Monday, November 21, 2016

Make New Friends But Keep The Old

She always wrote me the coolest letters. (Also, I like to think that "Shanno" was just her sense of humor rather than a mistake.)

"She is a friend to my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, ya know, when you got a woman who's a friend to your mind." — Toni Morrison, Beloved

Every day after school, I go to Robin's house. I live on West Daffodil Lane, and she lives on East Daffodil Lane. We walk there from the bus stop around the corner.

Her house always smells like fish from dinner the night before, you have to take your shoes off by the door, and the first thing she does is say hello to her little black dog, Cookie, who has to live on the porch. Then I grab a handful of shortbread-like cookies that she bought from an international grocery store. She plays Enigma, or Deep Forest, or Georgian Chants, loud, and we retreat to her bedroom where we either sprawl out on her bed or the floor and close our eyes, relaxing (me imagining an elaborate candelabra with melting wax in a dark room or a soaring cathedral, doing my best to suspend the angst I carry with me everywhere and ignore the light behind my eyes).

Her dad never turns on the air-conditioning, so it is almost always hot, but after a time, I ask if I can try on some of her clothes, and maybe borrow something for school the next day. An eggplant-colored peasant blouse is my favorite. Robin's mother is dead, and has been for many years. Cancer. As far as I can tell, Robin's wardrobe is made up entirely of her dead mother's clothes. Now that Robin is sixteen, everything fits like a glove. She wears micro mini skirts with wool turtlenecks and corduroy bell bottoms paired with vests and knee-high suede boots. Her clothes are impractical because we live in South Florida, in an everlasting summer. Her mother lived in Taiwan when she wore those clothes, in a place where, I imagine though I have never asked, it must have been much cooler. 

If anyone can pull it off, though, it is Robin. Robin's hair is long and black and, even uncombed, drapes seductively to her waist. Robin, who effortlessly floats through social strata while I struggle to find my place. The only makeup she wears to school is red lipstick, which I am always in awe of, because I frantically reapply my makeup throughout the school day. Aside from her interest in New Age music, she also listens to Cowboy Junkies and The Pixies and The Cure. She introduced me to Blue Velvet, The English Patient, and Orlando (Tilda Swinton!), films which I still consider some of my all-time favorites. 

She spent a semester last school year in Germany as an exchange student, an arrangement she planned all on her own, since her dad was always at work, at the laundromat he owned. So she now speaks three languages fluently: Mandarin, English, and German. She is an artist, too, experimenting with charcoal and watercolors and oils. When she shows her artwork to me, I know immediately that I like them love them, in fact — but I don't always know what they are  or how to describe why I like them, so in the interest of self-preservation, I keep my mouth shut.

From the beginning, our friendship has been easy. Had we not lived down the street from one another and gone to the same school, maybe we never would have been friends. Though it's hard to think that there was nothing more at work in bringing us together than proximity. But we are friends, and our friendship has a confessional nature, like all of my friendships do at that age, and we trust one another implicitly. For as world-wise as Robin is, it was me who taught her how to ride a bike when she was fourteen, and I also had to break the news to her about how babies come out of a mother's body. (One day Robin casually mentioned that it must hurt when a baby comes out of a mother's butt, and I was shocked when I realized she wasn't joking.)

The only time I ever remember really getting mad at Robin was when we'd sit by the canal in our neighborhood and I'd complain about my mother, telling her about our latest argument. Once I'd uttered my last exasperated sigh, Robin fixed me with a cold stare. My first instinct was irritation. Why couldn't she just side with me the way my other friends would have? And then I remembered she didn't have a mother, and I hated myself.

After high school, Robin went off to art school somewhere near Berkeley, California, and wrote to me about exotic experiences I couldn't imagine for myself, like how she'd met an older boy and how they'd had tantric sex in a treehouse. She also started nude modeling for her fellow art students to make some extra money.

I, on the other hand, stayed in Florida for school, a college just hours away from where we grew up. I spent my weekends teetering from one frat party to another in borrowed high heels.

Eventually we lost touch completely. Last I heard she was living in Beijing, attending grad school and teaching English. 


Now I am thirty-eight (old enough to have to think about it for a second). I have two children. These two children have play dates, which is how I've been fortunate enough to make some new friends. Perhaps because I've had friends like Robin, and also because I place such value on an examined life, I reflexively talk about very personal things, even with new acquaintances. I've had to learn restraint. I tell myself not everyone knows how to sift through all that honesty, or cares to. I've had to remind myself that, like me, most other women my age are nestled securely in their lives and already have all the intimacy they need, satisfied by relationships with their husbands and children and extended family and childhood friends.

Perhaps it is for the best. In high school, friendships are everything, even taking precedence over academics. Without friends you risk heartbreaking isolation. But as an adult, there is little if anything at stake. By now, many of us have built a career and family and made peace with who we are. It is natural at this stage in life to exist in a more fragmented way— to wear the mask that the situation or relationship calls for. It is a function of maturation, in terms of age and the expectations that come from adulthood.

Still, I miss Robin. She taught me that friendships can be an opportunity for personal growth. That there is nothing more valuable than being seen and accepted for who you are; than finding a lasting connection. So even though I appreciate all my friendships, in all their permutations, and even though I am more content than I have ever been, I will not close the door to riskier friendships, those that demand vulnerability, that expose hardship — for hardship, if you've done the work, breeds insight. I will remain open to the possibility that there might be another person out there, someone who I know in my gut, on a cellular level, is my kind of Robin.

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