I met Hannah in an airport. We were flying to Arizona, where we were both going to a summerlong new teacher training; she recognized me from a preliminary session we’d attended earlier that week in New Orleans. I found myself attracted to her in a way that is difficult to describe. It wasn’t a romantic crush, exactly, but my stomach lurched forward when she spoke to me, sort of as if I was going to give a speech in front of full auditorium. I found myself hanging on her words; her company was familiar and warm. She laughed effortlessly and made eye contact; she brushed my shoulder with her hand purposefully when she responded to me. I was scared of her.
In the past, I have used the word “intimidating” to describe this quality in women. Now, I don’t think that word is quite right. “Intimidating” is a word that I use to shift focus away from myself; if Hannah is “intimidating,” then I am not to blame for being scared of her. But to describe someone like Hannah as intimidating is to do her—and women in general—a disservice. The feeling is more a fear that someone so self-assured and beautiful could not actually want to be my friend. Her possession of confidence was not the problem; the problem was my lack of it.
A lot of young girls internalize thoughts like these. My fear of female friends started in elementary school, when all of mine suddenly stopped talking to me. In second grade, I had three friends who also read The Babysitter’s Club, could also quote pretty much every episode of The Secret Life of Alex Mack, and also enjoyed “inventing” “smoothies” in the blender. Together we started a self-published newspaper (called Kidz Newz , at a time when adding a z to the ends of words was very hip) and developed a highly advanced written secret code. I had it in my head, from watching shows on the Disney Channel a lot, that these girls would be my friends forever, and I filled my diary with fantasies about trips we’d all take to Venice when we were thirty. At first I was dumbfounded, and then I was devastated, when they collectively stopped inviting me over without explanation at the beginning of third grade.
A decade later, just after our high school graduation, I finally confronted one of the girls in that group about what happened. I’d been carrying it around like the memory of pneumonia: None of my female friendships since had reached the height of my second grade ones; I’d grown scared to get really close to people. My former friend, on the other hand, barely remembered it. After a little consideration, she told me what I probably should have been able to guess: Our friendship had ended because of a boy. I liked a boy, and she liked the same boy, and no one ever told me that that wasn’t cool.
A recent Atlantic article on the trajectory of friendship as we age leads with: “In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom.” In Psychology Today , Dr. Bella DePaulo likewise notes that while relationship science is historically rich, “ it has focused overwhelmingly on romantic relationships, thereby turning a mighty big concept (‘relationships’) into something small-minded and just plain small.” Science and popular media are in tandem on the subject: Movies about relationships almost unanimously center on romance; popular music about friendship essentially begins and ends with Randy Newman ; even the pivotal television show about what it means to be friends deteriorates into a who’s-sleeping-with-whom drama, and ultimately dissolves once the once-unhappy singles are happily coupled off.
It wasn’t always this way. In his treatise “ Nichomachean Ethics,” Aristotle explains that Philia (often translated to “brotherly love,” or, for our purposes, non-romantic love) is one of the highest forms of Love. (Love, for those who skipped Plato’s Symposium , was literally a godlike “great spirit” to the Ancient Greeks.) Aristotle examines the three types of friendship in Book VIII: Friendship based on utility (like when your boss invites you out for drinks, and you both kind of have to get along because you both need each other); friendship based on pleasure (like when you have a one-night stand with the hot barista because she thinks you’re hot too); and then that really good sort of friendship that practically defies explanation. Aristotle describes this as “a perfect friendship,” between people “who are good and alike in virtue.” It comes from being good, finding someone else who is good, and loving, unsuperficially, the goodness in each other.
There are, furthermore, plenty of what have been called “romantic friendships” in Victorian literature. Extremely intimate but non-sexual relationships between friends—sometimes involving holding hands, cuddling, hugging, kissing, or sharing a bed—are rife in the pages of books and letters by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen. Shakespeare ambiguously addressed 126 of his love sonnets to an adolescent boy, which either signified his bisexuality or a deeply intense male friendship. Perhaps the relationship fell somewhere in the middle.
