The first time I saw her, the woman who would become my friend, best friend, unhealthy fixation, her picture was in the newspaper. A few days before the start of the conference to which we’d both been invited, her first novel was published to rave reviews. The newspaper had been spread across my couch amidst the soft toys, long-lost tubes of diaper cream, and Cheerios dust. I might not have noticed it if my husband hadn’t shown me. I had a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, a novel of my own I couldn’t finish. I didn’t notice much that wasn’t clinging to my physical body or standing in my way. He held her picture up to me that Sunday morning, not just any photo but a photo flanked by praise. I looked at her picture, then her bio, then the part of the bio that indicated she was eight years my junior.
“I don’t like her,” I said to my husband, Pete, then I pretended to pull out my hair.
To be fair, at this particular moment in my life — anxious, lonely, bored in my marriage, and up to my eyeballs in kids — I didn’t like anyone, especially myself.
On the surface, I had most of what I’d always wanted: a husband, a home, two healthy kids, and after a decade of professional frustration and failure, something that could pass as a career. I had the things I’d craved so deeply when I was younger, the things that had seemed impossibly out of reach in my early 20s when I’d had not much more to ground my life than a handful of intimate friendships with other women. And yet, as I prepared to leave for the conference, I knew that something was missing.
The conference was for scholars and writers, but the scholars were many and the writers were few. There were only four of us, in fact, and of the four, only this woman and I spoke English. On the first evening, we sat around a large table, and each of us was asked to share our intellectual autobiography with the group. I didn’t know what an intellectual autobiography was. I only knew that presenting mine to a roomful of strangers made me want to step out of my skin. When the stuttering, cold-sweat horror of it was over, we were released into a common room for wine and mingling. I forewent sociability for a chair in the corner, a plastic glass of Shiraz, and an enormous plate of cheese cubes. Here is where the other English-speaking writer found me. We introduced ourselves, then she asked if I was okay (I think I was still sweating). She seemed quiet, regal, and intense — one of those people you can actually see listening to what you say, turning it over, as though it might be important. She listened while I explained how much I was not okay, how nervous I was about the whole conference, how much I hated talking about writing, especially to nonwriters.
She said she knew exactly what I meant. She had come to the conference the year before, when she’d been the only English-speaking writer. The experience, she said, had almost killed her. My ears perked up. Right away, I was drawn to her flare for hyperbole. Going to the conference hadn’t just been difficult or awkward or uncomfortable, it had almost ended her life. Later in the conversation, I asked her if she was planning to go to another well-known event for writers later that year. She thought about it for a moment, then answered solemnly, without a hint of a smile. “No, I would rather commit suicide.”
“But you’re not really suicidal?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m Russian.”
For the next two hours we shared, in unself-conscious detail, our nonintellectual autobiographies. We discussed our writing, our jobs, our role models, our families. We discussed my husband, her boyfriend, my children, her cat, our friends, enemies, intimates, and loved ones. She confided that she came from a long line of Russian-Jewish intellectuals and poets, that she’d learned to read before she could walk but now lived in their shadow. I confided that I’d grown up in a middle-class family of doctors and social workers, in a house without books where the television was almost always on. To make up for it, I married another writer who’d read everything.
“That’s so wonderful,” she said. “You and he will give your children what you didn’t have growing up.”
Somehow, I’d never thought of it that way.
With tears in my eyes and a tipsy warmth spreading through my body, I said, “I have an idea. Let’s survive this week together.”
She agreed and poured herself a glass of wine. We toasted life.
When I returned to my hotel room that night and called my husband, I was giddy. “I made a friend!” I told him. “You’ll never guess who. The girl in the paper.”
“The one you don’t like?”
“Yes! But no. I don’t not like her anymore. She’s so great. Smart. Funny. Mean. Super, super cool. Definitely the coolest person I’ve met in years. We hit it off.”
