Curtis Sittenfeld Reflects on Letting Your Guard Down and Making Connections That Matter
After years of slowly expanding her social life, author Curtis Sittenfeld instantly connected with two women, mere months before moving. She brought along the friendships—and the confidence to put herself out there.
I met Aisha at a holiday party near my house in St. Louis. I’m a novelist, and she’s a newspaper columnist, and we’d followed each other on Twitter for a few years. In person, we mutually and intensely fangirled, and I was delighted to discover she was just as smart, warm, and funny in real life as in her columns. Her husband took a picture of us, and when she texted it to me before posting it online, and readily agreed to crop out the bulge of my stomach in a silver sweater, I had a feeling it was true love.
That hunch was confirmed when we got together for lunch a few months later. We talked up a storm, then split the check. I proceeded to leave the restaurant and drive away without my credit card, which Aisha realized after I’d departed. She called to tell me… and to mock me, because it was a Gap credit card, which she considered to have, as she put it, a rather “middle-school Midwest aesthetic” for a 42-year-old woman. Or, as she subsequently texted:
I was very amused, and even though I don’t love shopping, I agreed to her plan. But I was also sad, because that part about leaving town? Aisha was referring to what I’d told her at lunch—that my husband had just accepted a new job in Minneapolis, and we’d be gone by the end of summer.
The trajectory of my friendship with Jen was similarly intense, similarly timed, and similarly interrupted. Having met her at a lunch with mutual friends, I first truly connected with her one spring night when she gave me a ride to a reading. On the 10-minute drive, we started discussing our lives very openly, the way I usually would with an old friend rather than a new one. We talked about the messiness of parenthood and friendships and work, and it’s hard to know what made us trust each other so quickly, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot, we were gabbing so intensely that we discussed skipping the event. (We resisted.)
By this point, I’d lived in St. Louis for more than 10 years, and I’d made other friends, including very close ones—the friends I went for long walks with on the weekends; the neighbor friends; the fellow mom friends; the professional-lady-dinner friends; the couple-dinner friends, where our husbands would join us at the restaurant; the family-dinner friends, where someone would host pizza or taco night; and every possible combination thereof. The difference between my earlier friendships and my new ones with Aisha and Jen wasn’t in how much I liked them (because I really liked my other friends). The difference was in how quickly and enthusiastically I recognized them as kindred spirits.
When my husband and I moved to St. Louis in 2007, we were engaged but not married, we didn’t have kids, and it took us a long time to find our people. It’s my understanding that if you move to some Midwestern cities from elsewhere, people are very friendly in fleeting interactions but harder to form deep relationships with—in part because, if they grew up there, there’s a good chance they’re still hanging out with their high school classmates. In my early weeks in St. Louis, when my husband and I went to a movie, I’d spot another youngish couple sitting in the theater, and I’d imagine—even if just for a few seconds—approaching them and saying, “We don’t really know anyone. Want to hang out?” Which wouldn’t have reeked of desperation at all. Eventually, we did make friends we adored. But it took a while.
So 10 years later, I was both delighted and confused by the fact that friendship had finally become so much easier. Had I hit it off effortlessly with Jen and Aisha because I knew I was leaving, and there was a now-or-never aspect to getting to know each other? Was it because my two kids were no longer little, so I had more time and energy to focus on socializing? Or because I wasn’t trying and sometimes, for better or worse, it does seem like good things come to those who don’t try?
Even before moving, I began to think of Aisha and Jen as the gals who got away, a symbol of my unlived life in St. Louis. And then one morning that summer, my children and I climbed into my loaded-up car and drove north to Minneapolis (my husband would come later, with the movers). Once we were there, my main preoccupations were meeting a major writing deadline and doing whatever I could to make my kids’ transition as smooth as possible. I didn’t prioritize making friends of my own, and at that moment, it felt like a relief.
But then something surprising happened: I made a bunch of friends very quickly. Like, within months. A close college friend, Carolyn, lived in Minneapolis, and although we’d barely been in touch for a decade and I wasn’t sure how much we’d still have in common, we picked up right where we’d left off, talking and talking and talking about everything we’d been up to for the past 10 years. In fact, we once went out for dinner on a Saturday, met up again for a walk the next day, and then—after the walk was finished—stood outside my house gabbing for a good half hour because we still hadn’t covered all the topics.
I honestly didn’t anticipate how readily I’d make connections beyond Carolyn—again, with neighbors, with the mothers of my kids’ friends, with other writers. Last July, my family returned to Minneapolis from a vacation, and I realized—with some combination of astonishment, pride, and logistical distress—that I had made plans for 12 out of the next 14 nights. A few included my husband and kids, but mostly they were my own plans, just with other women. There was dinner with Sugi and Sally, where we drank the tastiest sangria I’ve ever had. There was dinner with Cecily, where it was raining so hard outside the Thai restaurant that we sat in our cars texting each other about when to make a break for it. There was a back-porch dinner with four women—two of whom I’d never met before that night—whose names I’ll omit because we started talking about sex so immediately and so graphically that we’ve since referred to ourselves as the Pubic Hair Club, gotten together almost monthly, and floated the idea of buying one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s so-called This Smells Like My Vagina candles to share à la the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. When I try to recall why we cut to the chase so quickly that night, I think it started with a conversation about a just-published book that contained lots of sex, then soon segued into the new romantic interest of a club member.
Experts who study friendship would tell you that people become close by confiding in each other. Getting this far into adulthood has given me more to confide. I’ve had more life experiences, and so have my friends, and we’re ready to discuss subjects—whether the crazy things that happen to your body as you age or the challenges of marriage—that once might have felt taboo. I also suspect there’s an in-person backlash to the perfect images we often project on social media, because that perfection is so tedious and so false. And weirdly, when the way we now communicate and live—emailing, texting, carrying around phones that are also cameras—makes us all more vulnerable to others’ “receipts,” or proof of the perhaps questionable things we said and did, we have to make a choice: Are we going to be extremely careful, or say to hell with it? The reality is that it’s hard to bond with another person when you’re being extremely careful. Or, as I’ve said more than once after a personal conversation with a new friend, “Feel free to blackmail me.”
Aisha did end up taking me shopping before I moved from St. Louis. We were joined by my friend Adrienne, who’d also once made fun of my Gap credit card. (I mean, that wasn’t the only reason I thought they would get along. But it was a start.) At a few different stores and with their input, I bought a dress and a shirt and a sweater and a blazer and some leggings. Now, when I put on these clothes—which are more fashionable than the yoga pants and fleece jackets I usually wear—I miss and appreciate my St. Louis friends. But I no longer think of Aisha and Jen as the gals who got away in the sense of missed opportunities. Instead, especially now, I’m grateful to them for ushering in a golden age of female friendship.