The Unique Power (and Great Comfort) of a Lifelong Friendship

A romance isn’t the only relationship where opposites attract. In friendship, too, we seek out our inverse for fun, comfort, and fulfillment. Think Buzz and Woody, Oscar and Felix, or, in the case of this story, Meg (Wolitzer) and Martha.

Photo by Courtesy of Meg Wolitzer

First of all, we had nothing in common. Martha was glamorous and elegant, while I was unfinished and quirky. She knew so much about the world, while I knew so little. Nearly 40 years ago, we sat on a hill late one afternoon at the summer camp where we’d met, and in a plaintive voice I told her about my “dumb” friends back home who didn’t understand me at all. I also talked about my boyfriend, whom I dutifully called twice a week on the pay phone in the grotto, the conversation inevitably ending in an argument. Martha talked—or at any rate murmured—about her boyfriend, with whom she had a relationship so sophisticated and nuanced that it appeared to come straight out of a foreign film. I scratched my mosquito-bitten skin raw, while her skin glittered, untouched by insect life.

Our differences were so great as to seem insurmountable. Except, of course, they weren’t. Differences between friends are like the ingredients in an unusual cocktail that you have no idea you have a taste for—until you try it and suddenly discover you can’t get enough of it.

What surprises me about my friendship with Martha, which has continued to this day, isn’t that we are dissimilar. It’s true that her glamour has never faded, whereas mine has yet to fully … well, flourish. Instead, much more notable to me is the way that we’ve each taken turns being the more vulnerable one. It’s like an elaborate game of tag, in which one of us is “It” for as long as she needs to be, while the other one uncomplainingly knows that her job during those times is to be caretaker, shepherd, therapist, and unconditionally loving mom. Martha and I have never entirely discussed this arrangement. But as I look back on our friendship, it’s clear to me that this is the way it has been, and that the rewards have been immeasurable.

I was the more vulnerable one that afternoon at summer camp, but that was only temporary. Flash forward 20 years, to the morning when Martha, then living in Paris, went into labor. On the way to the hospital, she insisted to her husband that they stop at a pay phone so she could call me in New York. “If I hadn’t been able to do that,” she explained recently, “I would have been so upset. I needed you to know what was happening.” I think she also wanted me to recognize her vulnerability from afar—and to protect her from across an ocean.

And maybe I did.

Though neither Martha nor I believe in magical thinking, we’ve always seemed to believe that our friendship could protect us in some essential ways. And while I couldn’t safely deliver her baby, or even be present at the birth, what I could do was remind her that she’d be well taken care of by the suave and capable French doctor she’d described to me, and that very soon she’d be able to narrate the entire experience on the bedside telephone—including the smallest details, such as the glove filled with ice, the imperious nurse, the far gentler nurse, the divine baby, and the uncertainty that must inevitably be experienced on the way toward joy.

What I often do for Martha, and what she does for me, is something that our husbands do, too: comfort us in tense moments. But we don’t ask them to do this with nearly the same frequency with which we ask each other. My husband and I lean on each other so deeply and constantly that I imagine there’s a degree to which we hold back some neuroses and irrational thoughts in order to preserve the strength of the nest. Martha and I, who depend on each other, but not on a day in, day out basis, know that more than a few of our anxieties are absurd, but we don’t feel the need to hold back first and gauge whether or not we ought to blurt them out. There’s virtually nothing I can reveal to Martha that I would regret, or that would damage our friendship. We give each other endless rope.