While I was studying in Arizona, I saw Hannah on campus frequently. I was so uncomfortably infatuated with her that I crossed the street to walk on the opposite sidewalk so I wouldn’t have to interact with her. She waved to me in the cafeteria and I responded with chilly half-smiles. Eventually, I noticed that she was spending most of her free time with two attractive girls who I could tell were much cooler than I was—one of them was a hip lesbian with an asymmetrical haircut, and the other smelled like lilacs and wore toe rings. Of course, I thought. Those are the girls she’s meant to be friends with. I grew comfortable with the story that Hannah had rejected me in favor of cooler girls, just as women I liked always rejected me in favor of cooler girls.
Another girl, Leah, was much more aggressive about being friends with me, and although I felt she was too cool for me too, she called a lot and insisted we “hang out.” We were both vegans, and she had a car, so she took me to the sporadic vegan restaurants in Phoenix at least once a week. Leah had also met Hannah, but she had been unintimidated, and they had become friends. Over dinner, I told Leah that I though Hannah was cold and dismissive. “What? No way,” Leah said. “You just have to spend a little more time with her.”
Later I learned that Hannah had, likewise, thought I was cold and dismissive. (In fairness, this was probably because I had acted cold and dismissive.) After we’d all finished teacher training and were back in New Orleans, Hannah and I ended up at the same party at Leah’s house. I remember the party because it fell on the same day that the boy I was dating—the boy I had been sure, without a shadow of a doubt, I would marry—had broken up with me. Hannah remembers the party because, near its end, I (extremely drunkenly) told her that I was good at cutting hair, and that she had beautiful hair. Hannah needed a haircut, so this was useful information.
Hannah came over on a Saturday afternoon in October. October, incidentally, is New Orleans’s best month: While the rest of the country begins to wither and chill, New Orleans stays balmy, finally slipping out of its hot wet hurricane season coat. We sat in the courtyard at the house I rented Uptown, and I cut her hair with children’s craft scissors while the relentless thump of a desperate bullfrog mused on nearby. Just as it had in the airport when we met, conversation with Hannah came easily. She volleyed questions and answered them with graceful equilibrium. (Where was I from? Oregon, I told her. Oh, she had always wanted to go there! She was from Massachusetts, which was fine, but it was no New Orleans. She loved it here, but teaching was hard; how did I like teaching? I didn’t like it at all. Should we run away together and live on the levees in a houseboat? Yes.) Her hair—which was very shiny and stick-straight—was unforgiving in the hands of a novice stylist, though, and the uneven chunks I left were impossible to ignore.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Your hair is so different from mine.”
When she saw her new haircut in the mirror, which really did look like a children’s art project, she generously said, “I love it. It’s edgy!” We swept up what we could, although a film of hair remained on the bricks for weeks afterwards, stubbornly clinging to that lovely afternoon.
There are hundreds of articles online about what happens to friendships after one of the friends get married. The Huffington Post ran a piece called, “ For Better or Worse: Marriage Can Wreck a Female Friendship.” Slate followed up with a personal essay called, “ Wedding Guest Goodbyes: Friendships That Ends After Marriage.” Psychology Today published a letter from a reader who sought advice because her best friend “ditched her” after getting married. Forty-seven people commented on the post, mostly providing “advice” in the form of long-winded empathy. An anonymous commenter commiserated, “ A friendship of 10 years was ended because it was easier for my now ex-friend to believe the friendship was no longer viable than to believe she had given up her closest friend for a man.”
More common than the sentiment that one loses ones friends after marriage, though, is the adage that says that, in marriage, a person gains a best friend. That’s the idea I grew up on: The person I would eventually marry would also be my best friend; we would watch serialized television together and discuss it over tacos, as best friends do. We would see every concert side by side; we’d get season tickets for our local sports team; we’d have Halloween costumes that went together, like maybe I’d be an egg and he or she would be bacon. It didn’t matter that I didn’t eat bacon; people would think we were so cute in our matching, fun-loving breakfast costumes.
Down the street from my childhood home, there was a memorable bumper sticker on the green Honda Civic that was usually parked outside the homiest brick cottage on the block. The bumper sticker—which was definitely verbose for the back of a car—said, marriage is getting to have a sleepover with your best friend every night. The words “best friend” were in bold. I sometimes walked out of my way so I could see that bumper sticker; I said the words out loud when I was sure no one could hear me, because I liked the way they sounded so much. This bumper sticker was my endgame: It represented the accomplishment I hoped to achieve more than any other. I was surprised one day, around my eleventh birthday, to see that the green Honda was still there, but the bumper sticker had been peeled off. Who would do that? I wondered. I suspected it was probably neighborhood kids, getting their kicks out of petty vandalism. But a few weeks later, the car itself was no longer parked outside the house, and it never returned.
