My high school, in a tony neighborhood in New York City, was the opposite of the stereotypical American high school as-seen-on-television. We had no football team, the artsy weirdos were the most popular kids in the school, and there were no proper cliques to speak of. When I think of cliques now, my main reference point is the Plastics, and Regina George leading her minions with a carefully dictated set of rules. We didn’t have that. Instead, our senior year, we had NBLR vs. SHEL.
NBLR was what their matching necklaces read: it stood for Nora, Becky, Lizzie, and Rachael, who were all best friends. They were blondes of various shades, with weekend houses in the Hamptons or thereabouts—preppy and smart, and mostly nice, too. I was friendly with NBLR because we were all on the yearbook staff together, and also because I was friends with most people I came across, as I am still. They didn’t seem like a gang, but they did seem like a unit—lunching together on the stoop across the street from our school, and spending weekends at one another’s houses. I thought their matching necklaces were sort of sweet and sort of dorky.
One of my closest friends, Sophie, was obsessed with NBLR. Together, we watched the movie Varsity Blues and bemoaned our lack of a cheerleading squad, our lack of a real prom, our lack of a “real high school experience.” I remember her asking one of the NBLRs if Sophie could join, telling them that it would be so easy to add an S—they could be SNBLR, or NBLRS, and it could only improve the moniker. They weren’t buying it. I think they thought she was teasing them.
So we made our own club, SHEL: Sophie, Hannah, Emma, and Lydia. At the time, I thought that we—SHEL, the makeshift gang—were gently mocking NBLR for being so square. After all, who needed an official name and a piece of jewelry as proof of friendship? I was far too self-conscious to ever admit that I wanted such public promises. As SHEL, we would hang out at Sophie’s house, or at mine, and smoke weed, or drink wine we’d stolen from our parents. We were a loose group at best, though Sophie was certainly at the center, having been closer with each of us at various points throughout high school. NBLR had an attached boy group, as did we, though theirs was much more likely to pay for dinner, and ours was more likely to eat all the food in your kitchen and then not invite you to beatbox in the garden.
I have no idea what—if anything—NBLR thought of us. In my imagination, they thought we were weird, maybe even cool, the way that Winona Ryder is weird and cool, but will never really be the homecoming queen. (We didn’t have one of those—if we did, it might have sorted some things out, as a kind of horrible, public litmus test of popularity.) SHEL was a mess, a jumble of confused feelings, all of us stinking of nervous cigarettes and giddy from shared Adderall, and NBLR (I imagined) were running around their pools in bikinis, comfortable and confident, hopped up on nothing but good nutrition and sunshine.
Though any real rivalry was fabricated (perhaps SHEL had seen The Warriors too many times, and were eager to have a rumble complete with switchblades and baseball bats, no matter how neglible the cause), there was an undercurrent of truth to the whole affair. We were simultaneously envious and judgmental. The NBLRs had it together: they were married, when we were swinging singles; they were a flock, when we were the birds who forgot which way we were supposed to fly; they had found each other, and we were all still groping around in the dark.
SHEL never made it to the necklace stage. We took one photo, in order, Sophie Hannah Emma Lydia, but that was about it. I remain friends with Sophie, and am Facebook friends with Hannah, who gets more beautiful with every passing year, and makes jewelry out of cassette tapes. I ran into Lydia a couple of years ago when I was visiting San Francisco. She was working at an outdoor concert in a park, confused by my appearance. We hugged, and I excitedly gave her all of my contact information, only to never hear from her again.
I asked Sophie recently what it was about NBLR that really got her, and she said that she loved that they “made friendship into this promise—this bond—and then they showed that promise and dedication by wearing those necklaces. It was the friendship version of wearing a letterman jacket, so that everyone knew whose girl you were. Although I didn’t always know who my friends were in high school, I knew who theirs were.”
Now that we are 13 years out of high school, I’m sure that not all four of the NBLRs are still as close as they once were. At the time, I thought we were the cool ones, the BUST to their Town & Country. Now, when Sophie and I are in the same city, and get to see each other in person, or even just when we talk on the phone, I realize that those NBLRs were onto something. They had something cooler than cool, which was love, and devotion. The best news of all is that it doesn’t have to come in big groups—sometimes it comes in groups of two. ♦