note “da dum” that announced a scene change on SVU was audible through walls.
So I put the word out – did anyone have an apartment they’d let me use while they were away over break?
One year, I paid to use a teacher couple’s home while they made family rounds on the west coast, but, though they offered me the same deal the next time a school vacation came up, I couldn’t afford it. And then the head of the English department at the school where I sometimes subbed told me about Marie. She’d grown up in Europe and went back there a lot and liked the idea of someone checking in at her place, watering the plants, picking up the mail.
So that’s what we did.
It was a great place to work, sunny and peaceful and, except for the people upstairs who sometimes played loud country music, quiet. The arrangement worked well for both of us and it continued for several Christmas breaks and spring breaks and part of one summer. She left me lists of numbers where I could reach her if necessary, I left her mail neatly stacked and pots of soup I made as a gesture of homecoming/thank you. But other than picking up the keys before she went away, we didn’t spend much time in each other’s company.
After some years of leaving notes on her kitchen counter, we went to dinner. We spoke very openly to each other about many things. Our conversations, then and now, are intimate. But we still don’t really see each other much. And though I’ve spent time in her house and have met her daughter, she’s never been here or met mine. Does that make us – or not make us – friends?
I know another woman, Catherine. Like me, she’s a writer with children around the age of mine. We meet in the mornings in the park sometimes where I run and she goes to walk the dog. We talk about things that are important to both of us: our work. Raising children. Aging parents. Politics. We’ve run into each other a number of times at literary events, but we haven’t seen each other – socially, deliberately – well, ever. Our conversations, like mine with Marie, are intimate. We share details of our lives, emotional details, easily. Are we intimate friends? Are we friends at all?
What constitutes friendship? What defines it? Proximity? Duration? Frequency? When I was a girl, spending time with friends meant all day, but I almost never spend that much time with anyone now. And sometimes the people I’ve spent the most time with weren’t the ones I liked the most.
I had what I called “mommy friends” when my daughter was small – other women with children around the age of mine. We frequently brought our children together to play and for birthdays. Sometimes we had dinners together. But once our children started school, those friendships – if that’s what they were – based on location and a shared need for company and not much else, stage of life friendships – faded away. They were useful to all of us at the time, but stage of life friendships aren’t necessarily meant to last. We figure out which ones are as we go along.
I once asked Marie if she thought the conversations women had with one another were, by their nature, intimate. Was that the way women talk? Or did it just seem that way to me?
She said, “Well, you’re very easy to talk to. You’re not judgmental. You’re empathic.” But that’s what you’re supposed to do, when you’re a friend. And the friend’s supposed to do it back.
I once described to my friend Nan the reactions of two other friends to career successes I’d had – an interview on a regional NPR station after the publication of my second book and winning a fiction fellowship.
“Nobody listens to that,” said the friend I told about the interview.
“That’s not enough money to do anything with,” said the other when I told her about the grant.
When I repeated these things to Nan – the “I said, she said,” – they upset her. “You have the wrong friends,” she told me.
Not too long after that conversation, I stopped being friends with those two women. Life is hard enough without quote unquote friends – the kind who are, for whatever reasons, jealous, unkind, angry. Who just don’t wish you well.
I think some of my early – and longest – friendships were modeled on the relationship I had with my mother. Who was jealous, unkind, and angry. Who wished me healthy, but not really well: not more successful, more creative, happier than she perceived herself to be. I’m a loyal person and friendship, to me, is a permanent state, so I stayed friends with people who, as it turned out, at bottom didn’t really like me. Or who, like my mother, wished me healthy, wished me okay, but not well. I used to think duration was a necessary component of real friendship, but it isn’t. Duration just means long.
Of the two friends I’m closest to, one I’ve known since grammar school, the other since our children took ballet at the same place not all that many years ago. The first one knows my sisters, the dynamics of my family, as I know hers, but the second one does too, because I’ve told her. History is something you can tell someone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be witnessed. And though I don’t see either friend all that often, a consequence of busyness, and work and family life, when we do see each other, there is, at least for me, a feeling almost of relief. That this is a person I can say anything to. Someone who will listen to me, as I will to her. Someone who wishes me – always, only – well.
Men’s friendships are different. Many of the men I know count as friends the boys they grew up with. Who went to the same grammar school or high school or played on the same Little League team. Shared experience is enough for men to call a friendship. And if they have fallings out with each other, get angry, don’t speak for a short time or a long one, it doesn’t consume them. Friends just are. They come and go. Men seem to accept that.
The loss of some friendships – the stage of life ones, the unsupportive ones – wasn’t that traumatic to me. Getting rid of what are, nowadays, referred to as “toxic” relationships can be liberating. Perspective requires distance. But there have been other losses that have been painful and difficult and, in one or two cases, are something I will never get over.
I’d been friends with Kate for years and years. We’d seen each other through husbands and other husbands and children and ongoing relationships with difficult mothers. We spoke on the phone often. Every Thanksgiving morning, we talked while we cooked. And in the summers when my daughter was small, we spent two weeks near each other in Vermont, where Kate lived. She’d introduced me to a friend of hers who wanted someone to dog sit/house sit/sort-of-rent their big old Victorian house on a hill with a huge yard while she and her family went elsewhere for two weeks. I love Vermont, I spent many summers there when I was a girl, now I had a chance to take my own little girl. That Kate was there made it even better.
My daughter went horseback riding and swimming and took an art class. She got to feel what it was like to just go outside to play without having to ask permission, or make arrangements or walk blocks to a concrete playground – a kind of freedom she didn’t have, growing up in New York City. She made friends in Vermont. So did I. And I looked forward to the one time a year Kate and I got to spend real time together.
Except we didn’t. Maybe the first summer we did, and maybe the second, but after that she began making it pretty clear that she didn’t want us there. Or me, anyway. She said I couldn’t expect her to drop everything just because I’d arrived. Huh?
I don’t expect anybody, ever, to drop everything to spend time with me, and I don’t expect – or want – all of anyone’s time. I need to write which I did for part of every day in Vermont, and I have other work and other things to do and beyond that, I just need a certain amount of time alone, which suits me to a writing life if not a social one. I asked Kate, the way long term friends are supposed to be able to do, what was up? Had I done something I didn’t know about that upset her? Was she angry at me?
I asked her if we – our friendship – was okay.
She never answered. She just wouldn’t tell me. She didn’t want to be my friend anymore. And that was that. The opposite of intimacy is that you become invisible.
I once believed the component parts of friendship were intimacy – knowing everything about the other person – duration and spending a lot of time together. And maybe that’s right, but the proportions change as we get older and busier and there are more claims on our time. I tend to see my friends for coffee or lunch or dinner. I don’t have whole days anymore.
The fact is – or the lesson, or the point – there are lots of ways to be friends, lots of variations on a theme. Are Marie and I friends? Yes. Are Catherine and I, though we rarely see each other apart from those serendipitous morning encounters? I think so. Because the one thing a friendship requires, always and only, is that the friends wish each other well. How that’s demonstrated matters less than that each friend knows they can rely on the good will and ear and heart of the other.
Because that is everything.
Image via slightly everything/Flickr