Jun 19, 2007

Like Friends Should Be

">I love you, you love me, we're best friends like friends should be. Barney sings that every morning. My children watch, and I cringe. Not the usual stuffed-purple-Barney-hating cringe. Its the like friends should be clause that gets to me. Why is a best friend something that friends should be? What's wrong with being good friends? What's wrong with being likeable, having lots of friendly acquaintances, and several solid confidantes? What's the big deal about a best friend? What's the agenda here?

From what I can tell a best friendship is a contract--an agreed upon commitment of sorts, like marriage. Two regular friends agree that they are best friends. Someone must have to take that first chance, like lean in for the first kiss, or say the first I love you. And then, if the other agrees, you have a best friendship.

Until college I'd never had a best friend. I was great at being friends with lots of people. I wasn't bothered by those strange couplings that were the best friends in my high school; I enjoyed my free-agent status. I could be flattered and pleasantly surprised by invitations and attentions, and I seldom felt left out or jealous since I wasn't in an official committed friendship with anyone. Of course the concept of one best friend wasn't new to me, the opportunity had just never presented itself. I knew it was an important bond, but without having ever had the comfort, support, and knowing safety of a best friend, I didn't know what I was missing. I enjoyed dipping in and out of different sorts of intimacies with different sorts of people. I was good at that.

You're my best friend! declared my freshman roommate within a few weeks of moving in to our college dormitory room. I was flattered and surprised. She already had a best friend whom she spoke of all the time. Dianna (two ns) wrote weekly letters and mailed them in best friend-ish decorated envelopes: hearts, squiggles, happy faces, little bluebirds like the kind that circle Cinderella's head. We went to visit Dianna, she came to visit us. I honored their best friendship.

So there I was in my dorm room, seventeen years old, and all of a sudden I was someone's best friend. Someone wanted to hitch their wagon to me. It felt good; could I be that special to someone? What a rush! Dianna's flowery envelopes started to look pitiful, hopeful--so did the pictures of the two of them gripping each other drunkenly. Dianna had been dethroned and I was never sure she had been properly notified. Surely she would have cared, this best friendship being so big and important and strong and powerful.

The college roommate and I were best friends for seven years. People mistook us for one another when we answered the phone, and lumped us together in all situations. We served as seals of approval for each other; like having a your own personal notary public sign off on and/or vouch for every intimacy or transaction. Our public claim to each other must have served as insight into deeper parts of our personalities--(hmmm, she seems kinda crunchy, but her best friend is so stylish,--or the reverse--she seems so materialistic but look her best friend's sooo laid back!). We told each other everything, finished each other's sentences--we were formidable when paired together in games like charades.

And then it was over, almost as quickly as it had happened--taken away as effortlessly as it had been bestowed. Her move away from me was emotional as well as physical; she left the friendship and the city in a hurry, and without satisfactory explanation. A lot of people were shaken up by the break up (think Simon and Garfunkel, think Laverne and Shirley, think Paris and Nicole--); ours had been the ideal friendship in the eyes of others. Everyone became a Monday morning quarterback: maybe she was jealous of you? maybe she thought people only liked her because she was best friends with you? maybe some psychiatrist told her she was too dependent on you?

No one knew what happened, and no one knows to this day. Eventually, mutual friends stopped pressuring her for reasons. I could write a novel about the wheres and the whys and the hows of the end of our friendship, but in a nutshell, that was that.

There was some relief. She was a social worker who instigated long monotonous TALKS in order to smooth over small jealousies. I could certainly live without those. But there was also devastation. How could the person who knew me so well want to stop knowing me at all? Weren't best friends supposed to stick together no matter what? I felt insignificant.

I've gotten married, had children, and made many new friends since then and there's still a part of me that remains vulnerable and wounded when it comes to the subject of best friends.

No man is alone (or is it poor?) who has friends, right? Isn't that the moral of Its a Wonderful Life? That's the kind of moral I found myself bumping into all the time back when the break-up was still fresh. Curiously, it still seems to be the pot of gold at the end of every moral rainbow. I know now that my one best friend wasn't the healthiest introduction to what a best friend could be (it occurs to me that she was sort of a 'you're my best friend' junkie). But our connection was real. And it's part of my story now. There hasn't been anyone else.

