I’m not a very good friend. I’m a pretty shitty friend, in fact.
It’s not that I don’t care about other people – I do, deeply – it’s just that being someone’s friend absolutely drains me. It’s easier to just not have friends; it’s less stressful if other people just don’t like me very much. Trouble is, other people are sometimes like cats: you can do absolutely everything in your power to put them off you, but this does not deter them from wanting to sit on your lap and dig their adorable little claws in.
That said, in much the same way I pretend to dislike my cats, I don’t really dislike other people. Other people interest me. I just prefer them to be at a slight distance. Or a great distance. Distance is good.
I don’t think I’m naturally misanthropic, however. I think I just got too used to being lonely.
Looking back at my friendships over the years, I’ve only ever really had one proper friend at a time. I always seemed to be drawn to other lonely girls, with whom I would become absolute best friends with until the point that we got sick of each other or they moved away.
It moved in phases. The majority of the kids who lived in my little corner of town were boys, but they only interested me so much and once puberty started kicking in for all of us, the focus of that interest changed. Besides, boys couldn’t have a girl as their best friend. Where I’m from, that would have been social suicide. That boy would have been called gay and probably got beaten up until he wasn’t so gay anymore. I’m from a really shitty place. Even interactions between two girl friends had to be carefully choreographed lest you be called a lesbian (which, again, would have been social suicide.) Linking arms was about the limit of how much contact was allowed between the two of you. Hugs were only acceptable if someone had died or something. Even writing ‘love from…’ in a Christmas card was out of the question. ‘Luv’ was okay, because that didn’t mean love and was therefore not gay.
I was so fucking happy when I left that fucking place.
So, anyway, I had one best friend after another. My first ever best friend was a girl from school who used to drink cherryade non-stop so always had a little bottleneck-shaped red moustache from the dye. Her family was Italian and hanging around with them made me feel a bit fancy. My mum had told her mum that she was allowed to smack me if I was naughty, and I remember one day when she actually did slap the back of my legs for misbehaving – we were walking down the street and it really stung but I was too shocked to cry so I just sulked for the rest of the afternoon. I told my mum when I got home and she said ‘good’. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I’d done to deserve being spanked so I can only assume I spent more time thinking about the injustice of what she’d done to me instead of learning the lesson of not repeating that behaviour.
Her mum wasn’t so bad, though. She was the one who taught me how to ride a bike, because my mum sure as hell wasn’t going to bother. My childhood was sheltered in a very bizarre way; I was exposed to sex and violence from a far too young age, yet I didn’t experience standard things that most kids do. Some things were just never explained to me, and it ended up being my friends’ parents who introduced me to stuff that normal kids experienced every day. Like cinnamon. I didn’t know what cinnamon was until this particular friend pinched some cinnamon sticks from her aunt’s kitchen for us to nibble on. We didn’t have spices at home. We had crisps and ready meals. I wasn’t familiar with home-cooked food because nobody ever cooked anything that wasn’t a roast dinner, so I’d go to other people’s houses and not want to eat because the food wasn’t 90% salt and MSG so it was too weird to me.
This particular friendship ended when she moved away, leaving me without a best friend for a while. During these periods, I would flit from one girl to another, testing out their suitability. One girl who I hung around with for a while was the really smart girl in my class, who ended up being paired with me in swimming class – a class we were both slightly too old to be in, but were held behind because our parents never actually taught us to swim. She never learnt because her parents were academics who had no interest in physical activities, and I never learnt because my mum was too busy chasing her boyfriends around or too hungover to take me or just fucking lazy. Admittedly, she did take me when I was very little, but I was frightened and she just gave up instead of doing anything about it.
Looking back, the reason this girl didn’t become my best friend was partly because she wasn’t fun enough and partly because I’m fucking shallow and she was too much of a ‘good girl’. Academically, I could match her in most subjects – maths was about the only area where she outshone me. But whereas her school reports always talked about her brilliance in both her work and her behaviour, mine always said that I could be brilliant but only when I actually sat down and stopped talking so damn much. The only time I could really concentrate when I was reading or writing or doing something creative; the rest of the time I was over the wrong side of the classroom, distracting people and trying to make them laugh. And so it was when I went to this girl’s house – there was no downtime for her. Her hobbies were all things that involved thinking and concentrating, and I could understand that with regards to reading and writing but I also needed time to shut my head up for a while and watch cartoons while eating junk food. Carrot sticks by the piano didn’t really cut it for me.
Added to that, there was the time when I was at her house and her mum gave us warm orange squash because that was how she liked it. I couldn’t get my head around that at all. And to round it off completely, one of the main things we had in common was our imaginative play at school – we would act out little scenarios and she was able to get absorbed in it as I did. This seems pretty normal for a kid, but one day someone came over and mocked us for being babyish and that was it. As I say, I was fucking shallow and I thought I needed a best friend who would not be such a target for bullies. It was bad enough I was ginger and poor; I didn’t need to be picked on for my personality as well.
