Friendship as a Way of Life

My first TV was the size of a microwave, with one of those bubble-like screens. It was relegated to the family Volvo after we got the new one (which was somewhat larger). My dad strapped it to a milk crate with bungee cords and permanently converted its signal to induction. It stayed there for years, lodged in the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. All of this so that my siblings and I would stay quiet on the five hour drives to my grandparents’ house in Baltimore. 

We watched VCR tapes of Teletubbies reruns on those drives, long after it was no longer age-appropriate. There was something really weird about watching them watch each others’ stomachs light up, with the camera zooming into a screen within a screen, especially when that screen was someone’s belly. I was obsessed with the red one, Po, especially. This was during the era when food brands were paying royalties to put the faces of TV characters on their child-targeted products. For two years, I would only drink apple juice that had Po’s face on the bottle.   

At my third birthday party a few years earlier, my parents had surprised me by paying a full-grown man to come strolling down our driveway in an eight foot tall Teletubby suit. While hiding behind the legs of several of the adults floating around my backyard in rapid succession as I moved away from this man, it occurred to me that the Teletubbies were in actuality men and women wearing eight-foot-tall suits. I had made an error assuming that their bodies, collapsed into the screen, were just my size.

PBS had duped me and all of my friends. I didn't care if Santa was real: the fact that Dipsy was actually substantially larger than my father seemed to represent a hairline fracture in the integrity of my personal universe. I was smaller than I had thought.

Besides: didn't my parents understand? I didn't want to meet Po (let alone an eight-foot version): I wanted, desperately, to be her. I wanted to belong to the world of green vistas and tubby-toast where the sun had a babyface and I had three technicolor friends who would hang out with me for 425 episodes straight. If my parents understood me, they would have carved a rectangle out of my torso and replaced it with a television screen.

I spent my freshman year of college trying to decide whether this deliciously narcissistic brand of desire where you want to become someone rather than to sleep with them was psychoanalytically legitimate. I took a queer theory course. My professor encouraged personal papers, so I thought I’d write about the time when I was thirteen and developed a massive infatuation for a movie star playing a sexy and mysterious doctor. She was female, and her primary character trait was that she was bisexual, a fact which other characters frequently mocked. I want to be a beautiful intern, I wrote in my diary in between eighth-grade science and eighth-grade math, forgetting the last syllable of “internist.” I made a spreadsheet detailing everything I needed to do in high school to get into medical school. I attempted to grow taller. I bought a dark purple nail polish, because the doctor often wore that color. “I want to be a closed book,” I wrote, and tried to develop a repertoire of facial expressions that communicated mystery.

“Listen,” said my professor quickly when I proposed this paper topic. “You like her because she’s a rich pretty white girl. That’s not especially queer of you.”

Liked,” I corrected her.

My best friend Lucas was, at the same time, taking a course on intimacy more broadly. This one was mostly about straight people. His professor, who was a rich pretty white woman like my doctor, asked him to dinner after grading his final paper, but he turned her down.

Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, I was discovering whole new modes of intimacy through Lucas’ platonic presence.  We spent most of 2015 at cafes dispensing nuggets of thought and memory for each other like Pez candies. I would put these tablets of information on my tongue and let them dissolve there. It was a good way to be friends. Each time he and I sat down to coffee, we both compulsively removed everything from our wrists and fingers. A certain kind of intellectual undressing for one another.

We say a relationship occurs between two individuals, as if it’s physically located in the space between their bodies. Affection is like some kind of invisible goop that fills out the negative space between two personalities, bringing the contours of each into sharper focus.

Joseph Beuys cast the spaces beneath brutalist German underpasses in hot beef fat, taking a perfect print of the empty space left by the cold fascist architecture in organic matter that refused to cool. Obviously my friends and I are not fascist infrastructure (at least I hope we aren’t), but I like to think of friendship as the tallow that fills up the cold gaps between us. It’s a warm metabolizing filling, a kind of adipose tissue that stores affection rather than glucose.

