C stood in front of the mirror last night after dinner, examining his naked middle. “I feel skinny, white, and fat,” he said.
We’d had dinner with M at a little place across Ninth Avenue and ate a transgressive banana bread dessert that defied prior notions of both banana bread and dessert.
I hadn’t seen M in years, and the last time I saw her, it had been years since the time before that.
We went to the same high school—“like The O.C.,” she explained to C, “or, actually, Bring it On.” At the time, I called my classmates “nymphets.” I was convinced they were bred on a farm and shipped to our school: so startling was their uniformity, their finicky precision with tanning and exercising, their long, straight, blonde hair. Also, like robots or zombies, they lacked manners and empathy.
This is why I liked M. She had been friends with the blondes for years, but she had none of their haughtiness. She was sardonic and whip-smart and truly pretty, not like a glazed-over Seventeen model. She was classier than I was. She had better manners. She could read people and interactions with a medical acuity, sizing up comments and cryptic notes and someone’s father’s embarrassing behavior in a way that explained it all for you, and I was grateful for her inadvertent primers on the strange, privileged resort world I stumbled into when I transferred to her school.
Then we graduated, and she went to Dartmouth and I to Hampshire. She emailed brief, pithy missives: uproarious, spot-on ethnographies of the blue-blood enclave she found herself in. I have always appreciated how M talks candidly, without pretense, about money and class. I thought she was classy because of her middle-class pedigree in a San Diegan suburb. Now we were both going to college with people from prestigious boarding schools, who had actual trust funds or famous parents. She was somehow more like them than I was, but she also waited tables while she studied. I was as grateful for her perspective as ever.
The truth is, M has always dazzled me. She is fierce and charismatic and invigorating. She’s quick, and I quicken to keep pace. But her dryness and sarcasm, charming as they are, belie what I am not qualified to name but will venture nonetheless is an abject fear of burdening someone else with her business. My grandmother is like that. Stiff upper lip Yankee. M convinces me in every gesture and remark that she is fine, in fact has never been better, even when she tells me she isn’t, when her eyes glisten and her voice quivers. It may be that I don’t actually know her very well, compared with her oldest friends or her sisters; why would she let me in, of all people? I was drawn to her invulnerability—the flourish of her armor—when we were 17. I was fascinated by what she could be working so hard to protect.
When I hear from her, I remember how much I like her. I think of how good it is to have vivacious, critical girlfriends who can discuss Lindsey Lohan and the politics of the death penalty with equal fervor and intelligence. Who appreciate good jeans and quality eye shadow and the thrill of a tall man who can cook, but only as deep, discerning, smart girls do. I still feel like I have something to learn from her. I think she can do anything.
I am sure that I romanticize her as much as I ever did, probably because I don’t know her much better than I did in high school. She is still larger than life, than my life. Which I hope will fall away, over the years, as we grow older and old. We’re past the age when you see the world as a giant candy store of potential friends and lovers; I find that it is harder to make friends, or even deepen the friendships I have, now, since turning 25 and 26 and 27 and becoming domesticated (an indoor cat, so to speak). But the true things still loom, still float forward from the noisy storm on the periphery. Maybe my friendship with M will stay on, will transcend the typical vagaries, the ordinary busyness that keeps you from noticing what is worth tending. I like to think so.