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. ♦