I’ve been giving a lot of thought to friendships lately and what role they’ve played in my life. My first best friend was a boy named Steve who lived in the last house on our dead-end street when I was 7. There was something comforting about hanging out with him, and I think it was mostly just the fact of his maleness, which reminded me of the brothers I’d just lost. Just as I’d mimicked everything they did, not wanting to be left out because I was the youngest or—-worse yet—-a girl, I copied Steve’s dare devil antics. Riding my bike downhill with no hands, catching spiders in wide-mouthed jars—-wherever he led I followed.
Once a week or so Steve invited me to his room and let me pick out something of his I wanted to keep. This ceremony was conducted with the utmost solemnity. It was not lost on me that I was being singled out for perhaps the highest honor one friend could bestow on another: that of giving away forever a prized possession. This ritual of choosing which of his possessions to ask for filled me with a kind of excited dread. What if I asked for the wrong thing, for instance something he especially cherished like some keepsake from a family vacation? What if the one thing I wanted most turned out to be a special gift from his parents?
Oh, those were weighty moments for me and the decision making process never got any easier. I finally decided at some point that I would deliberately ask for the cheapest looking toy. Something that looked really worn. Of course I couldn’t really judge the value of these objects according to their appearance. Maybe his old yo-yo looked so worn because he’d played with it so much. Still, the condition of his toys was really all I had to go by. I remember one time when my gaze lingered too long on a little carved totem pole I dearly craved. Sliding my eyes away from it with what must have been obvious reluctance, I pointed instead to some insignificant prize from a Cracker Jacks box.
“Here, take this instead,” Steve insisted, thrusting the totem pole at me. I tried backing away, certain now that he prized it every bit as much as I did. “I mean it,” he said with a scowl. “Take it. It’s your’s. I want you to have it.”
I ended up taking it most reluctantly. Walking home with it, I discovered it had lost all attraction to me for I just knew in my heart that parting with it had cost him dearly. I don’t know what ever happened to the totem pole but I learned a couple things that day about friendship: 1) If the bond is true the friendship will cost you something. 2) Sometimes we deprive a friend of a much-needed blessing by rejecting their generous overtures. Whatever it cost Steve to part with his beloved totem pole, his need to give it to me had just as strong of a pull on him as the longing to keep it for himself.
After a year or so, the dynamics of our friendship changed drastically. Steve had suddenly found himself smitten with me, and followed me around like the proverbial eager puppy dog. Where before he’d expected me to keep up with him, no matter what our latest venture, now he seemed hesitant to challenge me or allow me to join him in anything more daring than bike riding.
This puzzled me to no end and equally puzzling were the love notes he began leaving for me late at night on our front porch. There I’d be huddled around the TV with the rest of my motley crew of a dysfunctional family, eyes glued to the set, when we’d hear a sharp rap on the door. My step-dad usually answered the knock; Steve was long gone in the few seconds it took him to fling open the door, peer about peevishly in the dark, bark out, “Hey! Who’s there!” (no matter how many times this scenario was re-enacted) and notice the crumpled note on the doormat.
“Oh, another love letter!” he’d croon at me, grinning meanly. Snatching the folded slip of paper from his big paw, I ran to my room to read the usual “I love you, xxxxooooo” message scrawled in Steve’s boyish handwriting. So many of my childish pleasures were spoiled in some way by my family. This was one of them. Because of my step-dad’s incessant teasing about the notes, and my mother’s frown when I told her Steve asked me to “go steady” (I had no idea what it meant), our friendship was doomed to stay just that. It stood no chance of blossoming into a romance under my parents’ sardonic/disapproving scrutiny.
Another lesson learned: friendship is a process, not something tangible you can hold in your hand like my carved totem pole. Because it’s a process, it’s always changing, transforming itself into different shapes and colors and habits to accommodate the persons involved. My friendship with Steve began as a neutral color, what I like to think of as a sort of sandy-tan, not unlike the color of his wavy hair, or the dust that clung to his sneakers and rimmed his fingernails. While I saw in him a vague version of my lost brothers, he began shifting his focus to a whole new aspect of friendship, one which I was too young for and, in any case, not capable of. And so the friendship took on the purple brush strokes of his young boy’s passion, mingled with the midnight blue of my total non-interest.
As the months went by and I was unable to respond to his love notes (due to parental disapproval, but also due to my own indecipherable reticence to change the tone of our relationship), Steve and I began to grow apart. By the time I knew my family was moving into a brand new home in the suburbs, the thought of leaving him was devoid of sorrow. Part of me felt relief that I would no longer be the recipient of his unrequited love, and constant offers of material possessions. Romance was something I’d never had to tangle myself up in with my brothers, and I wasn’t at all sure that I’d ever have more than a passing interest in it.
(Friendship was just fine with me.)