Thirteen is the feeling of your hands enveloped in the folds of your friend’s single bed on a Tuesday night, top to tail. You have to be up at 7 for school the next day, but morning feels imaginary. You stay up and up and up for stupid reasons or no reason at all. Every so often, one of you says we really should go to bed now, and there's a pause. But then, someone giggles, and the conversation begins again.
Thirteen is the age when ‘best friend’ becomes capitalised, made eternal: BFF. When you are very young, and someone tells you what you are, you believe them. You have the best legs, she tells you, but no boobs at all, and your sister is prettier. If you don't kiss someone soon, everyone will think you are a lesbian. Okay, you say. I guess that makes sense.
Fourteen is shared clothes, shared beds, shared toothbrushes, shared showers, shared rages and fantasies and whispered questions about sex. There are no boundaries between you. You are everything to each other, in all essential ways the same person. This is a time when life feels boring and time takes too long to get to the good stuff. You laugh so much with her in lessons your stomachs cramp and grown-ups begin saying things like I’d like you both to stay after school to think about your behaviour. You look nothing alike, but you're always together, and you have the same initials, so teachers mix you up, faltering between your two names until they remember. This makes you feel (gleefully) like you are the same person, like mischievous twins on the Disney Channel who can use your disguise to swap places, get revenge on your enemies and alter the course of events.
Fifteen is house parties that begin at 6pm and end when someone’s parents charge through the front door. Your world feels small but hers is big. She offers boys and friends and makeup and alcohol and late nights. Womanhood is a set of confusing rules that suddenly, without warning, you are meant to understand. She explains everything. When she speaks, her voice is slow and deep which means she is infinitely wise. She tells you to shave your snail trail and pluck your top lip because, she says, if you don't do these things, no boy will ever kiss you. Once she accepts you as her best friend, you are no longer the lonely quiet girl with no boobs who always has a cold, but part of a two-girl team who might not be cool, necessarily, or important, but at least you have a thing, you are best friends, never seen apart.
Sixteen is a holiday after your last exams. No parents, no rules, no curfew: the freedom is so much at once, too much at once. You stay out late in big clubs full of music you hate and people you don't know. None of you wants to be there, spending money you don't have on drinks you don't like, but you can get in, and so you do. It doesn't matter what happens inside. Entry is excitement enough. You know the end has come when she starts making lists in her head. You are meant to follow her into the club on the last night and you just - don't. You break ranks. Everything you do annoys her. I just think it's kind of rude to play on your phone during breakfast. We all noticed. The day you get back home you cry all day in bed. You send her one text: thank you for an amazing holiday. I had such a good time.xx
The female friendship is thicker than its male counterparts. It's made of blood not water. These early friendships are momentous: sketched-out prototypes for romantic love. Your whole world is contained inside her. But you expect the whole world from her in return. You want your Best Friend to be everything, and so they are doomed, from the off, to fall short. Jealousy on both sides colours the love.
And so. As Sir Isaac Newton once said, all that goes up must come down. Nothing that intense can be sustained forever. You feel the end coming like a small crack, a shift in the tectonic plates, before the slow rumble of an earthquake. The fight is inevitable but surprising at once. In your small sheltered life, a friendship breakup is a true, earth-shattering heartbreak. Weeks of long texts full of words like ‘betrayal’ and ‘disappointment’. Skipping lunch to avoid her, living off bags of crisps and Toblerone in a state of classroom self-exile. The hatred you now feel - directly proportional to the love - invades your brain. Your feelings harden and curdle like old milk.
I have had many nourishing, extraordinary female friendships in my life. But I have lost many friendships too. I feel the loss keenly - in my chest and in the back of my neck. The friendship breakups are a series of failures, a list of people I did not manage to keep. They are more painful than romantic breakups, in some ways, because they make less sense. Friendships are meant to be the common denominator in your life, the one consistent thing. They are not meant to go down in a blaze of glory with words you come to regret.
You do speak again. But the interactions are different now, colder, generically friendly. How are you? Oh that's good. Yeah the job’s going really well thanks! It's a nice team. I actually live in East London now. You still know everything about each other: the great insecurities and late-night agonies and aching regrets. But there’s no life to the words. You are just two people who once ate the world together and stayed up all night and laughed and felt everything, with nothing left to talk about. Your parents ask whatever happened to… and you can’t really say. You quickly change the subject.
But every now and then, you check up on her Facebook or LinkedIn and click around a little. You wonder how much she remembers. Then you go back to your life. But there’s still that tingle of curiosity about that that ex-Best Friend Forever, and the person they became, that will never quite leave you.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Jem Milton