I don’t remember the first time I met her. Perhaps when things are really important, we don’t remember first moments. Or, more likely, I just met her before I was old enough to form these kinds of intentional memories, before I was capable of reaching back in time and freezing an image into significance, naming it a beginning. Our friendship had already made a home in my life, inconvenient and necessary, before I knew how to frame a single memory as though it were a weather event that left the landscape altered.
Instead I remember a day three years or so into our friendship, when we sat on the grey-painted plasticky wood cabinets in the back hallway of the local arts center where we’d met when I was nine and she was eleven, when our age seemed a giddy and unbridgeable gap. Now we were three years older and inseparable. My legs dangled off the counter next to hers. She wore a mini-skirt and I wore boring jeans. I was a slow, dumb thing, a single syllable noun to her bright adjectives, and we stayed there all afternoon, talking about boys and about the future, coming up with something to talk about just so we could keep talking to each other. It is one of the first times I ever remember being happy, where happiness meant enough that I could notice it and name it, distinguishing a single day from all the others.
People talk about first love and the transformative experience of initial romance. Love is how we climb out of the window of the family house and discover a world other than the one into which we were born. The shock of loving someone without being related to them jolts us into participation in the larger world. But my first experience of romance, the first love that propelled me into a world beyond the familiar, was this friendship. The kind of wild closeness I had with my first best friend still seems to be like the thing toward which romance strives and of which it often falls short.
We became friends through a kind of osmosis—all we did was spend time around each other. When we make friends at a very early age, all that matters is proximity and repetition. In adulthood, our criteria for friendship may be shared values or shared interests, but in childhood we don’t yet have our values or our interests defined; the people we stand next to long enough when we’re young become our friends, and through those early friendships we develop the values and interests on which we base later ones. This process is both dangerous and compelling—it leaves us feeling more deeply loyal to these friends than to almost anyone else, yet without any solid reason for that loyalty. She and I were in the same place at the same time frequently enough for a few years that eventually it amounted to an obsessive and singular love. We remained fiercely devoted to each other well into adulthood, yet often talked about how we would not have become friends had we met as adults.
The people we love in childhood sometimes come to stand in for the whole of childhood. They come to represent the entirety of what it felt like to live in future-tense verbs, when all we could do was draw up big, grand, architecturally impossible blueprints for what was to come, when doing so had no sadness to it, only hope—like something on which to bite down and grit your teeth, rushing into the violence of the waiting world with both hands open.
In a small, dumb, beautiful suburban town, we walked around in the summer and leaned against bus stops. We sat on the ground in parking lots at night and waited at the edges of malls for someone else’s car that was always on its way. Generally, we did a lot of nothing, but it was the shape of the nothing itself that was hopeful—what we did was talk to each other, and construct each other out of talk, out of our fervent belief, for no particular reason, that the other person was important. Every benchmark and stepping stone of romance was there in this friendship: I learned to guard someone fiercely and to build a narrative with them; how to make a small and average person into a myth; how this is action that pulls on the dotted line and detaches love from the hopeless ongoings of the world.
I never settled whether I actually was in love with her in a way that included real sexual desire, but I never settled that about anyone at that age. I was so paralyzed by my own undesirable body that I couldn’t truly consider the question of whether I was attracted to anyone—the question stopped at the knowledge that they would never be attracted to me. And yet our whole friendship was about sex—the language and material of it, its concern and its thesis. She was having sex and I wasn’t, and it was a difference that filled up all the space in every room. I understand now that so much of my later cruelty and callousness came from a jealousy that obliterated avenues to compassion; I never uninstalled the hungry, angry thing that only knew she had the keys to the kingdom, and I didn’t.
The early heyday of AOL coincided with the early heyday of our friendship. My parents had put parental controls on my computer, but hers hadn’t, and we would stay up in her house after they’d gone to bed, talking to strangers with screen names that more often than not referenced fictional vampires, telling them fake ages and names and stories, and shrieking behind our hands as they told us what they wanted to do to the bodies of these imaginary characters. We dissected what we’d typed, separating out disgust from interest. Even now, almost two decades later, every time I go to bed with my partner of three years, her ghost is there—the story of how I want anyone is still about her.
