It starts early. Little girls give each other broken heart necklaces for their birthdays while boys have paintball parties. While boys are encouraged to participate in sports and group activities, us girls are pushed to more one-on-one activities like tea parties or making Barbies have sex under a blanket. Studies show that there are different friendship styles for boys and girls. In one, when middle school girls were faced with the prospect of meeting a new friend, their brains lit up in areas associated with pleasure and reward. Boy brains’ just didn’t do the same thing.
My “anecdotal evidence” from the field? Over the years, I could actually feel my brain light up when it became clear that a new friend would earn the title of “best.” I’ve learned that these relationships are just as valuable as any amorous one and that they do indeed have their own sense of romance.
For me, they also bring about a whole lot of crazy.
The BFF thing starts in childhood, but doesn’t quite have its full magnetism yet. It feels more like a mime of what’s to come, like 4th graders who are in year-long relationships. Or like 5th graders shaving their legs. It was actually not shaving my legs in fifth grade that bonded Emma and I.
That year, while most girls practiced cheers on the playground, Emma and I stood in the lone corner of the gym. We were close but our solidarity was more of a sisterly one—more about survival. I don’t think we ever once hugged. There was no pretense to our relationship. We had our own jokes and similar hates (mainly, everything), but there was no need to impress each other—unless it was in new knowledge about Alanis Morissette or “Daria.” My birthday present from her was a cassette single. The Presidents of the USA’s “Lump” was all the rage in 5th grade.
Then came “junior high,” or “middle school,” as it seemed to me, those of you who lived in more civilized areas of the country called it. Middle school with its oddness and hormones—with its flashing yourself in the mirror, awed at seeing your chest looking almost like breasts. Middle school with its rumors of hairbrushes—or worse, hotdogs—getting “stuck inside” people. I ditched Emma and what I can only imagine was a successful future in wearing hemp necklaces and practicing Wicca for hot pink tank tops and blonde highlights.
And then my birthday gift—wrapped in lilac, perfume-spritzed paper—picture frames filled with photos and inside jokes and trinkets.
As I began sneaking out and smoking cigarettes (I was always worried about lighting the right end) my friendships grew more intense. There was K, who inspired me to carve into my hip “R
I entered college, weary of BFFs. I surrounded myself with gay men, which to me, a small-town girl, seemed glamorous. But I would always get left for a cute guy—there was no code that protected against it. Then, I hung out with the straight stoner boys. I remember once attempting to lower my voice when I sat in that half circle passing around a bowl, trying and failing to be one of them.
When I met Maria, I fell into best friendship again—my eyes starry with her. Before Maria met me, she went out in glittery tops to the kind of places one goes to catch a rich husband or, if she is less naive, to turn a trick. I turned Maria onto punk and electro. We cut our hair short and went out dancing every night. During the day, we talked in a broken way, leaving out words—no noun modifiers, sometimes no nouns—but we understood each other. We had a joke about our vaginas complaining to each other—which we’d act out, not needing to announce that it was the vagina speaking. When I wasn’t around Maria, there were moments that I felt I looked like her, as though her face, voice or words were mine.
For my birthday, I had an invitation from a group of male models to hang out in a bottle service-only club. There were drinks and pills of ecstacy. There was a wish—or maybe an assumption—that each of us was there to save each other. When she called me, sleepy with pills and vodka—a suicide attempt—I didn’t answer. Instead of saving her, I ran away. Somehow it felt, in our merged-ness, that she was killing me too. She would be okay, but our relationship would not be.
I hold onto all these best friendships like jewels, a treasured necklace of dysfunction. My best friends have taught me the hardest lessons about intimacy and love and, moreover, loving myself.
Since college, I’ve had wonderful friendships but I have yet to call anyone my best friend. Can you have a BFF as an adult, with the same intensity you had in high school and college? Because I miss that. I only hope that I’ll have another BFF in my life—not because I will get it perfect this time, but because I actually “get” it now. I get that a best friendship can be passionate and stinging, and that is what makes them so enriching.