(This piece, “Her Best Friend,” is based upon a personal experience from my younger years. It was truly a defining moment in my young life.)
High school girls, in their freshman year, are an odd and giggly lot; entering into a four-year span of constant transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. Every decision seems to be of the utmost importance in relation to their social status. For some, that status is a lifeline, or so they believe. Without proper standing, they will never be seen as cool, can never have the right boyfriends, and will be pitifully shunned; relegated to a different lunch table, where the girls buy makeup from someplace other than Merle Norman or Dillards. Many of the mothers even get in on the action by advising and strategizing about which girls their daughters should and shouldn’t be seen with, what they should wear, and what kinds of cars the other parents drive.
The era is of no consequence. We find the same issues today as when we look back at 1980. That’s when four particular friends were called upon to choose their individual paths. This was a curious group. It was actually the blending of two pairs of best friends into quadruplets, if you will. The funny thing is that the two pairs of girls were vastly different, but somehow they seemed to click. Beth and Mary had mothers who kept a close watch on their girls. These moms were dressing their young ladies modestly, teaching them about the love of God, making sure that they were on time for church choir rehearsals, and weren’t overly concerned with social status. As long as their daughters weren’t being influenced adversely, all was well. The other pair, Jen and Kelli, seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Kelli’s mother was a local school teacher and Jen’s mother was a well-respected doctor in the community.
The blending of the two duos began in a ninth-grade Algebra class when the four girls were seated together. During the occasional breaks in the period, the two pairs of girls would find that their odd brands of humor were quite similar and that their conversations were overlapping and meshing. Beth and Mary were beyond surprised to find that they could get along with two other girls this well; after all, these two had been inseparable best friends for three years. Could it really get better?
With the blessings of the moms, the four young ladies began socializing outside of school. They were meeting at the movies, getting together at the local ice-cream parlor, and making plans nearly a month in advance for a sleepover at Jen’s house that would be complete with popcorn, brownies, soft drinks, and a late night in front of the television; popping movies into the VCR.
As girls will do, they told their moms every little detail about what their friends were wearing to school each day, what new stories they had shared with each other, and what plans they were making together. The emerging group friendship seemed to be progressing amicably and the moms had no reason for suspicion.
In the interest of full-disclosure, Mary and Beth were aware that their new friends were upwardly mobile and socially minded. Jen and Kelli were known to make tacky comments about other girls, but Mary and Beth ignored it at first; thinking that they surely didn’t always treat other people this way.
“They’re just having a bad day,” Beth would say. “They’re so much fun and they’re really popular. I think they’re just under a lot of pressure.”
With each new day, Mary was more and more troubled with the remarks of the other girls.
“Did you see Rhonda’s hair today?” Jen would say.
“I can’t believe how awful it was,” said Kelli. “She’s wearing it the same way she did yesterday!”
“My mother would never let me do that,” Jen said. “Mary does something totally different with her hair every day. That’s way cooler!”
As Mary considered this supposed compliment her mind floated away and she mulled over the last weekend when, along with her mother, she happened upon a boutique with all manner of hair accessories. The two of them giggled as they plunged their hands into baskets and bins of ribbons, barrettes, and clips.
“Mom!” Mary said. “I’ve never seen so many clips and headbands in so many fabulous colors!”
“And they’re half-off!” said her mom. “Back up the truck!” she said as she laughed out loud.
Mary thought about how the two of them were holding up ribbons and bows to their heads and inspecting them while looking in the heart-shaped mirrors on the counters. It was one of those moments that a mother treasures because it’s unexpected; filled with bliss and silliness.
Mary thought about how her mom and she had been spending extra time in the mornings playing with her hair and the new brightly-colored accessories because it was outlandishly fun. It had nothing to do with social standing or being a fashion leader among her peers. These hair-styling sessions were something special between the two of them.
Mary’s mind descended back into the Algebra classroom and she was sadly conscious that the insults were still being droned on by her new friends. In this moment, the idea of playing with her hair and her mother didn’t seem fun anymore. It seemed like an obligation. If she didn’t come up with something fresh for the next day, would Jen and Kelli be disappointed with her? Would they aim their hateful remarks toward her? She wondered if she should talk to her mother about this, but decided not to. Mary knew that her mother wouldn’t want her to spend time with girls who behaved this way and she wasn’t ready to give up this developing status upon which she had stumbled.
The school days and weeks slowly crept by as the girls looked forward to the big sleepover. In those days and weeks Mary continued to feel increasingly awkward with her new friends, but never showed it and certainly never talked to her mother about it. She just smiled and acted like everything was perfect.
Finally, the day arrived and the four friends stormed Jen’s home with pink ferocity. Each of them brought snacks, soft drinks, movies, and games. Jen’s parents were grilling hot dogs and the girls were diving into the pool. There were two simultaneous gatherings at Jen’s house that night, so it was going to be loud. Her parents had three other couples over and while the girls were playing in the pool, the adults were playing in the lavish patio room.
