This piece was performed for The Nerdologues Presents: Your Stories in June 2016, in partnership with Breather and Common Threads. You can listen to it here.
I think a lot of us first learn how to love our friends and partners when we first start to LOVE love our friends and partners: when we are moody teens.
For me, this was also the time I first learned to love music. So much of the teenage years involve self-discovery by way of self-definition and self-proclamation. I love this, therefore I am this. Close friends, boyfriends, and oh, say, David Bowie, Morrissey, Belle & Sebastian, and the Cure album Show gave me the blueprint to being myself. I knew who I was because I loved what was me, writ large but small but large across the south suburban roads I would endlessly terrorize with my best friend Jaime, the cd player I would mercilessly abuse with whatever emotionally charged glam rock or sad/Britpop I could find at the used CD store, the backseats I would fall in obsessive, gorgeous love in again and again and again.
Being a teenager is lot like being a toddler, only you have the added benefit of being able to french kiss and write Smashing Pumpkins lyrics in bubble letters on your backpack. You are discovering your body does cool stuff for the first time, in a conscious way. You are discovering your heart feels things, in a conscious way. You are discovering music that no one has before, ever, and it is awesome in the truest sense of the word, and it is yours, and you are infinite, and everything you feel and love is yours yours yours for this moment and forever and you breathe, it, eat it, sleep it until, you know. You discover the next band. Or bestie. Or boyfriend.
What is easy to forget about Teenageland versus Adult Town is that discovery is not necessarily the be-all, end-all of human love. Being endlessly, inextricably wrapped up in anyone or anything else is fun, for a time. But after awhile, you need to come up for air.
Some point along the passing of the torch from the last generation of olds to the current one, I think we confused the old teenage way of loving someone (breathlessly, consumptively, obsessively) with the RIGHT way to love someone. Yes, we pay cultural lip-service to being our own person, keeping a balance in friendships and love relationships, but who out there among us doesn’t feel a flush of “yeahhhhh” when we experience the punchdrunk madness of being part of a “squad”? Having a “ride-or-die”? Finding “true love” and abandoning that when you find an even truer love that makes you feel even more giddy and alive?
I refer to this as the Lisa Frank Stickerfication of Emotionally Regressive and Nihilistic Mad Maxytimes. It is a self-destructive, self-limiting set of behaviors. I don’t want the best way to love a friend or lover to be dictated by an idealized version of the way I did so in the 11th grade.
But when I was 25ish, I met a friend who made me feel like I felt about best friends in the 11th grade. And I was hella Lisa Frank Mad Max-y about it. She was my ride-or-die. She made me feel understood, defined, infinite, beautiful, powerful, un-alone, known. I think I did the same for her.
An immediate click of personalities and sensibilities, we did everything together. We ate, breathed, dreamed each other. We spent all of our time, all of our energy, together. She was married, and I was single. I often wondered why it felt less like we were composed adult friends and more like we were kids, but didn’t care enough to investigate it. It felt too good, having this perfect, no-space, no-breath friendship. I never had to feel alone.
Until she had an affair. And a divorce. And I knew almost every step and every slip down the road to ruin she was running, and I tried to take on all I could until I just…couldn’t, anymore. Or wouldn’t. And as much as I hated to admit it, she had taken on the human role of the Cure’s Show album in the 12th grade: something I loved to death, but just didn’t want to listen to anymore.
I wasn’t outright cruel about this.
I was heartlessly cruel about this.
I downshifted my role in her life as she upshifted into a new group of friends I became alternately wildly jealous of and thankful for. I needed a break, but lacked the emotional wherewithal to say as much clearly. The silence and breath––that had never existed between us––began to last for hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Until a year had gone by, and all I knew of her was gleaned from distant internet stalking. Until all I shared of hers was a past. Until the truest mark of our ride-or-dieness was me not talking as much shit about her as anyone else, because I loved her more. And missed her more. And needed her. Because part of me was her.
Because as bullshit as the ideal of obsessive friendship and love is, it is usually born out of a sense of finding your tribe. Someone who speaks your language. Someone who you get, and who gets you. Who makes you better, or makes you want to be.
David Bowie doesn’t stop being David Bowie just because you’re tired of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.
Katie hadn’t stopped being Katie.
I hadn’t stopped being me.
What I had done, in our year apart, was grow. I learned what it was to make new friends, less obsessively and more healthily. I made so, so, so many mistakes and bad calls. I had my own affair. I fell in love, and out of it. I learned what it was like to be abused. I learned what it was like to stop being abused. I learned what it was like to rebuild myself from scraps out in an emotional desert of my own making. I learned how to follow through on myself, and create my own self-esteem not tied to the love or brain of someone else. I learned what it was like to leave the nursery.
It just took so very, very long to pack up my little backpack of self-actualization and reflection to head back to Katie’s for a sleepover party in our souls.
When we finally reconnected after our very long breather, rebuilding our friendship felt like brutally re-breaking a bone so it could knit together properly.
I would like to see the set of Lisa Frank stickers for that.
I am better friends with Katie now not because we are ride-or-die-bestie-sister-bffs-squadgoals-til-the-end-bitches, but because we are our own people.
Because instead of needing breathers, our relationship has breathing room. Instead of nonstop conversation, we have meaningful ones. A lot of the time they are about boys and UTIs, but the rest of the time they are about our own separate goals, and some shared ones.
One band I grew to love as an adult has a song that goes “Be my head, and I’ll be yours.” I think of that lyric now a lot when I think about what Katie and I share, and even in a lot of my friendships, or about love in general. I like the sentiment. You take a load off for awhile, and I will shoulder it for you. Then you can do the same for me when I need it.
But you can’t be someone’s head for them unless you keep your own. You can only keep your own if you are less ride-or-die and moreso ride-along-side-while-both-being-alive-and-enjoying-the-experience-along-with-a-multitude of others.
You can only do that if you know the complete blueprint to being yourself is not locked up in one other person alone. It’s scattered like the best used clothes and CDs, in bins and racks all over the damn place, and you will spend your life finding it. You can only be someone’s head if your own is clear.
If you find the next, grown-up way to love someone.
And if you breathe.