September 13, 2011

Best Friends Forever

In primary school, the business of making a best friend is pretty darn simple. You are united by the things you have in common, like being able to kick a footy, or jump rope. When I was six, my best friend and I bonded over our secret love of Prisoner. 'Let's spend our lunchtimes being Bee Smith and Doreen and bashing up all the naughty children and we shall be best friends forever.'  The cool thing about children is that they have not yet acquired the skills to differentiate between races and cultures or sub cultures. Pop your head inside any multi-cultural primary school and you will see Asian kids mixing with Italian kids and the Muslim kids mixing with Christians. In other words, their little minds have not been conditioned to spot or fear difference. Through the eyes of the child, disabilities are invisible and irrespective of skin colour, people are much the same. (Except for boys and girls - who are different. The gender stereotype is branded on our heads from birth i'm afraid).

Sadly in the grown up world, things are not as simple. The older we get, the more defined we become by our experiences and the more entrenched we become in those familiar roles and stereotypes. The judgments we make are less about discerning similarities and more about discerning difference.  And no matter how much we'd like to pretend that we are free to do whatever we want and make friends with whomever we choose, the truth is we are bound by more rules now than we ever were in primary school. These rules influence our choices -  like where we go on holiday, where we shop and particularly who we allow into our friendship circle. In reality, the vegan hippie from Nimbin is never going to be best buddies with the peroxide blonde stripper from Noosa, no matter how many children they have in common or how much they both enjoy an ice cold glass of Chardy on a stinking hot afternoon. As adults, we tend to resonate with others who share our view of the world; a view that has been developing ever since we stepped foot on the playground. My point is that in the grown-up world, making friends isn't easy and making a best friend is even harder, which is why it is probably a once in a grown-up lifetime experience.

When I first met my best friend in 1999, I found her obnoxious, judgmental, sardonic and rude. In hindsight these were all qualities that I admired in myself, only I hadn't made that leap yet. We met at her mother's iconic toy shop in Carlton, one crazy hot Melbourne summer, and much to our distain we found ourselves working together twice a week. It only took one incredibly long and boring shift for us to bond over our shared dislike of people and German wooden, educational toys. And there behind the glass counter of a small and extremely overcrowded toyshop, we felt the stirrings of a beautiful best friendship that would last over a decade.

One evening, in the early days of our friendship, I came home from work to find a hideous porcelain clown doll stuffed in my bag between my jacket and a half eaten apple. Attached to the dolls tartain sleeve was note that said ' For you. Because I know how much you love her'. And so began the weekly ritual of seeing who could sneak the most awkwardly oversized and disturbing toy into the other person's handbag without getting caught (by each other or by her mother / my boss). Of course I returned each hideous item to its rightful place on the shelf, but my friend seemed to want to hold onto her objects as a reminder of a time when things were simple, carefree and fun. Plus her mother owned the toyshop so she wasn't probably worried about getting prosecuted for theft.

We soon started hanging out together and terrorising all the bars from Fitzroy to Northocte and Brunswick. Nobody was spared from the tirade of drunken abuse or from the made up stories that had us both in side splitting stitches. Slowly but surely, we added more and more 'gold' material to our best friendship vault, including our own private jokes and stories, our special language, as well as a long list we had complied in her kitchen called 'The Foolproof Guide To Finding Mr. Right. We would reflect upon all the gold things in the vault over coffee and Hungry Jacks, and often in the cold hard light of a hangover. At some point in our bar hopping career, I started telling all and sundry that I wrote for that really bad comedy show on channel 10 called 'The Wedge'. I would literally berate people with fictional stories of my hilarious days on set as a comedy writer hanging out with fictional comedians that I would make up on the spot. The assumption was that nobody had ever actually watched 'The Wedge' and so I could pretty much get away with anything.

Once I paraded at a Brunswick nightclub as a clairvoyant and told a very sweet young couple that they were soon going to break up, due to an incident of 'cheating'. My best friend stood on the sidelines comforting the girl by stroking her long, fair hair and telling her that I was very rarely wrong. Outside, the boyfriend paced back and forth like a nervous father awaiting the birth of his first child. Another time I got punched in the face at The Retreat by a girl I had never met before, simply because she could not find my best friend. Apparently my best friend had been whispering the word 'loser' in the girl's ear, each time she tried to make her shot for the black ball in the pool championships. Neither of us should have been allowed out in public after dark, especially not when alcohol was readily available.

As time marched on, we had pretty much lined up and preyed on all the easy targets but one evening we were drinking free shots at a friend's bar in Brunswick, when things hit an all time low. There had been rumours circulating the neighbourhood that the blind man who strolled up and down Sydney Road with his cane, was not actually blind. My ex boyfriend felt obliged to test this theory and he once threw a $5 bill on the footpath before hiding behind a rubbish bin and waited while nature took its course. Shocked and delighted that he had walked straight past the $5 bill, my ex boyfriend the eternal optimist, decided then and there that an end was to be put to these false rumours. But my friend was not hearing a word of it and when the blind man strolled up to the bar and sat down beside my tequila fuelled friend, she decided to hand him the truth. In less time than it took for me to skull another shot, the blind man had tackled my friend off her bar stool and down onto the filthy barroom floor. Stools were sent flying as wrestled like their lives depended on it. From where I was perched up on my bar stool, it appeared to be a pretty even fight and I think I even ordered another drink mid ruckus. Despite the fact that everyone in the bar stood covering their mouths because my friend was fighting a disabled man, my main priority was to watch the man's eyes like a trained CIA detective, to see if he was using his vision to win the fight. When the bouncers finally stepped in and broke up the tussle, they must have used the word 'she' or 'miss' when referring to my  friend because it was at this point that the blind man started to sob hysterically and mouth the words, I thought she was a man! I thought she was a man!
Case closed! The man was actually blind and my friend had the voice of a man. Another Brunswick mystery had been solved.

