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.
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.
On the British crime shows that I sometimes watch, there’s often a moment when the crazed suspect is apprehended, and the police storm his lair, only to find what the wiki page tvtropes.org refers to as a “Stalker Shrine.” In this chamber of obsessions, the stalker’s madness is revealed. Because he never thought anyone else would see it, he has let it grow wild and unbridled.
My friendship with Martha is like a benign version of such a room, a place where all our low-level angst can be stored. If there were clippings covering the walls, they’d include ones about health concerns (DOES THIS MOLE LOOK FUNNY?), child concerns (DOES HIS HEAD LOOK FUNNY?), mutual-friend concerns (HAS SHE BEEN COLD TO YOU LATELY?), and professional concerns (SHOULD I SAY YES TO THAT THING?).
I never thought anything related to our friendship would change, and I never wanted it to. And yet, 12 years ago, we were both home in New York City on the morning of September 11. Our kids were at school, the day was beautiful, and Martha called me, her voice tense and small. Together we watched CNN from our separate apartments. “It might be a freak accident,” I said, willing it to be true. But then when the second tower of the World Trade Center was struck, I have a memory of one of us saying, “Let’s take deep breaths.” Then we were silent for a long time. In the days that followed, Martha and I reflexively turned to each other for comfort, but it was harder to feel it now. We weren’t taking turns with our vulnerability; we both seemed fragile, along with everyone else in the city and maybe the world.
As the weeks passed, New Yorkers, in their grief, were famously kinder to one another—not that I thought they’d ever been unkind; I’ve never agreed with that view. But among a complex stew of reactions, there was a perceptible tenderness, in both senses of the word. I felt myself behaving more indulgently toward strangers, and even toward people who sometimes irritated me. I treated them the way Martha and I had always treated each other.
A close friendship allows you a pocket of peace away from the world. When I was at my most shaken, she was a great and buoying friend, which came as no surprise. What did surprise me was that instead of wanting to curl up into the safety of our connection, I wanted to take what we had together and extend it to others.
Everyone is vulnerable; I see that now, and I suppose it’s kind of peculiar that I didn’t see that clearly before. In the years since 9/11, of course, I’ve had plenty of days when I feel safe and calm and confident, even knowing the way everything can change suddenly. And as for my friendship with Martha, though she’s still soothing when I need it—and vice versa—the best times are those when we're not easing each other’s fears. When no nagging darkness lurks around the edges.
Just last night, at the performance of a one-man show that lasted for hours and hours (or seemed to) and was really nothing more than a display of the performer’s narcissism, Martha and I burst out laughing and only had to look at each other in order for an entirely new bout of laughter to begin. It was like a waterfall, flowing as free and unselfconscious as our fears and worries do at other moments. Sometimes, it almost doesn’t matter whether the subject between us is something troubling or wonderful. Sometimes, what seems to matter most is the fact that we are here together, one of us telling all, and the other one effortlessly patient and receptive and interested. Just two girls on a hill, 40 years out.
About the Author
Meg Wolitzer is the author of, most recently, The Interestings ($17, amazon.com), as well as the novels The Uncoupling ($16, amazon.com), The Ten-Year Nap ($16, amazon.com), The Position ($16, amazon.com) and The Wife ($15, amazon.com). She lives in New York City.