I have a friend whom I have known longer than any other friend. We met when she was still a virgin. We were attending a posh summer theater camp held at a prestigious university.
I begged her to never have sex. “It’s awful.” I cried. “I had better orgasms before. I have none during sex.” My experience of sex a few months before was a molestation, a violation, from which I have never fully recovered. She did not take my advice.
Shortly after returning from camp. She “did it” with her high school boyfriend. She said it was underwhelming but no big deal.
We are in many ways polar opposites. I am Black and was raised Catholic in the north. She is white and was raised Jewish in the south. The only path we both followed was away from our religious upbringing and into careers in entertainment in New York. Besides that, we traveled opposite roads.
She dreamed of becoming a movie and television star. I wanted soap operas and broadway. We both got our way.
We didn’t have children at the same time or marry at the same time. So we did not share those experiences with one another. What we did share across nearly half a century, was intelligent curiosity about life, art, creativity, travel and social justice and politics. Even then we were often on opposite sides of the issues. I learned a lot from her. I don’t know that she learned as much from me. Not because my offerings weren’t as rich, but because of an elitism and cognitive dissonance that has caused me to say of our friendship that “She is grandmothered in. If I met her today we could not be friends.”
How did the grandmothering happen?
At 15, I was accustomed to being the outsider everywhere I went: elementary school, girl scout camp, high school. I never found a way to “fit in.” My thinking and interests, quite frankly, veered away from that of my peers. Their conversation was not interesting to me and my silence was taken as judgment or conceitedness.
I was more comfortable with adults who thought my precociousness was a hoot.
At summer camp, we were busy round the clock. There wasn’t a lot of time to make friends between learning lines and preparing for class. Besides, I was there to learn a craft.
There were a number of break-ins in the dorm rooms on the college campus during our two week stay. Tape recorders , watches, TVs and jewelry were missing from students’ rooms. My dorm mate, a tall, gangly redhead with a bowl haircut and freckles, was always leaving our room unlocked.
Every time I reminded her, she would flip her short hair and issue a dismissive “sorry.” This wasn’t the first or last time my requests of a white person would be dismissed and this wasn’t the first time that I decided to teach someone in a manner that my words failed to convey.
I told my friend my idea. She agreed to be my partner in faux crime. The next time I came upon my dorm room unlocked, my friend and I removed every valuable: TV, radio, watch and jewelry, and put them in her room. There were very few rooms on the hallway, so my friend and I waited in her room for the red head’s return.
When the red-head walked into the room of missing valuables we heard her cry out and we giggled to ourselves. How long should we allow her to suffer? Not long. We walked into the room to find her face crimson. She breathlessly gesticulated. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It wasn’t much more than she had said before but the weight of the consequences of her action seemed to have landed with appropriate gravity.
“It’s ok,” I said. “I removed everything because you seemed very cavalier about risking the loss of my property. Everything is next door.”
I foolishly expected relief.
This was to be one of many lessons in the behavior of the guilty.
She did not take a moment to sigh relief. Instead, fire shot from her eyes. She swole up like a hen and launched into a verbal attack, whereafter she charged out of the room to tell everyone about this heinous attack on HER.
Fortunately, there were only a few days left of camp. And, for the remainder of those days, my friend and I were shunned and shamed and whispered about. The redhead was even allowed to change rooms. Clearly my lesson was far more criminal than her negligence.
That my friend, who bore little guilt in the incident, stood by me, has and will always endear her to me. Up until then, no one had ever stood up for, or by, me.
Decades later our careers and lives have taken different paths. We are each successful in our own and very different arenas. We each come to know and be considered as the experts in our worlds and sometimes there is overlap and she or I would invite the other into our separate worlds.
I began to feel or notice that she treated me and my point of view about many things as if I were naive at the least and uneducated at best. Because of our long history and the many personal tragedies we had shared, I excused and tolerated her behavior toward me. But I found myself often speaking to another friend about our conversations afterwards. I had to relieve myself of the burden her snobbery cost me.
What kept coming up for me time and time again is that she only called if she needed my help. She once offered to care for me after surgery only to bring some of her own work for me to help fix as I lay in bed recovering.
Even her questions about how I was doing were perfunctory. It always felt more like “enough of what I’m feeling, what do you feel about what I’m feeling?” There was very little room for any authentic response from me about what I might be going through.
Still, I stayed connected. I called her less. But took her calls. Though sometimes I just put the phone down because she did not want a conversation so much as a space to bounce her own voice off and hear it reflect back to her in the void. I rarely said much. I simply encouraged her to do what she thought best.
I do believe that we all know what is best for ourselves.
But good girl-friendship is often about arguing the difference in how you see things and would do things.
I honestly value people who see the world differently from me because I learn from them possibilities that my own mind is as yet unable to conjure. I also believe that reality is a unique experience for everyone. I aspire to hold a plentitude of realities as true.
I am deeply spiritual. I have faith. Faith in what? Faith in something greater than myself. I have gone to churches of many religions. Every religion always stops short of what I know in my being to be true. What I know, without words to be true, and what has guided my life through rivers and mountains and valleys and which sustains me and gives me the strength to continue on is that gratitude and blessing every experience make the most powerful prayer in the universe.
