When I was small I would visit my Aunt’s house on weekends and be amazed by her collection of movies. She had a tall bookcase crammed with the sturdy shells of VHS tapes, organised roughly by genre. Although I was only supposed to borrow videos from the kids’ shelf, recordings of Loony Tunes, Tom and Jerry or cartoon movies, I somehow managed to smuggle home her copy of Beaches.
Like most of my favourite films of that age, Beaches was undoubtedly a bit too “grown up” for a 7-year-old. But I loved it. The idea of a best friendship that lasted through childhood, nurtured through carefully crafted letters, was something I cherished. The tragic death of one of the friends did sometimes perturb me, because I didn’t want my best friend to die. So I would cast myself as the one who would die young, my friend to live on and carry my memory with her.
The only problem with this casting was that I knew I was definitely more like CC, Bette Midler’s character – loud, bolshy, somewhat dramatic. There is a scene where CC is an adult visiting her mother in Florida and tells her she has left her husband because he stopped paying attention to her. Her mother laughs, then goes on to say how CC always wants too much attention to the point of exhaustion. She says “If I were you, I wouldn’t leave anybody for not paying attention to me. Because sooner or later you’re going to have to leave everybody.”
This scene has never left me and every few years when I re-watch the film I wince at the wound it causes. It is a hard burden to bear, to feel like you are too much of a person, and so you try to make yourself smaller so as not to exhaust others.
Making myself smaller doesn’t always work. There were many times when I was with my father, either simply sitting together in the TV room after school or in the car driving somewhere, when I would be happily telling him about my day and after a few moments he would cut in and say “OK, that’s enough now. Let’s be quiet.” And I would become instantly silent, my chest burning with hurt and embarrassment because my own Dad didn’t want to listen to me.
The word “clingy” sits on a special shelf of shame alongside “fat” and “crazy” that a woman must try her best to avoid. What no one explained to me as a child, was that “clingy” applied to friendships, too. Maybe I was simply lonely, or had seen too many TV shows where best friends spend all of their time together, or really was just “too much”.
In my final year of primary school, I befriended the new girl, Sarah. We were inseparable, spending all of lunch and recess together. I would visit her on weekends; she lived on a farm so we would go on adventures together, catching geckos, feeding the cows, picking apples from her orchard. The next year we started at different high schools, so didn’t see each other anymore. I started calling Sarah in the afternoons, to see how she was and to keep our best friendship alive. One day about a week into the school term, when I called her father answered. I asked to speak to Sarah, and he said just a minute. I heard him call out to her and say I was on the phone. Except when she picked up the phone from her father, instead of saying hello she uttered this snarl of contempt which was immediately followed by the sound of the dial tone. I sat there listening to that trilling noise for a few moments, trying to understand what had happened. That was the last time I “spoke” to her.
I was shocked and confused. In hindsight, perhaps calling someone every day to talk for an hour is a little much, but not once had she asked me to call her less or said that she was busy. A few months later I heard through another girl that Sarah had said she never really liked me but had used our friendship when she didn’t have a choice.
It is difficult to feel like a good person when you are too much of a person. My mother would make comments about how it seemed unfair I would have to be the one who travels long distances to a friend’s house, or that my friends seemed flaky and prone to cancelling on me. She would rub my shoulder as I fought back the tears of hurt, having spent a whole week looking forward to an event only to have my friend tell me at the last moment she wouldn’t be coming anymore.
It would be easy to dismiss this behaviour as the result of youthful selfishness, except these patterns continued into adulthood. Some experts say that it’s because adult friendships were never meant to be this important – in the past we have been married off by our early twenties and our husband has become our primary focus. Others blame the digital age, the immediacy of social media, for our compulsive flakiness. Countless articles have been written about being in the Age of Last Minute Cancellations.
I try and live the mantra that everyone is human, everyone is doing their best and no one means to hurt another. When all of my friends, one by one, message on my birthday to say they can’t make drinks anymore, I know that individually they don’t realise that four other people have also cancelled and they are just a person doing their best.
But sometimes on the dark days, I will whisper to myself, “But I’m a person, too.”