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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is a best friend?

My new book, The Darlings Are Forever, tells the story of three best friends who go off to different high schools. It's about a lot of things (parents, fame, boys, homework). But ultimately, it's about being best friends and staying best friends. No matter what.

Writing the book made me think a lot about my best friends, which made me think of the story of Sharon and P. P is the first boy I ever kissed, the first boy I ever went out on a real date with and the first boy who said he would call and then didn't. And for a long time, I thought the following story was about him.

But it is really about my best friend. It is really about Sharon.

When I was in middle school, I was hopelessly in love with P, who went to camp with me. P was dashing and literary and could quote movies I had heard of but never seen. I don't know that P was objectively handsome, but he had a certain wry smile that a certain kind of girl (ie. me) found desperately attractive, and when he called me up one January and asked if I wanted to meet him for an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was clear that my life (which up until that point had been pretty average) was about to become fabulous.

I won't bore you with wardrobe (I went old school--jeans and a t-shirt) menu (Chinese food) or which exhibit we saw (no idea). Suffice it to say that by the time he was kissing me goodnight at my father's Upper West Side apartment, I knew I had passed the afternoon with my soul mate. When he promised, "I'll call you tomorrow," visions of future dates (not to mention a future) danced in my head.

Tomorrow came and went. So did the next day. And the next. But P didn't call. Now that I'm older and wiser, I understand that P never intended to call, that he'd said, "I'll call you tomorrow" because he didn't know what else to say. But at the time I didn't understand anything. I just knew that he'd said he would call, so he must have meant to call. My best friend Sharon and I discussed his not calling for a long time. We tried as best as two eighth-grade girls could to make sense of his not calling. But we just couldn't do it. So we did what any sane best friends would do: We called P.

"Hi," I said. "It's Melissa."
"Oh," he said, the painfully awkward monosyllable followed by an equally awkward pause. "Hi."

Up until I heard P's voice, I'd really believed that there must be an explanation for his not calling. That he'd suffered a terrible accident or been in a coma. That his parents had filed for divorce. That he'd been trapped in a parallel universe. But that single word, that "Hi," told me the real story. P hadn't called because he didn't want to call. Our afternoon hadn't been his dream date. It had been something he'd had to extricate himself from with a polite promise that he'd never intended to keep.

"So, um, hi," I repeated. "So, what's up?"
"Not much." Pause. "What's up with you?"
"Not much. I…" hating myself but unable to stop, I said, "I just thought you were going to call me." As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I would have done anything to take them back. If I'd had to erase myself from the universe, to have never been born, I would have done so just because it would have prevented my living to see the moment when I asked P why he hadn't called.
"Yeah," he said. Then he didn't say anything else.
I didn't know what to say. I was so embarrassed. To make matters worse, I could feel my throat closing up in that way that meant I was about to cry.

I may not have known enough not to call P in the first place, but at least I knew enough not to let him hear me cry. The silence--along with the lump in my chest--grew. Panicked, I handed the phone to Sharon.

Now, if you don't have a best friend, this might seem like a strange thing to have done. After all, I had gone on a date with P, not Sharon. And P had kissed me, not Sharon. It was me P had promised to call, me to whom P had been caddish.

But Sharon was my best friend. And when you're best friends with someone, it's kind of hard to know where you end and she begins. So when I couldn't speak, I turned to Sharon. Who had no trouble finding her voice.

As soon as her fingers wrapped around the receiver, Sharon launched into a blistering attack on P. She told him what he'd done was pathetic. She told P that she hated him and that he was a total loser. She told him he was a sorry excuse for a human being. She told him she hoped they never saw each other again (which was kind of a funny thing to say given that they'd never met). When she ran out of insults, she hung up on him.

When I look back on what happened with P, I can barely remember why I cared about him so much. It was kind of a cheesy date, and he was always more interested in himself than he was in me.

What I do remember is how awesome it felt to listen to Sharon tell a guy who had hurt my feelings what a jerk he was. I remember the determined slam of the phone hitting its cradle and feeling like Sharon's hanging up on P was my hanging up on P and both of us hanging up on P was exactly what P deserved. I remember thinking that P had messed with the wrong girls.

On the phone with P, I felt lame. Lame for liking a boy who hadn't liked me back. Lame for thinking he'd call just because he's said he would. Lame for getting my hopes up about something that turned out not to be something after all.

But after Sharon told P off, I didn't feel any of those things. I felt amazing.

For a lot of my adolescence, I thought life was about boys, whether you liked them, whether they liked you, whether you liked them more than they liked you, whether they liked you more than you liked them. I thought my friendships were background noise and that the real story of my life was somehow tied up with the boys I was important (or not important) to.

But now I know the truth. Best friends aren't background noise. They're your theme song.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

the begining of that story reminds me of your book im reading called "if i have a wicked stepmother, where's my prince?" and it has really helped me figure out who i am at my age(13) so thanks so much!!! ;) and i love that last inspiring paragraph:))

July 7, 2011 at 6:24 PM  

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