08 June 2017

A stranger who’s a friend

No one is supposed to live in this world friendless. I know the good that friendship does for me but I can’t quite define what a friend is. And the concept grows nebulous — as with all things growing complex — the older you get.

Others have pointed this out. We have no qualifiers for friends the way we’re ever stringent about romantic partners or spouses. A formal declaration must be made for the latter two; guidelines are laid down and regularly revised.

We apply the label to an acquaintance after a warm exchange and maybe laughter over cold beer. Even so, the affection is often one-way, thus we get disappointed or hurt when, in the succeeding days, the other doesn’t assume the shape of our friend mould. The lack of rules negates our right to be mad.

I am interested in the pull that’s felt upon meeting someone for the first time. That connection or the strong desire to connect, even to care deeply. Sometimes we’re happy to be with the same people at a distance. Like the waitress who knows your favorite meal by heart and how you hate chit-chat. Except for taking orders and the check, you barely communicate. You may not know her name but are ready to take a bullet before she does.


“You can love somebody without it being like that. You can keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend,” says Joe Bell about Holly Golighty in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The 66-year-old bar owner confesses to loving but not to desiring the 20-year-old starlet.

The relationship between him and her, and her and the story’s narrator is that of quaint friendship. Either a long-term encounter or a meaningful short-term affair, skimming the surface of romance.


Is it beauty, a shared though unknown history, a sense of safety, or a piece of (or missing from) ourselves that pulls us towards someone? Maybe a familiarity. We just need another human being to share habits — newly formed, ours or theirs — with.

So I look at my own friendships, realizing that I’m lucky to have earned and kept constants — those whose silence and absence aren’t neglect. And that I have had my Holly Golighties.

I want to meet more. I have a feeling I will.

Bought and read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (Vintage, 2012)
and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (Vintage, 2008) successively.


Our (your, my, Joe Bell and the narrator’s) knowledge of Holly may be scant, but Truman Capote has cast such a bright light on her character that the littlest detail becomes bigger than any real but dull person.

Her haircut, her clothes. Her armor. I cracked a smile on that part where she’s about to read an important letter. I wouldn’t have understood her behavior had I read the novella in my twenties. The convergence of inner peace and appearance is something I’m only learning today.
“Darling… would you reach in the drawer there and give me my purse. A girl doesn’t read this sort of thing without her lipstick.”

Guided by a compact mirror, she powdered, painted every vestige of twelve-year-old out of her face. She shaped her lips with one tube, colored her cheeks from another. She penciled the rims of her eyes, blued the lids, sprinkled her neck with 4711; attached pearls to her ears and donned her dark glasses… (pp 98 – 99)

Her red cat. She is everyone I pine for. With a presence that is undeniable, and a heart that is ever elusive. Their nearness comforts me because I am reminded of my own search for home.
It’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven’t any right to give him one: he’ll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I. I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like. (p 39)


To arrive somewhere you belong. Seems to be the main characters’ journey. Holly, the cat especially — and the narrator, who opens the story with a recollection of his first New York apartment: “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived…”

Both of Holly’s parents died of TB when she was a child. She and her brother, Fred ran off from “mean, no-count” guardians and survived on stolen food. They got caught trespassing on the property of widower Mr Golighty, who, upon seeing the children's puny legs and wobbling teeth, welcomed them to his home. In 1938, at age 14, Holly married Mr Golighty.

Holly took off again. “Home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking,” she says.

The most memorable scene for me is right at the end. Holly, an outlaw by now, meets the narrator and Joe Bell at the latter’s bar for her latest escape. She’s still acting cool, ordering drinks for the three of them. “You’ll only need two… I won’t drink to your foolishness,” states Joe Bell who has already fixed for a Cadillac to take her to the airport. Holly asks Mr Bell to look at her, but instead he yanks a bunch of flowers from a vase and throws them her way. He hates her as much as he loves her.

If I were pressed for definition, I’d say that a friend is someone who eases loneliness. They show that you are not going to battle alone. Their company a temporary shelter.

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