Live Through This

Heavenly Creatures

How I found my best friend.

Illustration by Cynthia

It took me a long time to recognize what friendship with another girl was all about. But when I realized what it was, and what it meant, it changed the way I saw the world. It happened, I think, the night I got my tattoo.

I was downtown with my best friend, drinking crappy margaritas. They tasted like candy-flavored antifreeze. But they were three dollars, and that was what I could spend. I didn’t have a job at the time, and I was having a really hard time getting one. I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen if I didn’t figure things out soon. I was terrified.

My friend told me, “You’re free now.” She said I could do anything I wanted. For example, I could get a tattoo.

A TATTOO! That was totally it, dude. I would totally get a tattoo. That would fix everything. (It did not. Do not do this.) So we wound up at this super-sleazy parlor, the kind that only ever gives cheap, bad tattoos to impulsive young people. And I picked out what I wanted: the word hope on my arm. It wasn’t smart or original or cool. But it seemed like a good tattoo for a frightened person. Every time I looked down at my arm, I would receive instructions on what to do.

And yet when it was time for me to sit down in the chair, I got really nervous. This place was sleazy. The needle was going to hurt. This was permanent. I couldn’t make a decision like this on the spur of the moment. My friend looked at me and said I was freaking out for no reason, and she was going to do something that would ensure I could not back out.

So she sat down in the chair in front of me, and she got the same tattoo. I watched her. The whole time, she reminded me how unforgivable it would be to wimp out now. And I believed her, so when it was time for me to sit down in the chair, I was able to do it. And it really did hurt less than I expected. And there it was. My friend and I had the word “hope” on our forearms, and for the rest of our lives, no matter what happened, we would have some part of us that was the same.

If I have to describe friendship, this is the image that comes to mind. Me, standing there, scared out of my mind, scared of pain and commitment and change, facing a future I did not know how to process. And this girl stood there beside me and said, “You can’t back out.” And she did it with me, for me, just to show me that even if there was pain, it wasn’t that bad; nI could get through it, and I didn’t have to do it alone.

I have spent most of my life being really bad at friendships, especially with other girls. That’s a really crappy thing for a feminist to admit, but it’s true. All too often, friendships between girls can turn really toxic, because of an assumed sense of competition. A seemingly genuine relationship can really rapidly become something less than true or caring. Often, friends spend time together, casing each other out, and quietly (or not so quietly) finding ways to judge each other or tear each other down. And to be honest, in a truly bad friendship, that role can change hands from day to day. It has in my worst friendships.

In middle school, my “best friend” was a popular girl who couldn’t be seen with me when other people were around. She lived across the street, and would throw birthday parties to which I was not invited. I’d sit on my lawn and watch her other friends having fun. Later, in high school, I figured out that it was probably a good idea to spend time with people who didn’t get the sudden impulse to hide you in a car trunk, and I got my first real best friend. But it turned out there were worse things than being hidden. One day, she would be the pretty, glamorous one with all the dates and attention, and I would be her lumpy sidekick who just didn’t know how to get anyone to like her, ha ha. The next day, I would be the smart, feminist one who wanted her to know that she was really not respecting herself and no wonder she wasn’t doing very well in school, ha ha. It looked like we loved each other, and we even thought we loved each other, but it was warfare. There was no way for both of us to be who we were, because someone always had to be better.

I met my current best friend through professional circumstances. We were different in every way: beliefs, politics, life goals, pop culture tastes, and basic personality. She was religious; I wasn’t. She read Ayn Rand; I did…not. She liked silly pop music; I was heavily in denial about liking silly pop music. We had nothing in common, except for the fact that neither of us was the type to let a bad situation go unconfronted. So we had a months-long bickering match, believing ourselves to be infuriated by every single thing about each other while mutual friends looked on in amusement and said things like (I swear): “I’ve seen this movie, and I think it ends with you two getting married.” Then I had a bad day, and we went out, and we ended up talking for hours about dating, and our high school years, and what we actually wanted to do with our lives—and BOOM. There we were. We were nothing like each other. But that didn’t mean we had nothing to say to each other.

Somehow, after several friendships that were about barely disguised competition, meeting my polar opposite was the best possible lesson. At a certain point, it simply became apparent that we could tear each other down and hurt each other, or we could actually start appreciating our differences.

