Adventures in female friendship
Maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea to post this piece on Mother’s Day? But hey, maybe it fits as a love letter of sorts. It is a love letter. It was also published earlier this week on Oldster Magazine.
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My old notebooks are bones I carry around, and sometimes they rattle, and I open one. In every book, I mean like starting from 1978 to now, I find a conversation with a woman I’ll call Gina. Gina is reporting things other friends have said about me. Things you would want to squash under your boot. The frequency of these conversations is hilarious, if you find humor in how can this be happening again, and why.
Why are you friends with Gina, and why is she reporting the despair people feel of knowing you? I’m not really friends with Gina. I’m not sure we were ever friends. We met over 40 years ago in New York, and a lot of the time we walked. We walked and talked, two slabs of anxious love-of-life, floating around lower Manhattan. Susan Sontag said people write in journals and notebooks in hopes that the people you have said terrible things about will secretly read them. Gina said things to your face.
How did I react? I would become very still, I think. I got into a habit that is good for a writer and probably good for a human in general, but, as a person, I could only keep to when I was afraid of losing someone. I was afraid of losing Gina the minute I met her. My delight in her was probably annoying. The people I fall in love with I do the thing where it’s obvious, even though I know people prefer to be ignored if they are going to come for you. Everything I feel is written on my face, the way the emotions of dogs are written on their faces. Have you ever seen a dog pretend indifference? The thing I practiced when I listened, or fake-listened to Gina, was: Don’t make a case for yourself, don’t translate your behavior, and—most important because in reality it’s impossible—don’t ask for love.
Gina acted like she was helping me understand my effect on other people. She meant on her, chiefly. She was giving me cake with a rock inside. Better to break your teeth than go through life as an irritating moron, the thinking went, I’m guessing. Help isn’t help. There’s no such thing as help, unless a person asks for it and sets the limits on what they are asking you to do. The kind of help Gina offered is the kind of help most people offer, which is a way to get something off their chest that is burdening them. And the problem is, you have to pretend it’s for you or else look even more insufferable than you already do.
Everything Gina said was true. Everything she reported other people said was true. I didn’t defend myself because I had no defense. Here are some things people felt and still feel: I can’t see what they need. I can’t see them. I’m a show off. I flash my success. I’m needy. I take things that don’t belong to me. (I take people, not family heirlooms.) I don’t respect their boundaries. I can’t tell what they’re thinking because I’m not looking at them attentively enough to read the room.
I live with a man named Richard. He’s English and is very good at reading rooms. Often, after someone has spent time with us, he’ll say, “Didn’t you see how much X was asking for something (or declining something)?” And always, I will say, “No. I didn’t see it. How did you see it?”
During the past year, two of my closest friends have pulled away. In some ways, they feel I’ve pulled away from them, but they’re wrong. I’ll call them Pam and Julie. They don’t know each other. It’s not a triangle deal. I had a triangle deal, and it was hell. The two women were each other’s number one. Never mind, I said to myself. You don’t have to be the center of attention all the time. Go along with how they include you. I couldn’t do it. It made me crazy. No one is to blame. Honestly, it’s just an impossible situation always to feel like the one who can be left out. Also, I worshipped both of them for their beauty and accomplishments, and it was obvious.
Let’s get back to Pam and Julie. I’ve known each of them since our days at Barnard. By coincidence, they both went to Barnard. It’s the same story with them as with the others I have fallen for, some kind of hell cocktail of admiration and jealousy. Pam is gorgeous with shapely legs only mannequins have. Julie is cool without trying, which is the definition of cool. When people stick it out with me, it’s sometimes because they are drugged by my admiration for them.
We are all 76. I’ve been friends with both of them for over 50 years. That number, 50, is old even for a tortoise. This year, a bad medical thing happened to both of them. Not deadly, it’s turned out, but scary and bad. In each case, a pissy thing was going on between me and them. As soon as I heard about the bad medical thing, which in both cases was from a mutual friend, I wrote to say I would be there for them in any way they needed. We didn’t have to straighten out the pissy thing that was messing us up. That could wait. Or we could forget about it.