In January of our first year teaching, Leah and I threw Hannah a birthday party. By then, the three of us had developed an enviable friendship. It culminated in chatty weekly dinners at the Mediterranean restaurant where you could get good vegan food. Leah and I decided to surprise Hannah after work by hanging streamers and balloons; Leah was an exceptional baker, and she crafted an artisanal cayenne-chocolate cake, complete with complex piping up the sides. Hannah was stunned when she saw it all; she practically choked up mumbling something about how having good friends made hard situations easier.
She invited people over for a potluck brunch. Hannah had broken up with her Pennsylvania boyfriend by then, but there was a guy at the potluck who made her laugh, and who climbed the street sign outside her house while everyone else ate scones on the porch. That guy’s name was Derek, and within a year he would be kissing Hannah in the triangular park just off the elbow of the bayou.
I dated, too, although my partners did not have the staying power Derek had with Hannah. I dated another teacher until he moved to Europe; I dated a comic book artist long-distance until the distance became too long; I dated a Dungeon Master from the DND campaign my sister started; I dated the garden teacher at the school where I worked; I dated a clarinet player from a Mardi Gras marching band. Meanwhile, Derek and Hannah moved in together. And I moved in with them.
My breakup with the long-distance comic book artist went particularly badly. Although I had abstained from alcohol for three years, I decided, in the wake of this breakup, to drink an unmentionable number of vodka cranberries at a Halloween party. (I can’t mention the number because I can’t remember it, nor could I ever remember it.) At first, this went well, and everyone at the party thought I was a lot of fun. (“Everyone come in the living room! Sophie’s doing impressions of Republican senators!”) Then, it was terrible, and I was sobbing uncontrollably, as though someone had uncorked a barrel. And then, my memory gets foggy. The things I remember are (1) The woman whose party it was let me lie in her bed and watch Spice World , which was, miraculously, on TBS that night; (2) I vomited on her comforter; and (3) Someone at the party thought I should go to the hospital, and I kept saying, “Please, please, please just call my roommates.”
Derek and Hannah—who, like me until that night, did not drink—were probably at home reading about social justice and listening to world music, as they so often were. Whatever they were doing, though, they both dropped everything to get in the car and drive across town to take me home. They lifted me into the front seat of Derek’s Subaru, stopped frequently so I could throw up on the street, and then climbed into my bed with me once we were home. I fell asleep sandwiched between two people who took turns rubbing my shoulders, and cooing into my ears, “We love you.”
At some point, I thought I must be in love with Hannah, although I didn’t feel like I wanted to have sex with her. I wanted to be around her all the time, and I thought about her while I was on vacation looking at desert rocks or national monuments. Every morning we embraced while the water was boiling for coffee and the cast iron was heating up for eggs; the embraces were long, stretched out, and whole. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep I thought about how in the morning I would get to hug my best friend, and I told myself, in a whisper, that I was not really alone.
At least once a week, Derek, Hannah and I ate dinner together. We filled wooden bowls with roasted vegetable stew and kale salad, and then we sat in front of them, eyes closed, and held hands. This was reverence for those of us who are godless—or, maybe more accurately, for those of us whose god hasn’t so far been pinned down by a name or a shape.
Growing up, my mom wouldn’t let me buy “Best Friends” jewelry at the mall. This was a major blow. Claire’s Accessories sold such a lavish array of broken heart pieces, matching pandas, and rhinestone-embedded word splices, and having “Best Friends” jewelry was essential to a person’s popularity. It didn’t even matter who had the other half of the necklace—having one indicated something very important to the rest of the world: that you were someone’s favorite.
