I am constantly amazed when people want to be my friend. Much of the time, I am not a nice person to the people I am close to. If I feel safe with someone, I let my guard down sometimes and the queen bitch who is constantly fighting me for control of my tone of voice and observations of people's weaknesses slips loose.
So few people make it to the point where I feel safe with them in the first place that the law of averages demands that the dice haven't been rolled often enough for snake eyes - in the form of someone who then sticks around - to reasonably make an appearance.
But Susan called me the afternoon after the evening she got engaged. I'd say that makes me pretty special.
I kind of avoided Susan for the first semester of freshman year when she lived in the room next door. She was just so . . . happy. All the time. And she had these tight little blond ringlets that were just so . . . cute. I couldn't handle it.
But one day in the bathroom she backed me into a corner wearing her bathrobe with a towel on her head and demanded, "Did you do DDA?" When I hesitantly responded that yes, I had competed in Dramatic Duet Acting in high school forensics, she yelled, "Ha, I knew it. I saw you perform at State as that Holocaust survivor and you made me cry." I think she then quoted a few of my lines of dialogue to me in that awful Polish/German Jewish accent that was ubiquitous on the speech circuit in the early 90s. Or worse, she made me recite some.
When I told Daniel that story, he shook his head knowingly, recognizing instantly why I would let my guard down with this very perky, intrusive girl: flattery.
As a girl who didn't make many friends, I was (and probably still am) vain of my talents. If people didn't like me, I figured they should at least be impressed by me. So, when someone came along who actually lived up to my expectations, well, it must have been love at first sight.
I actually don't remember what happened after that. I cannot plot out for you the opening steps of our friendship dance. Ultimately, though, I got pulled into her group and finally had someone to sit with in the dining hall for meals. A lot of it may have had to do with the fact that the other girls in the groups were already paired off with their roommates as BFFs (best friend forever) but Susan's roommate was absolutely nuts so I filled that niche in the group dynamic, which I did not mind in the slightest. Outside of my family, I've never felt like I filled a niche in my life, except for that phase and later on during my first years teaching when my colleagues treated me as the baby sibling and picked on me a lot. So, I was actually pretty overjoyed to be something other than an after-thought in a group. Susan needed me. That was all that mattered. Also, I think we had Practical Criticism class together and although it was torture for her, I loved it and woke her up most mornings to make sure she got there. (Our reactions to the class say more about me than they do about her. Everyone thought Prac. Crit. was torture.) I was young enough that I never had a moment when I realized that she was family. She just always was. I can't remember ever feeling like I had to be something other than who I was with Susan. That's my definition of family. Susan and my ex-husband are the only two people in the world that have ever felt comfortable hanging out with my actual family when I wasn't there. That's a pretty good indicator that's she's important, as well.
(By the way, when I say that Susan't roommate was nuts, I really do mean nuts. She used to plan her outfits in a little notebook months in advance and actually took pictures of them, so she wouldn't repeat elements.)
Susan and I were roommates during our sophomore year in a room so small that we could hold hands across the space between our beds as we slept at night if we wanted to. We shared the same tolerance level for mess and also shared a love of Target and the China Star. It was perfect. I threw whatever was handy when she snored in the middle of the night and she backed away slowly when she came home and my head was under the pillow with Pearl Jam (what she deemed "scary music") was cranked on the stereo. She taught me how to use chopsticks and shared her food.
I can't give you reasons for why Susan likes me or what I contributed to the relationship. I know that in my own insecurity, I mocked her lack of worldliness that was the product of a Geneseo upbringing. I assume I lorded my intelligence over her at various times. Hell, I stuck my head under the pillow and cranked Pearl Jam. That's reason enough to abandon a friendship, in my book.
But let me tell you why I loved Susan:
Susan laughed. Loudly, freely and often. The panicked darting of my eyes around the dining hall as I looked for a place to sit were calmed because I could hear her laughter while I was piling my tray with Turkey a la King and cake. Her laughter gave me the freedom to laugh, to throw my own joy defiantly in the face of the social judgment that felt so restrictive to me. That year, almost ten years ago now, we went to see Vance Gilbert for the first time. We sat at a coffeehouse table right in front of the stage and at some point, he stopped the story he was telling and peered down into the darkness demanding, "Who laughs like that? Hee hee hee. Like she's reading it out of a book. Really? That's your laugh?" Of course, once he singled her out, she about fell out of her chair, gasping for breath with tears running down her face. I've heard him tell that joke again in the past couple of years, but I swear to you that ten years ago, he was coming up with it for the first time with Susan as his inspiration.
Susan cried just as frequently. We had to put her out of the room one night when we were watching Anne of Green Gables because she sobbed so hard that we couldn't hear the next bits of the movie. But her tears were just as liberating to me as her laughter. Life was intense for Susan. She didn't protect herself by waiting until she got home to her mom to react emotionally to things. She didn't rationalize and explain. She just was. Life was full for her. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.
Susan had a completely different experience of life than I did and it was interesting to me. She grew up in rural Illinois with lots of different foster siblings, she had a car, she spent a year in Japan her junior year in high school which ratcheted up my admiration for her since I knew that I never could have done it. She dated several men who turned out to be gay and I was honored to go through their coming out experiences with her. She had been rowdy in high school, drinking and such. All of these were just enough different from my own religious Chicagoland suburban experience that she held my attention as absolutely as any book ever had.
