9 Friends Who Made Me Who I Am

Photo: Jessica H.J. Lee

This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.

1. I met my first-ever best friend in the summer before kindergarten. My family had just moved to New Jersey, and our backyard abutted her backyard. This afforded us some independence, and right away, the relationship felt grown-up and serious compared to the ersatz affiliations of preschool. C. was a cool, supercilious redhead whose low tolerance for weirdness and human frailty I greatly admired when it was directed at our little brothers. But once, I impulsively confessed to having vomited while home sick from school, and she refused to walk to school with me for two days. I made the trek alone, burning with anger, indignation, and shame, and completely unaware that it would be decades, or possibly never, before I’d stop finding this sort of dynamic irresistible.

2. When we moved to a suburb north of Chicago in the summer before second grade, I found a girl my age and a boy my brother’s age once again living right next-door. Did this lead to unreasonable expectations about the easy, inexhaustible availability of perfect matches in the future? I don't know. Possibly. Unlike C., S. was unabashedly sentimental. Once, her dad went out of town for work for a night, apparently for the first time, and when he called she cried because she missed him. My dad traveled four to six months out of the year for work and it never crossed my mind to miss him. I looked down on her a little after that, and it took me a long time to realize that I was the weird one. Six years later, after we'd moved to Spain but were about to move back, she wrote me a letter in which she said she’d made a new friend, with whom she believed I was acquainted: His name was Jesus. For what seemed like a long time, I tried to figure out where in the world she would have met my riding instructor, Jesús, until it dawned on me that she meant someone else. The realization that this would come between us struck me as profound, so I wrote a story about it and submitted it to a Seventeen magazine contest, which I didn’t even come close to winning. 

3. T. and I met halfway through third grade, waiting for the school bus in front of the hotel where we were both temporarily living. We were like Eloise, only a little older, not in New York, and not at the Plaza, but in Madrid, in a brutalist block of executive suites called the Eurobuilding. T. was beautiful like an '80s glamazon, although we didn’t know what this was yet. Her family was vaguely bohemian (for corporate nomads, anyway) in a way I’d never encountered. She introduced me to Billy Joel songs about alcoholics, snacks at odd hours, messy houses, and — because her family had moved there with another fun, messy family whose youngest daughter shared her name — to the kind of consuming jealousy that keeps you awake even as you admonish yourself for being so stupid.

Photo: Jessica H.J. Lee

4. C. and I met at a slumber party. I don’t remember whose it was, only that the birthday girl’s mom had styled it like a cocktail party with pink punch in a punch bowl, cheese cubes, peanut-butter-and-jelly “canapés.” There was a disco ball and Donna Summer’s double album on heavy rotation. Though completely sober, C. and I ended up punching each other through our sleeping bags until we had to be separated.

5. D. became my best friend in fifth grade, after C. moved to London. We bonded over horses, model horses, horseback riding, and books and magazines about horses. D. was cute, lanky, and freckly, and everybody liked her despite the fact that she was by far the smartest girl in the fifth grade. I admired her inner peace and serenity, basked in them, and never came close to achieving them myself.

Photo: Jessica H.J. Lee

6. In sixth grade, my best friend was C. (yet another, different C.), who was blonde and pretty and really into cheerleading, and much kinder and more thoughtful than these things might suggest. On weekends, when I slept over, we made fudge, played on her Atari, and listened to her parents’ old West Side Story album while her wild older sisters stayed out late and got into trouble. C.’s mother was strict and very Catholic, and she was always accusing everybody of wearing leg makeup. We’d never heard of leg makeup, but we absorbed the shame nonetheless.

7. I met S. about a month into my sophomore year at a new school outside of Chicago. A few days after a lacrosse-playing junior I’d been seeing for two weeks dumped me, she called to ask me out to lunch. During our tête-à-tête at the cheese-dog place, she gently let me know that she and the lacrosse player had been an item all through middle school, and that now that I was out of the picture, they would resume their relationship apace. Her poise and sportsmanship dazzled me. I’d never been taken out to lunch by anyone other than my parents before, let alone a romantic rival with an impressive wardrobe, a pool, and a mom who asked her if she wanted anything special before going to the grocery store. (Doritos and Cherry Coke for when Oprah came on.) I hesitated not at all to become best friends with her, and when I moved away again she threw me a surprise going-away party. The thing with the lacrosse player only got in the way sometimes, when one of us drank too much.  

8. We went back to Madrid again for my junior and senior years in high school, where I met J., who was a boy, and gay, though not a lot of people in those days were coming out in high school, so we just pretended there was nothing unusual about constantly ditching my boyfriend to go to dance clubs and spending hours on his bed listening to the Cure and not making out.

Photo: Jessica H.J. Lee

9. E. and I met while peeing in a bush outside a frat party in college. The next day, she showed up at my dorm room with a couple of milkshakes. She had the best taste in everything of anyone I’ve ever met. I made her the curator of my life long before I knew to use that word. Things were collected and infused with meaning: Victorian bloomers worn as pants, mix tapes, hippie bracelets. We listened to the Sugar Cubes, the Talking Heads, the Cocteau Twins, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Blood on the Tracks. We ate together in the student union every day; grilled cheese with tomatoes, French fries, bacon, beer. The decadence was thrilling. We bought the same clothes and wore them concurrently. We traded journals. We were supposed to spend the year in Paris together, but her new boyfriend talked her out of it at the last minute, and she didn’t tell me until the day after our applications were due. In Paris, I went out with her ex, and had recurring nightmares about it, and didn’t get up the nerve to tell her until after I got back. She'd already decided to stay in her apartment, with her junior-year roommates, and not get a place with me for our senior year as planned. Six months after we graduated, she joined me in San Francisco. Nothing in San Francisco was ever served with French fries. We shared big, cheap Victorian flats, clothes, food, and money. We threw parties, nursed grudges, withheld approval, and drifted apart so gradually and quietly that I didn’t notice our friendship was ending until it was more or less over. The heartbreak happened by degrees as well, so that when I see her, as I occasionally do (through mutual friends), I’m gripped by a sense of loss and longing so piercing that it still surprises me, and plugs me into everything I ever thought was perfect, thrilling, pointlessly, decadently beautiful, would last forever, would turn out differently, but didn’t.

Photo: Jessica H.J. Lee