There's that classic Scott Fitzgerald line about how personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures. Sociality is a kind of a gaming streak. This line still raises my blood pressure. I’m still trying to get just one gesture exactly right.

Besides, he’s wrong. Personality is always a collaboration. Other people elicit the words and gestures that define us from our lips and our bodies. We spend a lot of time rooting out and chastising the social chameleons in our midst. Really we’re always, always, fitting ourselves around the shapes of other people, drawing our respective selves out of each other.

Moreover relationships of all stripes are nothing more than an ongoing sequence of collaborative gestures clumped into encounters, encounters that become a shared history, a communal lexicon of inside jokes and memories. Intimacy is when a language with only two speakers develops slang.

With my friend Castle there was never undressing. We did a lot of sleeping in his large bed together in pajamas, changing in the bathroom, trying to entangle (covered) limbs without leaving open the possibility of entangling ourselves. We wanted impossibly innocent intimacy from one another. Instead we spent a lot of time unpacking the insults his ex had levied at him before leaving. “I know I am not good at women,” he said. I guess we are a skill.

He had this way of making you feel like there were some people who were essentially worthy and some who weren’t, and that the more time he deigned to spend with you the more likely it was that you were in the former category. He knew how to make you feel special in the light of his attention, and to make you think he felt special with you. We were never dating and we only very occasionally slept together in the proper sense of the idiom, but he managed to get me hooked on an IV-drip of partial validation. Nonetheless I was feeling somehow both smaller and fatter by the day and we were quickly running out of television to watch side by side, and all the while his mother was slowly dying of cancer in another country.

The lack of television really did us in. Television was a way of avoiding eight hour debates about how to conduct our quasi-relationship. These were coldly aggressive encounters where we debated what constituted reasonable behavior toward one another in both theory and practice. If one of us gets hurt by the other behaving in a way that technically is not prohibited according to the terms of our relationship as presently defined, does that person have a right to be upset with the other? If I hurt you romantically, can you then reasonably deprive me of your friendship because I am not interested in you? Is one of us a sociopath?

We were trying to write a rule book while holding fast to the fantasy that what we had didn’t need one. “We’re not even in a relationship!” he would say incredulously every twenty minutes. “We’re not even really having sex!” I would say back. We both worshipped logic and verbosity as some common god of objectivity.  “I’ve never argued with anyone so good at articulating their emotional reasoning,” he said once at 4 am when we ran out of steam and started pulling our verbal punches. “It means I have to be especially on my game.”

At first it was perversely fun to strain the emotion out of intimacy and hold whatever was left up to the light. And then we would strain out the emotion (which at that point was mostly anger and hurt) and be left empty-handed.

Television meant we didn't have to do this. We watched Bojack Horseman and Friends and Rick and Morty and Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies and The Young Pope and Lizzie McGuire. It was a way of spending time together without having to deal with each other. We could share the space of Hilary Duff’s mind without fighting. We could experience emotions together safely by proxy of the larger-than-life people on his laptop screen. Hating each other, we could be together in other people.

You try to get the people around you to hurt yourself for you, my friend Margot told me five hours into a Megabus ride. When you feel insecure you instigate these conversations where you try to corner your friends into verbally confirming for you that you suck. This is your worst quality.

Your worst quality is your tendency to calmly inform other people of their worst qualities, I told her.

I know, she said.

In my nightmares there's always a voiceover narrating why I am totally screwed. I think this is common, but nonetheless it’s remarkably disturbing to be informed of your imminent violent dream-death by a voice of authority only you can hear.

One time I googled “Dreams with voiceovers,” hoping Carl Jung would inform me in dense, comforting sentences that these narrators were doing the crucial work of integrating my conscious and unconscious minds. I wound up on a mental health forum for people who hear voices that aren’t there while awake.

There are three kinds of voices: the Narrators, who describe your behavior in the declarative, as if keeping a transcendent live studio audience posted on the situational comedy of your existence. There are Interrogators, who progressively nibble away at your confidence with intrusive questions, keeping you up late into the night. Then there are the Commanders. They give commands. “It is important that you stick to your normal pattern of doing things,” the forum says. “Otherwise it could cause you doubt yourself and Commanders might take advantage of your indecisiveness.”