Susan liked me. For whatever reason. I felt valued by her and could do nothing but respond in kind. With her radiant internal joy, she had her choice of people to be friends with and she picked moody, arrogant, difficult me to be her friend. How could I not love her? What's more, she let me be intelligent by wanting to learn about things I knew. She let me be funny by laughing at stories I told. She let me be worldly by deferring to my experiences. Once, we spent an evening synchronized vomiting, sitting up in our beds that were so close, because I had drunkenly told her that she needed to drink more. She explains that since I was always right, she drank more. Not only doesn't she hold any ill-will toward me for leading her astray that night, she changed my sheets when the garbage can I grabbed turned out to have a huge hole in the bottom. She's the perfect friend.
Junior year, Susan broke my heart by transferring to another school. The fact that I neither went all self-protective and cut her out of my life nor let our friendship drift through the apathy that distance almost always induces is telling. I don't know who was responsible for keeping up the relationship, but there are plenty of pictures from graduation to show that she thought I was important enough to come back to IWU for at least a day. Again, I'm baffled.
Now that I think about it, aside from the year and a half at school, Susan and I have never lived in the same place. Nearly ten years later, I still consider her my best friend. A year and a half doesn't seem very long at all to build the foundation for the friendship we still have.
Although Susan is still my best friend, I am not hers. And there is no sadness in this. Her friend Jess lives nearby and shares the day-to-day closeness that creates best friends. In the beginning of their friendship, Susan would always refer to Jess by her first name and referred to her often enough that I suspected something was up. But by the time she slipped and referred to her as her best friend, she got all weirded out and embarrassed, but I just shushed her and told her not to worry about it. Me! Little Miss Sensitive-and-Insecure! I'm that confident, though. She said it best after I shushed her, "We have history."
I can't give you reasons for why Susan still likes me. I asked her not to bring her boyfriend to my wedding, I still mock Geneseo, I barely and with reluctance admit that she was right when she said the Indigo Girls were lesbians, even though I insisted that she shouldn't just assume that intelligent, artistic, strong women were lesbians. For awhile there, I only called her when I was in tears to the point that she would have to wait for me to calm down enough to speak before she was sure that it was me. Have you ever had to wait for the person that has interrupted your life with a telephone call? Isn't that annoying?
But let me tell you why I still love Susan:
Susan still laughs and cries as easily as she ever did. I take comfort that sometimes life is predictable and that these emotional outbursts are what I can consistently expect means that life is actually pretty good.
Susan has been through some shit. Whereas I rolled along the expected path for a young, intelligent strong young woman and then crashed into a tree when I was 25, Susan veered off the path into the underbrush soon after she transferred schools (and I never once felt even the slightest tinge of shadenfreude) when she was 20 or so. She's had to hack at the hanging vines and tear through the brambles to get where she is now. I just had to pick myself up off the ground and shake the stars out of their orbit around my head. I think we've both found news paths that are relatively clear now, but, man, has it been tough to watch her sometimes. But . . .
Susan impresses me. She has spent the last ten years moving forward with grace and panache. Once she realized what she wanted, she sucked it up and went back to school to get it. She's starting her student teaching in the fall and will graduate next spring. You better believe that on May 27th, I'll be there to have my picture taken as a testimony to how important she is to me. She has coached speech for her high school, and loved it, a baffling achievement to me. She acts and directs in community theatre, not caring at all that sometimes the dinner theatre performances take place in a truck stop. She still doesn't care a whit for restrictive social judgment.
Susan cares for me. Just as she held my flowers so I could dry Dennis' tears when I took my wedding vows, she held my heart for me so I could answer the judge without crying when I got divorced. When I couldn't make the decision to leave the island, even though I really needed to, she compared my experience to her pivotal time in Japan, which put it all in perspective for me and let me move forward. She is often the person I call first when I'm so full of something that it must come out. For instance, when I was driving to a party full of people that I didn't know, I let out a giant fart at the very same moment that the traffic light I was stopped out went out. Since it lit back up as soon as I was out of the intersection, I couldn't stop laughing for the thought that I had blown out the stop light. But if I went to the party without telling someone who already had her mind made up about me, I would have told the story to strangers and the dice would have jumped back into the cup before they even hit the table. So, I called Susan. And she laughed.
Susan is beautiful. We went to see Vance Gilbert again (he's a running theme in our lives) at a house concert, so at intermission, we just walked up to him in the woman's dining room to talk to him. He reached out and held her face in his hands as he said, "You look like how a woman is supposed to look."
So, now someone else has spotted my beautiful Susan. I have not yet met Dan the Man, but I can be pretty protective of her, so he better be on his best with me. I have already sent her my favorite bridal book with an offer that she should use my craftiness and assertiveness however she needs to plan this wedding. Now, I know this whole post sounds like a bid for Maid of Honor but I swear to you it's not. And I have only been wrong twice in my entire relationship with Susan (see the aforementioned Indigo Girls and vodka/lemonade stories). Susan and I are totally comfortable with the fact that we honest-to-God don't remember each other's birthdays. She'll make the decisions she'll need to make and I will love her for every one. She tells me she is happy and that she told me the very next day is more than enough for me.
"Well I don't know but I've been told, you never slow down, you never grow old. I'm tired of screwin' up, tired of goin' down, tired of myself, tired of this town, Oh my, my, oh hell yes - Honey put on that party dress."
-Tom Petty, "Last Dance With Mary Jane"