The so-called Golden Girls of Prospect Cemetery are four women, immigrants who came to Canada from villages along the Carpathian Mountains. They supported each other through the hardships of their adopted home, including children, dead husbands, xenophobia, and the Great Depression. When it came time to plan for the end of their lives, they told their families they had it figured out: They bought a cemetery plot with room for the four of them, side-by-side. Annie, Pauline, Anna, and Nellie are all laid to rest under a single pink granite tombstone marked FRIENDS.
This story was the first time I’d heard of friends sharing a burial plot, but it immediately made sense to me. It made sense that the most meaningful relationships of these women’s lives would be with the people who shared their experiences as women, immigrants, wives, and mothers. Why be buried next to a man who died decades before you? Might as well spend eternity, whatever it is, with your friends.
I worry that I may have missed my chance to make these kinds of friends, the kind who would continuously and undeniably announce to the world that we are best friends forever. And if that’s the case, I blame it on the fact that for the last 20 years, I have been singularly focused on locating a boyfriend.
For years, I asked my friends to set me up. I joined dating sites. I swiped. I kept my boyfriend radar on at weddings, parties, and even during jury duty, where I once met someone I would go on to date for over a year.
I always knew I wanted a boyfriend, but I never knew exactly why. On the occasions I did accomplish my goal, I found that it took approximately three months for me to feel trapped and bored by the arrangement. When it came down to it, I found that I consistently didn’t want the thing I had organized my life around achieving. But I persisted, pursuing one new relationship after another with the selective amnesia of a person who is sure the next time will be different.
I attended an all-girls high school where boys were such a rarity that I began to covet them like a scarce resource. Female friendships were in such abundant supply that I took them for granted. Even after I entered a co-ed college where boys were more available, I still lived in a women’s dorm that felt like an extension of my high school experience.
Growing up, I don’t remember female friendships being glamorized or even featured in the media the way romantic relationships were. Only in recent years have I started to notice authentic, lifelike female relationships on TV: Leslie and Ann on Parks and Recreation; Hannah and Marnie on Girls; and Ilana and Abbi on Broad City, to name a few. Shows like these depict the highs and lows of having a BFF, but they didn’t make their way into my psyche as a suggestible pre-teen. Instead, I watched every episode of Seinfeld, a show that revolved around one man: Jerry. Jerry had one female friend: Elaine. Elaine had boyfriends, a job, and what seemed to be tangential relationships with Jerry’s other friends, Kramer and George. To my recollection, Elaine had no other friends.
Even shows that featured multiple female characters seemed to make the friendships of women a side plot. For example, Friends was mostly about the mechanisms of a large, mixed-gender friend group. It was also as much about the romantic potential between the individual members as it was about the real friendships between them. Even 30 Rock, a show I followed during my twenties, doesn’t depict a single realistic female friendship despite having a strong female lead (and creator). Liz’s closest friend is Jack, and this is the relationship explored with the most depth and heart. The relationship between Liz and Jenna, Liz’s “closest female friend,” is cartoonish; the show’s view seems to be that Jenna is too over-the-top and absurd to even have normal human interactions, so their friendship is often depicted as a zany B-plot.
As a junior in college, I lived with my best friend in an apartment off campus. We were both unemployed and consistently managed to sleep through all our morning classes. One semester, our grades were forecasted to be so abysmal that my roommate just dropped out of school entirely. I withdrew from all my classes except the one I was still passing. (On the bright side, I ended up with a 4.0 that semester.) We were poor and depressed but we were also both boyfriend-less — and this was the matter of true concern.
On weekday nights, instead of studying, my roommate and I would stay up late, get high, and eat Taco Bell. Then we discussed the issue of our non-existent boyfriends. We discussed where we could meet one. We discussed the boys we already knew and considered whether they were potential boyfriends and we had simply failed to notice. We discussed why this pursuit had consumed us, even though we were both teetering on the edge of financial and academic ruin.
“I think I just want someone to hang out with,” I announced.
I’m not sure what my roommate thought of this explanation, given that I was basically admitting to wanting to find her replacement. Maybe she felt the same way about me. Maybe she wanted to trade me in for something a little more like a boyfriend.
