For years, I had this fantasy in my head: my mom would have a best friend with a daughter exactly my age, and we’d become best friends, too. We’d talk on the phone for hours, write each other letters over the summers, and one day maybe even go to the same college because we felt stronger when we were together. We’d consider each other sisters, because that’s exactly what we would be.
I never did have a friend like that. In elementary and middle school, I cycled through a series of “best friends,” with most relationships lasting a year, maybe two, before preteen dramas got in the way and alliances shifted. In high school, my best friends were a group of girls who I was never sure actually liked me very much; they’d tease me – the ditzy, silly sidekick – and I’d laugh, because I knew I was easy to make fun of and laughing along felt better. I had a constant sense of “tagging along,” of hoping one of them would choose me to like the best.
I thought maybe that was just life, that perhaps who I naturally was (a person who often said the wrong thing, who turned red at the slightest provocation, who was utterly incapable of acting cool) just wasn’t the kind of person who attracted long-lasting, deeply loving friendships. And so I decided to make my boyfriend – and then the next boyfriend, and the one after that – my best friend. I sought out relationships that weren’t just “intense”; they were all-consuming. Finally, I had a person – and then another, and another after that – with whom I felt completely and totally comfortable. Except then we’d break up, and I’d have to start all over again.
I thought my only chance to find a friendship like the one I’d dreamed of when I was a little girl – one that would weave its way into my life in such a way that it would never let go – was long gone; blown away a little more with each year that passed. And then, when I was 25 years old, my dad and I walked into a random sushi restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. I said hi to the hostess, and then turned and asked her if my back was sunburned (it was, and yes, this is a bizarre question to ask a complete stranger). And that was how I met my sister.
A reader, Grace, just sent me an email that I loved so much that I realized that I wanted to make it into a post, because it’s a topic I’ve never really delved into here. What Grace wrote:
I’m curious if you can share your thoughts on female friendship. It seems to me that the amount of material devoted to familial and romantic relationships is highly disproportionate to material reflecting on female friendships. In some ways this is strange because often, these are the relationships that are the most long standing, history making aspects of our lives.
I’m particularly interested in you and Francesca – your story, how your friendship has evolved, the aspects of your relationship that bind you, its challenges etc. I always see me and my best friends reflected back when you recount your Francesca adventures and I can’t help but wonder about you two.
I sat with this question overnight, and realized that it’s true; in our society, we are not expected to devote the same kind of energy to our female relationships as we do to the other relationships in our lives; friendships are expected to take a backseat to marriage. I’m sure of this because I’ve witnessed it myself: from time to time, when I’ve written about a trip to see Francesca, or Morgan, or Erin, I’ve gotten a comment or email to the effect of “Ugh, can you please stay home with your husband?!” I’ve been accused of being “obsessed” with my closest friends – as if loving a woman is something weird, even perverse.
Back to the story. After the restaurant’s hostess – Francesca – examined my back and told me I’d probably survive, we started talking and discovered that we were both from the Tri-State Area and had gone to nearby colleges. I told her I’d just kicked out my boyfriend after discovering that he was cheating on me with the Orbitz gum girl (really), and was looking for a roommate. It turned out that Francesca had recently discovered that her own roommate had a gun that she’d found in a stream – and decided to bring home – sitting under her bed (really), and was thinking it might be a good idea to move out. A week later, Francesca saved me from a rampaging, extremely tequilaed-up blonde Texan wearing a pirate outfit (really, and it’s a long story), and the next day she officially moved into the guest bedroom in my house. To smooth over Francesca’s sudden move, we found her old roommate a new roommate whose name was Young Sinatra, and who came to his interview with his very visibly coked-up manager (really, and yes, Francesca’s ex-roommate was the one who ultimately selected Young Sinatra to live with).
For the year that Francesca and I lived together in our little yellow house in the Valley, we functioned more like a married couple than friends. We pillaged each others’ closets and sang Tracy Chapman songs into hairbrushes until four in the morning. If I had a first date with someone, Francesca was probably going to tag along (and vice versa), because really, if they couldn’t handle both of us the relationship probably wasn’t going to last anyway. She yelled at me constantly to get the damn cat off the kitchen counter.
Eventually Francesca met a man with whom she ended up moving to New York, and I met Kendrick and commenced my own cross-country move. At some point during the move-out process we got in a fight – the biggest one we’d ever had (and we’d had plenty by then) – for reasons too personal to write about here, but that I think largely came down to the fact that each of us was feeling abandoned – physically, emotionally – by the other. We didn’t speak for the entire year leading up to my wedding. Francesca wasn’t my maid of honor; she wasn’t even a bridesmaid, because by the time we finally realized that we missed each other too much to keep the fight going, the wedding was only weeks away.
Around sunrise on the morning I got married, I was laying in my hotel bed, staring at the ceiling and panicking a little, when I got a text: you awake? So we walked together to the water to watch the waves, toting along the little notebook that Francesca was using to communicate at the time because she’d done something terrible to her vocal cords and wasn’t allowed to speak for two entire months. It was that morning, practically paralyzed by nerves – but better because Francesca was next to me – that I realized it: she’s not my friend. She is my sister. We can fight; we can scream at each other; we can live on opposite coasts for months or years at a time. It simply doesn’t matter, because there is nothing either of us can say or do that will change the fact that we’re family in a very real, very tangible way. I have no idea what my life will look like in fifty years, but one thing I know: my sister will be sitting there next to me, and we’ll be laughing so hard we can’t breathe.
So Grace, the answer to your question is that I did not understand the power of female friendships until strangely late in my life, and I think that fact has given me a unique take on the force that these friendships can be. Because until I met Francesca, I hadn’t known that someone would still love me if I chose, very simply, to be myself. I certainly couldn’t imagine that anyone would love me because of that. The truth is that I credit our friendship, and the intense friendships with other women (Morgan, Erin, the remarkable women I’ve met and become incredibly close to since arriving in California) that arose in the years that followed with the profound changes that have happened in my life since that day I walked into the sushi restaurant with a sunburned back. Because it was my female friendships that made me see that I am okay, just as I am, and started me down a path to where I was able to write openly about my life and my heart.
The strangest part of all this, for me: I went from being a person who spent the bulk of her youth feeling like she had trouble finding real friends to a person whose life feels full of them. My heart is a space that my husband must share with many women, all of whom give me strength, and support, and sisterhood.
And I think that, right there, is what our adult friendships – female or otherwise – have the potential to show us: that we don’t have to – shouldn’t, in fact – rely on a romantic partnership to be everything we need. That’s why I pour my children into the car and drive them down to Los Angeles more often than seems especially sane; why I fly them across the country just to sit on the floor and play with Erin’s daughter; why I’m driving up to Morgan’s house tomorrow night despite the fact that our overnight stays have the potential to be epic disasters: so that they can understand that friendships aren’t bonuses that you make time for when it’s convenient – they are essential. So that they know to look everywhere for their family. So they don’t take 25 years to start finding the people who might help them find themselves.
Our sisters are out there, you know, whether they’re born into our families or not. And when we find them, we have to hold onto them with everything we have, because “everything” is precisely what they are.