|The 19 kinds of friends
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Liz is explaining the situation to some guy in customer service: “My roommate and I need to network our computers together,” she’s saying, seated at the other desk in the office that we share.The word roommate jumps out at me. It’s an inadequate word, but it’s all we have. What else do you call two friends who are shacked up together in a decaying Victorian house, run several businesses and one nonprofit group out of its rooms, host political meetings under oil portraits of Puritan and Jewish ancestors, cook kale and tofu meals for all who stop by, go to parties as a couple, and spend holidays with each other’s families? If we were lesbians–as people sometimes assume us to be–we would fit more neatly into a box. But we’re straight.In the year and a half we’ve lived together in Somerville, Massachusetts, I have struggled with the namelessness of our situation. The word roommate conjures up a college dorm; it means transience and 20 years old. It does not mean love or family.I wish for a word that two friends could live inside, like a shingled house with faded Persian rugs. Sometimes, in an attempt to make our relationship sound more valid, I tell people Liz and I are in a “Boston marriage.” The usual response is, “You’re in a what?”It’s an antique phrase, dating back to the 1800s. In Victorian times, women who wanted to maintain their in-dependence and freedom opted out of marriage and often paired up to live together, acting as each other’s “wives” and “helpmeets.” Henry James’ 1886 novel about such a liaison, The Bostonians, may have been the inspiration for the term, or perhaps it was the glamorous female couples who made their homes in Boston, including novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, and her “wife,” writer Annie Adams Fields.Were they gay? Was “Boston marriage” simply a code word for lesbian love? Historian Lillian Faderman says this is impossible to determine, because 19th-century women who kept diaries drew curtains over their bedroom windows. They did not bother to mention whether their ecstatic friendship spilled into–as Faderman so romantically puts it–“genital sex.” And ladies, especially well-to-do ones who poured tea with their pinkies raised, were presumed to have no sex drive at all. So, at least in theory, the Boston marriage indicated a platonic relationship. Most likely, it meant different things to different women: business partnership, artistic collaboration, lesbian romance. And sometimes it was a friendship nurtured with all the care we usually squander on our mates–a friendship as it could be if we allowed it to become the center of our lives.
“I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend–and maybe lover–Sue Gilbert. Today I see tragedy in these words, for Sue ended up married to Emily’s brother, and the women never had a chance to build a life around their love. I find myself wishing I could teleport them to our own time, so that Emily and her Susie might find an apartment in San Francisco together, fly a rainbow flag out front, shop at Good Vibrations, and delight one another with dildos in shocking shades of pink.And yet, it’s not that simple. When I read the passionate letters between 19th-century women, I become keenly aware of what I’m missing, of how much richer Victorian friendships must have been. While our sex lives have ballooned in the past hundred years, our friendships have grown stunted. Why don’t I shower my favorite girls with kisses and “mash” notes, hold hands with them as we skip down the street, or share a sleeping bag? We don’t touch anymore. We don’t dare admit how our hearts scamper.Several years ago, I fell in love with a man because of all he carried–he would show up for the night with five plastic bags rattling on his arm, and then proceed to unpack, strewing possessions everywhere. The next day, I’d find his orange juice in the refrigerator, his sweater tucked into my bureau, a new software program on my computer. Night after night, he installed himself in my apartment. At first, these discoveries charmed me–his way of saying, “I need to be with you.” But one morning, I surveyed my bedroom–a guy’s underwear on the floor, books about artificial intelligence stacked on the night table, a jar of protein powder on the shelf–and realized that I had a live-in boyfriend. And that he and I had completely different ideas about what we wanted from a living space. What I regarded as a mess, he saw as a filing system that should under no circumstances be disturbed. Meanwhile, I drove him crazy by hosting political meetings in our living room, inviting 10 people over for dinner at the last minute. We loved one another, but that didn’t mean we should share an apartment.Years later, when our love fizzled into friendship and he moved out, I made a vow to myself: I would not drift into a domestic situation again. Instead, I would find someone who shared my passion for turning a house into a community center–with expansive meals, weekend guests, clean counters, flowers, art projects, activist gatherings, and a pile of old bikes on the porch, available to anyone needing to borrow some wheels.