“See,” he said. “I told you it would be fine. Now, make some other friends while you’re there, too.”
“Bleh,” I said. “Why?”
“Because it’s good for you, that’s why. It’s good to reach out.”
I knew what he was getting at, or at least, a part of me knew. He was worried I was doing that thing again.
I’ve done it all my life. Call it oversharing. Call it lack of boundaries. Call it projection or a profound impatience for the normal social mores that make deep-friendship formation so excruciatingly arduous. It doesn’t matter what you call it; the trait remains — the tendency to find one person in a group, one person at work, at a party, on a trip, at a wedding, or anywhere at all. I find one person, and that is my person. We are on the same wavelength, I decide, and then I give up giving a shit about everyone else.
There are times when I think I’m an intimacy addict. This is what my husband sensed and feared, the thing he was trying to warn me against.
“Screw reaching out,” I told him. “Life is too short for small talk and bullshit.”
He sighed. “That’s my line. I’m the misanthrope. You’re supposed to be the social one. Remember?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what I am anymore.”
“You’re drunk,” he told me. “Go to bed.”
If I mention to a friend over lunch this notion that I might be an intimacy addict, she leans closer and lowers her voice. “Really? I had no idea. You haven’t told me about this!” I can imagine what she’s imagining, a series of illicit hotel encounters or elaborate schemes to find a bed without producing a credit-card receipt. The word intimacy sounds seedy, or worse, sentimental — it’s a word used to sell lingerie or Viagra. It’s a word therapists use when they don’t want to employ the more colloquial term: fucking. But this semantic baggage seems funny and ill-timed to me. For both the young and old, gay and straight, partnered and unattached, it has never been more socially acceptable to have sex with a person you don’t know or like, much less someone with whom you don’t feel intimacy.
To be intimate with a person literally means to feel closeness with that person, to feel familiar, attached, in rapport. Vivian Gornick describes it as an alignment of temperament, “the thing that makes someone respond instinctively with an appreciative ‘I know just what you mean,’” rather than the argumentative What do you mean by that? She describes it as the feeling that “You are me, I am you, it is our obligation to save each other. We are a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives.” Until I met my husband, I can say with a high degree of confidence that none of the men with whom I had sex felt any desire to save me, to be me, or to become my fellow traveler. They were far more likely to demand what I meant by something than to say they knew just what I meant.
With my husband, it was different. He got me. He loved me. He saw me and accepted me for the feisty, neurotic, absentminded, contrarian chick I was. We started out on our married life together locked arm-in-arm. We were buddies and partners, and together we tackled the project of figuring out how to live, how to build a family. But as the years passed, as we got deeper and deeper into “the kid thing,” I could feel the space between us growing, the energy seeping, our empathy going toward our kids instead of each other. Now, there were moments when even my husband, toward whom I felt an unsurpassable kinship and love, seemed to have no idea what I meant when I was at my most agitated or enthralled.
Our emotional orbits intersected in a thousand places every day but never exactly aligned. There was a space between us as we moved through life. Sometimes I think it is this space that allows us to stay married. Sometimes I think it is this space that makes me stay hungry for something else.
For the rest of the conference, my new friend and I were inseparable in the most adolescent and obnoxious sense of the word. Like sixth-grade girls in the lunchroom, we passed notes during presentations and saved each other seats when one arrived at an event before the other. Halfway through the week, we decided it was so much easier to walk into a room side-by-side instead of on our own, so we would text as we left our rooms. On my way — wait outside for me! One day we decided what the evening talks really needed to make them bearable was more alcohol, specifically, cocktails whose popularity preceded our birth by several decades. The next day we spent four hours crisscrossing Berkeley on a pilgrimage to buy the makings for a well-stocked bar. One store had vodka and brandy but not Cointreau. Another had lemons and bitters but no olives. It was August and a bright tumbling wind pushed against us as we climbed hill after hill. By the time we’d secured every item on our list, we’d covered miles. She would carry the heavy bag, then I would carry it, then she again. While we walked, we talked about everything, but especially men. She was trying to figure out what she wanted from her current relationship. I was trying to figure out how to be as happy in my marriage as I’d been before the slog of children, the simmering resentments, the long catalogue of mutual frustration.
