It's my 53rd birthday, and M is on the phone, speaking in the voice of a persnickety old woman. "What do you know, it's your special day," she says with a fake-frail cackle. "Why, thank you for remembering," I reply, laughing. For years, M and I have celebrated each other's birthdays by calling and pretending to be the eccentric, brilliant acting teacher from a class we took at summer camp in 1974. That teacher probably died years ago—but this, of course, is part of the joke, which is apparently funny to no one but us.
From across the room, my husband looks up from his book. He knows who's on the phone. Or at least, he's narrowed it down to three people: M, pretending to be the ancient teacher; L, ever-sentimental; or E, offering wild stories about her world travels. They are my oldest friends, these three, our relationships dating to when I was 15, 17, and 21. When I talk to any of them, I lose the default anxiety that's crept in as I've gotten older and morph into someone relaxed and energetic and free. Just minutes earlier I was dully regaling my husband with an anecdote about a health insurance claim. Now, on the phone with M, I sound like I've been blessed with a stay of execution or a deep-tissue massage.
What these old friends give me, and what I hope I give them, is not only unconditional love but a portal back into a previous way of being in the world. Middle age offers its share of wisdom and laurels-resting, but it can also feel like one long loop of mammograms and parent-teacher conferences. These three knew me before I was a mother, a novelist, someone who takes calcium. They still remember the sarcastic goofball who spouted J.D. Salinger lines and, when L was going off to college, sent her a letter from her "future roommate." ("I love to listen to Donny Osmond ALL DAY!!!" I wrote.) I was silly and sometimes a little ridiculous, but always a fierce and faithful friend.
By remembering that person, M, L and E allow me to become her again—to recapture some of her unalloyed joy and spontaneity (even if I could do without her unrelenting energy). With them I may as well be wearing a Huk-A-Poo blouse; my mood brightens and my voice lightens. And tonight, when I lie down to sleep, the unpaid insurance claim will be banished from my brain, replaced with the kinds of thoughts I used to have at night: how there's so much I want to do, and all the time in the world to do it.
Talking to M, I'm someone who amuses not only myself and her but also my husband. When he and I first fell in love, we lamented the fact that we hadn't met when we were younger. My old friends give him a chance to see the girl I was more vividly than I'm able to describe her. She's still here. He married her, he lives with her. She's me.