I was a nervous eighteen year old. A particular blend of jock and dork, I spent the summers with my soccer team, winters playing basketball, and the rest of the school year with my head in a book. I was a girls’ girl, a ringleader and a goof in my comfortable circles. I lined up for the midnight release of Harry Potter books; I was obsessed with getting to Expert on Guitar Hero. But outside my safe little world, I was shy. Painfully so. University was a terrifying concept to me, being the new kid in a sea of new kids.
I arrived at the University of Toronto on the first day of frosh week 2008. Let’s set the scene: Lady Gaga had just dropped The Fame, “hipster” was a brand new term for cool kids, and Don Draper was living in his prime on AMC. Beyond the university walls the financial crisis was in full swing and the job market was crumbling. But inside, the party raged on. Kegs were tapped, Daft Punk was cranked, and I learned, quickly, to play my insecurity off as an untouchable aloofness.
I didn’t attend every frosh event, that would have come off too eager, too dorky and keen. And too close to who I really was. But there was a mini bus tour scheduled mid-week to show frosh around to the major buildings. The campus was large, impossibly dense and right downtown, and the map I received in my orientation package was intimidating, fraught with mysterious, labyrinthine buildings. So I decided to go along. When we cruised past the library, a massive structure, unforgiving and cold, I swallowed the lump rising in my throat. I wanted to go home.
The specifics of this next bit are murky, muddled by time, but what I do know is that the girl on the seat in front of me struck up a conversation. She turned around and introduced herself. Her name was Emma. She was eager for connection, for conversation and she told me she wanted to major in English Lit. I did too, I admitted, my guard still up.
Emma was from a sheltered, rather uncool girls school in Vancouver. She was an electric chatterbox and we got onto the topic of books we’d read over the summer. Natasha and Oryx and Crake. A mournful re-reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Did you read, she whispered, leaning forward, Twilight?
I myself crushed the trilogy in a matter of days. And with her I felt safe owning up to it. On we launched into a mutual defense of Twilight, of pop-culture-crap as revelatory of contemporary society. For instance, how the work normalized abuse. How vacuous Bella was how Edward preyed on her. He was the prototypical abuser, Emma said. Exactly, I said. Team Jacob, Emma said seriously. I nodded, Team Jacob.
After that we were inseparable. We went to parties together and met up in the quad before lunch. Confidence bloomed and classes began. We watched Buffy on the floor of Emma’s room with sushi spread out before us. With her by my side, meeting people was easier. She was the social butterfly, I her reserved sidekick. My world expanded and filled with new friends.
Alone I was still nervous. My insecurity morphed into something darker, something more like self-loathing. But Emma saw me through all of it, knocking on my door to check up on me when I didn’t come down for dinner. Suggesting we visit the park or the quad, or go window-shopping up on Bloor Street.
I hid from everyone but her. She was the first adult outside of my family to love me unconditionally. I didn’t understand it on my best of days. I was a loser, unlovable and doomed. But then she would call my res room phone and suggest something like an all night Sex and the City marathon and I would get a little boost. Feel a little better about myself.
Over the years, ours became a relationship of reciprocity, of give and take. But I can say with sincerity that in school I needed her more than she needed me. Emma propped me up and kept me going. She was my cheerleader, my biggest fan, my best listener and kindest critic.
When we graduated and faced the adult world it was with absolute uncertainty. What did we want to be? How were we supposed to get there? We both struggled in this phase, two capable young women seeking out their place out in a suddenly enormous post-grad world. But Emma took the lumps of it harder, and suddenly I was the one knocking on her apartment door, checking up with late night texts, suggesting fun, cheap activities to keep our heads above water while we struggled through internships, first jobs and breakups that seemed colossal, like we’d never love again.
On a difficult night when we were twenty-two, Emma was being hard on herself for a job that didn’t work out. We were sitting on my couch, curled up with copies of InStyle and Elle and I couldn’t believe she wasn’t being kinder to herself. She was Emma! She was spectacular in my eyes, capable and smart. And then something dawned on me.
What would you tell me if I was in your position? I said.
That you’re doing great, she said with a sniffle and then a weak smile.
We went back to our magazines, but it was the first of many personal breakthroughs. I’d never turned that logic on myself before but it after that night, it was inescapable. Being a best friend taught me how to be a partner, a trusted adviser and confidant, and most of all it taught me to treat myself with the same kindness I afford my closest friends. In the land of women, compassion rules supreme.
Emma and I have been friends for almost ten years now. I think we’ll treat ourselves to a nice dinner to celebrate. And we’ll be celebrating each other but also ourselves, how we’ve grown up, and learned to go easier on ourselves. To love ourselves like a best friend, like the girl hit if off with on the bus all those years ago.