The conversation continued into the cocktail hour, into the next day and the day after that. The week itself now seems like one long conversation. When it was over, we hardly bothered with farewell.
“We’ll obviously talk again soon,” she said.
I took a cab to the airport, ate a lobster roll in a restaurant at SFO, and chased it with a Xanax and a glass of Chardonnay. I gathered my belongings, stood, and swayed across the terminal to my gate, then boarded the plane. As the jet began to roll away from the gate, my face grew hot, my arms tingly, my head light. I felt nauseous and dizzy, ran to the toilet despite the seatbelt sign, and vomited. I’d always been an anxious flyer, but had never experienced anything like this. “I think I have the stomach flu,” I said to the flight attendant when I emerged from the bathroom, flushed and sweating.
“We’ve left the gate. Go back to your seat.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m sick. I need to get off the plane.”
She looked at me as though there was a decent chance I was deranged.
The plane rolled back to the gate, and I was escorted back into the airport. I rebooked myself on a morning flight, took a cab to a hotel, called Pete and told him what had happened, then texted my new friend.
Are you home yet? she asked. Or are you in the metal tube?
I haven’t left. I had a panic attack and had to get off. My luggage is home. I’m in a hotel near the airport, waiting for the men in white coats to come carry me away.
Incredible, she wrote. So amazing. I’m sure they’re coming.
I sunk beneath the covers. I responded: Do you ever stop and wonder if you’re really suited for your own life?
I fell asleep before she could answer. When I woke, her message was waiting for me: I wonder all the time.
My mother always seemed happiest when she was near her friends. With me and my sister and our father she could be loving, nurturing, protective, and affectionate, but it was with her friends that she was happy. We were her work, and they were her fun. Friends in the house meant laughter, women lounging about, kibitzing, eating, playing cards, and usually gossiping. I remember this clearly, her inner circle, a rotation of women from 30 to 50 who lived within a ten-mile radius, most but not all of them mothers, some married, some single, some divorced. They were always appearing in our house without invitation, individually and in small groups, dropping by for coffee, a quick nosh, leftover dinner, advice, a game of bridge, occasionally a glass of wine or a vodka 7 Up.
I liked to sneak sips of Chablis and eavesdrop on the grown-up talk about sex and money and courtship and illness. I liked the lift in her mood.
“I’ve always been good at making friends,” she tells me now. “And I always made them a priority.”
I, on the other hand, have not always been good at making friends. In lieu of a wide circle of female friends or a tight-knit group, I had, from childhood to marriage, a series of intense, volatile female friendships. The first one came when I was 11. Her name was Erin, and I see the relationship now as a classic, preadolescent romance with all the intensity and fervor that entails. We watched the same soap operas, read the same magazines and young-adult series, learned to do back handsprings at the same gym on the same summer day, pierced our ears with the same silver, heart-shaped studs, spent hours upon hours talking on the phone or passing notes or pacing the length of the mall.
“Always good to have a few close friends,” my mother said, warning me against storing all my eggs in one basket. “What happened to that little girl from down the street? You two used to play nicely.”
But I could no more substitute another girl for Erin than I could trade in my parents. Erin was not my friend as the kids who lived on the street were my friends. We had our own language, our own history. We claimed to be able to read each other’s minds and planned, both explicitly and telepathically, how our lives and friendship might change when we found boyfriends, went to college, got married, had kids. We swore eternal devotion to one another with as much earnestness and ardor as any pair of lovers.
