BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
When I was in kindergarten, I made my first best friend. M happened to be an exchange student from Japan. We barely spoke—she couldn’t speak English well, and really, what kindergartener speaks any language with precision anyway? Yet, for whatever ethereal reason, we chose each other. We were inseparable—we watched “Sailor Moon” together and enjoyed eating lunch while the other kids played on the swings. But then, she moved back to Japan when I was in 1st grade, and the whirlwind was over. This essentially set the tone for most of my early childhood friendships.
I craved intensity from a young age. I yearned for the kind of friendship you saw in movies and books a la Judy Blume and “Babysitters Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” Like many introverted, shy, and artistic kids, I wasn’t exactly Ms. Popular—my idea of a good time was listening to The Cure, painting pictures of bizarre landscapes and women, and dreaming of becoming a day where I had real friends who “got” me—who didn’t just sit with me at lunch because what else did you have going on?
Many friend groups came and went—not because I wanted them to or didn’t care—but it’s just what happened when your elementary school friends migrated to different friend groups by middle school. For awhile, A and I did everything—we played pretend horror games in her apartment complex parking lot to swimming at our local pool in the summers. But when puberty hit around age 12, and I wasn’t quite into boys or Britney Spears or shaving my legs, the relationship waned. I got used to being alone from a young age.
By the time high school arrived, this sense of emotional isolation from my peers at once strengthened my need for authenticity and intensity, and yet, also made me reluctant to open up in a “real way.” It was easier to say what people wanted to hear, versus what I wanted to say. It didn’t help that I attended a Catholic all-girls school where being different (not to mention queer, although I didn’t use the term at the time, but I was already aware of my attraction to girls) was not cool. It wasn’t until I was 15—having never been kissed yet—and found myself in a mall hallway ferociously making out with my best girlfriends C and C that I was finally beginning to realize I didn’t have to operate innocently, repressed, and alone. And in many ways, this high school make out session with my friends, while not unusual, spawned my complicated feelings about what I wanted out of my relationships and friendships.
Even then, I wanted connection—that kind of intense intimacy that is shared only by a few—some call it being on the same wavelength or being soul mates. Whatever the term, I craved that telepathic-I-will-love-you-always-type of relationship/friendship, and I craved it with multiple people. As humans, we often need to feel special—and we often seek to label our interactions with each other—like having one or two best friends.
While I understand this impulse (because everyone does this to some extent), it can create unhealthy expectations, in many ways. On one hand, friendships change and evolve and go through phases, and having labels can put unfair pressure on a friendship to always up to the label attached (in the same way we attach pressure on romantic partners to be “the one,” as opposed to “a one”). Conversely, of course, labels also divide our passions and emotions into boxes, and in many ways, close us off to other people who don’t deem as “bests” or “close friends.” When I finally realized that I could actually allow myself to have and share intimacy with all of my friends, not just a select few, I realized that I wasn’t jealous when certain friends became busy or preoccupied (because everyone does at some point), and that I was becoming more honest and self-aware not just with others, but myself. So often in high school, college, and even part of grad school, I would feel vulnerable and left out when a close friend who make plans with someone else—I’d wonder why I wasn’t include—that something must be wrong with me. It was tiring, time and time again, to feel this way. I was getting tired of feeling jealous or “rejected” even if I wasn’t actually being rejected.
Of course, this is not to say I currently don’t have friends who by definition are best friends or soul mates or kindred spirits. And sometimes I do use these terms, but often times, I try not to. I try to just let my relationships be. But for me, the distinction I find truly dangerous is the fact that a romantic partner has to be the sole focus and recipient of someone’s emotional life—as if having a wholly different kind of intimacy outside of a partnership means you are “cheating” or somehow abnormal, for me, seems to be a quick recipe for disaster for everyone involved. How can any one person live up to that expectation? And how does that promote change and growth, if you aren’t learning from other people?
Maybe some people consider this unhealthy—this desire to feel truly connected to others in an all-consuming way. I don’t care about getting drinks and having bullshit conversations about literary journals and literary gossip and the current Internet sensations and outrages. I rather cook dinner, talk about our fears, watch movies, sit in silence, have slumber parties (yes, I’m still 12 years old, although I think this brings a sense family and security), and just not feel bound by polite rules or society.
When I was 23, I lived with a man who was 36. We were both poets—we constructed a fantasy world together, sewn together by pretty words and carefully crafted lineation. That relationship, while it didn’t last past a year, taught me a lot about what I wanted, and didn’t want. When I would go out with friends who were male, he would often get upset—and even accused me of cheating on him with my best male friend C, despite the fact that I never harbored romantic feelings toward C. C and I would hang out multiple times a week—which is not uncommon in a graduate program where you read and critique each other’s work, and then eat lunch together before your multiple part-time jobs. Often times, C and I would play video games and talk about our dating life. If anything, I resembled a sister more than a girlfriend.
But I wasn’t even resentful of T for being possessive or jealous. It saddened me, because this behavior is often accepted by many intelligent and independent people—and to some extent, I thought this was normal, until it became so extreme that it seemed I couldn’t go out without him being suspicious or upset. After out breakup, I was forced to move out of our shared apartment, because the rent was too expensive for me to maintain. He ended up moving abroad, and I stayed in New York. This split, of course, proved beneficial to both of us. T got exactly what he wanted: a freedom America wasn’t giving him, a new relationship with someone who makes him happy.
For me, I finally found clarity. The fact that he often rebuked C and I for being “too close,” for hanging out too often, for sharing a bond that he and I didn’t exactly have—was the exact prompt I needed to dig deeper into myself. And that simple fact made me think: Why should I limit my relationships with other people, simply because someone else is jealous of a connection I have? That doesn’t scream support or love or happiness for someone experiencing a connection outside of a romantic partnership—or any kind of relationship, platonic or not.
For some, this level of emotional intimacy may be a betrayal—and that’s OK. Everyone is different and has their own unique needs, but for me, it’s just a part of who I am, and that’s a part of me I’m not willing to sacrifice for anyone.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Pouch Mag, The Atlas Review, The Destroyer, and others.