I have an unlikely best friend. Most of my friends are very much like me. We misspent out youth in an array of anti-social and vaguely creepy manners. We have long and tortuous histories with sex, drugs and/or rock ‘n roll. We fucked at least a handful of strangers and at least one of them was most likely a stranger of our own biological sex. We flopped about aimlessly in various professional pursuits, and only after throwing many fistfuls of mud at the wall did we finally find something that stuck in an artistically arresting position. When young, we stole stuff, and though we’ve given up the practice the thought remains. We vote Democrat, reflexively. We are not always kind to strangers. We tip overly well because we worked in the service industry. We distrust the mechanisms of culture: marriage, religion, corporations, suburban housing developments and their lawns. We’re the ones voted “Class Weirdo” at graduation, if we bothered to formally graduate at all.
Standing apart from my usual band of miscreants, malcontents, low-level addicts, and tattooed love children is my friend Elizabeth.
Unlike me, Elizabeth is a virgin; she waits for marriage. Unlike me, Elizabeth is a devout Catholic. I am, in contrast, devoutly catholic, especially in my musical tastes. Unlike me, Elizabeth matches her clothes to her jewelry and her shoes to her clothes and her bag to her shoes. I don’t invest much in matching anything, almost ever. Unlike me, Elizabeth doesn’t go outside her house without a full face of make-up. She carefully does her hair, every day. When she drops an expletive, Elizabeth looks pained. She sleeps in a single bed, narrow as a novitiate’s hips, sheets tight as a hymen.
Unlike me, Elizabeth is the very definition of conservative. She is a Republican, a serious and white-knuckled Republican, though as Elizabeth is an intellectual, she is not a Bill O’Reilly knee-jerk Republican. She is pro-life but, paradoxically, she initially supported Bush’s Iraq war. The war has since lost its luster for Elizabeth, which says a lot about the extreme badness of the war and not so much about her. She very much votes, thinks, and acts as the Pope tells her to. For her, section 2352 of the Catechism, the one that states that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” is gospel. This is a woman who may have moved away from her Midwestern home but stalwartly will not adopt even the gentlest of Gotham's sybaritic values.
Which is all to suggest exactly how different my friend and I are. People who know us both, if separately, puzzle over our friendship. We would seem to have little but a right to trial by jury in common. And yet.
Bonding first over a boring lecture and a piece of gum, which I offered to Elizabeth because I dimly recalled that when you take out a treat you’re supposed to offer some to the person sitting next to you, Elizabeth and I learned that we shared a love of eighteenth-century literature and celebrity culture. We also, it turned out, enjoyed the sensibility of Wes Anderson, good coffee, sarcasm and lip gloss. It was enough to tenderly launch a fledgling relationship, one that has grown over the past ten years.
As close as we got, I retained the need to cushion Elizabeth from the torrid blows of my sexual life. I found myself euphemizing and downsizing, calling what was a full-blown raunchy sexcapade “casual dating” and the like. For years I kept Elizabeth swaddled in a soft cocoon about my past, and for years I nimbly sidestepped related myriad political landmines like abortion, gay marriage and John Ashcroft. And over time, my deference to what I saw as Elizabeth’s tender conservative sensibilities began to wear on me. Our friendship began to take on a hollow ring, like the tolling of a plastic bell, and I began to feel inauthentic. I felt dirty.
One afternoon, just any afternoon, no special day, Elizabeth and I were sitting on my couch, talking. The conversation had swerved of its own accord ever closer to politics, ever nearer to abortion. Maybe it was the climate—the air was thick with the presidential nominee process—or maybe my unconscious had moved its ethereal hand, but sitting on my couch about a year ago, I told Elizabeth I’d had seven abortions.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a lot.” I agreed. It is a lot.
I inhaled, and I decided it was time to take one for the home team. I narrated a stark, thumbnail version of the seven. I told her how my repeated pattern of sex, pregnancy and abortion was inextricable from my depression, my problems with self-worth, and my mother’s lamentably bad parenting. Elizabeth listened. She didn’t rail, or condemn, or look revolted. At the end of my story, she said something comforting; I don’t remember what. And eventually we rather comfortably segued into some other, less emotionally volcanic topic.
Since then, our friendship has grown. I’ve come to see my friend as a person who has her own guiding principles to which she’s fiercely attached, but I’ve also realized that she doesn’t judge me for my choices (though she does pray for me—regularly). Elizabeth loves me unconditionally, which is pretty swell, and I her. Having had that one extraordinarily difficult conversation, we have granted ourselves the freedom to discuss politics of every order. We are free to disagree. It’s really rather lovely. I do still edit some details of my vagaries, but it’s more like leaving sprinkles off the cupcake. I no longer hold back the cupcake.
I like to think that I’ve put a friendly face on abortion for Elizabeth (I also like to think that I’ve humanized sex workers, sexual liberation, and Progressive Democrats). But she’s given me something even greater. Once I put down the cumbersome burden of coddling her from my actions and gave Elizabeth a story of my stark past, I also relieved myself of a hefty weight of ambivalence. Around Elizabeth, I felt a hydra of shame and defiance—shame from the way I imagined Elizabeth would react if she knew the truth, and defiance because I wanted nothing more than to tell her and shock her out of her perceived self-satisfied and ignorant stance. Things between Elizabeth and me are a lot lighter now, and we can tackle the weightiest of subjects.
I was raised in a world where everyone who thought as I did was right (if Left), and everyone who didn’t was wrong (if Right). Elizabeth was raised likewise, if in polar opposite. I thank my friend for helping me realize that it’s not a matter of Left or Right; it’s a matter of being brave enough to speak your beliefs, of being confident enough to not feel threatened, of being kind enough to listen, and of being courageous enough to love. That and having a steady supply of gum and celebrity gossip.