From what I can tell best friends come easily to young children and a lucky few are able to preserve that best friendship forever. The first days of Elementary School, Middle School, High School and College all seem to be good times to claim a new best friend. People don't tend to come to those phases of life saddled with other responsibilities, and a great sense of importance and meaning permeates everything in these typically cloistered academic environments. But what's a twenty-five year old to do to find a best friend? How about a thirty year old? Do I still have a chance at finding a best friend at forty? Do I want one? (Barney thinks I should have one)

I picture a nursing-home-widows, bridge-partner kind of best-friendship as a possibility for my final years. But what about the thirty years between now and then? What happens if you don't have a best friend because your all-consuming best friend just up and left you? What if there was no obvious friend to be a bridesmaid so you just finagled something tasteful with your sister and sister-in-law-to-be and walked, best-friendless, up the aisle. What then?

Sure there's the husband as best friend idea, but come on. My sweet husband doesn't want to hear the fifteen minute emotional version of the two second stubbed-toe story. He doesn't enjoy looking for deeper meaning in the words of sales clerks and co-workers. He can't fill in the gaps of a hilarious remember-when story by naming what earrings, whose shirt, and which shorts I was wearing. My husband's a good friend. We do a great job of balancing roles, kids, ideas, conversations, and we also know when to just let things go. But if we stayed up all night sharing notes with the fervor and fever of best friends no one would be paying the bills.

Of course I have lots of friends. Women I adore and feel close to. Intellectually, I know it doesn't matter that I don't have one best friend, but sometimes I wish the world would just shut up about how great it is (that means you too, Oprah).

Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold! Give me a break. Why doesn't anyone talk about the pain of a long friendship ending? Am I really alone in this experience? Why did I have to feel freakishly like I had gone through a divorce in a world that doesn't understand because it's so busy worshipping the almighty best-friend? I already feel like enough of a loser without a best friend. Am I really supposed to be feeling this way?

My son has already had a best friend come and go--he seems fine with it but I watch from the sidelines holding my breath. At four, he seems to be able to handle hearing 'you're not my friend anymore'. He shrugs and moves on. I feel the pain he doesn't.

And I cringe every time my daughter's friend's babysitter chides the two of them for squabbling. 'You're best friends!' she shouts, repeatedly handing the three year olds this potent phrase. During a recent tug-of-war over some small toy, the pal screamed 'you're not my best friend anymore!' Egad. It's the best friend version of the 'maybe they'll get married when they grow up,' thing heard commonly by ecstatic parents as they look on while two infants of different sexes tumble around together. And it's just as annoying.

Given my history with the whole best friend thing, it's understandable that I worry about the trouble this may cause down the road. But I remind myself that my kids might be ok in the long run because they'll get to experience friend-difficulties when they're young--before these best friends get all tangled up in emerging adult identities. Maybe I wouldn't have been so burned if I'd learned the painful lessons as a kid on a playground and not when I was in my nervous twenties in a big city wondering what kind of impact I might have on the world and learning that, in truth, I wasn't even having a positive impact on the person who knew me best.

So at this point it looks like there will be no BFF to deliver a tearful and knowing eulogy for me. There won't be that one unrelated 'aunt' who can see, in my children, all that she loved about me at that age, and embarrass me in front of them. I'm told that time heals all wounds, but fifteen years after being dumped, I'm still baffled by the whole best friend gig. I can't protect my children from being hurt by friendships, and it looks as though I won't be able to protect myself from reliving my own loss and confusion as I send them out into the dangerous world of friend-making and friend-keeping. Sadly, the only advice I could give them--to run the other direction from anyone promising a best friendship--seems futile in this la-la land of buddy movies, happy endings, and sappy lies like 'lovers come and go but friendship lasts 4 ever!' Maybe in the meantime, I should just turn off Barney.


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Caverta said...

I think that it is a nice story and the concept of best friend is quite tricky because it is a word with a deep meaning that can be easily misunderstood by anyone.