Heather O’Neill re­dis­cov­ers the power of fe­male friend­ships.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Heather O’Neill

What hap­pens when you wake up and re­al­ize you have no friends?

when I was a lit­tle girl, liv­ing in Vir­ginia, I had a best friend named Court­ney. She stole my Bionic Woman doll, clan­des­tinely tak­ing off the toy’s dark-blue cov­er­alls and putting a dress on it, think­ing I would not rec­og­nize it.

“This is not your Bionic Woman doll,” she said when I con­fronted her.

“Yes, it is,” I de­clared. “Look at the panel on her arm. Where you can see all the nuts and bolts un­der­neath her skin.”

“I don’t know what you’re talk­ing about,” she said.

I went home weep­ing. My mother said that she be­lieved Court­ney was psy­chotic and mean. I adored Court­ney. She was small for her age and had straight blond hair and was a com­pul­sive liar. I thought that the ly­ing gave her an edge. She made ev­ery­thing dif­fi­cult, and we had height­ened absurdist ex­changes on a daily ba­sis. What was there not to like about this amaz­ing girl?

My mother said, rather flip­pantly, that I had to end the re­la­tion­ship. It’s a scary thing to be a lit­tle girl with­out a best friend, though. It’s hu­man na­ture to cou­ple up, and chil­dren don’t take the com­mit­ment of be­ing some­one’s best friend lightly. They un­der­stand the obli­ga­tions that come with it. Lit­tle girls brag about the length of time they have been best friends with each other like old mar­ried cou­ples.

But I didn’t have to watch Court­ney make other best friends be­cause my mother sent me to live with my fa­ther shortly af­ter­wards. So I ar­rived in Mon­treal rather pa­thetic and lonely and ter­ri­fied.

Per­haps I had aban­don­ment is­sues, be­cause I be­gan a pat­tern of mess­ing up my re­la­tion­ships with best friends. I’m ashamed to ad­mit all of the ter­ri­ble, lame-ass ways I let my fe­male friends down. I got too busy with school or work. I ig­nored them when I was dat­ing men. The bonds didn’t seem im­por­tant to me.

Then I got to be in my mid-30s and re­al­ized that there was some­thing miss­ing from my life. I was at the Mon­treal Mu­seum of Fine Arts when I saw Lau­rel for the first time. She had squig­gly h

blond hair and cov­er­alls, just like the ones my Bionic Woman wore. She was with a guy, and they were talk­ing loudly about a paint­ing.

I man­aged to get in on their con­ver­sa­tion, to­tal­ly ig­nor­ing the man she was with. We be­came friends, agree­ing to meet again. She had big sparkly blue eyes. She looked right at me when I was talk­ing to her and hu­mor­ously chal­lenged ev­ery­thing I said. She al­ways wore cov­er­alls, look­ing like she had just landed on this planet, as if she had come from a galaxy where peo­ple were much friend­lier and had big­ger hearts. Lau­rel was re­ally, re­ally popular. Ev­ery­where I went with her, peo­ple would come up to say hello. It sud­denly seemed like the most won­der­ful en­deav­our to make a new fe­male friend. I wanted to have a con­fi­dante I could ar­gue with and be ex­cited about. I wanted to have a lu­di­crous friend like Court­ney again. I wanted to lis­ten to the wild thought pat­terns of the fe­male mind.

Lately, the ro­man­tic sub­lim­ity and com­plex­i­ties of fe­male re­la­tion­ships have been dis­cussed ev­ery­where— from the TV show Girls to the nov­els of Ital­ian writer Elena Fer­rante— almost as if they were a rev­ela­tory con­cept. But women have al­ways had spe­cial ties to one another. In the 1960s, Bri­tish writer Nell Dunn wrote about women who worked in fac­to­ries and were house­wives and who chat­ted in back­yards and on street cor­ners. It was beau­ti­ful and won­drous and bril­liant. But there was an aura of se­cret in­ti­macy around their con­ver­sa­tions—as if you were lis­ten­ing to some­one singing in the shower. It was a very pri­vate world, sep­a­rate from the realms of business and pol­i­tics.

Now, fe­male voices are part of the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion. But there is still a long way to go. In her book of es­says, Bad Fem­i­nist, Rox­ane Gay pro­fesses ir­ri­ta­tion with women who are proud of only be­ing friends with men. But, of course, that pride has a very dis­tinct his­tory: Pro­fes­sional women had to con­verse mainly with men. It would prob­a­bly be safe to say that, for the past cen­tury, there has ex­isted a di­rect cor­re­la­tion be­tween how suc­cess­ful a woman is and how of­ten she speaks to men dur­ing the day.

In the past, fe­male fel­low­ship was a hall­mark of do­mes­tic and emo­tional im­por­tance, but now th­ese re­la­tion­ships are fi­nally be­ing given pub­lic re­spect. Emily Gould’s Friend­ship, for in­stance, is a cele­bra­tion of two women who meet at work, each be­com­ing the most im­por­tant per­son in the other’s life. There are no male char­ac­ters in the book. Gould, who used to be an ed­i­tor at Gawker and lives in Brook­lyn, pub­lished her novel in the sum­mer of 2014. It was met with a flurry of both crit­i­cal ac­claim and at­tacks, likely be­cause the char­ac­ters are at times un­like­able and self-in­dul­gent—pre­vi­ously the do­main of male pro­tag­o­nists.

Gould’s novel was in­spired by her real-life friend­ship with pub­lish­ing in­sider Ruth Curry, with whom she has cre­ated an on­line fem­i­nist book­store called Emily Books. “Start­ing a business to­gether raised the stakes of our friend­ship in ways we weren’t pre­pared for,” she ex­plains. She de­scribes how it was nec­es­sary for the two of them to de­con­struct their re­la­tion­ship and make sure it was work­ing in or­der to have a suc­cess­ful business.

I thought I would ask for Gould’s ad­vice be­fore at­tempt­ing to gain Lau­rel’s trust. “What do you think are some of the obli­ga­tions of be­ing a best friend?” I in­quired. “You have to avoid check­ing out of the friend­ship in favour of a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship,” she re­sponded. “You need to be will­ing to dis­cuss and fix prob­lems in­stead of ig­nor­ing them and hop­ing they’ll go away, which sounds sim­ple but is ac­tu­ally the big­gest ob­sta­cle to friend­ship longevity. You have to rec­og­nize that friend­ships do take work, even re­ally good ones.”

Yet friend­ships re­tain their magic and in­ti­macy and won­der. As Gould wist­fully states: “I imag­ine us some­day as a pair of old ladies with white hair walk­ing around com­plain­ing about our rheuma­tism and yelling at rude teens. It’s go­ing to be so great.”

Some­times, I imag­ine what Court­ney and I would talk about had we de­cided to re­main friends and grow old to­gether. Per­haps she would still deny the ob­vi­ous and re­fute the sta­tus quo like a ma­li­cious ni­hilist philoso­pher.

For now, I can rel­ish all the strange things I will learn from Lau­rel. n

It sud­denly seemed like the most won­der­ful en­deav­our to make a new fe­male friend. I wanted to have a con­fi­dante I could ar­gue with and be ex­cited about.

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