Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Best Friends Forever

"The best mirror is an old friend." George Herbert

Awesome job curling my hair for school picture day.

Mrs. Greene, my second-grade teacher at Fairway Elementary, is handing out pencils. She walks up and down the narrow aisles, in between the rows of students sitting uncomfortably on blue plastic chairs affixed to their desks by metal rods. I write my name carefully on the line at the top of my worksheet. I am six years old and thinking about my mother's palm-sized compact with the sticky pink lipstick that doubles as blush. I had wanted to carefully dab it on before coming to school that morning, the way I'd seen my mother apply it, but my father, who had dropped me off, said no. Another day, I told myself, I'd be able to convince him. 

Mrs. Greene asks us to find partners and to ask them the questions on the worksheet. My eyes find a girl across the room, in the second desk in the farthest row. She is looking at me too. We are the only two children in class with red hair, which seems an excellent reason for us to become fast friends. She tells me her name is Hadar. "Hadar?" I ask. She tells me she just moved to Florida, from Israel, and that's why she has that name. I tell her I just moved to Florida too, but from upstate New York. We smile at each other. I am glad that we have this recent displacement in common, although I wonder if she has been scared like I have been since moving. At night, I sleep outside of my parents' bedroom door because I am afraid of ghosts and they won't let me into their bed. I don't mention this.
A few weeks later, we go to a water park for my seventh birthday. After that, we spend the night at one or the other's house every other weekend. Hadar and I join Brownies together, and, for Halloween, we paint our faces green, stand side by side with an extra-large bathrobe thrown around us, and tell people we are a two-headed monster.

At least I didn't forget my necktie.

I don't know why shower caps were involved.

Because a Girl Scout vest goes with everything.

By middle school, I have moved. My parents are divorced, and my mom, brother, and I have relocated from our four-bedroom house in the suburbs into a cramped apartment with a kitchen so small that when I open the refrigerator door, it pins my back against the pantry. My mother and I share her waterbed. Hadar's parents are still together. She has two living rooms and a large pink bedroom with heavy furniture and porcelain dolls with rosebud lips that stare down at us from her armoire. In her family room, we plop ourselves down on the plush couch and watch Revenge of the Nerds and Dirty Dancing on cable. 
I have a pair of pajamas just like hers, and we change into them at night. She brags that hers are store-bought, expensive, and adds that mine were made by my grandmother and aren't as nice. The elastic ruffled trim on my shorts suddenly feels too tight, and the floral-patterned top stiff and garish. Hadar's pajamas are made of a thicker material that gently clings to her body. I feel like an imposter, but I hold it in. I can't say anything for fear of breaking into tears in front of her. At that moment, I realize that I have mistaken our red hair and freckled skin and secrets and shared bowls of popcorn for sameness instead of seeing these things for what they are strands of a fragile bond holding us together as our adolescent lives careen down different paths.
Just before ninth grade starts, Hadar gets a short haircut. Her curls fall just below her ears, and the hair at the nape of her neck is as smooth as a cat's. She overhears a boy in her English class saying that she looks like a boy. She confesses to me that she hates her hair and desperately wants to grow it out. In that first semester of high school, I borrow her tight skirts, bodysuits, and babydoll dresses. I wear red lipstick, and by January I have a boyfriend. "You wear too much make-up," she says. I become close with three other girls. We are troublemakers, and Hadar disapproves. I dismiss her comments as envy. 
One afternoon, between classes, I give Hadar a note that says I don't want to be friends with her anymore because she is too shallow and mean. I hear from a girl in my Russian class later that day that Hadar was crying, but I don't care. I'm glad to be free of her.
The spring of my sophomore year, my boyfriend and I break up and my girlfriends all disperse, two of them sent to Canada to live with relatives and one sent to a boarding school. Each morning before class, I pass by Hadar and a large group of her friends. She pretends she doesn't see me. I sit by myself, waiting for the bell to ring.
By senior year, I've moved again, for the fourth time. I'm still nearby, but we're attending separate schools. The bitterness that had crept into our relationship fades as this phase of our lives draws to an end, and we make up. We go to each other's end-of-year parties, Hadar is voted "best dressed" by the class of 1996 before she goes off to college in Tallahassee, and I move to Tampa to attend school. We try to stay in touch but end up getting in a fight about who has been the better friend and stop talking to one another. 
After graduation, she moves back down to South Florida and I stay in Tampa. We both become teachers. Hadar teaches social studies at a middle school, and I teach English at a high school. Hadar is a consummate professional. With her students, she is patient and funny and inspiring. Very soon, I realize that I've returned to high school because I want to reconcile with those years, and I learn that I cannot. Every student outburst and act of aggression in my class becomes an emotional trigger. 
We don't go to each other's weddings, and the regret stemming from not sharing those occasions brings us together again. We go to graduate school at colleges close to where we live. She earns a degree in educational leadership, and I earn a degree in creative writing. We change careers. We have babies. We have jobs that allow us to work from home. We live four hours apart, but once or twice a year we visit each other. It is not enough.
She calls me, crying. "I'm going to lose my job at the end of July." I say all the things you say to someone when they tell you some unlucky news, only I am fully confident that she will quickly find another job and be successful at it. I am right. I call her, crying. My four-year-old is still not 100 percent potty trained, and I feel like a failure as a mother. She assures me that I am a wonderful mom, that other women she knows have children my daughter's age with potty-training issues, and that it will get better. It does get better. We were both close with our respective grandfathers, and, in the same year, we lose them.
When we get together, we leave our children with our husbands and go out for dinner and drinks. We talk mostly about the kids, but, inevitably, the conversation winds itself back to some distant moment in the past when we were foolish. We are hysterical with laughter.
She is the only other person in the world who knows exactly what I'm talking about when I say "raisin princesses" or "Mr. Bubbles." All throughout high school, even when I attempted to end our friendship, I carried in my wallet a list that she had given me for safekeeping of all the people she had ever kissed. After thirty years of friendship, I know her family secrets and her innermost fears.

