Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Family We Make

As I’ve gotten older I have culled a handful of those friends that you have because you’ve had them forever. Sure they have all the shared reminiscences with you and you have a history in common. But the thing about old friends is they’ve seen you at your absolute worst and they’ve stuck with you anyway. This, it dawns on me as I move along my path, is an increasingly rare quality to find.

My oldest friend in the world and her husband just threw a one year anniversary bash a few weeks ago. I brought my new boyfriend with me and seized on our moments alone to relate the various events of our eighteen year friendship so he wouldn’t feel left out of the inside jokes and so forth.

This friend of mine, I realized as I shared our stories, has known me through loves and losses, through school and career, through family deaths, through bad haircuts and the eighties in general. As I showed my boyfriend around my friend's new house I delved into the archaeology of our friendship. Here was the candlestick I brought her from Africa. Here was the sarong from Mexico. A stained glass angel I remembered agonizing over with my mom. Which color wings would she like the best? A wooden elephant I bought with money from my first post-college job. I discovered each piece of memorabilia with glee. The memory of place I held in her life. More than anything, I think I was touched she’d actually kept the stuff; gratified that I’d seemingly presented a gift that had become a treasured object.

The day of the party arrived and my boyfriend and I helped get things set up. Little by little people flowed into the park space where the festivities were to be. I was excited because in addition to an old swim team chum from our teen years, my friend told me one of our old roommates would be coming. He’d always been a crack up and I couldn’t wait to laugh with him ten years later.

The summer between her junior and senior year of college, I’d convinced my friend to spend the summer with me in San Francisco where I was living, already through with college. I shared a huge Victorian with four guys in the Haight Ashbury district. Being a talented girl, she’d gotten herself an internship lined up and come right out. I was thrilled. How many people actually get to live with their best friend at some point?

How many friendships survive that?

Our roommate showed up at the party. And not alone. As a surprise, he brought with him our other roommate from that summer. It was a good thing I hadn’t had time to worry about this in advance.

When I first moved into the Haight House, I’d broken up with my college boyfriend and started my first corporate job. I wasn’t meeting new people and I felt that a terrible emptiness yawning before me asking me daily what I was doing with my life. This second roommate had become a companion in dinners and errands and in typical, lonely girl fashion, I’d developed a burning crush on him. Suitability didn’t matter so much as proximity. All the happy companionship felt like having a boyfriend, I reasoned. Just without the kissing. Surely that would come soon.

My friend had come for her internship and concurred with me: this other roommate was a cutie indeed. As I found out after he left for his summer plans across the country, he’d thought the same about her. They’d shared that part beyond just the dinners and errands that I had hoped to. In typical early twenties melodrama, I made their brief connection all about me. I’d cried for days. The rest of the roommates avoided me for fear I’d dissolve in another crying jag. My misery was two-fold. This boy I’d hoped might share warm feelings for me clearly didn’t. And my friend had gotten to the boy I liked instead of me. I groped through my days in physical pain. I framed my friend’s actions in terms of betrayal and heartbreak.

To top things off, when I heard from her that he had no clue about my feelings, I’d decided he needed to be told. “What else have I got to lose?” I’d slurred as I reeled around the living room in a drunken pity party that would have rivaled Liza Minnelli. I wrote him a long letter detailing just how I’d felt, how he’d trashed that and the impact he’d had on my most important friendship. Poor guy never knew what hit him. Hell hath no fury like a drama queen writer scorned.

When these old roommates of ours walked into the party and the four of us were reunited for the first time in ten years all we could all do was hug and laugh. My dramatic episode which had seemed all-consuming at the time was just a blip in the passing of the years. My old righteousness was now just a vague sheepishness. The ease and warmth between us was just like it had been ten years ago. It seemed that, thankfully, my twenty-something histrionics had been forgiven.

I pulled my boyfriend aside and recounted the story of that summer and saw that it had lost all its dramatic sting. It was no longer one of those “Look what I’ve been through,” stories. It was now a “Look what a dramatic, selfish asshole I was” story. “Man,” he said to me, “you are lucky she’s still your friend.” Another reason I keep this man in my life: his wisdom.

That’s when it hit me. The thing I have to most be thankful for with my oldest friendship is that my friend put up with me. She’s stuck by me while I had railed against her for breaking my heart. I’d made her sit in our friendship with bowed head for nearly a year while I worked myself up to forgiveness. In the end, she’d been friend enough to forgive me.

Later as I trailed up to my friend’s guest room in a happy champagne haze, it dawned on me that the gifts I’d given my friend over the years maybe hadn’t been just what she wanted. Maybe she hadn’t kept the antique Dutch clog pin because she loved it. Maybe she kept it because it was from me and that was its value to her.

Back in high school when we’d both been filled with teen “my parents are a nightmare” angst, my friend gave me a birthday card. It said “Friends are the family that we choose for ourselves.” At the time I adored it in a “yeah, we’re sisters in this teen crap together” way. I still have that card. And I think I finally get it. Like my own blood relatives, I know we may not be in touch as often as we’d like but we’ll always have each other to rely on when push comes to shove. Because that’s what you do with family. You accept them good and bad. Lucky for me, she’d figured that out earlier than I did.

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