Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best friends

Friendship, it strikes me, is a very odd thing. I suppose I had better take the hint, and leave Melissa alone. She has not responded to a list of dates I gave her for potential meetings (just like Lucia and Mr. Somerset Maugham) and now, I would imagine, she is suffering her famous and socially paralyzing "guilt." Far be it from me to add to it. How odd to think that this could be the end of contact between us.

Of course I am not surprised that after twenty-five years, old school chums should have little in common, but I am always perplexed as to what makes friendships work. We are very much alike, she and I. Maybe that's a problem.

I went out Friday night with Nina, and Debbi and Debi, and Maria, who is not quite the cipher in the group that I am. It's a little like watching a live sitcom for four hours. They just talk and talk. I almost literally cannot get a word in edgewise. They are beginning to repeat stories of colonoscopies and mammograms, and Debbi must have forgotten that she has already told us of the two hundred and fourteen cortisone injections to her head, to combat the stress-induced hair loss she suffered when her eldest was preparing to go away to school. We got that tale again. Five bald spots, each the size of a dime, four thousand hairs per spot, the doctor said. When I stayed quiet long enough, they said "poor Nancy" in that tone reserved for young people bored by their ill elders. But I am their contemporary.

And they still eagerly share stories about arguing with their teen daughters over clothing choices and hairstyles, and about following their teen daughters' friends' Facebook pages and putative sex lives. Debi told of marching to the town hall to ask what she could do to help while the town was flooding. The men filling sandbags were not impressed with her, so she went to rescue her aunt instead. Then she made her daughters go fill sandbags the next day. Last time we got together, she had stories of badgering some authority figure in a bank to compel him to offer her a discount rate that had expired but that she wanted anyway. "I beat them at their own game," she said, "I just kept on asking to see a higher manager." And her beautiful bell-like laugh rang out, then, too. "I got through three levels of authority."

It seems that people who are capable of holding the floor and talking endlessly are also the ones most capable of friendships. And yet that personality type would seem to be the one not interested in people, and therefore unfriendly. The four of them are planning, again, to go to Nina's condo in Florida for a weekend. (They have never yet actually gone.) On the one hand, I'm tempted to go. On the other, I would not dream of going. Two and a half days of listening to them talk. No. But I'll bet they'll have fun.

There are people with whom I have broken contact, or not maintained contact, people who, once again, would seem obviously compatible with me. The sweet country mouse types, though I loathe thinking of myself in that light. So I know (back to the top of the page) what it is to do what Melissa is essentially doing. Breaking contact, and no ill will intended. "I'm just not that into you." But I do also keep reaching out -- I think -- to incompatible women, because they are there and they are my most recent associations, and without them I would know no one except my family and my in-laws. Yet I would not dream of closing the deal, so to speak, of sharing some sort of heart-to-heart with Nina, or Debbi or Debi or Maria. I wonder if they do that with one another?

Then there is Sandra, my ex-boss. The one who always clapped her hand over her mouth whenever she swore in front of me, giggling that she feared to corrupt me. "I don't want to lose your friendship," she said. Fine. We are not compatible at all, but I was the last one to, once again, offer her a possible lunch date when she asked for one. She has not responded. That's perfectly fine, natural. (What on earth would we talk about? Ex-work? Cuss words?) The last time I saw her, she came into the store talking on her cell phone, in the midst of planning a drinking date with a girlfriend. Her voice was so easy, warm, and happy. It made me wonder, as always, what do people see in each other? What do they say? I know, talking of old school chums, that Melissa has always maintained a friendship with Janet and with Linda, too, come to think of it. Across and through the twenty-five years. Calls them on the phone and visits them, visited Linda and stayed with her at her house while Linda was going through a divorce, no less. Melissa actually witnessed some of the fights, and silently took the husband's part. Incredible. What are they giving and receiving?

I know full well that I have puzzled over this since I was a teenager, when friends like Melissa used to ask casually "what I was doing this week" and I would respond with instinctive wariness, fearful that they were laying a trap and wanted me to go do some wild thing. I know full well that the answer to my friendship questions has always been directly under my nose. I am a writer and a reader, and if I wanted a huge and bubbly circle of friends I would have had one many times over by now. It can just seem, sometimes, that all the women in the world who have friends pass one by, smiling, and caress one's head absently like a pet, before attending to their real interests and to the wonderful rich secret-code joys of their friendships.

Rain. An e-mail pops up. If it's from Melissa, to arrange a dinner date, then all the above is negated, and one starts over.

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