So my 2 closest childhood friendships both tailed off when I was about 10. What next? I don’t remember the chain of events very clearly, but I spent some time around then unsuccessfully trying to re-integrate into the clique of sporty normal girls I had hung out with before Phadette. We got along OK on scout outings and so on, but we were never really on the same wavelength. I also spent some time with a new girl, Joy, before she dropped me for the Normals, managing better than I had to assimilate. I seem to remember there was an actual recess club formed which I was blackballed from joining.
The gang where I ended up instead centred around Lori, a fanatic fan of the rock band Kiss. She assigned us each a persona from the band. She was the lead singer of course (Paul Stanley), and I ended up the drummer who wore makeup like a cat (Peter Criss). I had zero interest in their music, but I liked Lori’s cool outsider vibe so went along with her fan girldom. We made an animated music video of little blob creatures wearing the character makeup, which lasted about 10 seconds because we didn’t fully understand the frames per second requirement of animation.
And we wrote silly parodies of their songs. I can’t remember how this started, but it presumably grew out of my book of doggerel written that year, for which Lori drew some of the illustrations. All I can remember now is a few titles: “Detroit, Rock City” became “Pompeii, Rock City”; “I Stole Your Love” became “I Stole Your Fries” after a McDonald’s ad of the time. I think eventually a big stack of these song lyrics was sent to the band, but if Lori ever received a reply, I don’t remember what it said.
The friendship with Lori ended badly. In our first year of junior high, we didn’t have any classes in common. I made a few friends — one quite good friend sitting next to me in several classes due to alphabetic proximity of our surnames. We would pass notes and giggle and have a great time. Then I introduced them, we became a close-knit group of friends, and some months later they turned on me and pushed me out. It soured me on relationships with girls, and I never had another close female friend until college. I preferred the company of boys and dogs. More on that later, perhaps.
It’s easy to blame one’s parents for teaching emotional distance, but my early friendships all taught me that there were parts of my friends’ lives where I was unwelcome. At least the first two could be put down to differences in age and race.
So my best friend in the neighbourhood ignored me at school, and I had to fend for myself. But kids of 5 or 6 are pretty friendly and I wasn’t usually short of people to hang out with at recess. Then around the time I turned 7 I formed quite a close friendship confined to the school premises, to mirror my relationship with Conne at home.
Her name was Phadette, nicknamed Fredi, and she was an African-American girl from the nearby apartment block. She was loud, rude, and very funny, the perfect antidote to my Victorian home life, and she in turn seemed to find me funny and interesting. We spent countless hours playing hopscotch and charades and talking about movies and TV. I think she copied me in some ways, taking up the flute when I did, joining the Girl Scouts, probably picking up some of my droll prematurely-old mannerisms.
Her mother detested me. On the one occasion I met her, at some sort of parents’ evening, she towered over me in a kaftan and turban emanating disapproval of me in my big house in my whites-only suburban housing estate. She never allowed Fredi to come to my parties, except for once when my mother was leader of the Girl Scouts and we hosted the annual troop party. And I was banned from her home as surely as she was banned from my whites-only recreation club, and as surely as I was banned from Conne’s presence at school.
I don’t remember that we ever discussed race – at the beginning we probably didn’t fully understand ourselves what forces were at work in our different lives. But in the end it pulled us apart with a weary inevitability. Fredi started spending more time at recess with the other Black girls from her apartment block and those bussed in from even scarier areas on the other side of the Beltway. I tried to hang with them for a while, watching while they practiced cheerleading moves, but I didn’t understand much of their conversation and couldn’t join in, and they didn’t like me much, so in the end I had to drift away. Coincidentally this was also about the time Conne moved away, so I lost both friends at once.
I did still see Fredi from time to time. She went to the same junior high as me at first. I remember making David’s jaw drop by telling him off for saying mean things about her. But we were never in the same classes, and after a while she left to attend the performing arts school in DC, Duke Ellington. I found her on Facebook just now (it’s an unusual name), but should I get in touch? What is there to say? I’m half afraid of learning there were more reasons than I remember for her mother’s dislike of me.
Kate’s death put me in a mood to reminisce about the female friends in my life. The first was Conne, brought to my side door one day by my buddy Jeff. We hit it off instantly, although we made an unlikely pair — she was 6 and I was 4 and unusually small for my age. But we bonded over board games, TV and M&Ms, and I used to spend most days after school at her house and sleep over at weekends.
Conne was a latchkey kid with a divorced working mother, and we lived an oddly unsupervised life compared to nowadays. Her house was on the edge of the woods, which we used to roam in the afternoons. Not quite the pastoral idyll it might sound — the landscape was dotted with burnt-out cars, with a soundtrack of police sirens. But to us it seemed no scarier than the schoolyard.
At school, she banned me from fraternizing due to the age difference. I was an embarrassment in front of friends her age, not least because I was bumped up into her class for reading lessons and was rather ahead of most of them. I think I accepted this arrangement as natural and just, although I do remember disliking most of her friends intensely. Probably they bullied me – I remember fighting one of them once (Melissa?), which was like a cartoon mouse attacking a cat due to our relative sizes. I came out of that quite badly and never got in a fistfight again.
My sense of exclusion only got worse as they all neared puberty, and the relationship would undoubtedly have ended soon on its own if Conne’s family hadn’t moved away when I was around 10. We didn’t keep in touch for long.