And this is the point of the world you create with your best friends. There’s always a web of shared references, shared tastes, shared history. But if you’re lucky, what you and your friend have is not just a world of your own, but a way to disconnect from the demands and crappiness of the world at large. The need for status is hard-wired into how people relate to one another: we’re taught that it’s not enough to be cool or smart, that true power relies on convincing the world that other people are less cool or less smart than you are. And that’s especially true among women. But if you’re lucky, with your closest friends, you can reach a place that’s beyond hierarchy, a place where difference is not only OK but essential. A place where you can look at someone who’s nothing like you, and decide that they’re wonderful.

When I think about love, I think about that night with my friend. I’ve experienced romantic love. And I have a mother who loves me more than I can say. But if I have to come up with one sentence that defines love, it’s just this: I know who you are.

After we got tattoos, we went back to my friend’s place to crash. We talked for a while in the dark while we were passing out on our respective couches. I was telling her that more people were reading my writing these days, and it was tough. It shouldn’t have been, because a lot of people craved that, but I really didn’t. I was trying so hard to figure my life out, and there was just so much to resolve, and I didn’t want people looking to me for answers when I didn’t even know what to do. I was scared that I was going to lose myself in all the attention from readers, that I would forget how much I didn’t know. I would forget who I was.

“You’re not going to forget,” my friend said. “I know who you are.” And I believed that she did. She’d watched me screw up. She’d heard everything I had to say, no matter how weird or painful it was. She’d been in fights with me, and she’d been through disasters with me, and she had seen every part of myself that I didn’t like. And she’d still gone under a needle for me just to give me courage. Call me sentimental, but that’s what it means, to me, to love somebody. Not a feeling, not a transaction, not a demand, not an obligation. Just a voice, in the dark, saying: I know who you are. I knew her, too. She was my best friend. ♦

28 Comments

  • Adrienne July 12th, 2012 11:12 PM

    Wow. Great article. My best friend is my twin sister. We have this super close bond, and have shared a room with each other for our whole life. We can tell each other everything and not be afraid to be judged or gossipped about. However, we do get into stupid fights and arguments (hey we’re sisters), but I don’t think anything will ruin our relationship. :)))

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Olivia July 12th, 2012 11:17 PM

    man, so touching <3

  • Susann July 12th, 2012 11:25 PM

    This is a great article! Friendship is such a delicate topic – as well as getting tattoos (which I thought of a lot lately), so it was really interesting to me!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • Mayabett July 12th, 2012 11:28 PM

    This is the most endearing thing I’ve read in a very long time. Beautiful piece.

    Maya

  • Tyknos93 July 12th, 2012 11:34 PM

    So sweet. You and your best friend sound awesome!
    I hope I’m able to keep the few friends I have now, well into adulthood. College was trying, but I think it helped us appreciate each other even more.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • Pollyana July 12th, 2012 11:35 PM

    Why ”was” and not ”is”?

    • junebug July 13th, 2012 12:46 AM

      I was wondering that too! I hope they’re still best friends

    • Aurora July 13th, 2012 10:28 AM

      Its just gramatically correct, because the rest of the story was in the past tense.

  • Erykaneisha July 12th, 2012 11:44 PM

    This is really nice. And I do agree that most friendships are indeed sadly about competition.
    I wish I had a best friend. Not necessarily someone who is like me, but someone who will “get me” & accept me for every bit that I am. But I guess I have to find that within myself first.

  • lylsoy July 13th, 2012 12:01 AM

    So beautiful… I wish I had a best friend!
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

  • emile July 13th, 2012 12:35 AM

    wonderful read. even though i love my best friend to pieces, i wish i could get along with girls as well as i get along with him. i seem to have the opposite problem – the more similar a girl is to me, the more venomous we both get. like each of us is fighting for rights to be a better version of the other. i’m working on it, though! i keep reminding myself the only person i should rightfully compare myself to is me, at my best.

    thanks for sharing this with us, Sady. :)))

  • fairy_grrrl July 13th, 2012 2:08 AM

    I have so many problems with making friends and I’ve always wanted a best friend but this made me really happy because I guess seeing someone else do something impulsive and going down with them is a true test of friendship and one that I should probably remember.

