RELATIONSHIPS

Female friendships are hard

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The ability to make friends with other women and keep them is an inexact science; they are constantly caught in the flux of several conflicting life-things. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Friendships were always narrow and curious trapdoors to another place, but I was never particularly good at keeping or making new friends. When I was 10, I had a friend named Justine and she came from new money. She owned a pair of pink and shiny Skechers runners and spoke English with an accent. We just fell into the friendship naturally since our families were very close. During a long holiday break, we worked on school projects that turned into elaborate craft projects at my house, snacking on crispy sweet potatoes while we were more than eager to litter my family’s sala with sequins, glitter and scalding goo from a glue gun.

We were picking out colored papers when she pointed out how transparent the material was and I asked, “What does that mean?” Admittedly, I was never the brightest kid in the room. I started school a year earlier than most kids my age, always spelled the word assignment as assingment in kindergarten, and what exactly did 4+3 add up to? I had to count my fingers to reach an answer when I was nine. At that moment, I remember my sister and mother looking up from whatever it was they were doing and their eyes said, How do you not know the meaning of that word at your age? At first it didn’t register, but slowly I felt it creeping in. That feeling you get as a child whenever you want to lock yourself in your room or stand still as concrete while an adult’s stream of invectives fills your ears. It felt something close to shame.

Justine and I lived in Butuan. The town, and two other Agusan provinces, are considered the center of political dynasties in the Philippines, with clans ruling for over 50 years (some rumored to be Marcos regime cronies). I knew no other mayor growing up but one whose last name was Plaza. It’s one of the more vivid points of my childhood — that round, amicable face plastered in tarpaulin at the gated threshold of the city’s capitol: Democrito II, otherwise known by locals as Boy Daku (Boy Big). Justine’s uncle, in the next decade or so, would be seated as mayor of the city, ending the long reign of disputing clans.

In fifth grade, I became Justine’s running mate under our own political party, SMILE. Together, we vied for positions in the Student Council: she was president and I her vice resident. The smiley logo, as well as our prepubescent faces, were printed on T-shirts, lanyards, posters, and flyers. I won by a landslide, but she conceded to a tight loss. A part of me knew that Justine (but more so her mother, involved and staunchly devoted to her daughter’s life down to the last excruciating detail) badly needed the recognition and social status it brought. The loss created a rift between our mothers, as they were never seen in each other’s company again, but we were still friends even after that.

***

I was glad that I could visit Justine’s home every Friday afternoon after school. She enjoyed a milk-and-honey way of living that I envied: a life of soap bottles and embroidered linen sheets, as if it were a polished dollhouse: full of deliberate functionality, with fixtures and furniture color coded and tailored to that specific world.

My house, in contrast, seemed run-down and a little old-fashioned. Although there were parts of it that lent me joy as a child:

A. Front lawn: Pink gumamelas lining the fence, the moist stubble of thick Bermuda grass, days of learning to cartwheel
B. Backyard: A lanzones tree bearing only flowers that never turned to fruit, a hammock between two ylang-ylang trees, the persistent murmur of our pond’s oxygenator

My village in Barangay Libertad was lined with identical one-story houses where I rollicked in the streets all day, playing patintero, langit-lupa, luksong baka, tumbang preso, etc. And yet still, to my young and easily bewildered heart, I was swayed by the tiny luxuries of eating Kirkland’s microwave popcorn and playing Dance Revolution on Justine’s PS2. I became filled to the brim with a vacation-like ebullience, which broke, stunningly brittle, as I was whisked away by our old Toyota Vios every time I would go back home.

In my world, I played all summer and on the weekends with kids my age whose family owned sari-sari stores and whose mothers were public school teachers. But come Monday, I was the only one in my neighborhood who attended a co-ed private school out of my mother’s own moral code that even as we struggled to make ends meet, my siblings and I would receive the best education the city could offer. Her origins were of lower middle class: her own father was a war doctor, but she gave up her pursuit of a medical degree to give way to her younger siblings’ education and a career in child nutrition. I know this because of her incorrigible opinion even now that I should be on my way to earning a medical degree like my more reasonable peers, plausibly as a way to reenact her own hampered dreams.