People, like hometowns, become who we are, inescapable as the bends in our fingers and the way we pronounce words, our past built into the clumsiness and the grace that we carry into the world. The people we loved and to whom we no longer speak become the way we place the question mark in a sentence, the musical phrasing of our words, the pitch and octave of our laughter. The people we loved first are often people we end up hating, but they are as much who we are as ourselves. They remain in place underneath the noise, like the final sound of someone else breathing when the whole city goes to sleep. We wear our ghosts in our skin.
It was a love so big it obliterated any kindness within it. We carried resentments from childhood into adulthood. Our friendship seemed to matter more than anything and at the same time to be based on nothing. We were unable to treat each other well as we got older, and we began a long process of breakups and reunions and betrayals. We no longer made sense to each other, but to give up this friendship was to give up a link to history, to surrender a coherent connection back to a starting point. When I was twenty-five and she was twenty-seven, we stopped speaking to each other, probably long after we should have done so, long after our insistence on continuing to love each other had done damage in the other’s life. It was ugly, but I did not know, with her, how to get out of the smallness I had felt in adolescence, how to apply any knowledge I had gained since then. This is one danger of first loving someone before loss and consequence teach us compassion. We have to start somewhere and often we are not ready for other people, for the shock at what they call up in us, for the want in our stomach that scratches its claws in the dirt.
People talk a lot about whether men and women can be friends, as though the difficulty of friendship stopped there, as though the same question shouldn’t be asked about all friendship—can two women be friends, can two people be friends, can two teenage kids be friends right at the gateway to an adult kind of want, when unspecified, un-activated sex is shimmering around them like a heat haze in the air? Is there any love possible in which one person doesn’t want something from the other that isn’t quite the same thing that the other person wants from them? I don’t know, really, but I know I’ve never had a friendship with a man that was as difficult, or mattered as much, as this one did.
Another friend once taught a college course called “Strange Friendship.” She explained that the course examined texts depicting “uncategorizable intimate relationships.” I had never felt so seen by a single phrase, or wanted so much to fold myself inside a pair of words. Here I had a term for this relationship that had mattered so much more to me than any boyfriend ever had, which had taught me the patterns of romance, but which was bigger than all the words that tried to contain it. All relationships, perhaps, are strange friendships, making the words meant to encapsulate them seem puny and embarrassing in contrast to the thing they mean to convey. I have always liked the word friendship; its lack of definition suggests the world of inarticulate specificity in any particular love, the untold stories that render definition insufficient.
Much later, after she and I had stopped speaking, after I had stopped admitting her into the story of my own becoming, I ran into an awful ex-boyfriend of hers who had always hit on me when she was in the other room at parties; I dated him for a while. It was horrible and he was horrible, but what I wanted from him was merely the ability to get back to her. He had dated her at the time when her and my friendship had been running high and reckless and giddy, and we had learned the same languages from loving her, the same incessant pop culture references and turns of phrase, the same vitriol at the same small things and the same reflexive inside jokes, like old musicians playing scales before they’re awake. I stayed with her ex for a few months, both of us saturating in the memory of something we’d lost, allowing one another to believe what was gone could be called back.
The people I love now and the way I love them feel smaller and less consequential than what I had with her, which is to say that I am better at loving them, capable of being careful with their hearts and able to tell when they are careful with mine. Maintaining boundaries no longer feels like a betrayal, and the lack of those boundaries no longer feels like proof of love. But nothing else is that friendship, a love that encompassed the whole swinging and unknowable bigness of that word. I have learned how to do things more conscientiously, how to weave compassion into the village-burning selfishness that desire seems to permit when we first encounter it. That’s a part of first love, too, what we learn and unlearn, the tenderness in other people, and also their trapdoors. My understanding of romance started with friendship, and always returns to it, this insistent strangeness, this country beyond the edge of the map where no one can find us.
Helena Fitzgerald has published essays in The New Inquiry, Vice, Brooklyn Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Refinery29, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and Bookslut, among many others. She can be found on twitter @helfitzgerald, and writes a somewhat-weekly tinyletter at http://tinyletter.com/griefbacon. She is currently at work on a book about the 1977 blackout in New York City.