Sunday, March 16, 2008

Best friends.

"Wait for meeeeee!" the little girl screeches as she runs toward the door. Her blond hair, secured tightly in pigtails on the sides of her head, bounces wildly with each clumsy step she takes, and her blue eyes filling with tears are the last thing I see before her sister slams the door shut with a chuckle. "That wasn't very nice, Corey," I say disappointedly as the sound of the little girl howling fills the corridor outside. "Ugh," she scoffs, as she walks casually toward the middle of the room, "you really want to play with that baby?" The last word rolls off her tongue with such distaste that I realize discussion is not an option. I glance back at the door with a pang of remorse. "Sorry Casey," I think to myself "I guess that's life."

I'm five years old and spending the afternoon at my best friend Corey's house. Corey is my age, and seems to take an almost sadistic pleasure out of torturing her little sister. It's a blatant display of sibling malice that I neither share the joy of, nor truly understand. In all honesty, I kind of like Casey, despite the fact that she's two years my junior, thus deeming her an baby unsuitable for social interaction among the big girls. But I go along with it, simply because Corey is my best friend and I, as an only child, figure there are factors involved in having a sister that I can't even begin to comprehend.

Other than the daily routine of provoking her sister to tears, there's very little that I remember about Corey. Our friendship was one born out of convenience after our mothers met in an aerobics class at the local gym and decided to get the two of us together. The simple fact that we were the same age and liked the same brand of cereal was enough to forge a friendship. When I look back now at the old photo albums that my mom has, I see pictures of us standing in our bathing suits by the pool, dripping wet and grinning cheekily, sitting next to each other while my mom carves up my birthday cake, rolling around in the grass on the front lawn and laughing. They're pretty standard run-of-the-mill childhood pictures, except for one thing. In almost every picture, Casey is sitting off to the side and watching her sister and me, her face set in either a sad little frown or a scowl of contempt.

My mom and I moved away when I was six and I said goodbye to Corey and started the next chapter of my young life. A string of best friends would follow in those years. There was Nellie, was the little blond girl who moved into the yellow house next door next door just weeks before my seventh birthday. Like myself, Nellie was the only child of a single mother, no doubt wary of the prospect of moving to a new neighborhood where she knew no one. The very first day I saw their car pull up the driveway, I walked over and introduced myself. From that moment on we became inseparable, spending the next two years climbing trees, plotting elaborate schemes to run away together and secretly pouring over her mother's collection of erotic art books in a mix of fascination and disgust. We shared absolutely everything, including moments reminiscent of the sisterly hate I'd first witnessed with Corey, and while there seemed to be a lot that we had in common, our friendship was still based mostly on sheer convenience. Nellie moved away again when I was eight and my mother and I followed suit shortly thereafter.

During my two years of junior high, my friend group consisted of five girls who I'd known for quite awhile but had never spent much time with. We banded together in that first year mostly out of necessity. It was social suicide, at that age, to not have a group with which to associate oneself. Conveniently, we were a group of six, which meant that even though the group was kept intact, we were able to split off comfortably in pairs. It was Jennifer and Deborah, Hayley and Leah, Sanoe and me. We managed to bring those two years through together, fiercely loyal to one another and chillingly backstabbing at the same time. All fair game in the ripe and awkward stage of preadolescence, I suppose. Still, when our last year rounded to a close, we found ourselves mourning the end of our era and fearing the next step that would come. Jennifer, Deborah, Hayley and I would continue on, the following semester, to our freshman year of high school, but Leah and her family would move away and Sanoe would have to stay behind. We weren't sure how this loss would affect the workings of our little group, but we had no say in the matter.