In a section titled “There is Hope,” we are advised to not stay silent:

If a voice is harassing you, you could start by calmly but firmly stating, “I hear you. Thank you for letting me know how you feel. Right now, I need to [insert important task] but I would like to discuss this matter with you later.” Then make a time and keep it. Keeping your word will become very important as the relationship grows.

It could be worse. I could have to reckon with dissenting parts of myself out loud, to make all of my internal conflict manifest sonically.

Lucas and Margot didn’t approve of Castle. They didn’t get why I continued to spend time with him when the six-hour verbal boxing matches left me badly existentially bruised.

I didn’t get it either. I was starting to feel like I was playing a fighting video game where my avatar had a special maneuver called "consider your thoughts and feelings and life decisions from an outside perspective." This was one of those moves that has to charge up over a period of time and then you get to do it once and there's a cool cut scene where you watch your opponent (my demons?) get shredded to ribbons or whatever. The move was my avatar's dynamite and without it this avatar was totally useless, limp, subjected to the facile violences of its opponents. And here I was with Castle, mashing on the controller, hitting the combination for "consider your thoughts and feelings and life decisions from an outside perspective" again and again, but the move hadn't sufficiently recharged.

Seven months later the console stopped glitching and I blocked his number.

“I miss you,” said Castle in an email a few months later, “And I want to know if you cried at the end of the second to last episode of the new season of Bojack Horseman like I did.”

I spent the summer when I was eighteen running around the Nebraska prairie with a gaggle of feminist artists. I bleached the tips of my hair and started wearing bandanas. On the prairie we were trying to learn to capture beauty and keep it. Everyone wanted to work with the figure, so we all had to take our turn as the model.

The first time was the hardest. “Here,” my photographer-to-be said, pushing her laptop towards me. “You can see my body before I see yours.” On the screen were a series of images of my new friend reclining nude around a tastefully decorated apartment with a glass of wine and a coy smile.

Earlier, she had shown me black and white images she had taken back in Tel Aviv. Her friends were anonymous bodies, leggy and well-crafted women who stared past the camera. They smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, easily folding their bodies into strong lines and pleasing arcs.

I had short legs and razor-burned knees. I smoked my first-ever cigarette a week earlier and hadn’t liked it. I cared, a lot, about what other people thought of me and my body and what I thought of myself and my body, and about making sure no one knew this. I also had this idea that I could be the kind of person who would agree to model naked without hesitation. My new friend made me feel special, like I too could be a striking twenty-something Israeli-American journalist with a fascinating sex life.

I thought she was beautiful. She was calloused and well-spoken and certain of her right to take up space in the world. She had been a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, spoke Chinese, and had once tried to illegally cross the Nepalese-Tibetan border alone on foot. She focused on you with sharp eyes and surprising warmth and never made small talk.

She said she prided herself on her ability to show her models the beauty of their bodies, and I wondered if she thought I was pretty. I was worried about bruises and scars and hairs. I thought about what underwear I would wear as if she was somebody I hoped to sleep with.

She handed me whiskey and loaded the film into her outmoded camera. Later I would nervously knock the empty copper cup out her window. “Ready?” she asked.

I wound up hating these images of myself. I had hoped that teaching myself to strip on command would teach me to be comfortable in my own skin, an expression which always gives me hope that my skin is a thing I could maybe someday get out of. I didn't trust mirrors for a minute: they all told me different things. I hoped photography might pin down a single and absolute image of my body, which I could then interrogate once and for all: are you beautiful? In reality, the photographs were as fickle as the mirrors.  You would question the images and they would smile back and say what do you think?

When you draw a naked body from life you're supposed to look at the negative shapes––the curved quadrangle comprised of torso, upper arm, forearm, the hand meeting the hip. The swoop of the neck, when your visual field is flattened into two dimensions, makes contact with the straight line of the by the window pane behind. Only the spaces between body parts are impartial: we have so many laden expectations about the ways bodies look that they interfere with the way we see them and then we can't draw them right.

