About three years ago, I ran into an old friend from whom I’d been estranged for at least 5 years. It was palpably tense. We were each with our entire respective families at what was meant to be a convivial, long holiday-weekend type of family outing. It would not be a good time to discuss what had happened between us, yet my behaving as if there was nothing wrong was, understandably, deeply hurtful to Laura. She left in tears before the natural ending of the sojourn and I am guessing some or all of the dozen family members there were as confused as I was guilty. Later, she texted me in an attempt to talk through it and in my response to her, I identified a simple truth that I had long denied - I am not a good friend.
My earliest best friend, Violet, lived across the street from my dad’s house, meaning that I saw her approximately four days per month, and for far longer stretches than I ever spent with my father. We two would snuggle in to the back of her mom’s little tan hatchback and head to 49’er video, where we would reliably march to the well-loved spot on the shelf that held the Very Finest Film we had ever seen and bring it to the counter. We would then impatiently wait as her mother scanned the titles for whatever film she would pretend to watch upstairs while enjoying Violet’s dad for quite a long stretch of time. We two, Violet and I, plus her nasty little brother and adorable little sister, would plop onto the couch I can still smell in my memory, letting the hopelessly romantic and terribly politicked themes of the movie wash over us while we mouthed along to every word and secretly wondered if we were more like Sandy or Rizzo and when we would find our own Danny Zuko. We made Jiffy Pop and I pretended not to notice the sticky kitchen linoleum or that Violet bit her own toenails instead of cutting them. I imagine she was pretending it wasn’t odd that on my twice-a-month visits with my dad, I hardly saw him. Sometimes, after the movie, while Violet’s parents were still upstairs, we would go into the jacuzzi and pay no attention to her baby sister, who could not swim, or her brother, who could urinate anywhere but inside the toilet. Occasionally we stole her mother’s cigarettes and, more than once, set small fires in the backyard. It is truly a miracle that any of us survived the 1980s.
Violet and I grew apart as she dove deeply into goth music and culture and I was too scared be so fully self possessed. She sported long, spiky, two-toned mohawk bangs while I did my best approximation of what I imagined to be the ultimate power bitch look (think: rayon). I loved Violet, love her still, and am thankful for all the ways her family cared for me as I sought refuge from my dad’s lifestyle choices and was fully indulged in being a kid. Our relationship was uncomplicated and it would be a good long while before I ever had that feeling in a friendship again.
I was welded at the hip to Becky in fifth and sixth grade. Becky’s mom always got us Little Caesar’s pizza and a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi when I slept over at their house, and I loved the comfort and safety of being there so much that I considered it my solemn duty to never tell them how much I despised that soda. Becky taught me about frosted lipstick and being boy crazy. Also, professional wrestling. Her love of Hulk Hogan and the WWF was only outmatched by her devastation that her mother would not let her keep the George Michael tape that she so worshipped. Understandably, Linda had assumed a title like “Faith” would reinforce the strong Christian values with which she was raising her daughter, but as soon as she heard the words “I want your sex” streaming underneath the door of Becky’s lilac-painted bedroom, the tape became mine and Becky made me promise to hold on to it for her until she was 18 and could do as she pleased. It was at Becky’s house that I learned about breast cancer and stepfathers and how to play chopsticks on the piano. I lost touch with Becky and after a brief, fun, catch-up session on social media, I felt compelled to de-cathect from her and her philosophies during the 2016 presidential election.
My first frenemy experience was with a girl whose company I sought based solely on her proximity to my house. Claire was one of the only other kids in the mostly retirement-aged populace of my mom’s condo complex. She played the flute and was mean and her hair was constantly filthy but she taught me how to shave my legs without having to actually be in the shower and that tomato soup was the best solution for getting the skunk smell out of dog fur. At turns, I found myself wanting to be Claire and wanting to murder Claire, but thankfully neither scenario came to pass. Claire’s mother, a blousy divorcee who had the kind of self confidence usually reserved for women with much more style, grace, and beauty than she possessed, liked to invite her boyfriend over on weekends, which meant he was usually there whenever I slept over. One Friday night, Claire, her mother, and “Tex” got such a thrill out of calling me Fat that I thought there was something wrong with me for getting my feelings hurt. Later that night, I learned that Claire had a weekly ritual of drinking one sip of every kind of alcohol that her mother kept in the low kitchen cabinet. I made it through two bottle samples before feeling such an intense wave of fear that I feigned a stomach bug and ran home. Some time after that I leaned that Claire’s father had been drawn into a legal battle with the parents of another of Claire’s friends after a birthday sleepover resulted in the little girl accusing him of molestation. I can’t deny that this fact gave me major schadenfreude and whether the man was guilty or not, that sealed my fate with Claire. I spent the rest of the time i lived in that condo assiduously avoiding her street.
