By Nisha Susan
Originally published on 23 December 2015.
They were stranded together on an island, the only two English-speaking writers at a conference (this somehow happens in Berkeley). They have wild and instant intimacy of the kind where you tell each other everything. It’s the kind of friendship in which you want to be together all the time, the world is not enough, the day is not long enough to give you all the time you want with your friend. You are back to when you were 12, when you have just come home from your friend’s house after several hours of lying in bed and talking. As you walk through the door you remember THIS ONE THING. You get on the phone for another hour with your parents gnashing their teeth in frustration and rage in the background. This is the story of female friendship that writer Kim Brooks tells in a recent New York magazine essay, “I am having a friendship affair”.
Brooks’ friendship affair takes the familiar arc of the affair in fiction. One that is both caused by and causes existential disarray. Before the conference, it is her husband who shows her the photo in the newspaper of the woman she was destined to be in a friendship-affair with. At that point Brooks is convinced she will hate this accomplished younger woman.
This reminded me of Andre Agassi’s anecdote about Brooke Shields. In his memoir Open, “In preparation for her wedding to Agassi, Shields embarks on an exercise regimen and hangs an inspiration photo on the refrigerator door. The photo is of the woman who Shields thinks has perfect legs. The woman is Agassi’s future second wife, Steffi Graf.” Oh destiny, oh doom, oh dramatic irony.
Of course when Brooks meets this younger woman at the conference they don’t hate each other. They are deeply moved and excited and satisfied by each other. And this lasts for a while after the long conference, while they live in separate cities and occupy a lot of each other’s mind and time. In a while, they quarrel. The friend is cranky. The author feels unloved and hurt.
The author is shattered but also shattered by how shattered she is. As if she hadn’t yet realised that friendships have the power to hurt and crush you.
Brooks talks to her therapist, a woman who should be thrown from a very high building because she tells the author that a. these feelings are not normal b. your husband should be your best friend. She talks to another friend who thankfully thinks this is perfectly normal. She tries to make up with her friend-in-affair but spends more time looking for what is wrong with her life. She talks to her husband to help her because she is drifting.
Brooks complains that thick friendships are not allowed to adult women in her milieu in the way those of her mother’s generation were granted. She resents this. As she ought to.
But here is how the essay ends — a happy, emaciated resolution where marital balance is restored. The friend has a man in her life again. The author is back with her husband. They are not obsessive any more. “Whatever mutual unmet needs tossed us into that initial intensity of friendship have passed.” And presumably all is well in the world.
Except it isn’t. This ending is roughly as satisfying as Jo March getting together with Bhaer. Why, god why. There’s so much wrong with this situation. Apart from the therapist who needs to be defenestrated.
I am not a friendship whiz. Most of the truly intimate friendships of my 20s are gone. They are wrecks or ghosts. (Some are ghosts in the new internet sense of the word.) And some days it’s hard to tell whether a ghost of a friendship is worse or a wreck. Or if either of them are bad things at all. Because I have lost but boy did I love before I lost.
One morning this month I realised that a friend I thought I was going to grow old with, one I saw at least every fortnight, has disappeared from my life. I last saw him some months ago and he no longer answers emails, Whatsapp messages, FB tags, tweets, texts or phone calls. These are all the different ways in which you can reach out to tell someone you stubbed your toe, all the different ways in which you can be ignored. I have no idea what happened and wonder whether/when I will find out.
I have faded out of the lives of other friends. I have conducted a near-decade of cold war with another friend. It’s all messy and annoying and heart-breaking. But the friendships didn’t exist or fall apart because of a lack in my marriage/relationship with a dude.
The same-sexness of her obsessive friendship bothers Brooks. I want to offer her this thought. The gender of the friends I’ve conducted my passionate, tawdry, gilded relationships with is both important and not important. Why it’s important: It’s saddening to think that the sexist power play I guarded viciously against in my work life and love life sometimes crept in through the wide open windows of my friendships with straight and gay men. Why it’s important: it is saddening to know that one or two of my friendships with women fell apart because we were taught that there isn’t room for two interesting women in the world. Why the sex of your friend is not important: because there are so many thousand ways to kill friendships, which are not about secret homoerotic love for your friend. Don’t let me count the ways.
In the essay, Brooks’ kind friend who is helping her think through the devastating friendship-affair asks her: “This is a yes-no question. Do you want to eat her pussy?” Brooks says no. Is it actually a yes/no question if you want to eat the pussy of a friend/render alternate sexual activity to a friend? No, it isn’t. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you act on it. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the electric, sexual charge of your friendship is forever. Sometimes you think about it once and you never remember it again.
A man I became wild and instant friends with on a OTT romantic date told me a couple of months later that he was finally sure that he was no longer bisexual. He was gay. He told me this while holding hands with me standing in moonlight on an empty cricket field. I found this so funny that I cackled with laughter. I kissed him. He kissed me back. And complained because I was still laughing. We’ve been friends for a decade with roughly one bitter no-you-said-no-you-said argument in this period. His boyfriend watched us have this fight and stepped four healthy steps away to give us room to make fools of ourselves.
