As published in The Rye Record on December 21, 2013
This summer, I visited my old friend Valerie during a very sad time. We spent our visit in the shadow of this sadness, but to my intense surprise, we found ourselves laughing more often than not. It made no sense and seemed wildly inappropriate, but there we were laughing like we did when we were twelve. Being with her, things were funny in a way that they hadn’t been in a long time. Every idiotic situation paralleled a more idiotic high school situation. If it didn’t, it was something right out of Valley Girl, which we decided in 1983 was the best movie ever.
My only explanation for all this laughing is that there is relief intrinsic in old friendships. In the presence of old friends you don’t have to keep selling the crazy notion that you’ve got it all together. Why bother putting up a front for a person who’s seen you with a perm and a Flashdance sweatshirt? She remembers when life as a welder-turned-stripper seemed oddly appealing to you both. Your old friend knows you deep down; there’s no place to hide.
Valerie and I have never been out of touch. But before this summer it was more of a checking-in friendship, with status updates on major life events. After our four days of laughing, I have spoken to her pretty much every day. I can’t seem to let it go. We are back where we were at fifteen, in the middle of a conversation that lasted a decade. It’s counter-intuitive but true that the more frequently you talk to someone, the more there is to talk about.
Valerie knew me during the dark years before my face grew big enough to accommodate my nose. She stood by me when I dedicated an entire summer to growing out my bangs. She has patiently listened to the retelling of a hundred first dates and ninety-nine breakups, in real time. She knows when I’m lying or leaving something out. And she’ll call me out on it, because, after all, she’s not interviewing for my friendship. She’s got the job, tenured with full benefits.
Old friends know what you’re made of. They know what the end of the world looks like for you, and what it doesn’t. When life kicks you in the teeth, you can call your old friend and pour out your heart. “I’ll never get over this,” you tell her. And she reminds you that that’s exactly what you said when you thought Duran Duran was breaking up. And you seem to have gotten over that.
In this sense, old friends put things in perspective. Life has been long, time passes and it will continue to pass. They see patterns in your life and are not afraid to point them out. They also know where you’ve been wounded, giving you the benefit of their good counsel while saving you the agony of having to retell your life’s story.
I am particularly grateful to have Valerie today, at midlife. I highly recommend wading through this tricky time with the same person that you leaned on during adolescence. There’s really no difference between the two stages of life: you look inward, wonder if you look okay, and then try to decide where you’re going next. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nodded my head at the TV, thinking, “Wow. That Zoey 101 really knows how I feel.”
If life is a sentence, then adolescence and midlife are just commas – there to give us pause and to allow us to move forward with a new subject. Who better to help you figure out who you’re going to be for the next thirty years than the person who launched you into the last thirty? There’s efficiency in not having to explain your parents or your prom date or the essence of what you’ve always wanted. Your old friend was there when it started.
I am grateful for all of this, but mostly for the laughing. I’m convinced that it affects me on a cellular level. I’m looking forward to old age with Valerie, sitting in rocking chairs with tears streaming down our faces, laughing about when we were in our forties.