The Secret Life of Friends

What happens to a friendship as the years and decades go by? Two women revisit a favorite vacation spot in search of the answer

by Holly Robinson
hands sand image
Photograph: Jim Mangan

Taken aback, I laughed, then realized it was meant as a compliment. We became friends that instant, somehow managing to get together on weekends, our young children in tow, even though we lived an hour apart. Since that first summer on the island, those children have grown, and Emily, too, has remarried; we’ve both had cancer and survived it. Emily lost a son to a congenital heart defect, and I had a son with my second husband. (Our child is 15 now, and the island is part of his inner landscape, too.) Our careers have evolved, changed focus, flourished. I lost my father and grandmother. Both of us talk about how we will miss our mothers when they’re gone.

This trip is the first long one that Emily and I have ever made here with just each other. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from our work and home lives, but we did it with the determination women don’t usually have until we are confidently -middle-aged. Admittedly, it was strange to be alone on the beach that first day, contemplative rather than exhausted by children who, instead of peacefully admiring a jellyfish, as we were doing now, would most likely be poking sticks at it, throwing seaweed or burying one another in sand and then weeping because somehow, strangely, the sand had gotten into their eyes.

After examining the jellyfish, Emily and I stopped farther down the beach to watch the ferry slowly make its way from Souris, the island’s easternmost port, to the Iles de la Madeleine and talked about the logistics of taking the boat ourselves, even if we turned around and came right back.

“We could do that,” she said, clearly savoring the thought. “We could just go if we felt like it.”

We didn’t, but we were intoxicated by the knowledge of that hidden power, our new freedom.

During our first two days on the island, Emily and I caught up on past events. We talked about work and spouses, children and gardening and house projects. Then we moved on to the future, imagining what we might do once we didn’t have to work quite so many hours, and the trips we might take next year or in the next decade with our spouses, other friends or each other.

Finally, though, we settled into a rhythm. We ate biscuits and yogurt for breakfast, did a little reading or writing, then walked on the beach. Later we’d drive to dinner somewhere nearby, usually a fish shack or a favorite restaurant that served mussels on a long screened-in porch overlooking a bay. We spotted more blue herons and goldfinches, a pheasant and a black fox cub poised at the side of the road.

Within a couple of days it seemed as though there were no longer any past or future. We were just here, on the island, surrounded by ocean and content to be in the present. It was as if we were children again. We searched for beach glass and shells, pondered a dead whale on a sandbar, examined a seal skeleton, tried to identify birds in the marshes. We met up with other friends from time to time but spent most of our hours alone together. We walked the beaches until our legs and hips and even our toes were aching with this unaccustomed exercise. Sometimes we talked, sometimes not, happy to listen to the surf. There is space for silence in this friendship because we understand the need to retreat from the world, even from each other.

“What do you think was the best thing about this trip?” Emily asked on the last day. We had returned from the beach, had rinsed our feet and were munching avocados and tuna on the deck, admiring the flowers on the chestnut tree that rose like candles, glowing pale cream against the deep green leaves.

I stared at the blossoms and considered. I’d loved the island on this trip as much as I ever had, but what I’d treasured most was being here with Emily and feeling how this place always helps us reconnect and embrace whatever has happened since we were last here. We have been happy and grief stricken, angry and optimistic. We have been alive here. Our friendship, like this island, is rich with secret coves and open beaches, with sharp pines and music.

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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