Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Mary Ruefle, “Dear Friends” (memoir) from Sewanee Review, Winter 2021

I would rather write about friends than relations. Relations—parents, children, siblings, spouses—exist within a grid of social conceptions and expectations that have evolved over centuries, and though we may fail in these relations, though we may let the preconceived down, nowhere in these relations do I find the sheer unexpected variety that friendship offers, for no two friendships are based on the same thing, the bond between two friends has no other explanation other than itself.

I know Mary Ruefle – as much as I know her, which isn’t much – as a poet, based on two poems I’ve encountered in prior Pushcarts. Both have a tendency to roll in a variety of directions based on the last words encountered. This memoir – the term Pushcart has used to subcategorize it in non-fiction – is more focused on the topic of friends. It is in fact something of a catalogue poem, in which Ruefle demonstrates the wide variation of friendships by listing the characteristics of various friendships she’s had or has, using for the most part the rhetorical structure of anaphora: “I have a friend” or “I had a friend” begins most of the paragraphs.

Some of these descriptions of friendship are very short:

….I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written. I love being with her.
….I have a friend who is not a person I could ever be, even if I tried, nor would I want to be, and I love being with her.
….I have a friend who wishes that she were not a human animal, but an animal with fur. A cat, fox, dog, or rabbit. This disturbs me so much I love her even more.
….I have a friend I have never met; I am pretty sure we will meet next year.
….I had a friend I loved for twenty-five years, and then the earth opened between us, and now we have not spoken in twenty-five years. But nearly every week I dream of her so there is this sense, for me at least, that we still know and love each other, but only late in the night behind closed eyes.

Most are a lot longer:

I had a friend who peeled an orange in public for the first time when she was seventeen. I do not remember the first time I peeled an orange, but it was probably in front of another. Do any of us remember such an act, such a little act lost in so many other acts performed for the first time as children? My friend’s mother was cultivated to the point of exoticism, and at the same time conservative and strict; at least that is how I remember her. She taught her daughter that to peel an orange, or any other fruit, in the presence of another person, was perverse; you might as well undress in front of them. Fruit was peeled in the kitchen by servants and served naked on a plate with a little knife to the side. The logic of this is itself perverse—do not undress in public but appear there naked—but as a result of such logic my friend was apprehensive when I unpacked our lunch one sunny afternoon, spreading a blue napkin on the stone steps of a cathedral; we were two teenagers having an outing in the city, an adventure, and I had thought to bring a picnic. Hence two unpeeled oranges appeared on the napkin, and I watched my friend’s face color as she told me the rules regarding oranges. I insisted that people did it all the time, no one would notice, not a head would turn if she ventured to try. Never before or since have I seen someone peel an orange with such exquisite delicacy. She took off the skin as if it were covered with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, and her hands trembled every time a piece of skin came off and fell away like a little continent set adrift, revealing the flesh inside, which was sometimes translucent and bright and bursting with moisture, and at other times covered by a thin white cottony undergarment. And that was that, we ate our oranges in public as carelessly as any two girls, none of the passersby noticed anything historical, and years later when I ran into my old friend, and recalled that afternoon in the sun, she told me she has hated oranges and never ate them, her mother was dead, and she had no memory of any picnic on the steps of a church.

This memoir was apparently inspired by a comment made by a Facebook COO (I’m guessing Sheryl Sandberg) indicating she had three thousand friends, most of whom she doesn’t know but has met “in one shape or form.” That sounds like Facebook “friends” and is a great indicator of how a term in different contexts can mean very different things. I think it’s less of an indicator of the decline of friendship and more an indicator of the kidnapping of language by corporations wishing to increase their reach via the emotional content of language.

That said, the term “friend” has always been a bit malleable. Some people consider everyone whose name they know to be friends. Others distinguish between acquaintances and friends. I once insulted someone because I referred to her as an acquaintance when she felt she was a friend. I once enjoyed a woman’s company on a couple of occasions – a shopping trip, a casual dinner – and thought we were becoming friends only to be told she couldn’t be friends with me because she was one of Jehovah’s Witness and would miss me too much when she went to heaven for all of eternity and I didn’t.

I have an online friend who is right now probably my closest confidant, though we’ve never met and most likely never will. There are other people I follow online and consider to be great sources of inspiration in various ways, but I wouldn’t consider them friends; I’m very careful not to make a pest of myself, knowing I could lose access to them that way. In the same way home is where they have to take you in when you show up, a friend is someone who is always happy to hear from you. I’m not sure I have a home at this point. But I have a couple of friends, at least.

I noticed, while thinking about this memoir, that Ruefle is now seventy years old. That’s interesting. I’ve always thought of her as very young. She is of course much too famous and busy doing artistic things, and I am the most uninteresting of people, but this essay made me almost wish we were friends. I wonder – with some trepidation – how she would characterize that.

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