But a few weeks before eighth grade, Erin called to tell me we couldn’t be friends any longer. She was going to a private high school and her new classmates thought I was weird. I hung up the phone, sat down on the floor, and then the world broke open inside me. I took out my heart-shaped earrings, took down the posters we’d taped on our walls of Christian Slater and Corey Haim, tore up the journals we'd kept on the cutest boys. In snapshots from the year that followed, I looked pale, desolate, listless. I can still remember the anguish of coming home from school and not having a best friend to call with a report on the hour we'd been apart.
The second time it happened, I was in high school. I had just gone through my first breakup when I became best friends with a girl named Sara, a brash, sharp, manic troublemaker like myself. We’d take turns being each other’s sidekicks, tormenting our teachers, reading the same novels and talking them into the ground, skipping the same classes, trying the same diets, bingeing on doughnuts then running until we collapsed.
“You two make a cute couple,” our parents told us, and we’d smooch on the cheek or run off together arm-in-arm to prove their point. The relationship was never sexual, but it was one of the most intimate of my young adulthood. We shared each other’s clothes and beds and boyfriends. When I look back to my college romances (Sara and I went to the same college, where we were roommates), I remember her commentary on the men I dated at least as well as the men themselves. There was a boyfriend with a deep voice, and she joked that she could hardly listen to his messages without coming. There was a brief affair with an older man she referred to exclusively as “Sleazy Lawyer.” And after my long-term boyfriend and I broke up at the end of my junior year, I was thrilled when she ended up dating him briefly.
“You’re sure you don’t care?” she asked.
I told her nothing would make me happier. I’d been ambivalent about the breakup, and if she was still involved with him in some way, it was like I was still involved with him.
“That’s so nice,” she said. “And so fucking sick.”
Our friendship went on in this vein for another few years. But not long after graduation, she married a man she’d just met because, as she later put it, she “couldn’t afford a car and he had one.” Later, I married, then had kids. She divorced, then remarried. Our weekly phone call became monthly, then yearly. When she came to Chicago for a conference not long ago, I couldn’t connect the person I was sitting across from at the bar to the person with whom I’d been so intimately close. She was a nurse now. She lived in Texas. She owned a gun, and didn’t seem to understand why I was so horrified by this fact. Our lives had turned us into strangers. I went home from our meeting depressed and exhausted, wondering if she had really changed that much over the years, or if that closeness I remembered, that intense intimacy and enmeshment, was, at least in part, imagined.
A few days after I arrived home from the conference, I called my new friend on my way to the grocery store. Walking through the aisles of bulk food, I listened while she said, “I need to tell you about this OKCupid date I had last night.”
“Tell me everything,” I said.
The conversation was the first of dozens. For the next month, we talked. We also texted, emailed, and chatted. Constantly. We spoke as though we were the oldest of friends. The subjects of these conversations varied, but the spirit of them was always the same. Complete honesty was paramount. Confession was commonplace. Nothing was held back. I confessed to her that I was feeling restless in my marriage, that I’d wanted so much to be a good stay-at-home mother, that I’d thought it was what I wanted, but that it was not at all what I expected, that I hated the boredom, the playgroups, the other bored and restless mothers, the monotony, the thick intellectual haze that seemed to be seeping across my brain. Help me, I texted her one day from a 4-year-old’s princess-themed birthday party where the mothers began to dance around the room with fairy wands and streamers. I confided to her that sometimes, playing on the floor with my kids or plopped next to my husband on the couch at night, lacking the energy for conversation, much less sex, I sometimes fantasized about running away to South America.
I have a better idea, she wrote. Come visit me in New York for a few days. It will be so much fun. I’ll show you everything and we can plan a party and invite this guy I’m trying to seduce.
That sounds amazing, I replied. Then added, Should I seduce someone, too?
Of course you should, she answered.
We discussed for an hour, then texted more that night. We talked again a few days later and again a few days after that. In addition to planning my visit, we advised each other on subjects both banal and philosophical, offered council on our life courses and also the bullshit of every day.
