With the help of all of my friends—my best one included—I’ve gotten better at being my whole self.
This is , a column by Destiny O. Birdsong on her experiences as a Black woman surviving healthcare, homemaking, and relationships.
In a way, she’d been right. I hadn’t been there. The twenty-year-old Destiny she met and befriended all those years ago was long gone. And the truth was, I was glad.
I came to Nashville, where my best friend and I met as a college freshman, ostensibly on the run. My mother had recently married a man who was, from his first night in our home, abusive. Shortly after, she gave birth to my brother, who was premature and very sick. My sister married her boyfriend the same year, and the nuclear family unit I’d known my whole life—my mom, my disabled aunt, my sister, and me—vanished. Everyone was busy with their new challenges. In response, I left in search of some semblance of family, and I cycled through toxic friendships until the day I walked into the restaurant where I worked as a waitress. Darren, the dreadlocked drummer in a Christian rock band (who I teased mercilessly but secretly had a crush on), ran up to me.
“Oh, man. I was training this new girl today, and she dropped a dirty plate in the middle of the kitchen and kept walking.” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “She acts just like you!”
“Impossible,” I smirked. “They broke the mold when they made me.”
In some ways, my best friend’s life and mine were mirror images, and in other ways, they were polar opposites. We were phenotypically different from each other, as well as from every other person on staff. She was the darkest-skinned woman working there, and I was the lightest. As a result, we were both made fun of and, in some cases, outright insulted. Our common and most effective strategy was tag-team retaliation. Tell a joke about us? We’d tell one right back, and if you went below the belt, we’d launch a bowling ball at your crotch. Our coworkers were unmatched and soon afraid of us, but we didn’t care. When we joined forces, people left us alone.
As problematic as our defense mechanisms were, they counterbalanced the vulnerability we felt everywhere else. I was working full-time and attending school in a city where I had no relatives and little support from back home. My best friend was a single mother who had come there on her father’s promise that she could live with him while going back to school, but when he wasn’t around, her stepmother repeatedly told her she was a burden. Soon, she moved into an apartment in my complex and, like me, spent most of the month scrambling to make rent. In each other, we found an endless supply of commiseration and encouragement, but also fierce protectiveness that would persist long after we both left the place where we met.
My best friend was also one of the first people to whom I told my dreams about writing.When I wondered aloud about pursuing a dual MFA/PhD, she said, in her characteristic nonchalance, “I think you should do it.”
Years later, when I was jobless and bored, she gave me her AT&T password so I could watch her favorite television show, Power. The behind-the-scenes chats with the show’s creator, Courtney A. Kemp, first interested me in scene construction and, eventually, fiction, a genre my best friend was already building a name in.
And I could have never learned to craft dialogue without hours upon hours of the phone time we spent recreating conversations with our parents, boyfriends, and other trifling people. In those marathon talks, which often happened in the middle of the night, we would provoke each other, becoming enraged or excited at the right moments and brainstorming perfect future clapbacks. This was how we affirmed each other and how we modeled radical mutualistic care. But in our cocreating, I was also learning how to better do what I love: tell stories.
Our relationship was the exact opposite of everything I’d been told to mistrust about other women who, as my elders told me, “you can’t always let in your house.” This warning was both literal and metaphorical, since some women could steal your man while others could come to know too much about you, a danger whose implications I still don’t understand, at least not in friendships where love and trust are genuine and reciprocal.
I trusted my best friend with everything. If she didn’t know it, it meant no one else in the world did. She couldn’t heal my wounds, but for a long time she gave them space to be tended to with honesty and compassion. As a Black woman with albinism, I don’t always have the luxury of being seen without being treated like a spectacle, or like a receptacle for other people’s presumptions and discomforts. As a dark-skinned Black woman, my best friend often felt the same way. And from our early days working with cruel line cooks and indifferent shift managers, we worked hard to provide safer spaces for each other.
I don’t remember when I told her this, but I once explained how, as a kid, I wanted a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll, and my mother, who couldn’t afford it, told me to ask my father. He never got it, and soon after that conversation, he disappeared. But on Valentine’s Day 2015, days after I’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s, I got a large box in the mail decorated with the Disney logo and Mickey’s trademark ears. I was confused when I dragged it over to the couch and ripped off the tape, but as soon as I sifted through the packing peanuts and saw a polka-dot dress, I knew exactly what it was.
“They had a brown Minnie too,” she ventured later, over the phone, “and I would have gotten her instead, but she was sold out.”
Of course I told her I didn’t care. Minnie was perfect, and she sat on my bed for years, a pink kitten-heeled sentry who I often cradled when I felt triggered or anxious. “Who remembers things like that?” I would ask rhetorically whenever I told people about the gift. The answer is: people who love you fiercely enough to remember your dreams as well as your hurts.
But the dangerous component of any kind of love is the presumption of exclusivity without consent. “Love . . . does not demand its own way,” writes the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, and as simple as that statement may be, it’s hard as hell to put into practice, especially if the love you’re trying to protect has held you for decades, and you see its extension to anyone or anything else as an open threat.
