This was written a few years ago and posted on my memoir blog, which I took down about a year ago. I thought I’d moved it onto this blog, but apparently I didn’t. I’m putting it up now, and if it seems out of date, that’s why.
I just saw SEX AND THE CITY, and it was the best two-and-a-half hours I’ve spent since I rented the TV show’s DVDs. Fashion, beauty, love, sex, laughter, The Big Apple…plus, it’s a very secure feeling to know, when everything falls apart, it’ll all be made right at the end. The movie was panned, mercilessly and unfairly, in the NY Times. Hey, nobody’s saying this is high art. For what SATC is, it was well done. A lot of scenes had me tearing up, especially at the tender way Carrie’s friends take care of her, and I realized that a big appeal of the show lies in its romantic view of friendship. In an age when we’re not supposed to romanticize romance, the romantic impulse in SATC is superimposed onto friendship instead. Maybe that’s what I always liked about the series.
Friendship is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot this century, almost as much as I think about aging. In the last century I had dozens of friendships, ranging in longevity from three to forty-five years. I’m talking close friends, not mere acquaintances, mostly women, some in California, some in New York. Today I have almost none. I lost a few people to the Grim Reaper, but the others either drifted away, intentionally dumped me, or I dumped them. Some of the dumpings were as dramatic and painful as the deaths. I’ve spent much of this century trying to figure out what happened.
Before I could figure out the breakups I had to look clearly at the relationships as they were. One reason I’m so moved by the friendships in SATC is that I’ve never in my life had friends who treated me the way these women treat one another. Charlotte sat on the bed and spoon-fed Carrie during her meltdown. Miranda the attorney saved her apartment, and Samantha arranged to move all her belongings back into it—all accomplished while sitting on a veranda in Mexico, where they’d gone to nurse Carrie back into a reasonable semblance of human. Who has friends like these, much less three of them? I wish!
I used to say that the women in SATC were like no women I’ve ever known, that the show was a gay man’s fairy tale…but I suspended disbelief because I love fairy tales. What I was talking about then was the clothing, the clubbing, the fabulous life they led, the money. Let’s be real: no New York columnist at Carrie Bradshaw’s level, writing three times a week, makes enough bucks to pay New York City rent, much less buy Manolo Blahnik shoes with regularity. Now I realize it’s the actual friendship, the heart of SATC, that’s the real fairy tale. Contemporary women are beyond the myth of Happily Ever After with the Prince—but we still believe it can happen with girlfriends.
I used to consciously and seriously believe in friendship. It was one of my core values. Back in the 70s, when I got into consciousness-raising and the women’s movement, one of the first illusions that got tossed, along with the bras and leg-shaving gear, was romantic love. We actually held seminars and workshops on the subject. You’d be ridiculed if you believed that coupledom, as we sneeringly called it, could save you. It wasn’t just theoretical, either—I’d been married, I’d done the whole husband-kids-picket fence routine, and found it wanting.
We believed in forms of group living as a Solution, an antidote to the nuclear family, a phrase as loathsome to us as coupledom. Maybe a variation of the Israeli kibbutz would save us, maybe Chinese Socialism. We read up on these things, studied them. The hippie commune is now an old joke, but many of them were serious efforts to forge a better way of life, to raise happier kids. I lived in two or three group situations, all disastrous in one way or another. Still, though I came to the conclusion that communal living was my own worst nightmare, I didn’t stop believing in friendship as the key to a good life. I put a lot of time and energy into my friendships, as much as I put into my kids and each of my serially monogamous relationships—maybe even more, to my everlasting regret. As an investment in the future…better stick to blood, it really is thicker than water—though I haven’t had much luck in that department either.
You’d think by now I’d be done idealizing freindship, but, while I may be disillusioned, I’m not completely cynical. If I were, I wouldn’t be so enamored of Carrie Bradshaw and Company. Somewhere deep inside, I still believe that do-or-die freindships exist. I imagine that a lot of other people, or at least women, have them; in fact I know that some women do. I’m always reading stories by older women who say it’s their friends who pull them through. Just this year I read a memoir by Isabel Allende and another by Lilian Rubin, both praising their glorious friendships. I know a San Francisco woman whose birthday parties I used to go to—the last one I attended was her 70th—where dozens of devoted women come to honor her with gifts of poetry and love. These aren’t casual acquaintances, either, but intimate friends, nurtured during four decades of living, working, and political activism in SF.
