Kaly was my first love. Our Barbies humped in her room upstairs, her house slouching next to a gas station. We made them dresses and they were fashion queens and then when Ken came in, everything went to hell. I didn’t know then that I was creating a pattern in my life. Ken, the bastard, would always tear friendships apart. Then there was Katie. She had blonde hair like Sally in Charlie Brown. She wore plastic bangle bracelets, slouchy shirts, and puffy skirts. She played the piano while I sang Barry Manilow. We watched Madonna on MTV. We sang so loud we had to open the windows so our song could escape.
Missy lived across the street and we felt pressure to be friends because our moms were friends. I sat in her room and we listened to 45s. She played “I’m Your Venus” but I thought it was “I’m Your Penis” and I refused to sing it out loud, but wouldn’t tell her why.
I moved and my friends could not come with me. They slipped silently underwater.
At my new school and now living with my dad and his wife and my new stepsiblings, I fumbled around for a good friend. My stepsister would become my life’s greatest love, and one of the most complicated. We went through everything together: our first period, first crushes, first heartbreaks. We snuck out once in the middle of summer to meet a couple of boys at the basketball court, but it was boring and we snuck home. We shared a bed and sometimes we’d kick each other, trying to hurt the other one. She lit her bangs on fire and we laughed and laughed at how fast Aqua Net could ignite. Boys loved her. Boys thought I was her brother. I dreamed of being beautiful, like her. (I still dream this.)
High school friends were on the outside of my life, but in my senior year, there was Kim and Cheryl, the Cheerleader and the Brain. We took an independent study with Mr. Messing. One day, we spread out a blanket on the front lawn and I made them listen to Crosby, Still, and Nash even though this was our parents’ music. We listened and we talked of all the places we would go. How we were unlikely friends, but our lives would be magical.
In college, I had roommates. Amy with the wild hair, so curly it seemed like it was trying to escape from her head. And Jill, who was eight years older, a returning student. She drank her coffee with a straw because she didn’t want to have yellow teeth. Shannon wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t understand her. She ate weird things like bread so sour that it made my lips pucker. She said it was that way intentionally and I didn’t believe her. She was obsessed with the human body, constantly amazed by it. She once called me into the bathroom to see her enormous poop and how it snaked around the bowl three times. “I did that!” she cried, proud. “Isn’t that amazing?” It sorta was.
But they were on the outside because I met Paul. He was from Detroit. He would be my Ken, but a tougher Ken. A Ken raised in an all black neighborhood in the heart of Detroit, even though he was white and Italian and Catholic. He was a genius and I loved his family and he made me feel like the world was safe and comfortable as long as I was near him. I ditched hanging out with my girlfriends so we could drive around in his Iroc, windows rolled down, Guns N Roses blaring, singing at the top of our lungs, even though I thought the band sucked. I liked jazz, but you can’t sound angry while singing to jazz.
When we broke up, I moved in with three women who would transform me: Kim, the artist; Rachel, the singer and attorney; Sarah, the director. We wore red lipstick. We ate pot roast. We talked about heart break. When Paul came over asking for me to come back to him, they supported me silently but blared “I’m a Creep” through their rooms. Sarah directed a play I wrote and Rachel starred in it and Kim helped with the posters. The friendship I had with Sarah was intense and confusing. We fought over the play. I told her I was embarrassed and wanted to know how she was directing it. She thought I didn’t trust her, that I thought her work was crap. Really, I didn’t trust myself. I was embarrassed by my words. I wasn’t good enough. I dated an actor, and then I went back to Paul. Sarah dated someone out East, but still loved her high school sweetheart. I told her that you don’t marry your high school sweetheart. That’s what our mothers did. But what did I know? I didn’t know anything. In the end, she married him, proving how wrong I was. About everything.
Paul and I moved to Miami so he could go to grad school and I could be a waitress. I met women who wanted more than life offered them. In the Beverly Hills Café, there were women who wanted to act, be a stewardess, find love. Women, like Gina, who was warm and from Georgia and had a laugh that could melt butter. I should’ve spent more time with them, but I was always with Paul. I should’ve asked them more questions. I should’ve been more present. Instead, I was always looking out the window, wondering how my boyfriend was.
When I left Paul, I taped the engagement ring to his computer. I said goodbye to him and I felt cruel. I did not get to say goodbye to his Italian mother. I missed her pragmatism. Her strength. The way she’d push the grocery cart in Kroger’s as if she was ready to run anyone down. She taught me the secret to her family’s Italian pasta sauce, and I still feel guilty. I have never cooked it. I did not get to say goodbye to Paul’s sister, Beth. We laughed together, curled up on the couch, eating Ben & Jerry’s from little Dixie cups. We watched Anne of Green Gables over and over, though we were in college. I had red hair and she had brown hair and secretly, I pretended I was Anne and she was Diana and Paul was Gilbert and we would all live happily ever together. We did not.
On my own, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I began to do theater. Community shows where I was in Assassins, and played Squeaky Fromme. I was in Angels in America, and I played Harper and I felt like I knew her because she was just as lost as I was. I became friends with Shelly and Tracey. We were called the Triumvirate, and I didn’t know what that meant though I thought it was religious. We had big boobs. We laughed a lot. We drank more. At night, we’d meet up at the Cottage restaurant and we would pass around lemon drops. We’d flirt with men. We’d flirt with each other. We told secrets. We kept secrets. The friendships felt intense and like we would never be without each other. Then I moved to New York, and the friendships could not come with me.
There were others. Of course there were. Dionne and Ann and Vicki and Arnie and Jeannie and Shayne. Women I envied for their beauty and their strength, for their intellect and creativity. Women I could’ve learned more from, and grown up with, and cared for. But I was jealous of them And angry. And petty. They were women that I put second and third and fourth because what was important wasn’t friendships, but finding a man, getting married, having kids before my womb dried up at thirty.
I found a man. I had kids. I said goodbye to all my friends. Not consciously, but they slowly fell away, like leaves dropping. And now that I’m forty, and remarried, and my kids are past the stage of needing me for every moment, it’s not the ‘wild years’ of my twenties that I look back at with longing. It’s all the women that have fluttered into my life. How they changed me. How they influenced me. And how I was never brave enough to hold on to them, to put friendship before dating, to give them the time and energy they deserve.
I wish I could have them back. All of them. I wish that the girlfriends I have managed to keep over the years (Keeley and Rachel and Kim) I wish that we could be closer. I wish I was the kind of person that could talk on the phone for hours. I was I had a Sisterhood or something. Potlucks, maybe. Book clubs. Something. But it’s hard to manage. It’s hard to reach out. I wish I had my sister back. I wish it was summer and we could sneak out of our houses, not to meet boys again…but to hang out under the stars and the moon. To look for fireflies. To laugh at each other. To say "Does this make me look fat?" and have the other say "God yes, but who the fuck cares?"
I wonder what they’re doing now, these women I have loved and lost. All of them. I wonder, are they happy? Do they laugh? Do they ever think of me? And if they do, I hope it’s with fondness. I hope it’s with understanding. I should’ve been a better friend. I should’ve been a better person. But you do the best you can, even when the best you can isn’t good enough.