When I was in high school, I had (and still have) a friend who is very dear to me. We’ll call her T, the first initial of my affectionate nickname for her. T and I attended the same middle school, where we excelled in physics as an undefeated dynamic duo. In high school we grew closer among other friends, but for now they are not the focus of the story. Because T was perceived as rather cynical and short-tempered, she was often the subject of baffled speculation, and her weight was the object of a few jokes. These characteristics only drew me closer to her side. T, who struggled to live under the shadow of her successful older sister, had diagnosed herself with depression, and to this day I believe she might have come very close. To balance T’s unrelenting pessimism, I exaggerated my inclination to outward idealism to the brink of fatigue. T found this greatly amusing, and she referred to us as quite a foil. I was rather unsettled with the popular misconception of my insufferable demonstration of happiness–I felt obligated to be this way so that, since I was frequently accompanied by her, T’s storm clouds didn’t drown the room, but while my emotional range was clipped in public, I knew our peers didn’t know T either.
They didn’t see the softer side of her, the lovely woman who was more than the cynic, who cared for the birds caught in her chimney and fought for all things that live, who tried to cheer me up when she caught glimpses of private moments of my distress. (Incidentally, while the widely held belief was that T was cynical and depressed, no one saw that I, a ray of unstoppable sunshine, was the one slowly sinking into indifference.) Neither T nor I were much for school spirit, and we never cared for parties or events unless they fit the agenda of our academic ambitions.
And then we were seniors, and there was prom. Anxious to see T enjoying herself outside of her quiet books and video games, I encouraged her to attend. And to emphasize that we would be unstoppable partners in crime, I made a proposition: that we would attend the senior prom together, and we would both attend in tuxedos. Even as I tailored the idea to our revolutionary sprits, I believed T would resist, but to my surprise, she agreed at once, with the same quiet happiness that lit her when she looked at birds or lent me books on Buddhism. She was rather fond of the idea, in her light sort of way, and for the first time I witnessed her looking forward to a social event. And, well, you can probably guess what happened next.
I was asked to the prom.
Admittedly, I should have seen this coming, but somehow then, I hadn’t. To this day I cringe at the decision I made. I told T that I’d been asked, mistakenly believing (again!) that she wouldn’t care and might have even been relieved. T didn’t say anything to me except that she understood, but I recall being shocked at the slight shadow of disappointment in her expression. Without me, T airily resigned to not attending the prom. I wore a burgundy dress. T said nothing else of the matter in the coming weeks, possibly out of a consideration for me that I evidently hadn’t had for her, until two days after the event, when she responded rather bitterly to what was, frankly, my abandonment of her. (It was in this moment that I realized how much this had really meant to her.) Still, it was the kindness in her character to bring it up only once, and for the past–how long ago was high school? five years?–she’s never mentioned it again, and our friendship resumed as usual.
I’m certain that she’d forgiven me, and quickly–but to this day when I remember this incident, it eats my heart alive.
When, five years later, I recounted this story to my coworker, she said, compassionately, “Well, no one can really blame you. I mean if you’d done it now it would be different. But you were young then. You were 18 and you’d just been asked out by a guy you had feelings for–,”
“Oh no,” I corrected her, “I didn’t have romantic feelings for him then. In fact, I’d made it clear to him we were going as friends.”
My coworker furrowed her eyebrows. “Wait, your date was just a friend?”
“So… if he was just a friend, why didn’t the three of you just go together?”
When she said this, it was as though something had collapsed in me and released an infinite (and obvious) flood of wisdom. Of course. Of course! Why hadn’t the three of us just gone together? I had, even at the age of 18, been a self-declared feminist–but I had been so instilled with the heterosexist archetype of two people of the opposite sex attending the prom together as the ideal vision that I’d crumbled at its calling. At the opportunity to present the archetype, I’d neglected about every other possibility, especially the one signifying a meaningful friendship. I’d been stripped of my identity and forgotten who I was. And because everyone referred to the man who’d asked me as my date even though it was widely known we were just friends, when they wouldn’t have referred to T as my date, my frame of reference was further dictated by the language to which I responded: I didn’t make the connection that this man wasn’t my “date” in a definitive sense of the word any more than T had been. With that schema, it hadn’t occurred to me that the three of us could have gone together.
If I could do this over, though, we wouldn’t have attended together. I would have turned down the “date.” There would be plenty of time for that. Instead I would have just gone with T, one of my best friends. Because I’d told her so. And that was the most important thing.
Be good to your friends, and keep them close. Because sometimes, it is more feminist than we even realize.