  • Maddymoo July 13th, 2012 2:41 AM

    Good God this article really struck a chord with me.
    Beautifully written! x

  • AnguaMarten July 13th, 2012 4:57 AM

    see, i kinda got all that competitive toxic friendship stuff over in elementary school. my best friend was someone who shared many of my interests and talents–art, school, soccer, etc. i was always wildly jealous of her because i’d convinced myself she was just better than me in every way. she was skinnier, more “popular”, and more liked by boys than i (let me remind you, this was fifth grade). that was the only time i was part of a clique, and god it sucked. i always felt left out and was always highly competitive with everyone. i mean, the clique was made up of my best friend, this girl who’d bullied me a few years before, and this other girl who my best friend seemed to hate. it sucked. it all sucked. and one day i sent my best friend a really angry email about how hurt i felt by the way she’d been treating me, and then she called me at midnight one night crying and i got my dad to drive me to her house and we talked and talked and talked and worked everything out. and then we went to different middle schools, and all of our problems, like, evaporated. we have a much better, healthier friendship now that we’re no longer in competition. we’ve both changed enough that we’re now completely different people who want different things–she’s popular, i’m one of the weird kids. she does music, theater, and national history day, and i’m into sports, art, and writing. i’ve finally realized that there are things she does better than i do, and there are things i do better than she does, and that’s all fine.

    all of which cleared the air for me to have other problems with friends!

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini July 13th, 2012 5:34 AM

    Ah, best friends… Never had one of those.

  • Marilia July 13th, 2012 9:24 AM

    That’s so cute, I can totally relate to it. When I was younger I used to have a best friend who would compete with me all the time, but my best friend now is just amazing! We’re always giving each other support.

  • Katherine July 13th, 2012 10:44 AM

    This sounds exactly like my best friend. I’ve said and done crazy, stupid, (unintentionally) mean things, and somehow she still likes me. I trust her above everyone else and I’m so lucky to have her as my best friend.

  • MinaM8 July 13th, 2012 11:56 AM

    This article was amazing! I can totally relate

  • zeeby July 13th, 2012 1:01 PM

    This is 100% my best friend and I. We have seen the best and worst of one another, we have fought and come together, and she is the person I love most, above and beyond anyone else in my life. She’s my whole world.

  • Christen July 13th, 2012 2:43 PM

    Weirdly, I have been working on an essay all week (and was planning on submitting it here) about how to deal when you realize one of your friendships has become toxic. When I was younger and dealing with getting dumped by friends (and then bullied by them), or realizing a friend was mad at me but not knowing why, let alone what I was supposed to do to fix it, a lot of the adults in my life seemed kind of dismissive: Kids can be so cruel! Teenagers are moody, especially teenage girls, who are catty and IMPOSSIBLE. College students are dealing with a lot of stress and transition, and are often depressed! The underlying message is that if you’re young, you can’t even EXPECT to have healthy friendships, so…sorry!

    That is the exact sort of thing adults tell younger people when they are trying to feel good about ourselves, so that hopefully you won’t notice we’re making it up as we go along. I am 31 now, and this I’m-awesome-and-you’re-a-mess-let-me-HELP-you/I’m-so-lucky-someone-as-cool-as-you-would-hang-around-with-dorky-old-me thing can continue well, well after the age when we are supposed to have everything figured out. (I used to think this would be 25, and then I got the deadline extended to 30, and now I’m shooting for 40, SO.) The flip side is that you can have beautiful, mutually respectful friendships at any age.

  • firstcomestherain July 13th, 2012 4:56 PM

    Fantastic article! My best friend and I have been through so much for the little time we’ve known each other. We’ve lost friends together, and stood up for eachother. This is totally us, I’ve said and done some stupid things and she sticks with me through thick and thin and I do the same for her.

  • sn0wwhite July 13th, 2012 6:51 PM

    This is the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve read in a long time. She sums up all of my thoughts towards friendship and that kind of love.
    I’m so very blessed to have this sort of relationship with someone. Someone who knows the real me and is accepting of all the good, bad, and ugly.

  • Louiseincognito July 14th, 2012 9:27 AM

    This is just what I needed to read. Thanks for helping me realize that though me and my current best friend have garned different likings and basically we’ve grown apart, this is no reason for our friendship to end. This Sounds extremely stupid and cliche: but thanks a trillion.

  • lorobird July 14th, 2012 11:56 AM

    This was awesome. Sady you are great, and I read Tiger Beatdown all the time, just saying.

  • Sasha C D July 14th, 2012 9:54 PM

    Heavenly Creatures? I HAVE seen that movie, and (spoilers!) it ends with you clubbing your mother’s head in with a rock… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5NErIi8igI

    :-p

  • violetmay July 17th, 2012 4:02 PM

    wow…this legit made me cry…beautiful.

  • lostandrunning August 10th, 2012 6:09 AM

    “I know who you are.” What a fantastic line! Brilliant article!