Spring 1988, late at night. I’m sitting beside my friend, L, in the stairwell of her college dormitory. We’re sitting side by side on a top step, looking down toward the landing: cinderblock walls painted white, ceramic floor tiles, weak fluorescent lighting. We don’t agree, and we’re both of us crying, and our words bounce off the empty space and echo down the stairwell to the flights above and below us.
I’m visiting L at her small, private Catholic college on the east coast, a long weekend trip for me from the Big Ten state university I attend in the midwest. We’ve been best friends throughout high school, like chalk and cheese yet complementing one another, two parts of a whole. L is a romantic: she loves aimless walks on the beach with her dog, she wants to live a good life and help the world, she talks about joining the Jesuit Volunteers or Peace Corps when she graduates. I on the other hand am a cynic: I listen to the Violent Femmes and XTC, I read Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, I have no plans for my future.
We’d survived our high school with one another’s help, both of us awkward misfits. Other girls at our school enjoyed shopping at Benetton and Banana Republic, they hung out at Giovanni’s and Old Orchard, they lined the insides of their lockers with screen stills of Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise. L’s locker on the other hand had sported a hokey picture of Robert Redford in The Natural, mine a creepy shot of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. We’d rebelled against prom, with its awkwardly-arranged dates and its purchase of elaborate frocks with died-to-match shoes, its hiring of limousines and posing for photographs. On prom night we had taken ourselves on an imaginary double date with Roy Hobbs and Travis Bickle, and had ended up on the beach of Lake Michigan, walking barefoot in the sand by moonlight and gossiping about our classmates, wondering how the event was getting on without us.
Now here I am with her, almost a year later, and our relationship has hit a snag. I don’t like her new circle of friends at college, and she knows it, and they know it too. My goofy friend has fallen in with the crème de la crème of her college social scene: debutantes whose fathers work on Wall Street or in Washington, who spend their summers on Martha’s Vineyard or in the south of France; they wear designer clothes and drive their own cars, they get their hair done, attend tanning and nail spas and parties with the college football team. L’s kudos has skyrocketed from her association with these campus elites, yet from what I can see she is merely permitted into their ranks as a mascot. To them she is a token outsider, a midwestern hick, a parvenu whose role is to set off their own sophistication.
Well, that’s what I think anyway. They just don’t seem nice to her at all. She sees herself as belonging to their group, but I see her tagging along and supporting them indiscriminately while they pay her little heed and even less respect. The L whom I know from high school may be there when we’re alone together but with these others, she wavers, becomes less distinct, she recedes into herself – she worries about what she should wear, and how her hair looks, she tries to keep up. I think she deserves better.
The problem – the reason that we are out here in the stairwell, away from her roommate and friends – is that I have made the mistake of writing down my thoughts, committing them to paper in an attempt to sift through and pin down what exactly is upsetting me. I have asked her point blank what it is that binds her to them, when they appear to have so little in common with her, and to treat her with indifference.
It hadn’t seemed like a problem when I did it: we’ve always written each other notes and letters, L and I, and it’s a comfortable and familiar form of communication. Throughout high school we’d passed one another notes constantly and were even once hauled into the office of Sister Benedict Annette – a fierce ancient disciplinarian – to be grilled about a confiscated scrap of lined paper on which our scribbled exchange had included my use of the word ‘opium’. L had wept and apologised while I sat beside her, furious and defiant.
But L’s roommate has discovered what I’ve written, and shared it with the other girls, who have confronted L with its contents. It is a betrayal and a transgression, her association with critical, unimpressed me. It has embarrassed her terribly, and placed her in an even more precarious position within their group. I feel awful, and guilty, but at the same time bewildered and frustrated by her taste for these companions, her desire to be included among them and to meet their approval.
They’re good people, L says. You just don’t know them. You’re judging them. They’re just like you and me, deep down.
I’m not saying they’re bad; I’m just saying they’re creeps, I reply. We all have to discriminate on some grounds, we can’t be friends with every person we come across because there simply isn’t enough time and space in our lives to do that, so we all have to work out a system for who’s in and who’s out. Why bother with people who don’t respect you?
They’re my friends, she insists.
They don’t treat you like it, I counter.
We sit on the step in that stairwell, and go through it all, over and over and from all the different angles, but we can’t find a place to regain our harmony. I do understand the principle, and agree with her, that everyone is essentially good; it’s the reality of relationships with other people that stumps me.
And it still does. I’ve been on the different sides of this exchange, many times over, with different people in my life, friends and family as well as others who are not so close. No individual should be written off completely. And likewise no one deserves to be treated badly. But the unpleasant truth is that we do treat each other badly, all of us, in all kinds of ways, even the people we like. We often treat the people we care about the worst, because we trust them sufficiently to bear up under our faults. We open up and show them our insides, and our insides are not easy.
I often return in my memory to that stairwell, I go back to it, and back again. I’ve never been able to resolve the dilemma that was illuminated under its humming fluorescent lights. I can only make up my own rules of operation, and then manage with everyone else according to what I imagine to be theirs. We never really know for sure and we all just bumble along, getting pissed off with each other along the way and then getting through it, or over it, or around it somehow – usually. I think there is something in there too about the difference between boundaries and barriers… and something too about forgiveness… but those are for another time.