I sat next to Sophie in the uncomfortable chairs of a walk-in centre less than an hour after meeting her. I knew her medical history before I knew her last name. Before I knew where Sophie had moved from, she was telling me about pregnancy tests she’d done and how she was trying to work up the courage to break up with her boyfriend back home, wherever that was.
We talked about the pros and cons of our chosen contraceptives, whether STIs were as scary of a threat as we’d been told, and threw scary words around as we talked about the cough she’d developed. In return, I offered up tales of surgeries and the biggest scandals I could think of, trying to grow myself, trying to be big enough to grip onto. She seems so calm, I remember thinking as our laughs turned from awkward and sparse into full bodied throaty laughter with each new story we shared. But a small voice in my head asked, how calm can a person really be if they’ve asked a stranger to come with them to a walk in centre? She was probably building up the courage to ask for hours, walking around with nervousness in her skin all day, finally asking me. And I said yes.
“If you pause for a moment in a waiting room, you’ll see it – girls coming out of appointment rooms in twos. Maybe getting past the milestone of seeing each other splayed out of a medical table could be the key to lifelong friendship.”
We wandered over to the walk-in centre trying to fake familiarity in order to ease the strange situation, and by the third hour of knowing each other we no longer had to. Bypassing the usual stages and falling straight into what we assume should come way later in a friendship, this intense, semi-invasive TMI fast-tracked us. Days later we were sharing Domino’s and wine, years later I drop everything for weekend visits on a whim, and we schedule in FaceTime calls when our banks don’t allow spontaneity.
When we see friendship between women depicted in films, we rarely seem to get an origin story. If we do, they usually meet somewhere – cut scene and all of a sudden they’re best friends – leaving a gap where the bonding should be. Gaggles of actresses in bars still blush at each other’s sex lives, giddy at the conversation years into the friendship. You never see them in tears in club toilets as one lets on about their anxiety. You never see them having a meet-cute over a sanitary products in a university toilet block. You never see two girls sat in a walk-in centre, one doing their best to play mum, and the other doing the best to make it fun.
I get the feeling it’s more common than we realise, and that mine and Sophie’s origin story isn’t as unique as it once seemed. Weeks later when we sat in a sexual health clinic together again, like seasoned pros at guiding each other through sanitised situations, I imagined us mirrored around the room. If you pause for a moment in a waiting room, you’ll see it – girls coming out of appointment rooms in twos. Maybe getting past the milestone of seeing each other splayed out of a medical table could be the key to lifelong friendship. Or maybe there’s just something in the kind of comfort that comes from women that care about you. When navigating new, scary medical realms that are so dominated by men and their anatomy and their language, your companion is comfort, she is protection, she is a familiar thing as your body becomes a stranger. And I wanted to be that for Sophie.
Watching a male doctor prod sticks into her mouth and turn her head via her ears, I hoped I’d radiate something warm enough that she could feel it. When they said it was just a chest infection and advised her to start using her inhaler again to help her cough, I sighed relief with her. A witness, I checked in that she was doing what he said, waited with her at pharmacies for new prescriptions, I asked her if she was okay. Like a shaken up child that’s been poked and prodded at a hospital for the first time going to get sweets as a reward, I bought Sophie a coffee afterwards, letting the nerves reside, letting the vulnerability be seen and dissipate.
“As doctors can so often make our bodies feel as though they’re not our own with each test and touch, we’re each other’s grounding, a protecting energy, a comforting energy, a just-in-case companion.”
Men don’t seem to do this. I asked around and none of my male friends could tell me a time they’d taken a friend to an appointment, while I can no longer count on both hands. I’ve sat in walk-ins, therapy waiting rooms, A&Es, GPs, and hospitals time and time over, the boldest moments of my friendships existing on long bus rides to specialist clinics with plans to go for some food afterwards.
Even when I’ve been alone, I more often than not find myself calling or texting a friend as I wait, talking her through the problem and telling her the solution. As women are so routinely ignored in medical settings, maybe it goes a little deeper than a maternal comfort, maybe it’s a buddy system we’ve created so every problem has extra eyes and thoughts to spot when things are getting missed. As doctors can so often make our bodies feel as though they’re not our own with each test and touch, we’re each other’s grounding, a protecting energy, a comforting energy, a just-in-case companion.
Trying to be that energy for a stranger invited me into the friendship at my best. Hearing Sophie’s secrets before anything else invited into a friendship that was open beyond gossip or sharing crushes. Leaving no room for taboos or shyness, our grip held, allowing me the most fulfilling friendship I’ve ever known. Everything beyond feeling small and silly, me and Sophie share TMI stories like we’re recounting our days, emotions flow without obstacles, and I could tell if her chest infection ever made a return, memorising the symptoms from years ago.
Lucy is a Manchester based writer working across music, lifestyle and dipping in and out of poetry. She has by-lines in places like Clash, NME and Salty. @lucyharbron
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