One evening my husband turned to me in bed and asked if I was having an affair.
“Yes,” I told him. “I’m having a friendship affair. I have a new best friend. I’d forgotten what it’s like, how much fun it is. Don’t you think it’s amazing?”
He looked at me with equal parts confusion and concern.
Most of the friendships I’d formed with women post-marriage and post-motherhood, the friendships of my 30s, had been fainter, more contained, less intense, and more compartmentalized than those I’d known before. When I hit it off with another professor at the college where I worked, we initiated a monthly dinner-out tradition, where we talked about the same four topics: children, career, marriage, books. When I met other mothers with children the same age as my own, we’d schedule playdates or coffee meet-ups. They were nice people to chat with at birthday parties or in the pickup line outside of school. In this sense, my grown-up relationships were largely functional, practical, and site-specific, which apparently is not unusual. Much has been written about the ways in which it gets harder to form deep and meaningful friendships as we age and fall into the orbit of domestic life. When my daughter was a few months old, my husband and I Netflixed a film about a young mother who has a series of affairs.
“This seems like science fiction,” I said. “What mother could have time for this? I don’t even have time to take a shit.”
The people with whom I’d formed bonds years before, people scattered across the country, receded from view in these years. The new friendships I formed were fine but different somehow, like photocopies of relationships.
The friendship I made with the woman at the conference was different, more like the ones I’d known in my teens and 20s when I’d had infinite time to pour into gossip, confession, conversations that could circle around, dissect, and deconstruct a single topic (a date, an argument, a crush, a quandary, a problem) until the circling became more meaningful than the topic itself.
A few days before I left to visit my new friend, my husband saw the text in which I’d asked if I should seduce someone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you leaving me?”
I left 15 messages on his voice-mail.
I drove to his office, crying, talked to him, leaning against my car.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It was just a joke. A stupid girl joke.”
“I don’t see how it’s funny,” he said.
“I know. It’s not.”
“What the hell is going on with you? I don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it either. I don’t know. Nothing. I can’t explain it.”
“I just … all my life I’ve had one or two best girl friends … you know, partners in crime. I guess I miss it. When I’m talking to her, I feel like I’m 16 again. I act like I’m 16.”
“Was being 16 so great? I thought I was your partner in crime.”
“You are,” I said. “Of course you are.”
He didn’t seem convinced.
“Do you not want me to go?” I asked. “I don’t have to go if you don’t want me to.”
“I’m not going to tell you not to go,” he said.
Here we go, I thought. Half an hour of our standard passive-aggressive shuffling ensued. After 12 years, we could do it with our eyes closed. It was our secret handshake, our special dance.
Fighting, my therapist told me, can become a kind of intimacy for couples.
I went. I visited my friend for a long weekend, then another. Then another. We planned parties together. We went shopping. We went ice-skating, watched movies, drank wine, made tea. We talked until our voices grew hoarse. Once, we got the slightest bit stoned and began to plan an orgy to which we’d invite Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender. I think one of us actually got a pen and paper and began to take notes. I remember asking at one point, “Do you send an Evite for an orgy, or Paperless Post?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “This is obviously an email.”
We never had an orgy. I never seduced anyone or debauched in any awful or interesting way. In my mind, my friend’s life was full of excitement and intrigue. In reality, she was a regular single person. Sure, she dated, but she also spent her fair share of evenings at home with her cat. When I went to see her, though, it was far more fun to let her represent the sexual and romantic freedom I felt I was missing. My sin on these trips was a sin of negation. I simply stopped feeling like a wife, a mother, a woman in her 30s tethered to a home. I felt like the person I’d been 15 years before, the girl who fucked people she didn’t particularly like and got the intimacy she needed from close female friends. The closer I was drawn to her, the closer I was drawn to a part of me I’d thought was lost, vanished. I’d said good-bye to her so long ago, and suddenly, here she was again, raging back to life. She, my friend, was the engine bringing me back to my younger, freer self — not the root of my restlessness but someone to walk with as I allowed it to engulf me.
