What It’s Like When You’ve Been Best Friends Almost Forever

Thomas Leuthard
Thomas Leuthard
A piece by Michelle Herman

I met my first best friend, Susan, before I was 4 years old. I suppose she was my first love — the first time I ever cared about anyone who wasn’t a part of my family.

Susan and I only made it to age 12, when my family moved (half a mile away, but in Brooklyn that might as well be halfway across the country). Other best friends (and other almost-best friends — other loves of all kinds) followed in time. And when I was in my early 20s, I met Hula, and we’ve been friends now for going on four decades.

In the early 80s, Hula and I wrote songs and performed them together — we even made a demo of one. But years passed; life took over. The songs, singing them together, was part of our history, not part of our lives.

For most of the many years since we first became friends, we’ve lived 600 miles apart — genuinely halfway across the country from each other: she in New York City, I in Columbus, Ohio. Our lives have unspooled miles apart too. She went to law school, stayed single, stayed put in Hell’s Kitchen; I left the city for graduate school in Iowa in 1984 and then somehow never left the Midwest, where in the late 80s I landed a tenure-track job, and where I married and raised a daughter.

For years, Hula and I didn’t see each other very often. We didn’t talk very often, either. But we never forgot about each other, and when we did talk, we’d settle right back into our conversation as if it had never paused. Still, sometimes years would go by without our seeing each other. Even when I returned to New York I usually had my daughter with me. We’d spend the whole weekend going to the theater, seeing two shows a day — it was what she loved most — and what little down time we had we spent with my parents. If I didn’t have Grace with me it was because I’d flown in for a quick day or two to give a reading, meet with my agent — I’d overbook myself on those visits and run out of time before I’d had a chance to see Hula. And yet, still, I continued to think of her as one of the people I was closest to — as part of my family.

When my father died, it really was as if she were part of my family. Between the two of us we have just one parent now, my mother. And now when I go back to New York, as I began to do much more frequently when my father first got sick, nearly a year ago now, and have continued to do after his death, Hula comes uptown and she and my mother and I have lunch, dinner, drinks together. And when I’m back in Columbus, worrying about my mother between visits, she checks up on her. She goes with her to the bank; if there’s a problem with the phone company, cable TV, the computer my mother has only recently learned how to use, she’s there to help. She acts as the family’s attorney and refuses to be paid for it.

Years pass. Things change. I’m a tenured professor and an administrator, too. I’m working on my eighth book, a novel. My daughter — an actor and director — lives halfway across the country from me. My mother, of course, is widowed. When she visits, she sleeps in my daughter’s abandoned room.

Hula practices law part-time and the rest of the time she plays music. She’s in a band that rehearses almost every day. And I have been singing again, this time with a 200-voice choir, and sometimes with a band my husband’s started. Not long ago I wrote a song for his band — the first song I’ve written in 30 years, ever since the last one I wrote for Hula and me to sing together. As I taught it to my husband, who plays bass, and Willie, the guitarist — who is also my student, a graduate student in the program that I run here at Ohio State — it occurred to me that Hula and I could sing this one too. I called her; I sang it to her over the phone.

I can fix a meatloaf
I can fix you a drink
I can fix the plumbing
Underneath the kitchen sink

When my mother visits me in Columbus now, I get Hula a ticket too. The three of us sit on my front porch together doing the Times crossword puzzle. Hula gets out the guitar and we sing the old songs — “Boy Crazy,” “Macho Woman,” “Baseball Love” — while my mother knits me a scarf. We’re working out a version of the song I wrote for my husband’s band. They’ll do “Can’t Fix You” as a raucous rock song, but when Hula and I sing it, it’ll be plaintive-sounding, bluesy folk rock.

I can change a diaper
I can change my hair
I can change that tire
If you have got a spare
I can change the channel
From The Good Wife to the news
I can change my mind, babe
But I can’t change you

I think about this: how this friendship started, and how it is that it endures, despite the changes over the years, and the differences between us. Honestly, there isn’t much we have in common, and during the years I was busy raising a child, there seemed to be nothing at all. Except for our shared history. Except for the sheer weight of the years we’d chalked up. In ways that went beyond “shared interests” or ordinary experience or even sympathy, we knew each other. We had claimed each other long ago.

Hula has lots of women friends in New York, friends she’s collected over the years. I envy her that. I have very few friends in Columbus. It gets harder and harder to make new friends as one gets older, and it’s particularly hard for a New Yorker marooned in the Midwest. The women I meet and like are either much younger — it’s their turn to be busy raising children (busy juggling work and children) or they’re single and preoccupied with dating (sometimes listening to them I am transported back 25 years) — or they’re closer to my age but in romantic second or third marriages, less interested in friendship than they might have been when they were ten years younger. Nobody has time for friendship.

But it’s not just a matter of geography, or of background, or of time. Or of my age. It’s hard to start over, from scratch. It’s hard to take that leap again, with someone new.

The kind of deep, abiding friendship that makes life more bearable than it would otherwise be is even more mysterious, I think, than love. The mysteries of physical attraction (“chemistry,” we call it, as if it really were a branch of science) are legion, desire sometimes descending so suddenly (between one blink of an eye and the next) or coming and going so unpredictably, unreasonably — in retrospect, if not in medias res — it can seem positively arbitrary. But desire at least marks a clear difference between one kind of relationship and another.

True love, we say, about the romances that matter most to us. I fell in love. About true friendship — that tug, that falling in, falling together, snapping into place — no one says I fell.

But I did — we did. And really it’s not so different from the falling in love that leads to marriage, to a long marriage that endures despite hardship and differences and periods when one might as well be living hundreds of miles away from each other.

You fall. And then you stay. TC mark

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