In her youth, my friend was a devotee of a spiritualist and even believed she had been abducted by aliens. Now she is a rationalist, a scientist. She is friends with the top scientists in the world. There have been times that she has told me scientific ideas that I disagreed with, like the idea that AI is the probable evolutionary future of humanity. I disagreed but in my voracious curiosity, I did research and have to come to see the truth of this possibility.
This is another way our paths diverge. When someone tells me something that goes against what I believe I seek to learn more. I am willing to be wrong for the sake of expanding my awareness of reality.
My experience with my friend is that she is rooted in her version of reality and truth, rejecting previously held beliefs as if they are mutually exclusive as if there is only one truth.
Because I have known her for almost half a century I accept her as she is. But as I have gotten older, I have begun to push back a little with my opinion. I am also clear when she has no interest in what I have to say and merely wants an ear to receive her.
Because I do not get to share with her my perspective of my own or of her dilemmas, I often find myself rehashing them in my head.
For instance, she is always worried about money. She is always afraid that she won’t have enough. She is always “miserably working hard” to be successful (which she is!) at whatever she is doing but there is little joy in the labor or the fruits. There is, from my observation, a constant energy to stave off the fear and desperation that she will have nothing, be homeless, wretched all alone.
It pains me to see her suffer so. I have experienced having nothing, being homeless and wretched. I am now an emancipated woman of prominence.
And for all of my friend’s words of praise of me and my life, she has never asked me how I do what I do, except to know actual dollars and cents of my life. She is dismissive of the fact that I might know things that could help her the way she has told me things which have helped me.
Factually, she owns more and has earned far more money than I ever have. Her pension will be far more than mine. In my observation, I live a freer and richer life. A life that she would absolutely never want. For her to live my life would be a living hell.
I guess I am writing because this is a dilemma for me. She is happy in her fearful, struggling life and I am happy in my creative, free, struggling life.
So why am I writing?
Well today was another of our conversations where she was telling me how hard and miserable her work is. How she “hates” it. She was saying how she wished she was doing what I was doing. I was saying how I had just turned down more of what I am doing because I am ready to learn something new. I could hear her chagrin at my turning down guaranteed money to pursue a dream.
I thought how funny that even today we still choose the opposite paths.
But, I guess I am writing because those choices now have more urgent consequences.
The surgery she came to “help” me after, was for a terminal illness. I lived with that diagnosis for six years. Six years during which doctors said I could die at any moment.
So I lived my life saying and doing everything I needed to, because the reality of the next moment not being promised was at my door. After the surgery and the hope that I am now cured, a huge burden, that I did not know was there, was lifted. I realized that I had not been making long term plans. I started to make them, but I still maintain the knowledge that in truth the next moment is not promised to any of us. And now that knowledge, rather than being a burden, fuels me to do everything NOW.
My friend received some bad test results. I listened silently for months to the advice of her experts. What I heard sounded “crazy” to me. But, I knew she would not listen to me, so I was, as always, the ear.
When the diagnosis came in as a terminal condition, I wrestled with whether to share my wisdom about what she could try. I knew that with my habit of just being an ear, she probably wouldn’t listen. I knew that this could mean the end of our friendship. I pressed her with my point of view. I wrestled with what to do. It is her life to live or die.
I decided to tell her and if she couldn’t hear, so be it. This was a matter of life and death. I decided I would rather be cut out of her life than let her die and not have tried to help her.
I called her up and shared that I had been concerned all these months about her care and treatment. That I did not agree with anything her doctor had done and was doing. I shared that I knew people who had survived her condition and that perhaps rather than listen to me, that I would put her in contact with them.
Probably out of desperation she agreed to take their contact. She didn’t call for a while. But I guess as her prognosis grew more dire she finally reached out to them.
I called her a month later to hear that she was seeing a doctor based upon the connection I had provided. I was a little hurt that she hadn’t called me to share that my advice had led her to a treatment that was prolonging the quality of her life with her condition. Then to add insult to injury she published an article in a national journal about how a routine check-up had saved her life. There was no mention of me who had led her away from her experts to the treatment she was now receiving.
I was deeply wounded.
I was not surprised. This was another straw on a pile of fifty years of straws. It didn’t “break” my bond to her because this is life and death. As the pandemic rages around us we are all more keenly aware that the next moment is not promised. I played a part in prolonging her life and she had erased me. So, I sucked it up and stayed loyal because she is dying.
Because, that truth is so real and close. Today, I tried to offer her a piece of my wisdom. It involves spirituality, alchemy, hermeticism, magic, and manifestation—all of which she is a vehement denier of belief in. She barked, “If you’re going to tell me my thoughts created my…” No, I wasn’t. She quickly got off the phone, saying that she might check out a book I’d suggested.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said,” The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” My friend once held the belief in channelling and alien abduction. Now she only believes in science and medical cures.
I have always lived my life as if there is more to learn and that anyone from the highest to the low can teach me. I am open to receive wisdom from rocks and trees and anyone. My friend has facts and science and knowledge and doctors and she will die with them. I have no power to inspire her to take a gamble on the faith that she once held and which still guides me to do impossible things everyday.
I wanted to tell her to stop doing all these ”hard miserable things.” To take whatever time she has left and just do joy. I asked her what she most wanted to do. It was an effort she didn’t even want to try to answer.
Forty years later she is still doing the opposite of what I suggest. I love her and I love her sovereignty and I respect her choice to die in the way she has lived, with fear and hardship and misery because she believes that is all life is.
I am grateful that I have chosen a different path.