Notes On Loyalty
stand with the people you love and in (reasonable) opposition to forces that try to harm them.
22 years ago I’m on a merry-go-round
playing with the new kid. Before the bell rings, the new girl asks if I want to take turns twirling till our faces turn purple on the clunky iron circle in the center of the playground. I didn’t think my best friend, Jane, would mind, so I say yes, not knowing that Jane would feel betrayed, go home, cry, denounce our friendship and tell her mom I ditched her.
Jane's mom pulls me aside the next recess, crotches eye level, puts her lips an inch away from my ear, and whispers, “I’m extremely disappointed in you. Jane is such a good friend to you and this is how you treat her?”
My third-grade brain couldn’t comprehend. I just knew an adult I loved and trusted was upset with me.
I cry the entire lunch hour.
I go home, tell my mom what happened. I hear her on the phone that evening, yelling in broken English. Something about how adults should know better, how we were kids, how she wonders if she’d ever spoken to Jane’s white friends that way, how their friendship as they’d known it, was over.
This was my first lesson in loyalty and virtue, the mold with which my internal code would take shape: stand with the people you love and in (reasonable) opposition to forces that try to harm them.
I will later learn, the hard way, that “reasonable opposition” and “harm” are all up to individual interpretation.
15 years ago I’m typing a response on Facebook
to a friend's ex-boyfriend. He wrote a “funny” rap about her. I watch the comments roll in, the laughter. She calls, in tears. Hold on, I say, I’ll call you back. I log in, rhyme a few words, chuckle to myself, press post. My response, within minutes, starts to gain traction. She calls back, elated. Oh my gosh! Nneka! You fuckin got him! she screams.
I visit this same friend at college, three years later. She quickly whisks me to the corner at a party, warns me that one of her also-white classmates sings “the n-word” when rap songs play. I just wanted to give you a heads up, she whispers.
4 years ago, I’m at dinner with a friend downtown
who mentions a username under one of my Instagram posts. Do you know her? She asks. I say we’ve exchanged a few messages, but personally, no. She tells me they were roommates in college, the best of friends, inseparable. But things went south at the end of a semester and this inseparable ex-roommate spread some vicious rumors about her, calling my friend untrustworthy, selfish, two-faced.
I don’t even know this girl, I say, I’ll unfollow her right now. My friend mumbles something about I don’t have to, smiles, and doesn’t stop me.
I’m at dinner with this same friend, a year later, asking her to tell me the truth about an issue involving a mutual friend. Her hands shake, brow sweats. She claims she knows nothing. I believe her, assume we part on good terms. She sends an email, four weeks later, saying there was a blockage in our friendship, and she has to remove herself from my wedding.
3 months ago, I’m sitting in the back of a car with a former
best friend's arch enemy
And yes, of course they’d made up by then. My former friend had a lot of fake arch enemies. The reasons for rifts ranged from superficial to serious. And, believe me, after she was done telling you all the juicy bits of blood and betrayal, you’d be ready to go to war merely to find out they were cool again the next week.
The former arch enemy and I greet each other politely, having heard an exaggerated version of the other from the mutual. I’d heard she’d stolen every creative idea my former friend had ever had, from the style of her hair to the way she wrote her captions. That she was unapologetic and conniving. What she’d heard about me, who knows?
What I find curious and utterly fascinating is that we both keep our distance. That we intuitively know to avoid any depth of interaction. That it just doesn’t feel right getting too friendly.
2 weeks ago, I’m on a stool at a speakeasy with a friend from high school
asking if she’s told any of her other friends to unfollow her ex. She twirls the garnish in her margarita, shrugs, winces as if I’d asked if she’d rounded up the troops, forced them to kneel, and pledge fielty. She mumbles about it not being her place, how a friend showed her one of his stories recently, how he’s with someone else now, which, of course, is fine, but after over a decade of dating and how it ended…it hurts. I ask again if she wants her “friends” to stop following him. She says asking will only make it seem like she still cares.
I leave the speakeasy wondering what place loyalty has in adult friendships. How is it defined and exercised and is a certain level of code and commitment strictly reserved for movies and television? Spaces where there’s an obvious binary, a clear right and wrong. There’s a reason people love Wags on “Billions” and Wee-Bey from “The Wire,” but are clear lines of loyalty, in real life, just too stark? Is an unfollow too deep? Is that type of conviction for grade school kids? Do bullies have to trip our people or steal their lunch money to justify our dislike/opposition? Who is worthy of our support and protection, and since we’re not starring in a primetime telenovela, what does it even look like?
Codes, to me, are both malleable yet ironclad things. One must define it personally, intimately. If I call you my people I would rather lose with you than win with somebody else. I will not abandon you at your worst to celebrate any stranger's best. I will stand in reasonable opposition to the forces that try to harm you. I will gladly unfollow mf’ers. I will speak up and out and provide counsel when necessary. I find my energy indefatigable in this area. What I lacked years ago, that I’m learning now, is discernment. Not necessarily of who is deserving of loyalty and protection and who isn’t, but a closer examination of individual capacity and my expectations about its reciprocity.
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