An hour or so had passed and the girls were called in.
“Girls, dry off and come to the patio,” Jen’s mom said. “We’ve got some drinks for you.”
The double duo was thirsty and thankful as they patted themselves off with the beach towels and wrapped them around their waists on their way inside. The quartet was greeted by eight boisterous adults holding short, squatty glasses with colored liquids that reminded Mary of her new hair ribbons. There were similar glasses lined up in an orderly row on the bar. Something troubled Mary as she drank in this scene.
“You’re first, Jen,” her father said. “Come get your drink.”
“What’s in it, this time?” Jen asked.
“You know the rule,” her father said. “No questions. Just drink it.”
Jen tried to act like it was no big deal as she turned the glass upside down and poured it all in. She winced and swallowed hard, but then she looked up and smiled as the audience of adults put down their glasses and clapped their hands in honor of her excellent performance.
“Ok, Kelli,” Jen’s mom said. “You’re next.”
“I don’t want anything. Thanks,” said Kelli.
“If you don’t drink it, we’re calling your mom and sending you home, Kelli,” said Jen’s mom. “You don’t want to miss out on the brownies and the movies, do you?”
“No, mam,” Kelli whispered. “I’ll drink it.”
She took the glass with shaking hands and tipped it back hesitantly. Jen’s father put his hand on the bottom of it pushing upwards and forcing her to drink it much more quickly than she had intended. After the last drop poured into her mouth from the glass, she stood there silently, looking down at the tile floor. The whole room fell silent. Even the overbearing adults had quieted themselves as if expecting something amazing to come next. Kelli placed her hand on her stomach and her short, thin body lurched forward as she vomited the contents of the glass and the day’s meals onto the cold brown tiles. The audience broke out into uproarious laughter, as if this event was just what they had hoped for.
Realizing what the unfolding scene was bringing, Mary grabbed Beth by the arm.
“We have to go home!” Mary whispered. “Our mothers will be angry! They wouldn’t want us here if they knew this was going on,” she said.
“Shut up!” Beth told her. “I’m not going to lose my friends over this. Don’t be a chicken. Just close your eyes and drink it. Nobody else has to know.”
Beth’s name was the next to be called. She smiled and tried to act like this was all lots of fun. The audience was cheering her on as she proudly held the glass that was handed to her and drank all of its liquid. Beth tried to hold her composure, but she succumbed in the same way as Kelli had and she emptied her last meal and the drink onto the floor where Kelli’s vomit had yet to be cleaned up.
“That’s two out of three!” and audience member yelled out. “Bring on number four!”
“Mary, it’s time to take your medicine,” Jen’s mother said. “Drink up like a good girl.”
“I don’t want to,” Mary told her. “May I please use the phone?” she asked.
“No, you may not!” Jen’s mother said. “Drink it up, now…just like your friends did. You don’t want to get left out of the fun, do you? Are you too innocent to have fun with the other girls?”
“May I please use the phone?” Mary asked. “I’d like to go home, now.”
The audience booed and hissed as Mary repeated her request to phone home. She persisted and they finally allowed her to make her call. All the while she was on the phone with her mother, the audience continued jeering, so that her mother, on the other end of the line, was questioning her about what was going on.
“Please, Mom. Just come get me, now,” Mary said with a controlled monotone.
Mary slid a t-shirt and some jeans on over her wet bathing suit, gathered her belongings and stood in the driveway waiting for her mother’s car to pull up and safely confiscate her from this nightmare. Occasionally, the front door would open up and a foul remark would fly out into the yard, accompanied by hoots and howls from the zoo-like atmosphere inside.
The car that would remove her calmly pulled into the driveway. There were no more jeers from the front door. It was closed for good. Mary opened the back door, unloaded her things, and then got in the front seat of the car. As she descended into the padded bench, she wanted to tell all to her mother, but at the same time, wanted to say nothing. She hadn’t fully realized what she had just experienced.
Her mother quietly reached across the front seat and placed her hand on her daughter’s hand as they drove home in a healing silence. Mary’s mother knew that all would be revealed soon enough. She had heard enough of the chaos in the background during the phone call to have a sense of what had happened. In this moment, she hurt for her daughter. She knew that she was maturing and learning who her real friends were and were not. She was all too aware that Mary was going to have to decide which path she would choose in life. It was a choice she would have to make on her own, without the help of her mother. Actually, Mary had just made that choice. She had made the choice to walk away from her closest friends in light of a happier, more honest existence.
In this pain-filled moment of confusion, Mary looked across the front seat at her mother and protector, and had a moment of crystal clarity. Her eye’s wandered over her mother’s soft, yet somber face and she realized that she was looking into the face of her best friend.