When I asked my friend Emily to drive me to the airport at 6 a.m. one August, she said, “I’d love to!” She also offered to help me house hunt, saying it would be “fun.”
Never mind that some drug-addled thug broke into my car the last time I garaged it in Manhattan. Each of my friends, male and female (and my mother, too), turned down my plea for car-sitting when I made the trip from Boston to New York for my father’s cancer treatments. Every friend except one. Karen said, “Sure!” Overwhelmed with relief, I promised to help make the job more enjoyable by bringing her reading material and snacks. “That’s OK,” she answered. “I’ll just watch the people going by. It’ll be fun.”
As we head toward our 40s and beyond, I believe we start to separate distance runners from sprinters. We look for friends we can count on for more than entertainment. My flashier friends keep me fascinated, and I love them for that, but I’ve come to place a higher value on those who will drive me to the mechanic or show up when and where they said they would.
When I needed quotations for a grad school assignment on the New York Doll Hospital, five hours from my home, Karen stared down her shyness, planted herself in front of the place on her way home from work and ambushed customers for comments.
Karen’s so quiet, a lot of people pass her by, never seeing that deep-down spark I’ve come to know over 30 years. She’s a gourmet cook, belly dancer and traveler who’ll try anything if it sounds interesting. But she doesn’t shine.
Not the way my college friend “Claudia” did. Everyone who knew Claudia was a little in love with her beauty, talent, intelligence and allure. But once we left school, I made all the plans, all the calls; I did all the keeping in touch. Once I stopped, so did she.
I wouldn’t trade Helen for a thousand gorgeous Claudias. Helen agreed to accompany me to a Beck concert, even though she wouldn’t necessarily recognize a Beck tune if it roared up and chomped her on the keister. Only problem was, I’m scared of crowds and bats, both probable on that dark pier where the concert was held that summer night. Helen assured me all I had to do was look at her if I felt unsettled, and we’d leave immediately, not one question asked. If Claudia’s a classic work of art, Helen’s a dozen warm hugs.
Not to suggest that my steadier friends are less interesting than the crazily brilliant ones. They’re every bit as smart and fun. They’re bright, just not shiny.
I could ask Helen, Emily, Karen (and Sharron, and the other Karen, Kim, Other Kim, Pam…) for anything. They’re proteins, starches, antioxidants. Claudia’s spice. We all crave a little spice sometimes. It’s also good for you. But you can’t live on it.
Youthful friends who’ve gone by the boards tended more toward sizzle than substance. A few years ago, for instance, I met “Carole” and found myself instantly drawn to her charm and intensity. For weeks, Carole and I were inseparable. Then, she dropped me like a hot rock, and I never knew why. Now, when a new friendship beckons, I remind myself of the old adage that what heats quickly cools even more so.
In matters of romance, too, I can feel my tastes shifting. As a young woman, I couldn’t get enough of brooding emos. No offense to my longtime husband, who’s amply kind as well as artistically talented—but, if I were doing it over, I might have my eyes on the “steady Eddies,” who’d feel more comfortable installing a sink than writing me a poem. Meeting my 17-year-old self today, I’d caution her against the tormented artists. They tend toward depression, and that grows tiresome. Today, I’d rather watch a man unclog a drain than cry about the many ways this world has hurt him.
In my teens and 20s, I counted among my friends many shooting stars, who dazzled, then fizzled. Now, my friend-shopping list, if I had one, would resemble the Boy Scout law: trustworthy, loyal, kind and helpful (although I wouldn’t care much whether they were thrifty, brave, obedient or reverent). Not that I size up potential pals with a what-can-you-do-for-me? attitude. I don’t. My friends can do pretty much anything and remain in my good graces.
But my favorites do more than honor me with their presence. They’re truly there for me. As opposed to those who are only there for a while.
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