As girls and young women, we are allowed our friendships. We are afforded our close, intimate, intense relationships with one another. It is accepted and expected of us. On television, in novels, in every corner of popular culture, we are inundated by examples of women enmeshed in joyful, painful, complicated, stormy relationships with each other: the girls of Girls, the women of Sex and the City, the novels of Elena Ferrante. In The Story of a New Name, Lena thinks of her tortured, lifelong friendship with Lila: “It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.” A friend tells me the image of Strawberry Shortcake and Blueberry Muffin locked arm-in-arm is seared deeply into her brain. Others: Think of Thelma and Louise, Hannah and her sisters, Truth & Beauty, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, the Golden Girls. According to the Times, celebrity female BFFs are the new power couples.
My daughter, who is 5, has a best friend I’ll call Grace. They are two little girls who act like they’re one. One day my daughter says she needs a new toy to be happy.
“Sorry,” I tell her. “You have to find happiness in your heart.”
“Or with Grace?” she asks.
“Or with Grace.”
Whenever they are together, they skip and leap and run in circles. They shout and squeal and announce from their booster seats in the back of the car that they are running away together to Canada.
“All the way to Canada?” I ask.
“Not Canada! Candy Land!” they scream.
I take them to the park and watch them play. They do not know how to read or add or tie their shoes, but they know how to whisper and plot and share secrets. I watch them as they climb and swing and make believe they are in danger. They pretend the boys at the park are scary monsters, the slide a volcano, the monkey bars a pack of wild wolves. They laugh and shriek and cling together to keep each other safe.
It didn’t occur to me that something was off about my new friendship until it began to explode — in small bursts at first, and then more pyrotechnically.
One day I was emailing with another writer we both knew, and I told my friend that I had mentioned her in the email, that we'd talked about her book.
"Please don’t write about me with people I know," she asked.
The sharpness of her response surprised me. “Okay," I said. “Sorry, I wasn't saying anything unflattering.”
“What did you write then?” she wanted to know.
“Nothing much,” I answered. I was picking up my kids, driving through a snowstorm.
When I got home and looked at my phone, there was another message asking me to please not spread gossip around, asking, in only slightly more diplomatic terms, that from now on, I mind my own business.
I didn’t understand why she was so upset or what it was she was afraid I’d said. The only thing that came across loud and clear was that she didn’t trust me, at least not as much as I’d thought she did, and that suddenly, she’d decided I was too involved in her life.
That night, I was too upset to eat. Pete said I looked pale. “Did something happen?” he asked.
“My new friend hates me,” I said, and broke down in tears. I was too upset to eat dinner and went to bed the same time as my kids. Around midnight, I woke, couldn’t get back to sleep, came downstairs, and called another friend in California. “What’s wrong?” she asked as soon as she heard my voice.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think maybe I’ve fallen in love with a younger woman.”
“Oh no! Okay, okay. Tell me everything. Are you serious?”
“No, not really. I don’t know. Maybe. I’m so confused.”
“Calm down. Take a deep breath and we’ll figure this out together,” my friend said. She seemed to have some experience in this department, with women in the process of derailing or checking in from on just the other side of the rails. “Now, I’m going to make this really simple for you,” she said.
“This is a yes-no question. Do you want to eat her pussy?”
I thought about it. I tried to keep an open mind. “No,” I said. “I don’t.”
I heard her 2-year-old crying in the background. “Hold on a minute,” she said. While I waited, I stared at a portrait of my family on the mantle, listened to the ticking of a clock whose batteries I’d been meaning to change for at least three years.
“If I’m not newly gay or in love, what am I?” I asked her when she returned.
She paused to consider. Or maybe she was distracted by her kid. Finally, she said with more compassion than I expected, “I think you’re just really unhappy.”