In our living room back home hangs a portrait of my mother in her early 20s, perhaps the same age as I am now. I repeatedly studied her portrait as a child, more to decipher the young woman that she was before meeting my father than to admire the way her voluminous curly locks framed her head in a boy cut. I leafed through dusty photo albums kept away underneath narra dressers and glimpsed scenes of a young woman wearing an ankle-length ivory dress and white pumps — her wedding day. Like the photo on the wall, she was draped in a silk-like pearly luster. I thought, who is she? Somehow in the years that followed that woman became my mother and her luminescence turned itself into an overprotectiveness that shadowed my every move.

"A part of me knew that Justine (but more so her mother, involved and staunchly devoted to her daughter’s life down to the last excruciating detail) badly needed the recognition and social status [the student council] brought. The loss created a rift between our mothers, as they were never seen in each other’s company again, but we were still friends even after that."

At the time Justine and I didn’t call each other “BFFs” or “sisters.” The lack of a title made it easier for when we eventually parted ways in high school. I don’t remember ever feeling bad, but my mother seemed to be upset about it. She had a spiel about how I was “abandoned” or “replaced” by Justine for a wealthier, more appealing set of friends when we became freshmen. I went on with my new life. I think I was busy crushing on a boy who was basketball varsity then. But the shame hung around, way past the moment the friendship ended.

***

When I left Butuan to attend college in Manila, at first I kept to myself. As someone who lived in Butuan all my life, I found the social system a little overwhelming, like a four-year megamixer attended by young men and women hailing from private schools who felt that everything was within reach. These notions of class, popularity, and social hierarchy jaded me.

To cope, I hung around with Bianca, someone who grew up in my hometown. We came from different high schools, but the fact that we were both probinsyanas in unfamiliar domain was enough to bridge us together. I treated her almost like a sister. Despite that, it was clear that she adjusted better than I did.

Bianca befriended a lot of athletes, had occasional hook-ups, and eventually came out as a proud bisexual woman after a string of romantic affairs with both men and women. She mingled with interesting crowds. She went on spontaneous Tagaytay road trips, smoked weed, and flirted with strangers through text (Tinder was a foreign concept to us then). Her personality filled my days with stories and provided me a peek into an alternate world where people became enmeshed with each other; the nature of which was part-transactional and part thrill-seeking. With her encouragement, we went to our first freshman party together in one of those bars near campus that in 2019 became part of a slew of government-mandated shutdowns after reports of violent brawls and bizarre drug-related events.

Meanwhile, I was high-strung and neurotic; a 16-year-old overweight engineering major who lugged thick calculus books in my Jansport backpack. By this time, I was living with two roommates in a dreary Cityland condo (its ubiquitous terracotta and brown buildings felt to me like the insipid franchising of Brutalist architecture). I was avoidant and easily intimidated by other people, and didn’t bother striking up a conversation. I didn’t know how it felt to be invited to things.

One night in one of those bars long shut down in Taft, I had a few drinks with Bianca and an old high school friend of ours. That friend, in one of those moments of honesty and vulnerability that sieves through inebriation, told me just as Bianca decided to take a piss, “Let me tell you what I think... I think that you play a supporting role in your own life. Between you and Bianca, you’re the sidekick.” I was confused, then borderline angry. What about me made him think that? Was it because Bianca, at that time, held an immense sexual power over boys of which I would never match? Why did I have to think about what role I played in our friendship? Was it ultimately my fault for seeming so oblivious and weak for him to express his opinions unsolicited like that?

Bianca left college a year before I did, so it was during that brief period of abeyance that I was forced to come into my own. I took what our high school friend said to further myself, and that year, I dedicated myself to the school paper. The editor in chief then took me under her wing, as well as the former culture editor. They were articulate, and sometimes I got caught between their verbal crossfire, and sometimes was delighted to find that they asked for, and weighed in on, my opinions. Being with their company felt like my first true inroad to an inner self that was validated. We talked about Duterte and his war on drugs and wedged into the thick crowds of Fete de la Musique stages, but mostly we drank cheap beer.

