I met Jessica in fifth grade, in Mr. O’Donnell’s class. Mr. O’Donell’s classroom management strategy boiled down to a stopwatch and the misty promise of a trip to Wendy’s on a school day if we could keep the time spent misbehaving to a minimum. I am sure Jess and I rolled our eyes at this, but ours was never merely a giggle-behind-the teacher’s back and shop for earrings kind of friendship –our connection was about shared experience and understanding.
We were war buddies from the start. The enemy wore Guess jeans, Esprit sweaters, and the Little Orphan Annie perm that was mysteriously popular at the time. They whispered threats down into our foxholes and trenches; they invited us to peace talks they never planned to attend; they prowled the halls, the library, the bathrooms and schoolyard like snipers –nowhere was safe. We huddled behind playground equipment or next to the building, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation. What made girls act like this? We couldn’t imagine, so we talked –about her years at private school, my parents’ divorce, whether the trip to Wendy’s would ever really happen (it did; Jessica was absent that day).
On the days Jessica wasn’t at school, my senses buzzed from overstimulation. I projected my paranoia onto the apathetic kid who stored his boogers on an index card in his desk, onto fellow victims, onto Mr. O’Donnell himself. It was all very Apocalypse Now. Jessica was more loyal than I was at first, so the friendship benefited me more than it did her.
Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”
I’m part Gypsy, part WASP, which means my battle instincts have always been convoluted –part of me wanted to cut the little bitches with a pearl-handled knife, cursing their families down through the generations; the other part wanted to insult their taste in art and music and imply that they came from new money. I usually ended up throwing my own allies under the bus in my confusion and I’m sure Jessica was one of them, but we stayed close –we understood each other.
As we got older –she experimenting with cigarettes and Children’s Theater, I reading dirty novels and stealing change from my stepdad to buy Domino’s pizzas after school –our enemy shifted from the garden-variety alpha-girl to our crippling self-doubt. Who was going to tell us whether or not we were pretty? How much would electric blue mascara and zinc-pink lipstick help? What in the hell were those stupid 4’3″ junior high boys LOOKING FOR?
We lay in her room on Camelback Drive asking these questions over and over again. We didn’t get answers, but knowing that Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were struggling with some of the same issues helped a little bit. Having each other helped more. She made me laugh so hard –she still does. More than that, though, Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”
That shouldn’t be so hard to find, but of course it is.
I’ve been in and out of touch with Jessica over the years –a friendship this long will always have its seasons, so I don’t think either of us worries about it. Sometimes I go find her, sometimes she comes to find me, but we’ll always be able to reconnect because we’re the same in all the important ways –in temperament, values, sincerity, and history.
I’m thinking about her because we talked tonight. I hadn’t heard her voice in a while, so I had that time-travelly feeling I tend to get when I talk to someone I knew in childhood or adolescence about how the kids and spouses are doing. For a second it feels like we’re pretending, talking about what we imagine life with husbands and children would be like. But then the tide comes back in and we’re talking about grownup stuff like how it feels to send the kids off to school for the first time or how to balance what we give our families materially with what we give them spiritually. And now I feel time-travelly again, because though we may not have talked about these particular topics as we hid from the alpha girls on the playground, we would have talked about their 10-year-old equivalents, like how it would feel to make a mean girl cry for the first time and how to balance who you want to be with who you have to be.
I hope you have a friend like this, one who’s always in it with you, who is scared of and inspired by the same things you are year after year, who is willing to sit talking with you while you work it all out, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation until you don’t know whether you’re 10 or 17 or 38. It doesn’t matter as long as you know you’re not alone.