The good thing about me is I will help you if you are in obvious need. If you are going to collapse in the street, do it in front of me. I will not leave you. I will talk to you and try to make you comfortable. I will call for medical help, and I will stay with you until you are in someone else’s competent hands. Pam and Julie didn’t want my help. They didn’t want me. During the time they’ve been scared and vulnerable, they didn’t want me near them. It’s the simple truth. After all the fights and break ups and returns to each other, they wanted to go through what they are going through with others at their sides. I find this heartbreaking.
And I think about it every day. If I’m honest, I think about it all the time. Even when I’m doing something else, the absence is there the way the friendships were there. There’s nothing I can do but wait to see what happens next. In a notebook from 1990, I found this dream about Pam: “Pam and I go to a lesbian bar. She settles me at a table with leftover food. I eat a piece of salad and go over to where she’s sitting, talking and laughing with two women. She shoos me away, and I dump the salad on her head. I leave, feeling pleased with myself until I realize I’ve lost my pants and my ass is exposed. I tug my shirt down, but it’s not long enough to cover my ass.”
The other day, I posted a piece on Substack about my early days with Richard. I’m writing about my second visit to Arizona, and I say: “I’m a woman past 60 about to leave New York for love.” A man comments, “I pondered the 60 year old woman leaving NY for love a while.” I say back, “When I was 60, I was every age I have ever been. I'm every age I’ve ever been right now.”
I’m saying, I don't think I've changed in any fundamental ways from the time I called the shots about my life, pretty much from 17 on. I think I see things differently when I look back. That is a change I’m noticing these days. There’s so much tape to rerun of the years I’ve lived. In the past, during one of those talks with Gina, I’d see what she was saying and feel bad or humiliated. And I think a few minutes later I went back to the original settings. What was that she said? It felt like there was all the time in the world to go to the next whatever. There was all the time in the world to imagine becoming something else.
There isn't that sense of time now, and now, too, when I’m left on the side of the road, there isn't the wave of nausea that makes you have to hold the edge of something not to fall. When I look back, I see a person who has not succeeded in friendships because it wasn't what she was going to be good at. For whatever reasons. I'm not interested in the reasons. I'm not interested in improvement as a concept and as a concept applied to me. You may begin to see some of the difficulty of knowing me.
Perhaps the truth is I didn't care enough to change. I didn't want to do the work. I wanted to do the work I’m doing here, writing. I find it interesting that I know, more than ever, what I actually look like to others and at the same time feel less wounded by the understanding. Maybe because the understanding is no longer the shock of seeing the same thing, as if for the first time. Maybe that's all I'm talking about. What’s the cost benefit to me of spending more time attending to other people? I know that if I don’t do what is from Richard’s perspective the tiniest micro changing, I will lose him. There’s an incentive.
Yesterday a friend came to the house for lunch, and I made cheese omelets. Afterward, we went upstairs to a room to talk. We talked about female friendship. We’re newish friends, and we got right into it. She’s younger than me because everyone is, but I don’t feel the age difference in our conversation. She said she finds me generous. I said, “I like you, and this is our honeymoon.” I told her about the two friends I’d lost, at least for now. She sent me links to two pieces about intense female friendships. One is by the novelist Elisa Albert, a brilliant meditation published in Salon in 2012. The other is a piece by Jennifer Senior called “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” (The Atlantic March 14 2022), about an intense friendship Albert formed with Rebecca Wolfe, the founder of the literary journal Fence. My newish friend also suggested Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be (2010), about a friendship between the narrator, a writer in her 30s, and a woman her age, a painter she dives into.
I loved the tender klutziness of Albert’s rant in Salon. I loved the picture of her romance with Wolfe, reported by Senior, because it’s the lived drama of her attempt in the Salon piece to squeeze into a cocktail glass the we are mirrors, and the we are lolling together in bed as the best thing ever, and the you look familiar/who are you? sense of female friendship that looks familiar to me. “Where is my girl?” Albert writes. “The one with whom I can just be quiet and un-self-conscious? . . . I used to be terrified of being a lesbian. The fierce homophobia in my family, the intensity of relation I always want with other women. The way I yearn for them, want to study them and be physically close to them and memorize them and learn from them and emulate them and show myself to them. Just be very, very near to them. Wanting, at the very least, to wrap myself around particular women, touch them. The comfort I’d find there. Wanting to kiss particular women. An acquaintance whose mouth is so transfixing I’d like to spend a few days alone with her, exploring it.”