So I made another new best friend. This girl had a best friend through most of primary school, but either there was a falling-out or she moved away, and so I moved in. As with most of my best friends, I spent more time at her house than she did mine. Her family took me to church and the activity club she belonged to there, and whereas she got dropped off and taken home by one of her parents, I was left to make my own way there and wander home alone. That’s not a dig at her parents for not offering me a lift; I just wish to highlight the difference between us, even though I’m not really sure of the relevance of the contrast. I lived closer and I was used to going to and from places by myself. She lived further away and would have had to walk along a dual-carriageway to get home. My grandad – who I was living with by this point – would have probably came and met me had I asked, but I enjoyed wandering about on my own. So perhaps there is no relevance.
Perhaps, however, I just wish to highlight the class difference between us. Her parents had two cars, we had none. She had lots of dolls and Sylvanian Families and nice stationery, and I had none. I feel uncomfortable thinking about whether this matters or not. I’m not consciously some kind of social climber, but the majority of my best friends – and my boyfriends, come to think of it – have generally been of a higher social status. Maybe this simply reflects the fact that I always wanted a better life for myself, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. I don’t know.
She was a lot more delicate than me, however. She had to tell me to stop playing so rough with her because I kept leaving her with bruises. Looking back, I feel as though I was a bit of a bully, albeit unintentional. I think this can be explained by the boys I had been hanging around with in my little corner of town. I wanted to be accepted as one of them, and one of the things that was important to them was how ‘hard’ you were. This meant that I had to go through certain rites of passage, involving things like being punched in the arm by the biggest boy there – with his full weight behind it – or playing that card game that involved the sideways deck being slammed or scrapped over my knuckles. I stoically took my dead arms and bloody knuckles without crying like a girl, and was accepted into the little gang.
I was 11 at this point. My friendship with that girl ended when we both went to different secondary schools, but another girl – Sarah – had appeared in my little corner of town so we kind of became best friends by default. I wasn’t actually allowed in her flat because her mum thought I was a bad influence – she did relent for a while, but my privileges were revoked after we both got in a fight with two other girls after school, and then doubly revoked after I got arrested for shoplifting – but this kind of boosted my reputation somewhat and it hadn’t occurred to me back then that I ought not to cultivate such a status. The problem was that she didn’t have to go through the same trials by fire that I had to in order to belong to this group – instead, she came in as a girlfriend. And this is where it all went kind of downhill. Her boyfriend was the boy I had fancied since forever but had never pursued out of interest of preserving the group dynamic, and now the dynamic had changed anyway.
This boy – Lee – lived in a house whose back garden backed on to the back of my flat. I could see his bedroom from my kitchen window. I used to look out on the off-chance he’d be looking out too. We used to go to Sarah’s together and then walk home together in the dark, and we’d get talking and he’d ask me about who I fancied and he cottoned on to the fact I liked him, so this walking home together became our hands accidentally touching as we walked to oh we might as well hold hands to being really obvious in front of everyone else that we liked each other and ended up with me leaving the group before I got beaten up by Sarah. I don’t know whether she actually would have chinned me, but the situation was getting nasty and I felt bad about the whole thing. So I ditched all my friends.
Soon after, I ditched going to school. I had met Maelie and we were running away to London once or twice a week and this became the most important thing to me. Maelie became my best friend and, most importantly, she became the kind of best friend who can handle me disappearing for months at a time and doesn’t hold my lack of contact against me.
I ended up losing my virginity to Lee a year or so later, when I was 14, under the pylon at the top of the rugby fields. He was also my first kiss, merely a few months beforehand. He had turned up at my flat and I figured enough time had passed for me not to be in danger of getting punched in the face for trying to get with him. Sarah had moved away, so I tried to rejoin the group but it was all messy now. Instead of my toughness, my sexuality and my freedom to go to London and do whatever I wanted had become my defining features instead, but the former was something I was ill-equipped to deal with and the latter ended up becoming my coping mechanism when I was brandished a slut and shunned by everyone a few months later.
You see, it wasn’t just the dynamic of the group that had changed – the group itself was different. There were more girls but, rather than be their friend, I was more interested in gaining cool points by letting the older boys take advantage of me in the cornfields and being seen with 19-year-olds who wanted to fuck me but then afterwards criticised my technique because, you know, I was 14 so I didn’t fucking have one. I didn’t understand how my own body worked, let alone theirs.
These experiences pretty much fucked up how I viewed friendships – and sex – to the point where I expect the majority of my friendships to be transient, temporary, ultimately discardable. My only saving grace is self-awareness, and the fact that I can generally understand my own behaviour. As such, I avoid making friends and my sexuality is hidden from all but a few people who I can trust. The trouble is that I’m okay with this, and I’m not sure I should be. Should I try to change, or do I just accept that this is who I am?