By A.J. Lowe
“Hello, you’ve reached 617-776-1008. Please leave a message for the goddess of your choice,” a woman’s voice sweetly purred.
Natalie had recorded that as the outgoing message on our voicemail when the phone service was set up in the new apartment we’d gotten together.
“Wow, I’d love to speak to one of the goddesses!” a young man’s voice said in the first message we received. “This is Brian from Verizon calling to make sure your service is working properly. Have a fantastic day.” Brian sounded very excited to be leaving us a message.
Natalie and I shrieked with laughter, and I felt my heart lurch with a thrill as I looked around the inside of our halfway-furnished apartment flooded with daylight. It was the fall of 1992. I’d managed to save a thousand dollars or two, and was able to take a week off from work while we shopped at every furniture store on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge to set up house together. We joked about the predictable-sounding names of all the stores, like Bowl and Board, The Door Store, Crate and Barrel, and The Furniture Cellar, and started creating our own hybrid names for them, like “Bowls and Doors,” and so forth.
Whenever we ran into the hordes of acquaintances from Wesleyan University who’d also migrated to the area, and they heard we were moving in together, their most common remark was: “Oh! Are you two a couple?”
“Nope,” I answered multiple times. No one had asked us that before we became roommates, and we hadn’t said or done anything else to imply that we were in a romantic relationship. I was 22 and Natalie was 25, and this was the first real home either of us would have with all of our own belongings. Why not buy real furniture, treat ourselves like adults, and create the house of our youthful dreams? We split the cost of a beautiful Shaker dining table and chairs, throw rugs and bookcases, and a Southwestern-patterned futon cover, and covered the walls with a sun-and-stars tapestry and posters with actual frames from New Words, the local feminist bookstore.
To be honest, it was like a honeymoon. Natalie lived on savings and set about figuring out what to do with her life while volunteering at the food co-op, cooking macrobiotic meals three times a day, and meditating or going to Healthworks women’s gym in between. I benefitted from her health obsessions and got to eat the great food that she cooked while launching my career at an advertising photography studio, getting cozier in my relationship with my boyfriend Eric, and baking lasagnas and elaborate desserts. We kept the house pristine to start with, so it took a while for me to notice that her three homemade meals a day weren’t followed up with dishes being washed or the rest of the house being kept in order.
“Why aren’t you washing the dishes after you cook?” I said one day, annoyed. “It seems like things are a mess all day long lately. I feel like you’re not taking care of the house, and I can’t do all of it for both of us.” I felt myself getting surprisingly and horribly upset for some reason.
“Sorry,” Natalie replied. “I figured that if I’m going to be cooking again in a few hours anyway, it doesn’t make sense to clean up and put everything away each time. I can work on changing that if you want.”
We had so much in common that after a while I started to feel smothered by our togetherness and found that I couldn’t stand it. When she first moved to town, I’d invited Natalie to most of the activities I was involved in, or it felt that way. Then she took up an extremely cool-sounding dance form that I was dying to try out—but since she got involved with it first, I didn’t want to tag along. I told her I didn’t want to do everything together and she gave me more space, but now I was feeling jealous that she spent so much time with her new friends in the hip dance scene, which I felt weirdly competitive about.
Each of us had been raised as an only child, although this technically wasn’t the case since we both had siblings who were tragically missing from the home, for different reasons. Maybe this was what it was like to have a sister (and to behave like a five-year-old, in my case anyway).
Natalie and I had first forged our friendship in our late teens and early twenties. At the time, our three-year age difference was enough for me to perceive her as having a certain authority in our relationship, plus there was the fact that she was intensely worldly and sophisticated, even by the standards of the elite college where we met. You couldn’t tell that by looking at her, as she was a beautiful but sloppy hippie who didn’t always brush her hair or bother to fix rips in her clothes. But she’d grown up in one of the world’s fanciest enclaves, with President Reagan as her neighbor, and had visited every habitable continent by the time she was a teenager (which wasn’t a common pastime for other people before airline deregulation in the 1970s). Her wall hangings and statues of Hindu gods came from actual travels to hidden ashrams in India, and she kept a serious altar that didn’t fail to make an impression on visitors to our house. Natalie wasn’t flashy, but she was intense and could often be self-righteous about her political and spiritual beliefs. I felt a special closeness between us, admired her and was intimidated all at the same time, and that set the course of our friendship.
It only took a few months before I decided I wanted to move out from the apartment, and from what I perceived as being under Natalie’s shadow. There wasn’t time for much of a conversation about it, because I brought it up right before she was about to leave on a pilgrimage to India again for six weeks. I saw how overwhelmed she was by the stress of making international travel plans, figuring out scheduling, lodging, transportation as well as how much money to spend and which other people this was all going to affect. When she paused for a brief moment in the midst of her packing, I made my announcement.
