Friendships seemed so easy for Lola, far easier than they ever had for me. From the first morning I pried her from my leg at the kindergarten door, there were girlfriends waiting, fluttering flocks of tulle. She was one of the lucky ones, invited to all the parties, even crossing the barriers between grades. Unable to winnow down the list for her first sleepover, we filled two bedrooms. When they were old enough, they’d knock at our door after dinner, asking if she could come out for one last play. Until they didn’t.
After Lola’s ninth birthday party, at which eight of her closest friends fought to sit next to her, I started to hear about kinks in the social structure. Recess games would start without her and disband the moment she asked to join in. A “Voice” competition turned out to be a ploy to get her to sing and mock her. My trail-blazing girl began to disappear. Where she once ran ahead into the schoolyard, smack into a scrum of mates, she’d stick by me until the bell rang. After school she’d disappear into a corner of her sister’s bed and lose herself in a book; at bedtime, no longer able to contain her grief, she’d convulse with tears. Even her style changed: Who was this girlie girl in her new armour of grey?
Then, the day before summer break, I picked her up from a rowdy after-school gathering in the park that seemed to have gone brilliantly. I thought (or rather hoped) a change was in the air. As Lola collected her things, I turned to the remaining girls, murmuring to one another in a tight huddle. “Will we see any of you over the summer?” They looked at one another and then they looked down. Nobody, it appeared, wanted to hazard a yes.
It had not gone brilliantly. Lola cried the whole way home and through the evening, articulating, between sobs, just how those girls made her feel: “like a tiny speck of dirt.” Later, as I watched my bedside clock cycle through the wee hours, I fantasized about exacting revenge on them, their parents, their siblings, their pets—as much for Lola as for my younger self. I stewed over all the girls who’d teased me or ignored me, who still do, in their way, even as adults. Friendship among women is an intense and baffling affair whatever your age. But my mom couldn’t have protected me, and I couldn’t protect Lola. A kid has to figure out these things on her own.
Her salvation came from an unlikely source, for someone once so committed to girlishness: boys. Our schedule was full of them. My nephews came to stay, followed by an out-of-town friend and her son. Meanwhile, Lola started a weekly course with a boy from her class. With none of her regular gang around to distract her, Lola discovered the simpler, more immediate joys of boy play.
There was a time when she would have avoided the opposite sex like head lice. And here she was, insinuating herself into their world, filming scary videos, performing slimy science experiments, hitting balls with sticks, making fart jokes. It wasn’t as if she’d made a conscious choice to cross the gender aisle. She didn’t stop her incessant cartwheeling or reading of mermaid books. She even dipped back into her flouncy skirts and jewellery. Like many great liaisons, she and her male cohorts simply found themselves in the right place at the right, carefree time.
As the coterie of girlfriends at our door tapered off, the neighbourhood boys picked up the slack. Lola seemed taller as she marched around, straying a bit further from the front yard than usual. At swimming, after months of hesitation, she learned to dive. Her familiar spark returned.
She still had her moments. Her hugs were frequent, and she held me longer and tighter. She joined me on mundane errands, hurrying to catch up and clutching my hand. She still suffered from a girl-shaped void inside her, craved a loyal and trusted girlfriend. Right now, that girlfriend is me. This I can accept, because one day the dependency—the interdependency—will end. Back at school, the wounds are slowly healing. She’s returned to her gang, however half-heartedly. Yet she’s found a broader way to define and express herself, which leans less on puerile hierarchies and more on the special skills she acquired when she didn’t feel held back. Boys gave her what the girls took away.
In the months and years to come, I anticipate my position becoming less important, as I’m gradually relegated to the sidelines, from which I’ll cheer her on, no longer a main player. For now, though, I’ll trust in her wingmen.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2016 issue, titled “Let’s hear it for the boys,” pg. 40.