Women Friends

Author: Patricia O'Brien

We were sitting on the beach at Michigan City a few years ago, my friend and I, talking as we often do about all the changes in our continually rearranging lives: our divorces, our children, our ideas, our work and our men.            

I mentioned to her that this was the first time in years I had been so close the University of Notre Dame. I wanted to go back to see again the place where I had lived in the 1960s as a faculty wife, I said. There were memories I had to face, but I was afraid they would hurt.            

She pulled her toes out of the hot sand and stood up. “Let’s go now,” she said. “You’ve got to do it sometime.” I immediately though of dozens of reasons why it wasn’t a good idea, but she was firm and cheerful in her insistence. I trusted her. And so we went.           

I will remember that August afternoon for a long time as a point in my life when I fully appreciated how precious friendship between two women can be.            

I talked and she listened as we walked around the campus, revisiting places that had been important in my life and the lives of husband and children. I pointed out the spot where we once attended Sunday Mass outdoors, a place where the children used to sit in the trees and we would sing and pray, hopeful about our changing lives and futures.           

I told her how, in the later days, I always wore dark glasses at Mass because sometimes I cried over the promises drained dry.           

She touched my shoulder and said nothing.           

I showed her our old Dutch colonial home in Harter Heights, and we walked together down the sidewalks where my children used to run after fireflies on hot summer nights. I pointed our how Margaret, then 11, had planted gladioli she had never seen grow. They were tall against he side of the house now.           

With each revisited memory, I felt better. My friend was giving me the perspective to reclaim the good parts of that chapter of my life, and the support I needed to face again the sights and sounds of something lost.           

As we walked around the stadium, I was finally laughing about the vanity that used to send me forth in a new too-warm fall dress at the beginning of each football season, only to languish in the stands, perspiring from the heat. I did it every year, I told her.           

“Dumb,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But you were young.”            

It occurred to me as we finally got back to the car and sped off that only a woman friend could have helped me so totally that day. If I had gone with a man, no matter how sympathetic or supportive, I think I would have edited my intimate recollections. I would have underplayed some memories and overplayed the drama of others that were more consistent with the type of person I wanted to be.            

I doubt if I would have ended up feeling stronger. Instead, some comforting male arm would have been around my shoulder, and the experience of putting the past to rest would have been incomplete.           

Deep friendship seems elusive between men and women, perhaps because so often the sexual tension that draws us together becomes a barrier to true intimacy. When we “fall in love” (as opposed to the long-range enrichments of loving), the whole world takes on special snap and sparkle. The loved one is perfect, and nothing can go wrong. Such high hopes are always dashed, of course, and if we don’t move away from the initial superficial attraction, the rainbow always disappears. And yet a male-female relationship years for perfection and struggles for exclusivity, no matter how many times reality punctures illusion.           

Friendship between women makes no such demands. My friend and I love each other dearly, but we have other friends. And in the special, marvelous way of friendship, the more we know of each other’s flaws — the more we are “disillusioned” — the stronger our friendship grows.           

Once my friend said casually, “You know what is so important to me about you? I can tell you anything, and you never judge.”            

That is true, and it is reciprocal. I have told her the most repulsive thoughts I have, the most petty things I have done, and she accepts them as a part of me. I think when tolerance of flaws and differences between two friends moves beyond mere sufferance, it can become the strongest bond of friendship.           

We are certainly very different. She loves the color red; I feel overdosed when it covers the walls of a room. I love blue; she considers it a bit cool. Her idea of a special treat is an enormous Greek salad; mine is a hot fudge sundae. So I buy feta cheese for her, and she stocks ice cream for me. She owns two bounding monster dogs whose slobbering affections I have never returned. (I cannot, for the life of me, understand what she sees in them.) I am forever running to the ironing board to press a dress just before going out. (She cannot, for the life of her, see the wrinkles I am so diligently trying to erase.)           

We are indeed very different, and yet it poses no problem. It seems to me taht friendship allows an inner circle of privacy that a sexually intimate relationship does not, a curius fact that she and I have discussed at length.            

Historically, women have been isolated from one another by the competitive search for a man. Many times in college I would unhesitatingly break a date with a girlfriend if a boy called — any boy. We all did it, stripping each other of importance, completely oblivious to the process.           

Women still take each other for granted. But the themes of our lives changed in the late 1960s. The women’s movement helped us discover our similarities, and broke down the suspicions that we were fated to be in constant competition for men. Among the more painful jolts for divorced women during those years was the drawing away of “friends” who became fearful of the newly unattached female in the neighborhood. I think this is changing, partly because women have learned how to be more honest with each other. Too often in the past, “friendship” was little more than coming together to exchange complaints; now, it can be shared work, shared ideas, as well as shared disappointments.           

My friend and I take each other for granted, but we would never break a date for dinner with each other, except under the rarest of circumstances. Our time together is too interesting and too much fun to give away. We are always analyzing other relationships; our own is assumed. This is what “taking for granted” means to us.            

At times we have had to tiptoe around a curious kind of jealousy from the men in our lives. Many men seem to find close friendship between women unsettling, even threatening, perhaps because they fear a conflict of loyalty. And yet for most women I know, a close female relationship and a love for a man don’t compete — they coexist. They fill different needs.           

I think also that some men feel shut out by intimate friendship, which is a pity form them. Many men I know say they have not found the deeper intimacy of friendship with other men — only women can draw out their feelings, and they are forever bound to the limits of sexual tensions.           

The irony, of course, is that my friend and I are fascinated with relationships between men and women, and talk about them all the time, advising each other, laughing, sharing, nurturing. “Isn’t it strange,” she has said, “how we automatically focus on men, all our lives?” 

It is, I suppose, and we certainly do. But one evening we began thinking about the end to all that.           

We realized we would probably live longer than most of the men we know. In the relentlessly inequitable world of statistics, we females have been granted several more years of life than men. We suddenly felt lonely, but we also realized it is nature’s cruelest joke on the many women who have built their lives around men to the exclusion of other women.           

Generations of mothers have passed on the same fragile wisdom: it is important to have a man so you won’t be alone in your old age. And so often the facts turn out otherwise, leaving the “man’s woman” bereft of warmth and comfort at the time when she needs it most.           

Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the women’s movement will be the reawakened realization of women that they do have each other, and what they have can be one of the warmest gifts of life.           

I sometimes watch old women helping each other down the street, clutching their shopping bags and each other’s arms as they cross icy sidewalks and climb steep hills. The sight used to chill me to the bone. I pitied them; I was impatient with them. They were so alone, I thought.           

Now I’m not so sure.           

Now I have a flash of what may be the future — my friend and I someday, helping each other down those icy sidewalks and up those steep hills.           

If it happens that way, I know what we will do. We will buy a house and pain the living room blue and the dining room red. She will do the cooking, and I will iron her clothes, and our children will find us doing fine when they come to visit.           

If it happens that way, we will be all right.

We learned early how to take care of each other.