• Dear Friends

    Mary Ruefle

    Winter 2021

    I have had friends, and have them now, but never once did I believe that in my lifetime the word friend would have a new, different, other meaning. I knew language evolved and changed over time, I knew there were new words every year to accommodate its growth and that some words changed meaning; but love, death, flower, fire? Friend? Then one day I picked up a magazine and read an interview with the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Facebook, perhaps she still is, I don’t know, but she was asked how many friends she had and she said, “Over three thousand; I don’t know all of them, but I have met them in one shape or form.” I would rather be antiquated—I would rather die—than make a statement like that. I know my friends, I know the sound of their voices, their speech patterns, their inflections, their hand and body gestures, the wet of their eyes, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, how their nose was broken and how they became beautiful after that, and mysterious, so mysterious I cannot reconstitute them even as I try, because they are people, they walk on this earth, and they will die here.

    As Frances Burnett wrote, there are only a few times in life when we think we are going to live forever. And I think one of them is when we are with our friends, laughing, eating, looking each other in the eye. I would rather write about friends than relations. Relations—parents, children, siblings, spouses—exist within a grid of social conceptions and expectations that have evolved over centuries, and though we may fail in these relations, though we may let the preconceived down, nowhere in these relations do I find the sheer unexpected variety that friendship offers, for no two friendships are based on the same thing, the bond between two friends has no other explanation other than itself.

    I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written. I love being with her.

    I have a friend who is not a person I could ever be, even if I tried, nor would I want to be, and I love being with her.

    I had a friend who peeled an orange in public for the first time when she was seventeen. I do not remember the first time I peeled an orange, but it was probably in front of another. Do any of us remember such an act, such a little act lost in so many other acts performed for the first time as children? My friend’s mother was cultivated to the point of exoticism, and at the same time conservative and strict; at least that is how I remember her. She taught her daughter that to peel an orange, or any other fruit, in the presence of another person, was perverse; you might as well undress in front of them. Fruit was peeled in the kitchen by servants and served naked on a plate with a little knife to the side. The logic of this is itself perverse—do not undress in public but appear there naked—but as a result of such logic my friend was apprehensive when I unpacked our lunch one sunny afternoon, spreading a blue napkin on the stone steps of a cathedral; we were two teenagers having an outing in the city, an adventure, and I had thought to bring a picnic. Hence two unpeeled oranges appeared on the napkin, and I watched my friend’s face color as she told me the rules regarding oranges. I insisted that people did it all the time, no one would notice, not a head would turn if she ventured to try. Never before or since have I seen someone peel an orange with such exquisite delicacy. She took off the skin as if it were covered with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, and her hands trembled every time a piece of skin came off and fell away like a little continent set adrift, revealing the flesh inside, which was sometimes translucent and bright and bursting with moisture, and at other times covered by a thin white cottony undergarment. And that was that, we ate our oranges in public as carelessly as any two girls, none of the passersby noticed anything historical, and years later when I ran into my old friend, and recalled that afternoon in the sun, she told me she has hated oranges and never ate them, her mother was dead, and she had no memory of any picnic on the steps of a church.

    I had a friend who loved apple trees and apple blossoms and apple orchards, he loved swimming in ponds and lakes, and making currant jam and jam from mulberries and playing the harmonica, but when he read, for he loved books, he read heavy German tomes. He was diagnosed with cancer, and the treatment for his cancer caused a stroke that caused his blindness, he was blind at the end, and I took him swimming in a lake, I held his hand and helped him wade out until the water was waist-high, and then I said that I would be his beacon, I would not move. And he swam, not far, not much, but he went under and came up utterly refreshed, and all the while I stood there with my arms outstretched and thought look at me, look at me, I am helping a blind man swim. And when my friend died, I actually felt lucky because my last words to him were I love you, and his last words to me were I love you and I thought that it didn’t get any luckier than that, though of course it could have been luckier, he could have lived with his sight for the last few years of his life, he could have seen his apple trees and gone swimming without my help.

    I had a friend in high school, I had a crush on him, he was gay but I didn’t know it. I had other friends who were gay, and my favorite teachers were gay but I didn’t know it, and there were other teachers who were not gay and not my favorite who were having sex with students who were not my friends but I didn’t know it, I found out years later, my friend told me all about it, and I was shocked. We were in our thirties then, and he was dying of AIDS. I mean, he had AIDS and knew he would probably die but was not certain; he didn’t want to die, but he did come to see me, twice, in what turned out to be the last year of his life.

    Mary Ruefle is the author of, most recently, Dunce. She is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2017  Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry.

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