Ashley* and I were kindred spirits brought together by a lack of lunch table space. At the start of junior year, she recognized me as “that girl from math!” and sat next to me in the cafeteria. It was painted vomit-yellow with maroon trim, and our table always had pieces of lettuce stuck at the outer edges and mayonnaise (at least, I hoped it was mayonnaise) on the long, bench-style seats. In that perfectly romantic setting, everyone saw who was dating whom and where they were in their relationship: New couples sat together on the benches so tightly, it was as if they were on the verge of morphing into a hybrid version of their two selves. That’s the way I sat with Ashley.
Ashley and I laughed at all the same jokes, which often came from observing and imitating the mannerisms of the people all around us—the people outside of our private world/cafeteria table. Once, I pulled the face my mom made when I did something wrong, curling my lips around my mouth, and we fell out laughing as we realized that our mothers looked the exact same way when they were mad at us. When I cut class, she texted me pictures of her face scrunched up like our moms’. Underneath, they said, “get ur ass to school.”
Most days started with her good-morning texts, too: “Bitch, wake up!” If I didn’t show up, she was quick to angry-mom me in her jokey way: The tone wasn’t, “Are you sick? What’s the matter?” but, “Why you missing school?” I thought she was really funny in exactly the way I appreciated most. We picked up each other’s lingo, as you do with people you get really close to: Ashley always said, “Hey, girl!” in a Valley girl voice, and I began saying it all the time in my own “around the way” girl inflection—which Ashley picked up in turn. Three months in, Ashley and I shared everything and anything with each other. It felt like we were building a blanket fort of friendship and trust. I told her small, but precious, tidbits of information, like who I had crushes on and details about my family life. I’m a very private person, so this was a big deal.
I wasn’t the only person who liked Ashley, and for good reason. People naturally gravitated toward her. She prided herself on remembering everything you’d ever told her about yourself. She remembered minute details about what you had for dinner weeks ago and make it the basis of a new conversation: “You’d never guess what I ate last night! Steak—you like yours medium, right? I prefer well-done.” This made her incredibly well-liked at school. I heard her name called from the other side of the hallway at least daily as she paused and turned slightly to see her admirer racing down the hallway. I loved that. I deeply envied that! I mean, people usually called my name down the hall with frustration in their voice because I had forgot to return their answers to the math worksheet.
I wanted to pick up Ashley’s cool-girl personality, so when she invited me to hang out with the rest of her social circle, I wasn’t averse, though I didn’t really like them. We formed semicircles in the courtyard or hallways as her friends chatted about the gossip of the day or went in on someone’s outfit. The bulk of my contributions were basic greetings—the semicircle and I knew that our “hellos” and “byes” were pleasantries exchanged as favors to Ashley. When she wasn’t around, people constantly asked me about her whereabouts, as if I had a GPS that gave me the coordinates of where she was. She was the party-starter…and I was “Ashley’s friend.”
Socializing was the reason Ashley woke up in the morning. She filled me in on gossip and was annoyed when I didn’t find it interesting (or, sometimes, know who she was talking about), so she tried to change this dissimilar part of us. She tried pointing out which people I “should” approach and gave me tidbits of advice like, “Just walk up to the popular people and talk to them. Ask their names. Put yourself out there.” The problem with being her pupil was that it required caring about the subject at hand, which I didn’t. I thought being social would be more fun than it was, and I expressed that openly. She scolded me with attitude-laden remarks like, “You ALWAYS wanna go home.” (This was true!) I laughed it off at the time—it wasn’t a huge deal because we were still in our honeymoon period, but it gradually felt like she couldn’t just take me as I was.
That tear in the blanket fort of trust got bigger and turned into a hole in the foundation of our friendship, but we were still attached at the hip. Ashley tried to convince me that being together all the time, like how she often just so happened to be in front of my house, was something real friends did. There was no, “My house is your house,” discussion—she assumed she was welcome in my private life. I’d get a text saying, “I’m by your house,” look out the window, and see her on my steps. It made me feel uneasy and intruded upon, so I told her, “I’m not coming down. I’m tired,” or ignored her. She didn’t take the hint—once, afterwards, we had an entire argument about whether or not she could come upstairs.