I don’t want dozens of close friends. One or two would suffice. At a relatively late age, in my forties, I began a new friendship that turned out to be far healthier and more positive than previous relationships. Andrea’s primary life work was collecting people, and when we met, through a mutual friend’s death, she signed on for life. (People in New York tend to be that way—whomever you stumble into can end up a lifetime connection from which you can’t opt out without major drama. Californians, I’ve found, are more transient, drifting in and out of each other’s lives with little fanfare). During the eighteen years I knew Andrea, I learned what had been missing in previous friendships. I also faced up to my own failings as a friend, and learned how to do better. When she told me she had lung cancer, I confess that my first selfish reaction was self-pity: I’d finally found a real friend, so of course she was going to die. And she did.
Until 2003 my longest lasting friendship was one that began in high school. We gave lip service to the depth of our love and loyalty, but the truth is, our friendship came nowhere near SATC quality. In addition, vast gulfs of differences existed between us: she was the stable housewife and mother, and, like so many Americans, assumed hers was the normal life, mine aberrent. Once, after our kids were grown, she said it was a miracle that mine turned out so well despite my lifestyle. I wanted to say, maybe it’s because of our lifestyle, but my inability to defend myself was by then ingrained in our relationship.
Despite our differences, we had an intense emotional bond, a gut-level connection that was, at certain times and under certain circumstances, deeply satisfying. Our conversations could be profound, often spiritual. The odd thing was, while in some ways I was invisible to her, on another level she knew me better than anyone else. I loved her, and I love her still—but sometimes love is not enough.
The friendship ended during a health crisis that put me into the hospital seven times in one year. For the next two years I was sick, poor, and profoundly dissatisfied with my life, and she got tired, she said, of my “negativity.” At this time other friendships also fell by the wayside. Not only didn’t people help me when I was sick, they couldn’t even tolerate me. Yes, I was whiny; yes, I cried and complained a lot—but I don’t care how negative or insufferable I might have been at that time…what the fuck are friends for?
One friend in New York who I held onto happened to call a few minutes after I arrived home after four days in hospital. I was all alone, frightened about taking care of myself, and was trying to figure out the medication instructions the nurse had given me. Unable to make head or tail of them, feeling utterly lost, I answered the phone crying. From 3000 miles away, Joani called the hospital and got the information, then called me back to deliver it. At that time I had friends in San Francisco who told me, “Gee, I wish I could help you, but I’m all the way on the other side of the bridge.” So, yes, Joani is a keeper.
Unlike four or five other alleged friends.
For almost 30 years I’d been helping S. with her health crises—taking her to doctors, writing bureaucratic letters for her, giving her a television when hers broke, always making her musical compilations. I never expected much from her because of her own health problems, but she did manage to go out to a play or movie from time to time…so why couldn’t she visit me just once? Another friend stuck it out for a few months, even drove me home from the hospital once, but then she decided we were “going in different directions.” She was trying to be spiritual and kind, she explained, while I was becoming bitter and negative. After fifteen years of friendship, she walked out the door because I wasn’t being spiritual enough for her.
I’m aware that in reciting this litany of complaints against others, I’m opening myself to judgment and disbelief: when we hear stories like these, we automatically wonder what we’re not hearing—the other side. We read between the lines, imagining the awful deeds this person must have done to deserve so much bad treatment. It’s true my ex-friends have their own points of view, and for sure I’m no angel. But from my point of view, this is what happened. At the age of 63 I’ve become someone I never in a million years thought I would be: a lonely, isolated senior with few resources and no support system.
It’s a cliché, isn’t it—the notion of fair weather friends, the old saw that in times of need you find out who your real friends are. The only thing is, I should have found it out long ago. I’d led a life full of crises as the single mother of a son who had seizures and surgical procedures. I felt quite alone with all that—and it wasn’t just a feeling. I see now that I just couldn’t bear to face the truth: I’d already given up on romantic love and the nuclear family; if I gave up on friendship, what would be left?
My mother used to tell me, “You can never count on anyone but yourself.” I scoffed at her cynicism. My generation was different. We’d care for one another. All you need is love and so forth. But as it turns out, to employ another cliché, Mother was right. My life has shown me that all I can count on is myself. I loved watching Sex and the City because it offered a momentary escape from that harsh reality, a few minutes or hours to pretend that life can be the way I used to think it should be.
Now, when my son or daughter do something especially kind or helpful for me (and they do) it makes me happy…but I don’t expect it. I try not to expect anything from anyone.
My next lesson is to learn not to be bitter about it.