I loved the sense from reading Albert there is no way out of this, and it’s bigger than personal friendships. Women like me, which may be all women, live our lives in the barbarian lunchroom. The barbarian lunchroom is what I call the women’s movement. The reason I call the women’s movement the barbarian lunchroom is that women in the women’s movement are never going to be invited to the party where the civilized people eat. As a barbarian, meaning a feminist, I don’t belong at the party where the civilized people eat. My job as a feminist is to wreck the party where the civilized people eat. My heartbreak is the mean girls’ table in the barbarian lunchroom, where I am never going to be invited to sit.
Why are there mean girls in the barbarian lunchroom? Because there are mean girls everywhere, and everywhere there is a mean girl I am a mouse she can bat around. The mean girls who are punks, I lay down and die for because I am the opposite of cool. Near them, I might as well be auditioning to be Jerry Lewis. The mean girls who are good girls see me as a slut because virtue smells to me like something Christian and vaguely anti-Semitic. Albert understands the concept of the mean girls’ table in the barbarian lunchroom. If I’m putting concepts into her head she doesn’t have, sue me, or she can sue me. I know her. We’re friends. What I’m saying is we are always yearning, always yearning, always yearning. And for what?
I started reading Heti’s novel, and early on I came to a passage that is the apple you need to understand the workings of the world. The narrator, “Sheila” is falling into a passionate friendship with the painter “Margaux,” and she begins to think in general about female friendship: “Trust had to be won from ground zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other—crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women always have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right. But in the exaggeration of their effusiveness, you know that things are not all right between them, and that they never will be. A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman—not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be the landing ground for a man, but for a woman to try to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form . . ..”
The reason this passage felt like the apple you need to eat to understand the world is that for women with each other there’s no way out and no way in. We don’t know how a person should be because we have lived our whole lives in various forms of disguise. Men, too, live that way, but forget men. I’m not talking about men, and I’m not interested in men right now. They can write about their own friendships. Good luck to them.
If women are “wobbly” and “without form” because we have lived the way people live who are told what they are by others and the things they are told are lies, if we are unsafe as places to land for this reason, might we become something else if we stripped off all our clothes? Heti’s “Sheila” character wonders about this, too. “Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on,” she writes, “and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be human.
“Most people lead their private lives. They have been given a natural modesty that feels to them like morality, but it’s not—it’s luck. They shake their heads at the people with their clothes off rather than learning about human life from their example, but they are wrong to be so superior. Some of us have to be naked, so the rest can be exempted by fate.”
If women are unsafe because we are liars, might we become something else if we stripped off all our clothes, I ask again? “Sheila” would like to think so, but I have no idea. I live with heartbreak. Sooner or later, I fail in my relationships with women. I’m not overstating, and please don’t tell me otherwise. You don’t know me. I’m difficult. I will find a fight when there is no fight. My favorite phrase in the English language is, “I don’t think so.” I don’t know when to leave when it’s time to leave. I don’t take social cues. My mother was married to my sister. I could never get into the thing they had together. My mother was beautiful. My sister was beautiful. As a kid I was fat. I’m selfish. I always want to do my own work more than I want to ease the lives of other people.
I’m difficult for men as well as for women, but men are easy. They are pushovers. They don’t even see clearly what you look like. A man walks into a bar I like the look of, and he sees in my face a place to land. I had a friend who wanted to know why men liked me. I said, “They can see in a second I like them back. I’m not suspicious. They’re not going to fail if they come close.” That is a sentence that has never in my life described my friendships with women.
Happy Mother’s Day, mom. Toby in a rowboat. I never saw her in a rowboat. Miss you.For more on the great publication produced by