My friendship with my best friend was a fluke because I was never good at sniffing out people’s ulterior motives. This made her suspicious and readily critical of every new friend I made. For years, her running joke was that every time I started singing the praises of some “shiny new person,” she’d sit back and wait for the other shoe to drop. And she was usually right: I’ve had more shoes drop in friendships than a Black Friday sale at DSW.
The answer is: people who love you fiercely enough to remember your dreams as well as your hurts.
But in recent years, my ability to find and cultivate better relationships has improved. Somehow, I’ve created a circle of people who collectively share my range of interests. With one friend, I can talk for hours about my hoop dreams for my books, or we can reminisce about the gospel singers our mothers used to love. In another I have both a loving supporter and a mentor, who gives gentle but devastating advice, like for my punctuality.
“Birdsong,” she says. “You can do better.”
In other friends, I have writing partners, or folks with whom I can compare notes about vibrators and natural hair-care products. Still others share my subjectivity as survivors of sexual violence. With them, I can commiserate on the messiness of healing. In each relationship, I find a piece of myself, or I can hold up a piece and ask, “How do I love this?” And in their own way, each one says, “Here’s what I know. Here’s where I have been. Here’s how I got free.”
With the help of all of my friends—my best one included—I’ve gotten better at being my whole self. But that self isn’t the same person who would laugh when my best friend quoted the title of Drake’s “No New Friends” to remind me that, as far as she was concerned, the only people we needed were each other. But now, I am a Black person who believes in community—in the family I’m building with my close friends as well as global Diasporic networks that include people who are Black like me but also unlike me, and who have different histories, different challenges, different identities. But I cannot move healthily in any of those communities if I haven’t begun healing from my own past, from the hurts I’ve experienced in my biological family, my past friendships, and elsewhere. I want to trust people. I want to forgive. I want better loves, ones who neither commit nor speak harm. I also want a successful writing life.
All of this feels essential to my well-being.
A few nights before the infamous Fourth of July weekend, I cooked dinner as I chatted with my best friend about my plans to spend the holiday writing. I was excited but nervous. The fact that my agent found my novel, a triptych about three women living with albinism in my hometown, sellable, was news that felt like it was too good to be true. Part of my sense of urgency stemmed from the fear that it indeed might have been.
“I can’t believe she wants the book,” I kept saying between explanations about the freelance work I had to finish before turning to it. My best friend read my planning aloud as a warning.
“Okay, I won’t call you,” she said dejectedly before hanging up.
I stood in my kitchen, dumfounded. But that’s not what I said, I reminded myself over and over again.
In hindsight, I think her mis-hearing was a function of her mis-seeing me, which, during our final conversation, made her see my rapist as a plausible comparison to my writing, even though the dissimilarities between my current and past lives are what has saved me. I still love with intensity the people who enter my life, and, when we can, we revel in the joy of being in each other’s (now mostly digital) presence.
But even while creating new communities, I need rest and solitude, time to reflect. And the work I do now feels like such a part of my identity that I’m not nearly as prone to ditching it for four-hour conversations like I did in years past. I’m not saying that I’m better than I was. I’m not even saying I’ve outgrown my best friend. But I am closer to living the life I want than at any other moment I’ve been alive, and I get consumed by that. I agree to too many projects and then I’m up all hours of the night, tapping away at the keyboard, then sleeping through the morning and feeling guilty about getting too little exercise and sunlight. But I’ll be honest with you: I fucking love it.
Writing full-time is a precarious, sometimes terrifying existence, but it’s one that makes me feel both held and free. But I do understand that, from the outside looking in, it might have appeared as a betrayal to my best friend when I didn’t answer her morning calls, then logged on to Zoom each day to work on my novel with a different friend. It might have also felt like she was being pushed out, but my best friend was never, ever on the outside. I always thought she understood that as completely as she once understood me. I wish I knew how to make both true again. But I also believe in autonomy, and—if they so choose—in letting people walk away from me.
Sociologists, historians, and even the authors of slave narratives have discussed the ways capitalism, racism, and misogynoir have systematically destroyed Black families, but those same forces also come to bear on Black communities. Communal love requires being present, but so many of my struggles to survive as a Black woman call me away. I am constantly managing what it means to practice radical Black love and radical Black self-care. Both are revolutionary acts of resistance, and both come at a price, sometimes to each other. I’ve ended my best friendship understanding that its ending is not all tragedy. Tucked in it is the miracle that we survived as long as we did.
Nothing in this world—not our jobs, not our parents, and not even the ways we choose to heal from our past traumas—protects the survival of Black love, and yet, my best friend and I loved each other for a long time. That love lasted longer than our other relationships and the devastations that marked our early adulthoods. I am deeply grateful for that; I carry so much of it with me into my new endeavors. But I am also carrying something else I can’t quite name, something new that has emerged from the fertile soil of that love, that has been nourished by it but is also strong enough to be planted in new ground.
Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Poets & Writers, The Paris Review Daily, Boston Review, African American Review, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection. Her debut novel, Nobody's Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central in February 2022. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University.