But my roommate and I had a lot of fun together. We fought a lot, but we also took care of each other. We gave each other rides, cooked for each other, and made sure we got into bed at the end of a long night of partying. We shared books, records, and clothes. We gossiped about our mutual friends and we were on each other’s side if those friends betrayed us. We took road trips at a moment’s notice. We told each other when we were acting absolutely batshit fucking crazy (which was often).
What 20-year-old boy could’ve possibly replaced us?
Pursuing romance over friendship has always seemed safer to me because I felt I understood my interactions with men better than my interactions with women. I understood what men got out of it. I understood what the end goal was and what their motivations were. The end goal, and the motivations, were sex. (In fact, and this is difficult to admit, some of my friendships with men have begun under an often-unfounded supposition that they were trying to have sex with me.) To me, all the necessary rituals that come before are simply in the service of this eventual goal: exchanging numbers, texting, making plans, exposing vulnerability.
Relationships with friends are more complicated. What is a potential friend’s end goal? What are her motivations? Does she want to settle into a comfortable, supportive friendship? This seems like such a nebulous goal. Without a biological human need coaxing us together, how and when do we get there?
Unlike the thrill of getting to know someone new in a romantic context, I find the getting-to-know-you period of a new friendship fraught with anxiety. I’ve been rejected by men who met someone else, or men who just wanted to keep looking for a better candidate to fill their single available girlfriend slot. This kind of rejection hurts but it’s the nature of (monogamous) dating, and almost everyone has experienced it to some extent. But being rejected by a possible friend means you were so undesirable that you couldn’t fill even one of their infinite friend slots.
People seem to understand the innate human need to find a single life partner, but needing a diverse group of funny and cool friends that understand you seems less like a biological or psychological imperative. When you put yourself “out there” for love, it’s understandable, even laudable. You’re just fulfilling a biological need that most people have, or maybe you just don’t want to die alone. Maybe you’re also looking to merge your assets with the assets of another person. If you’re so inclined, you might even be ensuring the survival of the human race by finding a co-parent for a cute little mini-you. (As an added benefit, that mini-you can also prevent you from dying alone.)
There’s a roadmap for establishing a nascent romantic relationship that doesn’t seem to exist for prospective friendships. There is a never-ending parade of apps and sites devoted to finding a romantic or sexual partner and an infinite trove of advice on how to best approach your quest. Friendships, by contrast, are supposed to just happen to you. From the outside, friendships seem effortless; you’re expected to continue encountering a person, by chance or by proximity, until you finally feel comfortable asking them to meet you for brunch.
In my experience, putting yourself out there for a potential friend feels a bit tragic. By the time I hit my thirties, it felt like every other functioning adult woman on the planet was already surrounded by a group of kindred spirits they’d been collecting since kindergarten. How could I possibly attempt to infiltrate the group and befriend even one of them? Would my rejection be on full display to the entire group if I failed? Why am I still on this quest? Is it just me?
Now that I’m firmly, undeniably in my thirties, I’ve finally stopped coveting romantic relationships. I look back at my long string of entanglements with men and think that I could’ve done without a lot of them. Very few of them are people I’d want to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip with, or people I’d believe when they point out that I’ve assumed the form of batshit crazy again. Exactly zero of them are people I’d consider sharing a burial plot with.
I haven’t spent years cultivating female friendships and I regret this terribly. I’ve spent the prime friend-making years of my teens and twenties focused on my search for a boyfriend. Female friendships have still come my way, of course, and some have endured. But I have never given the same time and effort to meeting other women as I gave to finding a boyfriend. I’ve never walked up to a woman at a party and said I liked her hair. I’ve never asked a friend if they know any cool ladies they think I’d hit it off with. I’ve never left a lively conversation with a female stranger and then immediately started plotting how I could run into her again.
I do have some great female friends and it’s because they pursued me, not the other way around. My personal trainer asked for my phone number when I quit her gym. My coworker invited me to every party she threw until I finally started showing up. A friend of a friend started texting to make solo plans with me until we were officially just friends on our own.
I am so grateful to these women for picking me out and insisting that we connect despite what must have been an aura of aloofness on my part. They didn’t let the fear of seeming like a tragic, lonely spinster (but for friends) get in their way; they just put themselves out there because why not? We could all use more friends. Life is hard and we’re all going to die. Let’s make sure we’re not doing it alone.