It is true that my friend had a very deep voice and was often being mistaken for the man of the house by telemarketers and credit card fraudsters. I know she felt pretty bad about the fight and after being ostracised by everyone in the bar, she decided the best thing to do was to keep on drinking. As for me, I spent the rest of the evening straddling the blind man and wiping the tears away from his cheeks. I told him not to feel bad, because it was an easy mistake to make... 'You're right, I said, she does sound like a man'. I also recall a moment where I asked him to look on the bright side of being blind. 'At least you've still got your arms,' I said....and your legs'. Yes. A drunken counsellor is just what people look for when they go out on the piss to escape the gruelling woes of being blind.

Throughout our 10 year reign on Melbourne's north side bar scene, there were more tears and bar brawls than my fuzzy memory will let me remember though they were all outweighed by the good times and the nights of hysterical laughter. Friends tried to come out and keep up with us but we always drank until stumps and we had more drinking stamina and determination than was considered human at that time. The tag alongs friends always inevitably ended up leaving early or falling asleep in some dark cushioned corner while we raged on into the night like vampires hunting out our next meal.

One time, outside The Retreat at closing time, we were trying to hail a taxi when we noticed that someone needed help to jump start their car. (Yep. Inside the bar we were drunk assholes, but out on the street we were super citizens).Without hesitating, my friend and I jumped behind the vehicle like willing soldiers doing our part for the war. After pushing not very hard for about 9 seconds, the car suddenly took off with gusto but my friend's reaction was slightly delayed - what with the 7 hours of hard drinking behind her. And because she was still crouched over in the pushing position, she fell flat on her face against the tarmac as the car sped off toward the city. It was such a funny sight to see that it made all the late night revellers laugh and it brought me to my knees like an insane, cackling monkey. Torn up and busted, you'd think my friend would have gone home and applied some savlon to her knees but she was a trouper and the night was just beginning.

We were damn funny together - a kind of drunk Laurel and Hardy. One guy was so enamoured that my friend would treat him like our personal assistant, sending him out on little shopping expeditions in the wee hours of the morning to get us souvlaki's or cigarettes or both.  And despite the nearest 24- hour Gyros being on the other side of town and us having spend our last $5 on more beer, he never ever argued or complained.  His name was Andy and he wore a mobile phone the size of a house brick in his belt and a real shark tooth around his neck. I mean what did he expect? I always thought Andy was a little creepy but it wasn't until he followed my taxi home to Coburg from some bar in Northcote, that I knew he was what you might call  - a stalker. He stood in my doorway at four in the morning just staring up at me. And before he could even open his mouth to ask me if I wanted a souvlaki, I ripped that shark- tooth necklace from his throat and abruptly slammed the door in his face.

Like all good things, the drunken tirade eventually ran its course, especially after we had been kicked out of The Retreat one too many times than was decent. I was becoming more and more obnoxious, looking for more and more daring things to do to people (and bouncers were not excluded) and in the end, our escapades had developed a pretty sketchy reputation and neither of us were having very much fun. Late night drunken crying fits had replaced the fits of laughter that had defined the earlier years and on top of that, the hangovers were just becoming unbearable. I decided to hang up my drinking boots to look for more serene pastures and it was around that time that I moved to Byron Bay.

My best friend and I maintained a long distance friendship pretty well for the first 4 years. She and I would visit regularly and talk every day on the phone. Moving to a new city wasn't easy for me and I didn't know anyone in Byron, so the connection I shared with my best friend became even more important.  After my partner died, I relied on my best friend for grief support and when all is said and done, she was the only person I ever really wanted to share things with and get advice from.  It didn't matter how many men came and went in our lives, or many times we had our hearts broken because we had an understanding that we would be there for one another until the end. And then one day I woke up and she was gone. The bar was closed and there was nowhere left to go. I was truly alone.

I wish I could isolate the one thing that drove a knife between our friendship, because then I would know how to fix it. But sadly there wasn't one thing, but a series of things that caused us to grow apart.  I have never felt more alone in my life than I did after losing the one person I thought I could count on and trust. A best friendship isn't like a romantic relationship, you don't suddenly wake up one day and despise all the things in your best friend that you once thought were so appealing. You don't break up with your best friend because you drank too much tequila and attacked her with a pool cue. Best friends accept these poorly executed errors of judgment because they really do love you flaws and all. But in the end, it just reached a point where we could not communicate effectively without hurting one another. In the end we had grown in such different directions that our differences outweighed our similarities. In the end we just grew apart.

It isn't fair that we can't hold onto the precious things and make them last forever. It isn't fair that we have to keep losing the things we love the most. I wish I had known a way to be better at being myself so that I could have grown along with her. I wish I had known a way to stop things changing or at least how to put things back together. There are so many things I miss about her and none of them have anything to do with drinking. Even though we built a social world around having fun and getting wasted, our private world was built on intimacy, trust and confidentiality and on knowing that in all the world, we were the two people who had each other's backs. What I miss the most is the ability to talk to about everything and nothing. I miss the way a twenty minute phone call turned into three hours in a heartbeat. Not having her around to confide in is really hard and I miss the way she used to confide in me. I don't want another best friend because the one I had was perfect for me. She was Bee and I was Doreen and we were going to be best friends forever.

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