Various friends of mine have been employed as life models for figure drawing courses. “I feel like I’m professionalizing my ability to be vulnerable,” one of them told me, which happens to also be how I feel about writing. But in reality the life model becomes almost entirely desensitized to his or her nakedness. It’s strenuous work, holding a position. You pick up the skills and then nudity is a kind of a clothing: you are doing your job. It’s not that vulnerability has become banal, it’s that the pathway to vulnerability nudity once provided has closed. Your skin has become an impermeable cover stretched tightly and securely around your self. There are no gaps: you can be all surface.

Confronted with such a surface, we infer the presence of something like us somewhere in there from the behavior of cloth and skin and eyes and invisible vocal cords. We accumulate evidence of interiority, collecting gestures which we connect like dots to approximate what someone is like, how they experience themselves, how they experience us: who they are, really.

We’re always making these predictions, trying to hone our prediction-machines into 99.9% accuracy. We want to achieve knowledge of someone, which looks a lot like intimacy. We want to arrive at a place of absolute comprehension, to reach through our companion's sternum and pull out a struggling wet bird-like organ, the atom of their personality, which we can then hold in our hands and examine (or better yet, X-ray it, sequence its genome, dissect it, bring it to show and tell, and then maybe sew it up and put it back for someone else to check out later). We want to say, "Oh, that's what you are," and then possess that information permanently.

I used to wish for a concrete end to the process of getting to know someone. I hoped for a grand finale to the scary undertaking of progressively revealing the authentic and easily bruised pieces of yourself. If you peel back enough layers of tasteful clothing and casual charm, maybe you find a core nugget of individuality, the atom of the personality. Or maybe there will be nothing left.

Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington were in love, kind of. Their relationship was dramatized in a 1995 Emma Thompson biopic that focused mostly on Dora. It was subtitled: “She had many lovers, but only one love.”

In addition to a lover, Dora was an underappreciated painter. She went by her surname and had a pageboy haircut before its time. All the boys and girls at art school were at in love with her at one time or another.

Lytton was a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. He was also gay. In the movie he met Dora at a house in the country in 1916 and thought she was a boy. He was disappointed when he found out she was not, but they moved in together all the same. Then Lytton fell for a man named Ralph Partridge. Ralph fell for Dora, and she agreed to marry him to keep the three of them together. Lytton died in 1932 and Dora committed suicide the next spring. Lytton, the world learned in 2005 from some letters, was a sado-masochist.

They say Virginia Woolf based the character of Neville on Lytton in her play-novel The Waves. There’s a scene I love where Neville and his best friend Bernard are quarreling. Neville sees Bernard walking up to him and starts to thoughtfully chew his metaphysical cud:

How curiously one is changed by the addition, even at a distance, of a friend. How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another. As he approaches I become not myself but Neville mixed with somebody—with whom?—with Bernard? Yes, it is Bernard, and it is to Bernard that I shall put the question, Who am I?”

It’s a novel where everyone’s always thinking at everyone else, speaking to each other without actually speaking aloud. Woolf hops between the insides of their respective heads: 


Bernard:  You wish to be a poet; and you wish to be a lover. But the splendid clarity of your intelligence, and the remorseless honesty of your intellect... these qualities of yours make me shift a little uneasily and see the faded patches, the thin strands in my own equipment... I become, with you, an untidy, an impulsive human being whose bandana handkerchief is forever stained with the grease of crumpets.

Neville: I hate your greasy handkerchiefs—you will stain your copy of Don Juan. You are not listening to me. You are making phrases about Byron. And while you gesticulate, with your cloak, your cane, I am trying to expose a secret told to nobody yet; I am asking you (as I stand with my back to you) to take my life in your hands and tell me whether I am doomed always to cause repulsion in those I love?”

Neville doesn’t get his answer, and, pissed off, hurls his poem in Bernard’s direction and leaves the room. Bernard thinks to himself, simply:

“To be contracted by another person into a single being—how strange.”