There was a woman I adored. She was funny and brilliant. I found her movie-star, erotic-fantasy hot. At one point I practically lived in her house. She called me one day and asked to meet me somewhere quiet. When we did she told me that she didn’t want to see me anymore because I reminded her too much of other people we had in common, other people who she found hard to deal with. She was, in effect, breaking up. In that relationship, I was supposed to be the spunky, resilient, younger woman. So that’s what I did. We bump into each other once a couple years and we giggle a lot with no reason and complete affection and never attempt to hang out.
I met a straight man at a party and necked with him in an auto. It didn’t excite either of us. But we had liked each other so much that making out seemed like the thing to do — a socially acceptable way of responding to the sudden feeling that someone has reached into your chest and opened a tap of affection. We’ve stayed friends for five years and never attempted to jump each other again. (These habits die hard. A man told me the moving story of his life a few months ago. His work, his wife, his love, his scooter, all of it made me want to climb over the table, sit in his lap and stroke his face. I looked sideways and found my husband was wearing the same expression of devotion and love towards this stranger.)
A gay man who I thought I’d been born to be friends with (certainly with whom I was reborn) and I, we have taken years to wreck the ship of our friendship, plank by plank, splinter by splinter. He was central to a saga I spent months narrating to a shrink who said many insightful and terrifying things to me. Do I know myself so little, I asked myself each time I left her clinic. Until of course the day she asked me, are you sure he’s gay? Do you know so little, I thought to myself with great irritation. What does it matter? Does it matter that he’s gay? I loved his face, his ears, his toes but I didn’t want to suck any of that.
The thing that bothers me most about Brooks’ essay is her belief that there is no room for more than one person in your life with whom you can be passionate and intense with. Her mother’s friendships, which she admires, are loving, non-threatening and an undifferentiated mass.
I am testing fate as I write this: I love my husband. I like spending time with him. We are fairly non-quarrelsome. We make each other howl with laughter. Sometimes we jump each other as we pass each other in the living room. We work together well and have ever since we first met. In the first month of our marriage we quit our jobs to write. We spent a whole Delhi summer stuck in the only room in our house with an AC and didn’t kill each other. A Pakistani novelist friend told us with his usual look of glamorous gloom: you will get divorced. We didn’t. I am taunting fate while writing these words (don’t break us up, editor in the sky). I am deeply attached to the man I married. The idea of not having him in my life makes me want to die. Sometimes being apart for a day makes me want to die. (I want to make jokes about how I’d rather pathologise this relationship but I won’t.)
But my husband isn’t enough. Back in the years when the romantic/sexual relationships in my life weren’t legally certified (when the Special Marriage Act hadn’t declared that “we were neither a idiot nor a lunatic”) they still weren’t enough.
I am not a friendship-whiz but I am friendship-dependent. I need, want and pursue friendships. I am to quote the artist Yumi Sakugawa often totally in friend love.
Little flings and torrid affairs and forever-wala ishqs. These are the friendships I want. Sometimes these friendships make me cry. Sometimes these friendships make me smile secretly at my breakfast because an early morning text had been just that good. And I am hungry for more. I look forward to meeting women whose emails or FB statuses have entertained me for years. Will she turn out to be a subtle-minded beauty who talks carefully about love and wears a big flower in her hair? Will she turn out to be a tiny cowboy, as challenging and irresistible as the fund-raising appeal in which I first encountered her?
I started reading Brooks’ essay with great interest but with every paragraph it marched towards the denouement of a moral tale — once I was lost in friendship, Sweet Lord and then I was found.
And to this, I reply: get thee to a nunnery. No, wait, ignore the callous Christian comeback. Though a group of cloistered women might be the place to get over the feeling that you can only feel strongly about your husband. What I did mean was get thee to a friendship affair. What do you Kim Brooks want to do with polite chit-chat? Sure, we all need chit-chat to get through life, a social, grown-up lubricant so as to not assault humanity with your self and the voices in your head. But do you want it? No.
I made that mistake recently. Hanging out with people I had nothing in common with but a friendship-vacancy. It didn’t end well. It was snarly without pay-off. My friend N who is wise in friendship tells me that I am longing for simple fun. Uncomplicated fun. And that’s why I latched on (though she doesn’t use that cruel phrase ‘latch on’ or that crueller one ‘pile-on’, an unbearable heaviness of human being) on to these people.
I do agree with Brooks on one front. Like in the other kinds of affairs, you can make a mess of friendships by being a speed-demon. And I learnt this too from N. Trying to get to hand-holding on the sunset beach at top speed ends in slightly falsetto laughter, not quite getting each other’s humour. “The mesh between temperaments must be perfect. Not approximate, perfect. Otherwise, the gears refuse to turn,” says Vivian Gornick. Try to speed everything up and there will be a giant mess, says my friendship-wise friend N.
Only recently have I learnt the pleasures of the slow, intense friendship affair. Sometimes it takes years and gets to a stage of staggering beauty and unstaggerable robustness. Sometimes, satisfaction is just not in sight but you persist, delaying and hoping for gratification. A writer whom I have admired for years, whose writing gives me a dirty, dirty frisson, has been resisting my friendship advances forever. My last civilised email attempting to meet this writer got me this response: we will meet when it’s time.
Every time I think about that response I giggle. Talk about gears meshing perfectly. If infinitely slow.
Image credit: Secrets by Jurek. D, Flickr by CC/2.0