When we were finished talking, I sat on the couch and cried again. I knew I should simply go to bed, but instead I texted my new friend and told her how upset I was. I was too upset to eat dinner!!! I texted her. This seemed to get my point across.
Stop, she texted back. I love you. We’ll talk tomorrow. I was just moody. It’s not worth fighting about.
I hoped that our friendship would return to normal, and it did, mostly. Still, there was a slight undercurrent of hostility that hadn't been there before, a frightening knowledge that we could hurt each other as expertly as we could raise each other up.
For the next few months, this unease spread, even as the friendship continued. My new friend came to visit us. She brought the children gifts, tolerated a day at the zoo, listened to the Frozen soundtrack a couple dozen times, but still the children weren’t quite sure what to make of her, even as they warmed. One day, as we strolled through the Art Institute, she confided that she’d landed an interview for a tenure-track teaching job at an Ivy.
Without thinking, I responded, “I’m sure you’ll get it. Everything comes easy to you.”
Later, riding on the El, we started talking about books. I knew that she hated television almost as much as she loved Tolstoy, so I jokingly baited her, saying I’d finally finished reading Anna Karenina.
“It was great, but not quite as great as The Wire.”
“Whatever,” she said. “You don’t read real books.”
“You know what I mean. You read TV books.”
I stared out the window the rest of the way home.
Not long after she returned to New York, she told me she’d gotten back together with her boyfriend and I joked that this was probably the end of the romantic phase of our friendship.
She laughed, but didn’t answer. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” she asked.
“It’s good,” I said. “I think it’s good.”
“That means so much to me. You’re a true friend.”
I wanted to believe it, but the moment she hung up, I knew everything had changed.
I’d been going to therapy, but now I went more. I’d been taking Zoloft, but now I took more. My therapist, who’d been listening to all of this unfold, week after week, finally put forth an observation. “This is not normal,” she said.
“You think it’s a really fucked-up friendship?”
“I wouldn’t use the term fucked-up.”
“What term would you use?”
“Deeply regressed is the one that comes to mind.”
Usually deferential to her insight, I found myself rebelling. “Why?” I said. “Why is it regressed to want to want to have intense, meaningful, complicated relationships with people you’re not fucking related to. Why is it regressed to want to have a best friend?”
She thought for a while, the way therapists do. “Because you already have one,” she said. “He’s called your husband.”
I knew she was right. I understood that adult female friendships are no longer socially supported or sanctioned in the way they might have been a generation ago, or the way they are for girls and younger women today. While the kind of relationship I had with my new friend might be perfectly typical for a girl of 16, it was far outside the realm of normalcy for a married mother in her 30s, at least far outside our notions of what is normal today. And yet, why should this be the case? Why shouldn’t we get certain types of intimacy from husbands or romantic partners and certain types from friends, the way women of my mother’s generation seemed to? The idea that a husband should not just be a husband but a best friend, an everything, a partner’s entire emotional world, is a recent one. But is this new emotional transaction, this replacing of female intimates with a husband, really an even trade?
Not long before all this happened, another friend of mine, a wife and mother of three, had an emotional affair with her own new best friend, a woman she met at a coffee shop. Right from the beginning, there were problems. The friend was gay. She was straight. The friend was single. She was married. The friend wanted a real relationship with her, a sexual, romantic relationship, and she wanted, well … a best friend. When things between them soured, the woman withdrew her friendship along with her love, then finally withdrew her actual person, moving abroad, leaving my friend feeling more desolate than she’d ever remembered feeling. “I’ve had relationships with men, relationships with women. I’ve had amiable partings, shitty breakups, the whole gamut. But I’ve never experienced anything like this.” After a year, she could hardly talk about it without crying. “You know,” she said. “I’ve had so many relationships with men over the years, and there’s always something lacking. Some intensity. Some emotional connection. I’ve started to wonder if I’m seeking a degree of intimacy that’s not possible to maintain with someone I’m having sex with.”
