Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had two best friends. Funny and creative and bright. Beautiful girls with the kind of long, straight hair I coveted. These were note-writing years and Thanksgiving Day Game rally on the Post Office step years. Years we danced in Ericka Hemphill’s basement to Brick House, years we wore down vests with hoodies underneath them, Levi corduroys, Tretorn sneakers. We took chorus with Mr. Norcia whose heart seemed permanently broken by our tunelessness. In gym class, during the gymnastics unit, Laura Sminkey brought in her Carly Simon album and we hung around pretending to take turns on the trampoline singing You’re So Vain. Saturday Night Live had the original Not Ready for Primetime Players. We knew every word of Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleepovers occurred in people’s re-done basements where we unrolled our sleeping bags on cement floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting and slept like rocks.
I thought the same thing we all think when we’re just becoming teenagers: these days will never end. These friendships will last my whole life. Especially, most fervently, I thought that.
For a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer, who kept journals, who has vivid memories that certainly seem real, I should be able to remember what, exactly, went wrong with those two friendships. The generalities, I recall, and can sum up this way: Whatever it took to be a good friend, I had not quite figured out and it cost me.
I spent a little more than one year of high school without friends (except my 4-H friends, but I was without a license and the half hour between my house and theirs seemed like a journey to Bangladesh). I learned, from a very unique perspective, that, despite how friendly people were when you sat next to them in Spanish class, when it came time to saving you a seat at the lunch table or calling you up to invite you to the basketball game, they had their group and, perhaps they assumed, you still had yours.
Thanks to Donna Schaeffer, Mary Jo Sisco, and Sandra Trombino, I wasn’t lonely for long, but those lessons stayed with me. You could grow very attached to someone and then, everything could end.
The ghosts of those friendships followed me all the way out of Westerly High School and to the University of New Hampshire where one fall night, I sat at my desk doing homework. Lauren Liberman, the girl next door who never seemed to be next door, was sitting in the chair beside me eating a Tootsie Pop and avoiding her own studying.
My roommate, Tedi, was clever and witty and unpredictable. Even so early in the semester, we were used to her making us laugh. But when I said something humorous, Lauren stared at me.
“You’re funny,” she said, the way a suspicious detective would say, “You’re left-handed,” to a suspect in a case where the murderer was left-handed.
I shrugged and continued on with my assignment, ignoring them the rest of the night.
A few weeks later in the dining hall, she said, “You do know what your nickname is here, right?”
I’d never had a nickname and had always wanted one, so this was exciting. But then she said, “The Stone.”
Why was she even here with me? She mostly hung out with Tedi who must’ve had a late class. The first day we’d moved into the university’s biggest and most notorious highrise, Lauren’s mother had cornered Tedi’s and said, “Have your daughter look out for my daughter.” A bond had been forged.
I, on the other hand, wanted none of it. Dependencies. People waiting to eat dinner with you so you didn’t have to eat alone. Late night chats in your pajamas while someone air popped some corn. Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, I would have chanted, if I had had any awareness of my own actions. Obviously, I had no idea how to be a friend. This I had accepted about myself as easily as I understood I needed to avoid calculus at all costs. But so long as I was minding my own business, who cared?
“We call you this because you give nothing away,” she said. “Nothing.”
Outside the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, kids played hacky sack on the sparse lawn or walked in groups towards the library up the hill.
“I don’t know you,” I said.
“No,” she said, “and at this rate, you’ll never get to know anyone. You have to let people in, you know.”
After this ABC Afterschool Special moment, I choked down whatever beige food I’d collected on my tray, mumbled a silent: Fuck you, and headed back out onto a campus where, mercifully, I knew no one. It was one of the reasons I had been so desperate to come here.
I played intramural sports. Interviewed to be a Freshman Camp counselor. Volunteered to help out with the floor’s pasta party. Look at me! I wanted to say. I’m fitting in here just fine, thank you.
Later that semester, back in the dining hall, a boy from my English class walked by me and tossed a napkin onto my tray. George and I walked to class each night with another girl from my dorm. The first boy I’d met on campus happened to be a farmer’s kid, too, red-faced, more painfully awkward than I was (or at least I hoped so).
As he darted out the door in his Allis Chalmers hat and Wranglers, I opened the napkin: Party in my dorm room, Saturday night.
Christ, I thought. The more you try to avoid people, the more napkin notes they toss into your unsuspecting path.
Tedi was heading home that weekend, stocking up on leather boots and silk sweaters at the mall she could see from her bedroom window. I could just refuse the invitation, but that seemed cruel. I might not be interested in George, but I could appreciate the risk he took in chucking that missive in my direction.
“If I’m not back in an hour, call campus security,” I said. In Tedi’s absence, Lauren had camped out on her bed.
“I’ll go with you,” she said. There are times, this many years later, that I still think she’s a little crazy.
“What are you talking about?”
“You can’t go alone, can you?”
Maybe not, but I wouldn’t have accompanied her.
Still, we went. To Alexander Hall which was full of jocks minus one Future Farmer of America whose party consisted of me, him, his roommate, and Lauren, who, when they asked us, posed with me in a picture. Trophy girls for the first and only times in our lives, perhaps, we sat together on the plaid bedspread and smiled.
That was the end of that romance, but not the end of my friendship with Lauren. It was a friendship, it turned out. After all, how can you continue to keep your guard up around a person willing to honor your very first napkin note invite? A person whose image, even now, might be tacked up over a workbench on some cold New England farm where a much older George reminisces on his college sweethearts?
She has taught me many things about how to be a friend starting with this: you don’t have to do everything alone. What a gift that was. How it began to heal me. Every friendship I have made since, began in that moment she revealed my nickname. Every one.
Today is my birthday and, in this era of social media, I’ve been wished so many happy birthdays from so many wonderful people. Hard to believe how lucky I am. But along with the gratitude I feel for every greeting, comes the lingering sadness that, once in my life, I lost two people whose friendships I might have had almost five decades later. Those two women keep a part of my history no one else will ever have a glimpse into. And, somehow, I had to let them go. I had to turn to stone, and then, ever so slowly, return to my very flawed and vulnerable self.
It might surprise people that such a happy day always reminds me of less happy ones. But it won’t surprise Lauren.