Within a matter of weeks after starting our high school careers, the group would all but completely disperse. Jennifer and Deborah went about their own business and Hayley and I found ourselves together on the bottom of the pecking order that is the American high school experience. In the four years that followed, whether out of convenience, familiarity or a mix of the two, we stuck together, completely inseparable, two peas in a pod. Ironically, Hayley was the one girl of the group who I'd truly disliked during our years in junior high. The very fact that we'd ended up in the same social circle to begin with was rather comical, as our relationship had been born out of a seething hate for one another. That aside, the years we passed together took us deep into an entire new dimension of friendship that we'd never experienced before. Despite the fact that we had much in common, we were essential polar opposites. Hayley was breathtakingly gorgeous. An early bloomer with the fully developed body of a woman at the tender age of thirteen, she seemed to transcend the limits of her years and attract all the drama and complications that are coupled with sexual maturity. I, on the other hand, was struggling through the awkwardness of my early teenage years, trying desperately to find peace with my chubby cheeks, braces and frizzy hair. Beyond the beauty of her dazzling green eyes and enchanting smile, however, Hayley was a troubled girl. Reckless and unpredictable one moment, then sweet and childlike the next, she became steadily more plagued by uncontrollable outbursts of anger, managing quickly to push almost everyone around her away. She'd pick fights with all the wrong people, argue viciously with her mother, and generally leave a path of chaos in her wake, but I stayed by her side through all of it, because I loved her, because I wanted to help her, because I was convinced I was the only one who truly understood her.

Despite this rollercoaster of experience and a fight that once ensured we didn't exchange a word for three months, she was truly my best friend all throughout high school and into the years that would follow. I knew all her secrets and she knew mine, and no matter how out of control she would sometimes get, I always knew she would be there for me if I needed her, and vice versa. This friendship had bloomed out of the same convenience of all my previous ones, but through the years it had taken on a new element. The convenience disappeared and became replaced by determination, the expectation turned slowly into acceptance. Yet if I look back now, years later, I realize that the one necessary element missing was respect. We loved each other, yes, but much more than that we needed each other. I was the one that would never turn my back to her, and she was the one who I was sure I could fix, thus binding us in a sick and strangely unique web of affection laced with poisoning co-dependence.

When I was eighteen and left Hawaii for good, I wondered if I would ever find a friend like her again, if any of the friendships I would forge in the future could ever be like the one we had shared. I wasn't aware at the time, of the way that I would eventually look back on these years we'd spent together, the way that my love for her would remain the same but that my entire perspective on what constitutes true friendship would change. I suppose one's idea of this gentle order evolves, just as they do, with the passing of time. I remember the look on my mother's face throughout the best and worst of my ordeals with Hayley, our violent arguments and glorious reconciliations. She'd listen to what I had to say, feigning outrage, relief and understanding brilliantly, but never losing this knowing gleam in her eyes that betrayed her knowledge of how, one day, it would all be different.

Five years down the road, my best friend is someone with whom I have learned what, perhaps, the true meaning of friendship is. She is someone I love and trust, but above all, respect and admire. We are there for one another through the good times and the bad, but there is no co-dependence, no crippling need to play victim and rescuer. Ours is a relationship based on understanding, of giving and taking in measured amounts, of trying our best to understand one another but accepting, on the odd occasion, that we simply cannot. She's a lot like me, but also unique and special in her very own way. And it's this contrast that makes the time we spend together so interesting. As is natural in any friendship, we sometimes disagree and lose our tempers with one another, but at the end of the day, we both know how to cool down and admit to our own faults. I look back on my previous friendships now and am grateful for the things I have learned from each and every one of them, because they have all, in some way, been instrumental in teaching me to understand the true concept. I suppose, in a way, I'm even grateful for the friendships I never did forge, for the people that crossed my path silently, yet still managed to leave a mark on my memory.

I think about Casey now and what she'd be doing these days. I wonder if she'd remember the way that I used to go along with her sister's cruel bullying tactics or if she'd remember me at all. I wonder if she and Corey, now both in their early twenties, have reconciled and enjoy a healthy sibling friendship. I think of her bopping blond pigtails and tearful big blue eyes behind an abruptly slammed door and feel sorry for the way I didn't stand up for her all those years ago. It's all part of the process of growing up, but I still wish I had known how differently I'd feel about it one day.

I'm sorry, Casey. Wherever you are, I hope you're happy.

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