Written by Priscilla Thomas.
Art by Cierra Bamisaye.
Lately, I’m asking more of the people close to me. It’s uncomfortable, requesting what I want, especially of friends. The thought of telling a friend how to treat me, or asking about their needs, seems clumsy. Shouldn’t I know? Shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t good friends be able to tell each other anything?
When I was nine years old, I went to a birthday party and surrounded myself with classmates who didn’t want to be my friends. It was nearly summer and Lisa W. was having a backyard party – tiki torches and a firepit for s’mores and the kids in a circle, playing an adult-coordinated game of “Truth or Dare.”
“Tell a deep, dark secret,” Lisa’s mother read off the card she’d drawn for me. The flickering light gleamed on the glossy hair of my classmates, their shiny, smirking mouths, while I stood “umming” in panic with a chest full of skeletons I couldn’t unearth.
I held no secrets that I could reveal through blushes and giggles with Lisa’s birthday cake waiting in the kitchen. The abuse and violence of my homelife drowned out the ordinary. I pressed my empty hands together. I thought that friendship required this, this knowing and keeping. From television and movies and interactions I observed from a distance – threaded fingers and bent-head whispers, the languid smiles and side-long eyes of a shared secret – I gathered that intimate details were the currency of friendships and that I would never be able to afford much.
I didn’t believe that I could trust anyone with the truth about my family and the abuse that shaped my interactions. I didn’t realize I had another choice: to trust people with my boundaries.
The distance widened as I grew older. The messages I absorbed about friendships were not unlike pop culture mythologies of romance: a true friend was that one person you could pour out your heart to, the person who would drop everything to be with you. Caught between tell them everything or tell them nothing, I didn’t believe that I could trust anyone with the truth about my family and the abuse that shaped my interactions. I didn’t realize I had another choice: to trust people with my boundaries. Instead, I tried to compensate for my inability to share by being the person who could hold other people’s pain and secrets. I knew about carving out my insides to serve as a vessel, about presenting a curation of fragments in lieu of a whole self. It took me a long time to realize that the people I wanted around weren’t after a friend in pieces. And those who were fine with me butchering myself into consumable parts were never going to be who I needed.
I started using my words because I was affecting the people I cared about. I had learned to rely on silence and the assumption that others didn’t really care about me to move people along, but I found myself with people who wanted me around. They stood helpless at the walls encasing me and their frustration and concern, their gentle insistence that I meet them where I could, led me forward. Growing up with no autonomy over my body, no voice in how I was spoken to or what was expected of me, I was unprepared for how satisfying it would feel to be heard.
I never feel more cared for than when someone who cares for me asks for my boundaries or when my requests are received and respected.
Now, I’m asking for what I want and starting conversations with requests for what I need and clarity on what I don’t. Before I unleash a torrent of venting or ask for help, I’m checking in to see if my friend is open to it. It seems contradictory to the idea of a close friend, but I never feel more cared for than when someone who cares for me asks for my boundaries or when my requests are received and respected.
Just like consent is sexy even with a longtime partner – the lovely tension that precedes and follows a, “Can I…here?” or, “Do you want me to…?” and the tingly rush that comes with a yes, even more so with a, “No…do this instead” – consent in a friendship makes us feel closer, more present, and more meaningful to each other. There is care nestled in the asking, that gentle reminder of control, and of space, and of the choices we have made to be and stay together.
“Do you want to talk about this?” and “What do you need?”
“Are you looking for advice or do you need to vent right now?” and “What have you tried already? Do you want some more ideas?”
“Can I share this with you?” “Do you have the time/brain space for…?”
Every opportunity to accept or refuse and be met with love and respect is healing.
Each one is an acknowledgement that my friends and I are whole beings with buckets that can overfill and ropes that end. Every opportunity to accept or refuse and be met with love and respect is healing.
From my family, I learned that communication causes conflict. That’s led to an inability to express needs, limits, or any of those “difficult” emotions that might mildly inconvenience someone else. Now, I’m relearning communication and understanding that talking about boundaries is an act of love and trust that I was long denied.
Sometimes, I write notes to my younger self – unmasking her boogeymen, affirming her, assuring her that we sometimes like makeup and dresses now. I tell her about the adventures we’ve had and the ways we’ve stood up for ourselves. I want her to know that we’re working on being a better friend. I want her to know we’re surrounded by love, by people who choose us again and again. I want her to know that everyone gets to choose, even us.
Maybe these questions and clarifications are clumsy, but there is so much care in both the asks and the acknowledgements. I don’t want scripted friendships, montages in place of learning how to talk to one another, soundtracks to tell us how to feel. The relationships I want, the ones I’m fumbling towards, feature us honoring what we need to feel safe and loved, even if the dialogue isn’t perfect.
About The Author
Priscilla Thomas (she/her) is a desi writer and teacher living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Ferine Magazine, Nerdy Book Club, and Culturas, and is forthcoming in AAWW’s The Margins, Interstellar, and The Open Page. Her first book, Gathering, is out now.