Here we are again: thirty-two years into a friendship and we’re still talking about the plaid pants. Over the years, my best friend Stephanie and I have taken turns analyzing the significance of my outfit of choice on that first awkward and terrifying day of school. Yet this week, as we celebrate our mutual 40th birthdays, it’s worth another look at a friendship, and one daring wardrobe decision, that’s survived a lifetime.
First day of school: I was the third grade new girl, and already crying for mom. I was decked out in my favorite outfit: frilly pink shirt, pink plaid pants, and my brand new wooden clogs. As I tentatively scanned the room, a cheerful little blonde girl summoned me to her table. She said she liked my outfit, and from that moment, I knew I’d be okay. A BFF was born. (Later we added “AE”, creating the clumsy yet descriptive acronym, “Best Friends Forever And Ever!”) The first-day-of-school story is legendary in family lore, and it has proven instructive to ease my own children’s fears each time the school year begins.
Throughout our lives, Stephanie and I have traveled just close enough to be within hugging range (even if sometimes that hug is virtual), yet far enough apart to stand alone. We lean in and out as needed.
We both came into the world in the same hospital, just eight days apart. Our parents had mutual friends and grew up in the same town, yet Steph and I never met until that fateful first day of third grade. As children, and even as adults, we are quite different, but somehow this has bound us ever more tightly together over the years.
In grade school we made a funny-looking pair: Steph was the skinny blonde with buck teeth; I had the brown Dorothy Hamill cut and a ridiculous canine under-bite. Eventually braces and a little Sun-In evened us out.
Despite my fabulous wardrobe on day one, it was Steph who was the popular girl at first. Then it got to be my turn a few years in. No matter. We dragged each other along, lifted each other up, and re-assured each other that old friends are the best friends anyway.
I learned to play mediocre piano under the laissez-faire guidance of my parents. She couldn’t sleep over at my house on Saturdays without an hour-long practice session on the violin, which was meticulously supervised by her dad. Often there were tears. Decades on, Stephanie continues to play her violin with enthusiasm and discipline. Me? I pick at the piano, but no one would accuse me of being any good. Still, we both appreciate music, and we cherish the memories of those well-earned sleepovers together.
As teenage angst set in, we talked daily, often late into the night, pondering the mysteries of boys and sex and relationships. Then in a blink, our hormonally-charged adolescence was over. It was time to leave home, and suddenly we were apart for the first time.
In college, Stephanie chose a hard-core Criminology major. Three hours away at my school, I chose English and Theatre. (Typically, I took the easy way out.) Steph was diligent about keeping in touch, but I’ve never been good at writing letters or picking up the phone, even when I know I should. She kept me honest.
When it was time, Steph married the man her parents hoped she would: a nice Jewish boy from good stock. I chose my parents’ nightmare: the atheist New Yorker with no direction. But he made me laugh, and that was enough. Eventually it all worked itself out, and both marriages have survived into our respective mid-life crises, which is saying a lot for our generation.
Stephanie and I moved to separate cities, made new friends, started careers, and had babies at roughly the same time. For the past 22 years, we've lived apart, but not alone. We've led parallel lives, sometimes meeting up at holidays and almost always at birthdays.
When we meet, we simply pick up the conversation where we left off, as if we still lived a block apart; as if we still shared homeroom and a crush on half the gymnastics team.
This is how it is with Steph: we move in and out of each other’s lives like mirrored s-curves -- coming together, drifting apart. A lifetime of figure eights.
But in the background of all this movement, there’s a constant reassuring hum: if you fall I will catch you. If you need me I’m here. Call when you can, even if it’s been ages since we last spoke. I won’t give up on you.
Who would have thought that two girls with so much space between them could still feel this way about each other? Who would have thought that our BFFAE really would last FAE? Thirty-two years in, and we’re still laughing at each other's goofiness, passing books through the mail, commiserating over domestic dramas, and worrying about each other’s parents. When we talk, it eventually occurs to us that not much has changed since we were children. We are still close together in many ways, buoyed by our past and confident in our future.
All because of a generous eight-year-old’s smile and a silly pair of pants.
I am so very lucky to have you in my life, Steph. On your fortieth birthday, I wish you everything a girl could want: peace, love, happiness, and a fantastic pair of pants.