To borrow from Elena Ferrante, I was disintegrating, but I was also composing myself. Duterte became president that year. And during that exceptionally long and warm summer, I had a brief involvement with a sports writer from the school paper who voted for him and talked about his views on feminism during our car rides going to and from football games in Mckinley Hill. Around the same time, I was making my way through Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, and went out of my way to sign up for a Feminist Narrative elective under Clarissa Militante where part of the syllabus was to read one of Lahiri’s novels. I learned about displacement and belonging from women who eventually took control of their lives in foreign lands.

I recognized from the women in her novels and short stories the confusion and the alienation from oneself that threaded my own life, but for the first time found quiet consolation from the portrayal of these modern maladies with startling and forgiving detail. I wanted to perceive the world the way Lahiri wrote it. I wanted to spin my own afflictions into an instance of beauty, like the silky, curly locks adorning my mother’s head.

***

After college, I developed a friendship with Liz, a fellow writer whom I didn’t know was in the school paper the same time I was. She got admitted to the oldest writing workshop in the country as one of the delegates from my university. Turns out we had a lot in common: in my mind I thought of us both as twins. She was also petite, five feet tall, hair worn in a bob cut. But she laughed at strangers’ jokes easily, while I held a tight smile around people I didn’t know.

I remember the very first and last time I would visit Liz’s place. The overall scene was endearing: two close friends, hauling books from the back of a sedan, each balancing a Pisa assembled by paperbacks that stood slightly over their heads, breathless from carrying them up the staircase. Her apartment had a huge foldable leather couch, an antique coffee table, a vintage tapestry from a flea market along the Seine river in Paris, and a lone window that stood directly in front of the door. We discussed one of Zadie Smith’s essays as she removed her pants to change to more comfortable clothing, while I sat by the window thinking, this is what intimacy must be like.

"As someone who lived in Butuan all my life, I found the social system a little overwhelming, like a four-year megamixer attended by young men and women hailing from private schools who felt that everything was within reach. These notions of class, popularity, and social hierarchy jaded me."

I invited her to one of those book fairs in Chino Roces and our friendship deepened. I was surprised by how tacitly we understood each other — laughing at jokes unsaid and surprising each other with our own opinions. We fell in love with Sally Rooney together and even owned an online feminist bookstore called Written By that had a brief life in another book fair and never much amounted to anything else but a culmination of our shared literary dreams. We sold secondhand books by authors such as Virginia Woolf, Flannery o'Connor, Shirley Jackson, etc.

We were both nonfiction writers, but she was wary and more attuned to the pitfalls of the “I” and so deepened her intent to write criticism, while I dove headlong to caramelize my personal experiences and thoughts into personal essays. Part of the reason is there was always an incessant voice within me that needed structure. Liz understood this about me and she encouraged me by sitting patiently at the edge as I swam through bodies of thoughts and impressions (At times lakes; most often violent rivers that lead to seas).

Little things drew me closer to her. There was the fact that for her 16th birthday, she received a portable turntable. That she had a half-sister from a different dad. That she talked casually about Paris and lent me books inscribed with the Shakespeare and Co. stamp on their title pages. Her wealth didn’t impose. She controlled it with an ease that surprised me in the right moments. I still long for this type of friendship that offers its secrets one by one. A steady provision that fills the silences between two people. Without it, a chasm opens up.

After major life adjustments on her end that happened in the course of the March 16 lockdown, my friendship with Liz wound down. We weren’t able to stay in touch. Although I occasionally message her on Facebook to say hello, I no longer get a response. The blue circle with a tick remained hollow. I figured she must be at the beach like all those other weekends she was slow to reply, away from the city’s relentless throttle.

The ability to make friends with other women and keep them is an inexact science; they are constantly caught in the flux of several conflicting life-things: their sense of self, direction, desires, moods, beliefs, dreams, and failures. Most female friendships, I have reason to believe, form, mature, fade, spoil from these raw materials. They’re subject to the quick, uneasy weather that nourishes their soil. Some become brittle fast; others, if you’re lucky, are more soft and insistent. In all my past friendships, I felt like I was warming the bench for a shining character, but with Liz, I reached a level of exhilaration and curiosity that deepened my relationship to myself. I became an honest believer of the person I was already becoming.