“I probably won’t be living here when you get back,” I said.
“If that’s how you feel, I’ll understand,” Natalie said. “There are other ways to work out differences, though, than moving out.”
Miraculously, something reset itself in me during our six weeks apart. The pressure of spending every minute together lifted. Calling the ashram in India wasn’t really feasible, so we didn’t even talk on the phone. It felt like starting over when she got home. I hadn’t made a conscious effort to figure out how to behave better, but some part of me must have been willing to accept what she’d said before she left for the trip—that there was another way to work things out.
My relationships with Natalie and Eric had something in common: I loved each of them deeply, and at that time, they both had better communication skills than I did. Basking in the glow of their healthier emotional functioning allowed mine to take root and blossom, too. I was less tense by the time Natalie got back, and I let my guard down again with her. Creating some space in our friendship so that I didn’t feel smothered had been as simple as asking her for it. She got better at washing the dishes on a regular basis, even if they sometimes had bits of food still stuck on them and weren’t exactly sparkling.
And maybe the fact that I’d adopted her habit of crying freely at home, when it was needed, allowed me to get more comfortable with being vulnerable and allowed her to offer me compassion that I badly needed. Natalie had good enough emotional skills, but she was also kind of self-absorbed and hadn’t known what I needed at first. I didn’t have skills or know what I needed myself, but I started to develop some of them around her.
We sort of formed an alternative family unit, Natalie, Eric and I, although I wouldn’t have called it that. I started hearing about the idea of a chosen family, both from the New Age/self-help community which contrasted it with one’s “family of origin,” and from the queer community which seemed to view it as a good idea. The more I heard the phrase “chosen family” over the next several years, though, the more I hated it.
True: when I was in my simultaneous, close relationships with Natalie and Eric, there were moments that I felt ecstatic about our configuration. Instead of me eating frozen pizza from Store 24 alone on Christmas, the three of us would cook and laugh together, or I’d get taken to a beautiful restaurant by Eric’s closest relatives.
Natalie flew me as her guest to her father’s seventieth birthday party at a four-star hotel in San Juan. When I was between jobs and panicking one summer, she wrote me a check for three thousand dollars.
She remembered meeting my father only once a few years earlier, when he yelled at her for casually saying the word shit in front of him. Even decades later, her memory of that day was one of being “terrified” of him.
Well, I’d lived with him like that my entire life. When I talked about my parents to her, I couldn’t express myself coherently. It was too painful to go into detail about how they’d called me ugly and a pervert, and to recall the screaming matches in which Daddy easily reduced me to tears, or the fact that Mom hadn’t been willing to look me in the eye for two and a half years after I cut my hair short. I told Natalie bits and pieces of the story in a way that I’m sure was barely intelligible.
Mostly she watched me cry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t sympathize before,” she finally said to me one evening. I was in the bathtub with the lights off, and she was curled up in a blanket on the floor while we talked. “I just couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to talk to her parents while they were alive and it was still possible, considering that my own mother died without warning when I was seven.
“But I can understand now,” she continued.
“Thanks,” I mumbled and smiled weakly. It all just hurt so much.
It hadn’t been my choice to be rejected by my family at seventeen, and to have to rely on non-blood relatives for many years. I didn’t see it as a positive thing. For me it was haphazard at first—even when I did have friends I could turn to for the purposes that one turns to family, it didn’t feel like I deliberately made these choices.
It took me a couple more decades to take the perspective that choosing one’s family could actually be a form of agency, and therefore a positive thing. What I’ve come to realize much later in life is that having a chosen family means you learn to distinguish who you can trust in life to meet your needs in a healthy way. This goes beyond being willing to turn to friends—it means developing the skills to be able to identify who’s trustworthy, especially if you didn’t learn those skills growing up.
Nowadays, I think about how I really want to pass along the knowledge to my young daughter of the important role friends-as-chosen-family can play. Especially since my family was fractured by estrangement for multiple generations, I won’t have much blood family to give her. I want her to know it’s okay to rely on friends, to allow people to provide emotional and other types of support. I want her to know that she has enough intelligence to identify who those trustworthy people are.
It’s one of the most important lessons I hope to teach her.
A.J. Lowe is a writer at work on her second book, which this essay is excerpted from, and which addresses bisexual identity. She lives in Massachusetts, where she joined Boston Bisexual Women’s Network and first published articles in this publication over 20 years ago. She is a women’s healthcare worker and activist, a caretaker for her now-elderly mother, and an avid Latin dancer. She and her daughter still get together at Christmas with her friend Natalie, who lives with her own family in the southwestern U.S.