I’ve been pondering, as I tentatively attempt to make new friends here while maintaining ties with friends in the US, how much I suck at friendship as well as how I’m good at it. Funny that Mel posted something about friendship too just as I was thinking through some of this. But rather than try to enumerate the ways in which I both suck and rock, I thought I’d start with a story about my high school frenemy – Jessica (not her real name) – from a time long before that term was coined.
I think I was in 9th grade when Jessica and I became best friends. I needed a place to stay for a few weeks while my parents were traveling for work, and her family offered me a room. Jessica was a year older than me – tiny, blonde, cute, with enormous blue eyes and the kind of personality that is usually described as “bubbly.” She had a cute Texas accent, played the flute and piano, and had recently returned to Peru from the US with a suitcase full of the latest fashions and hair accessories. At school, she was generally considered to be an “air-head,” so I guess I was surprised to learn when I stayed with her that she loved to read, composed piano accompaniment to songs she wrote, and had some interesting observations to make about the social scene at our tiny high school (five in my graduating class). So I was amenable when, one evening, she said “Hey, let’s be Best Friends next year.”
Being “Best Friends” meant, apparently, spending nearly all our free time together. Actually, as far back as 7th grade we used to hang out on a regular basis; every Saturday we would buy two bottles of pop (and in Peru in the ‘80s, pop still came in returnable glass bottles) and a bag of animal crackers, borrow a rowboat, and spend the day rowing around and swimming in the lake near the mission center where we both grew up. At the time I probably considered Rachel to be my actual Best Friend, but she didn’t care if I hung out with Jessica as well. Rachel was a lot more like me than Jessica – brown-eyed and nerdy, we both played the violin and pondered growing up to be English teachers. But in 9th grade I started going with Rachel’s older brother, and I think she felt a little betrayed because he’d used to spend a lot more time with his sister before he started going out with me.
Anyway. I guess I had a best friend vacancy in my life when Blue-Eyed Jessica suggested we be Besties, and I said, “okay.”
I call her my frenemy, though, because of the envy I always felt, that in the end poisoned our friendship and led me to abandon her about the time I graduated from high school. Next to Jessica, I felt big and awkward and dark and fat. And more masculine, somehow. Which I hated. And I think this envy had deep roots; I remember when we were in elementary school (I think I was in third grade, she in fourth) we were playing at my house with another friend, Sara. Jessica was playing the piano downstairs and I think Sara and I got annoyed because we thought she was showing off, so somehow we convinced her to get into an empty barrel in the attic and then we put the lid on and ran away. Jessica couldn’t get out and started crying. I feel awful about it now, just imagining how she must have felt, and I don’t think we left her there very long; but see, the envy was already there.
But in high school, something clicked, at least for a while. I remember how just by being sarcastic I could make her laugh until she was rolling on the floor, clutching her stomach, her face red and tears streaming down her cheeks, and that was fun. And we liked a lot of the same books. We would lie on the floor side by side, our heads on the same pillow, each reading a different page in the same actual, physical book – usually Daphne DuMaurier. We liked the same music – Christian contemporary, which I absolutely cannot stomach anymore – and sang together a lot. We harmonized really well, and recorded two cassette tapes of songs she wrote with her playing the keyboard and me singing alto to her soprano. She had a little motor-scooter (a Honda 50) and I’d ride behind her for hours around and around the mission center (I could write several thousand words about the role of motorcycles in our high school social life but that’s, as they say, another story). So, most of the time I could ignore the fact that she got about 2,000x more attention from boys than I did, or that she looked way cuter in my stretch jeans than I did, or that she was somewhat tone-deaf to certain things.
Like this one time, my mom had sewed a fancy dress for my cousin who lived with us – Margarita, who had been adopted from a Quechua family at age 7 by my aunt and uncle and then was sent to live with us when she was 16 and her parents couldn’t handle her (yet another long story that I won’t go into here). Anyway, Jessica said to me later, after the event where my cousin had worn the dress, “Margarita’s dress was pretty and all, but it just looked so Peruvian.”
Do I need to spell out how much – and why – that hurt and enraged me?
Or another time I had made myself a pair of earrings out of purple and blue electrical wire, and Jessica just seethed with embarrassment and refused to be around me when I wore them, because they “looked home-made.”
I finally dumped her, though, when she started going out with the guy that I wanted. That she knew I wanted. And you know why this was such a bad reason for me to dump her? Because I already had a boyfriend. My boyfriend, Rachel’s older brother, was in college in the US, and had been for the past 3 years (let me tell you about long-distance relationship… some other time), and in his absence I’d developed a crush on, um, let’s call him Dave. So I secretly wanted Dave (who had previously dated my sister – ugh, what an inbred little bunch we all were!), so when Jessica came back from a year in the States, with a spiral perm and trendy clothes and contacts in her huge blue eyes, Dave couldn’t hide his
lust interest and they were an item within two weeks.
This was right before I graduated from high school and went to college in the States, myself. So all summer and into the fall I got letters from Jessica detailing the nuances of her romance with Dave, and I just stopped writing back. (Or did I write a “Dear Jane” letter? I don’t remember. I remember sitting in my dorm room, freshman year, with a letter in my hand, feeling grumpy and morose and it had something to do with the end of our friendship. But was it a letter from her? What did it say? And what did I write back? I have no idea.)
I have some vague and not-very-interesting memories of sporadic contact since then, so we must have maintained or restored amicability in some way. She even asked me to be her maid of honor in 1994, but I wasn’t able to since I was doing an internship in Bolivia (my understanding is that this was less about our friendship and more about forcing her sister out of that role for some reason). When we both got e-mail accounts, she wrote me of her infertility – endometriosis and low sperm count – eventually they decided to foster to adopt, and now have three little ones. I was sympathetic at the time but of course I didn’t really get it until we encountered our own roadblocks to family building. So we’ve kept in touch over the years, off and on, now pretty much exclusively through FB.
So that’s the story. I’m not sure now what the point was… I suppose it is that I could be really petty and jealous in high school, and that the way I dealt with it was to silently distance myself from Jessica instead of talking with her about the things that bothered me. I suppose what I most regret is how much I hated her sometime because of her looks – which had everything to do with how much I hated my own looks. Having a boyfriend helped, of course, even though he wasn’t even on the same continent – but how clearly I remember walking with Jessica up from swimming in the lake, hating how the breeze lifted her shining gold hair and how slender her torso and thighs were in that sparkling lavender bathing suit. How I felt fat and dark and ugly, and somehow, I blamed her.