Long before I knew romance with a boyfriend, I learned how to love, and love intensely, from my friend Ashley.
“You are my SPNQ (SPOH-neek),” we would say to each other. It was code for “I love you,” invented some silly night at a girls’ retreat when we were maybe 15, 16 years old. It was true. Ashley was my SPNQ, my best friend through most of high school, even though we lived a vexing 20 minutes apart.
Most of the time, our friendship was pretty ordinary. On weekends, we would spend hours watching music videos, or we would walk half a mile to Wendy’s for $1 cheeseburgers. On school nights, we would catch up on instant messenger, volleying thoughts back and forth until it was time for bed.
Then sometimes we had to fight for each other.
One evening, in the 20 minutes it took to get from my house to hers, Ashley had gotten in a blow-out with her parents. I barely made it up her driveway before she ran out her front door and jumped into my passenger’s seat. “Go, go!”
I had known that years ago—or maybe, I was afraid, not so long ago—Ashley’s parents would hit her. I stepped on the gas and began the familiar route home, to my side of town. I would not let anything happen to her tonight. By the time we neared the entrance of my neighborhood, though, my mom called. “You need to take Ashley home.”
“But—!” I remember crying through my plea, trying to tell my mom I was worried about Ashley. But I knew I couldn’t tell her Ashley’s secret: the bruises that spotted her arms, the real fear—not just of her dad’s deafening screams.
I drove her home, defeated.
That night I learned that I could not save her, but I could testify that the abuse was not OK, and that I loved her and she deserved that love.
At church on Sundays, Ashley and I would pray together, chew our Communion crackers in unison, and sing together on the worship team. Once, we skipped Sunday school altogether and gushed over crushes in the downstairs bathroom. Sometimes our church loved us as a duo. But more often than not, the same people who cheered for our duet in the church talent show were the ones who found Ashley’s and my relationship suspect. Are you sure you two are not…?
We were put in separate small groups, then in separate Sunday school classes. One winter, Ashley’s mom made her take a week-long break from me. I wrote her pages of tormented notes in the meantime.
Just recently, somewhere in the depths of social media, I read the question, what is the female version of a bromance? The answer: friendship.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my friendship with Ashley was my first romance. We had a furious love for each other we expressed in ways that made sense only to us: our matching outfits, our inside jokes, the series of nicknames we had for each other.
Our friendship taught me something about myself as a sexual person, too. I learned what it means to enjoy touch: how to hold someone who is breaking down in sobs, how to squeeze someone’s hand in mutual excitement. I learned about boundaries, what it means to say no, even to the person you love. And I learned how to manage a complexity of feelings, how to bear jealousy, longing, and delight.
This, of course, prepared me for adult dating relationships. But I refuse to believe my friendship with Ashley was merely a hold-out till the person-of-my-dreams swooped in. Friendship has its own important role in my development as a woman. This is true for me now, even as I’m partnered to a great guy with whom I share private jokes and nicknames.
I think about my friend Kelsey, who brought me chocolate and a long, tearful hug during a minor health scare. Or Sarah who has patiently listened to my breathless stories or sniffling silence over the phone for years.
These friendships have taught me that the call to love extends beyond just loving one’s partner or spouse; love comes to fruition in a multiplicity of relationships.
Yet I eagerly await the day the church values friendships, without suspicion, as much as they value the couple.
It’s a shame. For after all, the Bible gives us an incredible vision of female friendship. Refusing to go back to her people, Ruth said to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
This I say to Ashley, Kelsey, and Sarah: Wherever you go, friend, I will go.
Lauren D. Sawyer is a Hoosier-born New Jersey transplant whose heart is in the foggy woods of the Pacific Northwest. She’s a Ph.D. student at Drew Theological School, where she’s focusing her love and energy on adolescent sexual ethics. Currently Lauren splits her time between East and the West Coast, where her partner Joel lives. You can read her work here.