This was exactly my mother’s objection. “No one really has just one best friend,” she told me. “To pretend that you do is to play a favorites game that leaves other people out.” And herein, too, lies the trouble with marrying your “best friend.” No matter how great the person is that you share an insurance plan with—no matter how many things you share, how much you can laugh together, and how many TV shows are designated “our shows” for you—no one can be everything for anyone. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
For years I had drunk all the Soul Mate Kool Aid I could get my hands on. It’s certainly a seductive story—that someone out there is made, specifically, for you. In my twenties, the person who felt most “made for me” was Hannah. But she had a partner! And more than that: I liked that she had a partner, and I liked her partner—I even loved her partner; and as “made for me” as both of them seemed, I didn’t want to have sex with either of them. I wanted to have sex with the clarinet player from the street parades, but I didn’t want to live with him. I liked going to the movies and cuddling up next to the (next) comic book artist I dated in New Orleans, and making out with him was the best (he did this barely-touching-soft-lips thing that I thought was only on Dawson’s Creek), but I didn’t really want to lie in bed with him on Sunday mornings and muse about my sadness. No one was everything to me all at once, and it took me years to realize that that was okay. In fact, it’s as normal as not always ordering the same thing off the menu at the neighborhood Italian restaurant.
The trouble I have with the word “polyamory”—which is what the kids are using these days to describe a relationship model in which one or more party is seriously dating more than one person—is that it implies a certain emphasis on sexual relationships. Aren’t there relationships that fall somewhere between platonic and non-platonic? Isn’t there love that exists beyond “friendship” and outside of “lover” and paradoxically both inside and outside of “family?”
Since my bottom-scraping drunken Halloween breakup, I have tried multiple types of polyamorous relationship models. There was the dating-three-people-casually model, and the being-in-love-with-two-people model, and the one-serious-partner-a-bunch-on-the-side model. But it has always been difficult for me to explain to people where Hannah factors into my love life, because the truth is that for the past four years, she’s been one of my major priorities.
When my current boyfriend and I moved to Chicago together over the summer, and I moved out of Derek and Hannah’s house, which used to be Derek and Hannah and Sophie’s house, I waited until we were deep in the corn fields of Illinois in the rattling sixteen-foot moving van before I broke down sobbing.
My boyfriend, who was driving, looked over and said, “You’re going to miss Hannah.”
Barely breathing, with my fist against my throat: “I already miss Hannah.”
In early November, I went back to New Orleans to visit. Derek and Hannah had hung all the paintings they’d always talked about hanging; they had installed shelves in the bathroom cabinet so that their guest linens could stack more neatly; the garden—Hannah’s passion has always been her garden—had expanded, and now featured strings of solar-powered Christmas lights. It was clear that I had moved at a perfect time: Derek and Hannah had come into themselves more than ever before, and it was evidenced in their beautiful house. I had feared feeling cut out of their lives, but instead, looking at the bright bunches of kale in the yard and the dark wet soil, I felt deeply happy for them.
“Your house looks amazing,” I told them.
“It’s still your house, too,” Hannah said.
Later, back in Chicago, my boyfriend invited me to see a concert at a house venue. House shows are a big part of his life: He likes loud independent bands whose names are impossible to remember. I do not like shows of any kind where you have to stand up, because I am getting older, and my feet get tired, but I decided to go with him. I was immediately uncomfortable. Already-wasted people on the porch complained about how they wished they could have more alcohol. One of the people suggested they hire someone on Craigslist to bring them more alcohol. In the basement, where the show was supposed to take place (“start time TBD,” although it was already 10 p.m., a full two hours past my normal bed time), someone had shoved piles of cat poop behind a velvet curtain, and then had placed a string of skull-shaped novelty lights in front, apparently to distract from the smell.
And there, in the sickly dark of a house show I did not want to be at, I thought, OK; next time, I don’t have to go to a show like this. My boyfriend can find another friend or lover who likes this kind of thing, and that doesn’t have to make our relationship any less wonderful.
My boyfriend bought a T-shirt from the musician he liked best—a gender- nonconforming waif singing with a startlingly ethereal head voice called Teodora. The T-shirt had Teodora’s name on it, and then it said, don’t expect perfect love in white Helvetica. The message, in that moment, was eerily relevant.
But as we rode home on our bikes at two in the morning, shouting to keep ourselves warm on the empty lightless streets, I realized that only got halfway there. It should have said, all love is perfect just as it is .