My friend Liz seemed like the right person. And so I proposed to her. Did she want to be a co-creator of the performance art piece that we would call “home”? She did.Recently, at a party, I met a thirtysomething academic who has settled alone in a small town outside of Boston. “I can step right out my door and cross-country ski,” she told me. “But I’m lonely a lot.” Around us, people sweated and threw their arms wildly in time to an old Prince song. The academic wedged her hands into her jeans pockets, and her eyes skated past my face and scanned the room.If you’re lonely, get a roommate, I suggested. Move into a group house.“No,” she sighed. “I’m too old for that. I’m set in my ways.”“What if you marry?” I asked.She laughed. “That’s different.”She might be speaking for thousands, millions of women all over this country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of four households in 1995 had only one member, a figure expected to rise sharply as the population ages. I see the future of single women, and frankly, it depresses the hell out of me. We’re isolating ourselves in condos and studio apartments. And why? Sometimes because we need to bask in solitude–and that’s fine. But other times, it’s because we’re afraid to get too comfortable with our friends. What if you bought a house with your best friend, opened a joint bank account with her, raised a child? Where would your bedmate fit into the scheme? This is where the platonic marriage–for all its loveliness–may force you to make some difficult choices and rethink your ideas about commitment.Liz’s love, a theoretical physicist, will walk in to find Liz and me draped across the sofa, discussing urban sprawl. We’ll all make dinner together, and if I feel like it, I might join them for a night out, or I might head off with the guy that I’m seeing.I date scientists too, men who understand what it is to experiment, to question and wonder. Liz’s love or mine might sit in our kitchen scrawling equations into a notebook, or disappear for days to orbit with subatomic particles or speak with machines. These men are wise enough to see that the Boston marriage works to their advantage. Liz and I keep each other company. Our Boston marriage has made it easier for us to enjoy the men in our lives.But how do we commit to each other, knowing that someday one of us may marry? One of us might fall in love with something other than a man–a solar cabin in Mexico, a job in Tangier, a documentary film project in Florida, a year of silence in the Berkshire woods. Any number of things could pull us apart. We have made no promises to each other, signed no agreements to commit. For some reason, that seems OK most of the time.
I’ve come to think of commitment as something beyond a marriage contract, a joint bank account, or even a shared child. I know that eventually Liz and I may drift to other houses, other cities. Yet I can picture us reuniting at age 80, to settle down in an old-age home together. Maybe we will have husbands, maybe not, but we’ll still be conspirators. We’ll probably harangue the youngsters who spoon spinach onto our plates about the importance of forming a union; we’ll attend protests with signs duct-taped to our walkers; maybe we’ll write an opera and perform it using some newfangled technology that lets us float in the air. Liz and I are committed. We share a vision of the kind of people we want to be and the world we want to inhabit.Liz sashays into the kitchen, a shopping bag crinkling under her arm. “I bought you these,” she says, “because you’ve been wearing those mismatched gloves with holes in them.”I slide on the mittens and my hands turn into fuzzy paws, pink and red with a touch of gold. “I love them,” I say, and hug her, patting her back with my fuzz.She laughs and shifts her eyes away, a bit em-barrassed by her own generosity. “I couldn’t have my roommate going around in shabby gloves,” she says.She uses the word roommate. But I know what she means.Quotes:“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.”
–Jane Austen“No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.”
–Alice WalkerFriendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
– C.S. Lewis“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.”
– Oscar Wilde
Pagan Kennedy is the author of The Exes (Scribner, 1999). From Ms. (June/July 2001). Subscriptions: $45/yr. (6 issues) from Box 5299, Harlan, IA 51593.
Discuss friendship in the Relationship forum at Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com