Obligatory selfie, post-margaritas.

Because I work from home, and because my social life has shifted to revolve mostly around my family, sometimes my world feels small, and, in those moments, I am grateful that I have a best friend, a friend who knew the milky-white girl with the bad perm and gold-rimmed glasses, and who loved her anyway. Who else but a best friend can reflect all of your jealousy and suffering and achievements and failures and show you your pretentiousness or brilliance or immaturity or perseverance? Friends can wound each other deeply, but best friends have something far more rare: the capacity for healing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's On My Kindle This Summer

Since I haven't been running lately (yes, as it turns out, it was a little premature for me to say I was back), I have been doing a lot of reading instead (much easier on the knees).

Here's what I've been reading over the last few months (review to follow).

The chick lit

Rich sickos.
Liked, but could read with eyes closed.

The literary

Sittenfeld take three.
You had me at psychic twins.

Regrettably, a dud.

For bibliophiles

Old meets new.
Sympathetic book snob.

Historical fiction

Became another dud.

I guess I'm feeling a little less tolerant of my reading material these days, or else a little more accepting of my initial judgment of it. I used to make myself finish a book once I started it whether I liked it or not, but, just in these last few months, there were three books that I didn't finish. The first was The Luminaries, a Man Booker Prize winner that, by all accounts, I should've liked. My problem with it was that I couldn't attach myself to any one character, so I found myself losing interest. The second was The One and Only. I'm usually down for an Emily Giffin book, but I just don't like football, and the backdrop for this novel is steeped in Texas football,  including a football-obsessed protagonist/narrator. The third was a Victorian historical novel called The Quick. I was so excited to read this that I downloaded it the very day it was released. It started off well, but it very quickly turned into a book about vampires, which I know serve as cultural commentary and thus are very popular. For me, though, the vampire has overstayed its welcome.

However, the books that have been worth finishing have outnumbered those that have not. In just a few days, I devoured Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a fast-paced read about a mysterious bookstore and a quest by the novel's main character, Clay Jannon, to unlock its secrets. Thematically, the novel tackles the role of technology in our lives and whether or not, in a world of Amazon convenience and Google immediacy, we still care about books.

I read Sisterland and Man of My Dreams just as eagerly. I've been a Curtis Sittenfeld fan since her debut novel, Prep (2005). Although Man of My Dreams is a coming-of-age novel (told in third person) and Sisterland (told in first person) handles domesticity and motherhood, the voices of the main characters in both books are perceptive, self-conscious, blunt, and misguided (translate: lovable).

But Ladder of Years, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler, published back in 1995, was the standout. Also told in third person, this book features an escapist plot and masterful writing. Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is unassuming and calmly, quietly resolute. After years of putting her family's needs before her own, she impulsively abandons them when she wanders off during a beach trip. Delia has been feeling unappreciated and, worse, invisible. When she is noticed by a stranger whom she meets at the supermarket, the acknowledgment proves irresistible and ignites a slow-burning anger toward her family. This anger reaches full bloom as she establishes a new identity in a new town. As she invests more fully in this new life, her former life, as a doctor's wife and as a mother, recedes into the distance. Because of the narrator's voice, such a welcome contrast to my own intensity, and because Tyler's slow-moving prose is understated yet precise, I found the book soothing and its resolution gratifying. If summer offers me the tiniest bit more freedom than the rest of the year, I want to read something that transports me to a different place and allows me to inhabit a different consciousness. Escapism is what summer and beach reads are all about, and this decades-old book of Tyler's delivers.