In Marguerite Duras’ novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein, a friend is someone named Tatiana who witnesses you being abandoned for another woman by your fiancé, at a dance, with whom you symbolically recreate and perform this rejection again and again, years after it first occurred. In the novel Blue Eyes, Black Hair, also by Duras, though the two main characters aren’t friends, they do immerse themselves in a strange kind of intimacy. The book is about a man and a woman who spend time together, but in a way that most of us don’t spend time. He’s not attracted to women, but he pays her to lie naked in a room with him night after night, repulsed by her because she’s female. She doesn’t seem to care; this relationship enlivens her somehow. “It suits her very well, what she’s going through with him now. She wonders what she would have done instead if they hadn’t met in the cafe. It’s here in this room that she’s had her real summer, her experience, her encounter with hatred of her own sex, and of her body, and of her life.”
If you are my friend, please don’t be freaked out or worried that I will expect these things from you. I am simply in awe of the many, many ways people, and characters, spend time with each other, the many ways they are close, or distant. This essay could just as easily have been titled ‘The Continuum of How We Know Each Other.’
Sometimes friends find each other after a long period of lonesomeness. They have already gotten to know their own selves, maybe too well. I’ve come to believe that too much time alone is just as risky as not enough, for we sometimes go too far into our cyclical patterns of thought and narrative. We need someone to hold a mirror up so we can see who we are when we are taken outside of ourselves. Here is a scene from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, one of my favorites, in which a young Jane has newly been sent away to school by her mean and ungenerous aunt, and will soon develop an affection for the young Helen Burns:
I wandered as usual among the forms and tables and laughing groups without a companion, yet not feeling lonely: when I passed the windows I now and then lifted a blind and looked out; it snowed fast, a drift was already forming against the lower panes; putting my ear close to the window, I could distinguish from the gleeful tumult within, the disconsolate moan of the wind outside. Probably, if I had lately left a good home and kind parents, this would have been the hour when I should most keenly have regretted the separation: that wind would then have saddened my heart; this obscure chaos would have disturbed my peace: as it was, I derived from both a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamour. Jumping over forms, and creeping under tables, I made my way to one of the fireplaces; there, kneeling by the high wire fender, I found Burns, absorbed, silent, abstracted from all round by the companionship of a book, which she read by the dim glare of the embers.
What I like about this passage and the way it speaks to friendship is how Jane finds Burns there, at the end of her excited fever, at the end of connecting to her own self. When confusion gives rise to clamour what is better than a friend to explore that with? There are things that can be pitched even higher through friendship than they could alone.
One of the closest I’ve ever been to another being was a petite prince of a cat named Ingmar. We were good friends and I still miss him; it’s strange to live a life without him here. And yet the human/animal relationship is also a complicated one. In her book Creaturely Poetics, Anat Pick talks about this relationship through the lens of vulnerability, which she sees as sadly central. Thinking through the writing of John Berger and Laura Mulvey she writes that “Animals appear as pets, as endeared subjects of live action or animated film, as stuffed toys, and, most significantly for Berger, in the zoo . . . in place of an exchange with animals—as fellows, adversaries, or magical ciphers on the continuum of creation—animals have become, to borrow Laura Mulvey’s phrase, the ‘bearers of the human look.’” Berger writes, “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance . . . What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them.’” What do animals see when they look at us? Who are we, to them? I’ve often thought of the incredible trust that animals, domesticated ones, have placed in us throughout time; humans, who have been kind and also very unkind, who have the potential to love or to kill them. This is the vulnerability.
But that’s true of human to human relationships too, loving or harming, loving or killing. Then there’s loving and harming, which happens all the time, as we are imperfect beings, and this too is part of the continuum.
In a recent post on her blog Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi? writer Bhanu Kapil speaks of her friendship with Melissa Buzzeo, also a writer. Bhanu says that Melissa “is a friend whose name is written on my heart. I would not be surprised if I die soon! My heart is quite scarred with the names of my friends!!!!! I chose, in this life, to love my friends as deeply and with as much loyalty as if we shared an ethnic bond. This is one of the things I learned about being an American. That, in leaving your family and your world behind, you have to find a way to love the people around you with the same quality as you would have, if you had never left.” So perfectly said. I’ve often thought that too—that if I died at once it would be okay because I’ve had such deeply beautiful company in this life.
I’m in awe of the resiliency of attachment, the way you can lose a friend and then find each other again one or five or ten years later. I’m interested in friendships that have, over time, become awkward, most likely because you are not as close as you once were, but you refuse to let go. You soldier on, sisters now, or brother and sister, or brothers. I’m an only child, so I’m not quite sure if this comparison is an apt one, but it makes sense to me. Family. And maybe later you will emerge into something else. Something . . . not better, but different somehow. Or, because this is a continuum we are talking about, maybe you will hate each other. Anything is possible. What does it mean to know someone? What does it mean to be close, or to be distant? And is there a part of you that is still close even in the midst of distance?
There is the Internet and the ways in which it sometimes changes who we are friends with, and the kinds of friendships we are having. To state the obvious, something like Face Book allows us to perhaps know on a daily basis what a friend is doing, when in the past we might have only known from month to month or even year to year. The acronym IRL—‘in real life’—is humorous, that we have to make that distinction now. Of course the argument can be made that friendships that happen only over the Internet, and maybe with a person one has never even seen IRL, are not real friendships, and they are vastly different, no doubt. But sometimes those Internet relationships develop, and sometimes admiration and caring arises. They are certainly part of the continuum now.
Sometimes there is kinship because of work we do that winds up online, so that we are meeting first through the work and then in person. Meeting then, in real life, can be nerve-wracking, for what if the two of us, in the same room, don’t like each other as much as we do on the Internet?
It makes me think of a particular time in my life, in Chicago, when I began to meet the people who would become some of the best friends I had ever known. I was learning about closeness. With a few, we announced how much we liked each other before we had barely spent time together. This concerned me. What if we went out somewhere and it didn’t go well? What if one of us got bored? But we didn’t get bored, or at least if we ever got bored we didn’t mind it. We went on to become people who knew each other. To like another person and to be liked back. The continuum is vast, and these are simply a few of the points upon it.
Amina Cain is the author of the short story collections Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). She lives in Los Angeles.