If I told a story about how one of my co-workers was cute, she immediately had to meet and know every single one of the people at my job, even though I told her not to come see me while I was working. She said, “Well, I’m going to apply for work there, and you can’t stop me,” with the rationale that that way, we’d share that aspect of each other’s lives, too. Her interest in my job seemed to die down after I completely stopped mentioning work altogether, thank goodness. The whole debacle made me not want to talk about my life with her at all. If I did, she’d have to impose herself into my stories somehow, and I wanted them to be my own. I don’t think this was conscious on her part, or that she did it to hurt me, but it really did. It was also very annoying.
I pride myself on being able to throw something casual together to get through the school day. If I had the opportunity, I would much prefer to wear a uniform. So when Ashley suggested dressing alike a few times, I entertained the idea to spare her feelings, but I wasn’t down. Coming to school and getting my pants cuffed, my hair retouched, or my shirt tucked in—just like hers!—was too much. Even though I have a lackluster attitude about my clothes, they reflect who I am! They’re comfy—and they’re MINE. Does she have to control what I wear, too? I thought. Is anything sacred? I felt like I was living in my own version of Single White Female—or Single Black Female, in our case. I allowed Ashley her own identity, and that’s all I wanted back.
Where, once, I had been so was enamored with seeing myself within someone else—and that person being enamored with everything in me—now I resented Ashley for being domineering. I was unable to give her all the attention she wanted and tuned her out when she spoke. Every time we talked, if I even looked away for a second or I checked to see if my phone had rung, she got upset, sucking her teeth, pouting, and and whining, “Are you listening?!”
I let on more and more that I found her obsession with popularity silly. When she was doing her rounds in the hallway, I often cut her red carpet appearances short, saying that she was fake and taking her aside, saying, “You don’t have to be a socialite anymore—it’s time to wrap this up!” She teased me back: “You don’t like anybody.” It stung, but I deserved it. I had been written off as a people-hater, when I felt “high school hater” and “hater of stifling learning institutions” was more apt. That’s what I got for needling her about being the Miss America of the hallways—that stinging sensation may have been similar to the comments I made when I was “just kidding.” But my frustrations with the friendship had mounted too high to worry that I was being rude. It wasn’t right, but I wasn’t setting out to be malicious; I was just setting out to be heard.
I felt guilty. I wondered if I wasn’t a real friend, as Ashley had put it. Was I the problem? Was I unable to accept someone who truly valued every word that came out of my mouth? But I was losing my grip on my own tastes and personality. I felt like an extension of someone else, and it just wasn’t my style. I was used to friendship as a relationship between two whole, complete people who complement each other, and, even more than that, I value being my own best friend. Being known solely as “Ashley’s friend,” instead of the interesting individual I am on my own killed me.
Dropping hints to this end with unanswered texts and coded, mocking comments wasn’t communicating my point to Ashley, though. How was she supposed to know how I felt if I wasn’t upfront with her about it? She was being a loving, bubbly, and super involved friend, but I hadn’t set proper boundaries, which took “super involved” to new heights. My inability to be clear also stems from the same people-pleasing instinct that I resented her for—another thing we have in common.
Toward the end of our junior year, I brought all this up with Ashley directly. It was just us in an empty hallway, with no scenes to be made and no room for distraction. Just us, the way we started out, no semicircles. I started by saying, “I have to tell you something,” and spilled out how I felt about lacking an identity and feeling closed-in…and it went surprisingly smoothly! I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. We decided to work together to create better boundaries. We agreed that if I felt in any way that she was being overbearing, then I had to tell her, and she’d ease up. That also meant I have to be clear and concise about how I feel, so it’s helpful for her, too.
I’ve sorted out that spending every waking moment near a person isn’t what works for me, but neither is “always going home.” I need to balance trips to the mall with time to be alone in my room, masterminding world domination. Being a “real friend” doesn’t have to mean being exactly alike, exactly all of the time—sometimes, you need a little more space for yourself. Now, I remind Ashley about our contract when she’s being overbearing and she says, “You need your space right now, huh?” and leaves it at that. That she’s so amazingly receptive to that criticism makes all the difference in the world: I still care for Ashley deeply, and she always makes a point of telling me how much she loves me. It’s just different now—in a good way. ♦
* Not her real name.