Later, when I told her about my own travails, she sat back in her chair, sipped her drink, seemed to be mulling it over. “Is it really that you’re addicted to intimacy?” she asked. “Or is it that you have a problem achieving intimacy with an actual romantic partner? Maybe you’re not an intimacy addict. Maybe you’re intimacy-starved.”
That night I went home and woke my husband. “I need you to help me,” I told him through the near-darkness of our bedroom.
“I’ve been trying.”
“I know. I love you. But it’s like I’ve forgotten, like I need to remember how it felt. There’s this space between us. I’ve made it worse.”
He asked what he could do to make it better, what we could do. I told him I didn’t know. I told him I felt unmoored, untethered, like I was drifting out to sea. But no, even that wasn’t quite right. I said, “I have so many people in my life to love. And I still feel lonely. I still feel alone.” When I mentioned this to another friend, she assured me that I’m not the first person to ask these questions about intimacy: “I’ve read so many pieces lately about our longing for intimacy in our lives. I think the internet has flung us so far away from each other, even as we're there, in each other’s worlds, all the time.” This seems as reasonable an explanation as any. My fate is not tied up in any meaningful way with my casual friends and neighbors. Would I be happier back in the proverbial village, back on the shtetl? Would I do well with a few sister wives, or my own sister next door? Or would I be exactly the same?
A few years ago, before any of this happened, I hired a babysitter, and against the advice of my therapist and my husband, she and I, employee and employer, became friends. It makes sense. I see my babysitter more than I see most of the people in my life. We talk to each other about child care, groceries, housework, errands, but also, inevitably, about sex, marriage, addiction, depression — our various sources of longing and despair.
One day, she came into my room to ask what I wanted to do with a bag of onions I’d left on the counter, and instead of answering, I asked for her thoughts on marriage and female friendship. Did she think my need for intimacy beyond my husband and kids was strange, pathological, unavoidable?
“Sure,” she said. “Probably.” But she said she also understood it. Married for six years, she loved and remained devoted to her husband, yet she said there were often moments when she felt emotionally closer to her friends. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been unfaithful to him. I’m devoted and doting and all that shit. He’s the only person I want to go to bed with or eat breakfast with or have around when I get the stomach flu. But emotionally, I would say I’m more at ease and open and forthcoming with my friends, my mom, even my bartender. I’m sure he feels the same.”
“How can you be more intimate with the person who pours your drinks than the person who shares your bed, your income, your credit score and life?” I asked her.
“Exactly,” she said. “Real life is hard. It’s the enemy of feeling.”
This seemed the bleakest sort of pronouncement, but I didn’t challenge her on it. I knew what she meant. Marriage, motherhood, daughterhood, siblinghood: They all involve a complex, never-ending web of compromise and negotiation. Friendship, by comparison, feels light and free.
After a while, I came to terms with the fact that my new friend and I wouldn’t be soul mates or BFFs, we wouldn’t text constantly and talk on the phone for hours, make up our own language, or learn to do back handsprings together in the yard. We would be regular, grown-up friends. We would have brief moments of meaningful connection amid long stretches of silence or empty “How’s it going?” back-and-forths. It was a relief, but also, a little bit sad. “What’s the point?” I asked my husband. “Life is too short for small talk and bullshit.”
When we do talk, my friend seems happier than before, more grounded. And my husband and I are happier after starting couples counseling. Whatever mutual unmet needs tossed us into that initial intensity of friendship have passed. Still, I think we’re both grateful for having met. One day I tell her I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy and female friendship, and I ask her for her opinion. “What do you think you get from your closest female friends that you don’t get from the men in your life?”
“It’s a hard question to answer,” she writes. “Because the truth is: EVERYTHING.”
I know just what she means.
Kim Brooks’s novel, The Houseguest, will be published April 12th.