Best Friends Forever

A book appeared unbidden on my doorstep, some horrid life advice for middle-aged women. "Why do I hate my best friend?" the cover cries, in a hysterical typeface. The book I'm looking for is the opposite of that.


Maybe if I took one of the many wonderful books about sisters and just altered it a bit. Maybe pasted in "friend" for every instance of "sister," cut out any childhood stuff, and started it with a revelatory scene in the women's twenties, when they meet at just the right moment. I always thought Sense and Sensibility could use a little modification.


We look for ourselves in fiction sometimes, in the same way we are fascinated by our genetic forebears. We search for the source of our quirky nose in crumbly photographs. We wonder if our tendency to throw things against the wall can be explained by long ago Viking blood. And sometimes we want to recognize something of ourselves in the books we read—our loves, our work, the way we sally forth into the world—to tell us we are part of what came before. Because I have found my one true love—she just happens to be a woman. And we are not "into that." Since then I have noticed that in the books I read, female friends are the underminers, or the sidekicks, or secretly in love with you, or two-dimensional foils, or sleeping with your husband (or your father). They are secondary storylines, there to wipe away heartbroken tears, provide comic relief, meet for occasional happy hour cocktails that are pink because that stands for girl power. I do not see myself and Honeybee in those books.


"Dearest Honeybee: Why is it there are so few books about female friendships? That don't include nursing someone through an illness, or are really about how one friend secretly hates the other and is out to kill them?"


"Sweet Gherkin: You know, many young adult books do feature healthy girlfriend relationships. Interesting, no?"


It is true. In the young adult literature I grew up on it is Best Friends Forever, it is Nothing Shall Ever Come Between Us. A force stronger than nuclear fission seems to be needed to separate those girls. Then that force shows up, in the form of the XY chromosome. Suddenly those girls are not held together by mysterious forces; the bonds between them dissolve and are re-formed between boy and girl. And so it goes for the rest of our lives.


There is a new genre of books about friendship, the memoir of the dead lady friend. But it's always easier to love the dead than the living. The living you forget to call. The dead you ache to. The tone did not feel right, so I moved on.


I turned to the books of Helen Garner. She seemed like an obvious choice, as she is an expert on the dark side of female interpersonal relations. I love the way her books decode the enigma of inter-woman warfare. It's Russian spy shit, the way one woman can slip another a poisoned barb, like a polonium-210 laced sugar cube in her tea, while no one else at the table notices. In Monkey Grip, her book about 1970s experiments in communal living and loving, it's the woman who sees something that doesn't belong to her but instantly thinks mine. The only reason she wants it is the joy of taking from another woman. "Lillian, blight of my life... She had it, the knack of engulfing, of making sharing impossible."


In The First Stone, it's the way women can shut other women out. Suddenly you're shouting from the other side of the Pale, trying to convince the others you're not with the unwashed hordes, please let me in. Women are amazingly adept at shaming—from the time in the 6th grade they discover the power of labeling another girl "slut," to the grownup frisson of calling a fully paid member of the sisterhood a "bad feminist." Lay out your virginal or feminist credentials all you want, you'll never scale that wall.


Competition is supposed to be women's natural state. Not healthy, world dominating, raw, let me shoot this moose with my bow and arrow men's competition, but whispery, razor blade up the sleeve competition. That is, until we need another woman. Like when you have Stage 4 cancer. In Garner's The Spare Room, Nicola needs caretaking through her cancer treatment. And while there are a million books about returning to the family fold in times like these, some of us are more changeling than sibling. Some of us have family trees that could be mistaken for stumps. So Nicola ends up with Helen, and Helen bears her weight.


I really wanted a book where everyone lived until the end. I went to chick lit because no one dies in chick lit. But I found that in chick lit, women friends have been replaced by men, either gay sidekicks or shlubby straight friends who will inevitably show up with new haircuts or new women on their arms, and our protagonist will suddenly see him in a Whole New Light. I looked through the classics, like The Woman in White and The Bostonians. The intensity was right, but the possessiveness, the insularity (not to mention the obvious lesbian overtones) were not.


Finally I found Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday. It is wrong to read a book with an agenda. It makes you turn situations into messages from which information about our culture can be extrapolated. Sometimes they are just stories. Sometimes there are messages, but if you're adamantly sticking to the wrong decoder ring, you'll never find them. I read Molly Fox naively the first time, the second time armed. I wanted to know if Molly Fox was the narrator's Honeybee. My decoder ring accidentally worked.


The first time it was a wonderfully told story about a woman reflecting on her lifelong friendship with the actress Molly Fox, about how we can know another person for ages and still leave depths uncharted. In other words, it matched its pre-publication review synopsis. I fell for the way it rejects the traditional storyline of making a goal out of a person: our true love, a child, a friend. There is no whiz bang, now-my-life-is-complete feeling in this relationship. It has the natural progression of a friendship formed over decades, and it's difficult to pin down the moment the other person becomes indispensable.


The second pass, though, I was post-chick-lit, so I was more attuned to the male heterosexual friend Andrew. "I was closer to Andrew" than to Molly, the narrator tells us, but he is straight. They are both single at the beginning of the book, and so one has to see the other in a New Light, it is basic storytelling mathematics. But this time, in this book, the light is not followed by swelling music and a feverish embrace.


It's easy to feel closer to men sometimes. We generally try to keep our prettiest angle in their eye line, retaining the crazier parts of ourselves for other women. There is less shame clogging up the emotional pathways. Maybe she did feel closer to Andrew, but the person in the title, the person her memories hinge on, the one brought into her family, the person she feels real pangs of jealousy over is Molly Fox. The person who calls, who comes back, who spares the narrator a bout of sobbing on the floor when the New Light proves to be unflattering: Molly Fox. Molly Fox is her Honeybee. She just hasn't noticed yet.


After reading a review of a new memoir devoted by its author to a dead friend, I e-mailed Honeybee. "As my literary executor, it is your job to prevent any of my lady writer friends from publishing a memoir about me after my tragic, untimely demise. You can write it yourself, but only if you omit all the crying I did over [Name Redacted]. It was not dignified." She responded, "Dilly: No worries. I will kill anyone else who tries to write such a book. And you are going to live forever, so long in fact that you may become ‘handsome.'" I at least have to live long enough to fulfill my late night, drunken promise to buy her a house on an island somewhere, a place where we can grow old and fat together and begin cocktail hour at 11am. The men can putter in the garden. We'll be in turbans, drinks in our hands, shrieking with laughter. Too drunk and happy to ever think of writing a book about it.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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