Devorah was an east coast transplant to Sacramento whose parents were constantly horrified at the dearth of culture in our town and fled to what they called “the city” nearly every weekend. When I asked Devorah and her mother, over a snack of rice cakes smeared with peanut butter, what city they were talking about, I could feel their judgement smack me in the face like sand in a hurricane. I instantly regretted revealing my ignorance and wanted to burst into tears right there in the kitchen, but kept my cool knowing somewhere, innately, that their appraisal of Sacramento was correct and hoping that my proximity to their family would somehow edify me. It kind of did, actually, but it turns out Devorah’s mother was forcing the friendship onto her daughter after discovering that I went home to an empty house after school every day.
In the last forty years, I have had some lasting friendships and accrued some casualties, too. I have, at times, been a good friend, sure. I’ve been a shoulder to cry on, a drinking buddy, a pen pal, and a cheerleader to many. I have honored birthdays and showed up for opening nights and celebrated marriages and held people’s hands at funerals. I have also been deeply self-involved, stuck in the fun-house mirror of my fears without regard for the person whose demonstrated acceptance of me was possibly the only thing I needed them for. I have joyfully and sorrowfully participated in unsatisfying relationships, quick to find fault with others and rather slow to own my responsibility in the dynamic.
I have heard it said that you can’t actually be friends - good friends - with more than a handful of people. This sentiment has always made me feel both comforted and concerned. Do I even have enough friends to be considered a handful or would it be more appropriate to say I have a tablespoon-full? I have always had one best friend, one true confidant at a time. After Becky it was Althea, with whom I constructed elaborate fantasies about our future lives that were at once raunchy and perfectly innocent. Althea, still a friend of mine, and I had a falling out in our sophomore year of high school. Something involving a football game and a boy. When I look back on this conflict I can see myself there, proudly wearing my righteous indignation, refusing to acknowledge the way I projected my expectations onto her in a way that gave her no room to be. Althea reminded me only a few years ago that this was, apparently, why I ended our relationship. One strike and she was out. Classic Gina.
We people pleasers would have you believe that we’re all self-sacrificing, that we give and give and never take, but nothing could be further from the truth. A true (and current) friend recently opened my eyes to the reality that people-pleasing is just another form of interpersonal manipulation. When I let resentments build up in a relationship, never addressing them until I explode and destroy it altogether, I am doing the work of a tyrant - seeking to gratify my needs without regard for the consequences. My innate need to please people has not traditionally had, actually, anything to do with the other person. In fact, I would say that the main reason I fail so often at relationships is not that I give too much or lay myself too bare, but that I give nothing of real value at all, considering how quick I am to pull up stakes, leaving my so-called friend in a cloud of dust and confusion.
Here’s what I’m after these days: I want to be honest. I want to make myself vulnerable, I want to ask for my needs to be met, and I want to actually meet the needs of others. I want to engage in an authentic give and take. I want to have a village, or at least a…. council? I don’t know what the corollary civic term is, but you get my drift. I don’t want to end relationships on a dime anymore, when I’ve spent all my time pretending I don’t have feelings or needs and literally just can’t do it anymore so I leave in an emotional suicide bombing. I want to be able to say, in real time, “Hey. That hurt.” Or “Hey, I need you.” And I want to be that kind of friend in return, to be able to apologize sincerely when I hurt others and take the blame when I am wrong. But also? I am scared of this. I am scared of having conflict with someone I love. I am scared to ask for what I want. I am scared to show the real me because I have spent so much time telling myself that no one could ever love her. So, I’m talking myself through it. I’m setting an intention and I’m charting a course. I want to be a good friend. I want to be the kind of friend that I seek.
Want to come over and watch Grease with me?