Long before more modernized versions of sisterhood were showcased on HBO television shows such as Sex and the City and Girls, there was the 1988 film Beaches. When I was a teenager I used to watch it with my mother on movie nights, sobbing into tissues during the funeral scene that shows Hillary Whitney’s tombstone while the song, Wind Beneath My Wings plays, and afterwards when her young daughter Victoria asks Hillary’s best friend CC, played by a redheaded Bette Midler, “If I go with you, can I bring my cat?”
CC is about to honor Hillary’s request that she raise Victoria in her mother’s absence, an entrustment that is a testament to the friendship the two had built. It lasts from age eleven when they met at an Atlantic City beach through adulthood when final goodbyes are said on another beach as Hillary’s life comes to an end. Between those two central events in the film they remain each other’s constants, through handwritten letters and visits that demonstrate how true female friendships like theirs are hard to come by and need time and care in order to thrive. Their friendship survived despite their opposite economic backgrounds, the busy schedule of CC’s acting and singing career, and Hillary’s marriage. They always came back to each other.
Last week as I was leaving my best friend Rachel’s Brooklyn apartment I mentioned a scene from the film to her when CC tells Hillary, “You’re not dead yet. So stop living as if you are.” I hadn’t thought about Beaches in some time until then. I realized I was the one acting “dead” in our friendship that I feared would soon suffer. And no, neither of us is dying, but one year from now Rachel is moving for work-related reasons and as she has been a staple in my life for the last thirteen years, the prospect of saying goodbye is not something I look forward to.
She is my first call when something happens, big or small, the one I run to when I need a good laugh or must stubbornly admit that I need a good cry and we are forever making and keeping weekly plans to see each other despite the busyness life brings—our teaching schedules, her children, and my tendency to flit all over Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of new and exciting endeavors, always returning to her in the end with my stories about work, broken relationships, and my writing failures and successes. Often I call myself her “fourth child” because of the way I rely on her to be the voice of reason, a role she has taken on with her quiet strength and listening ear. Most importantly though, I know that whenever I exit the train and meet her at her office or knock on her apartment door, she will be there.
“Be sure to keep in touch,” Hillary says to CC the first time they part ways in the film as young girls. I never thought I’d have to say the same thing to Rachel or how in our own way, we were the off-screen version of the Beaches girls. This sudden realization made me examine our friendship through the same lens CC did once she neared the time she had to say goodbye to Hillary, telling her, “I know everything there is to know about you. And my memory is long.” The proof of their friendship came through years of devotion. The film’s defining message of what a lifelong friendship entails is what prompted me to remember how mine and Rachel’s began.
We met through her cousin in a Bay Ridge bar in Brooklyn one night on the cusp of the early 2000s. I was a freshman at a small college downtown and seemingly flighty in the same way CC was, but not because I wanted to be a performer. I was a social butterfly who’d spent a great deal of that year drinking Midori Sours and finding ways to ditch class, such as extended lunches with friends or a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Rachel was an introverted blonde who was one year behind me in school and my friends and I were trying to convince her to attend the college with us the following year since “the more the merrier” applied as far as our social circle went.
Our friendship truly blossomed through the written word when we wound up in creative writing class together one year later. Every Tuesday and Thursday that semester in an intimate circle of no more than eight students, we sat together as stories were exchanged, an unlikely pair since she was so lovely and poised in person and I was full of scattered energy that often prevented me from sitting still. In the bathroom during breaks and after class we would discuss our work and how the class went, competitively keeping track of whose stories gained the most traction. She admired that my stories were funny and I admired that hers were graceful, the same way CC and Hillary celebrate each other’s gifts throughout the film.
In one scene in Beaches, CC and Hillary room together as adults and sing Christmas carols that they later come to laugh about. This reminds me of the first sleepover Rachel and I had in my mother’s basement at the end of that school year. After a day spent celebrating a friend’s birthday at Rockaway Beach eating pizza, neither of us had completed our final Art History papers that were due the next morning. Like Hillary begging CC to stay awake to sing, Rachel was trying to convince me to refrain from falling asleep on the couch while she finished typing her paper, and too tired from the sun and academically lazy, I didn’t listen or bother to finish mine. Once more she was the grounded one and I was the mess like CC who was constantly dropping the ball with her outlandish and impractical decisions, but still we accepted each other across this divide. (I failed the class. Rachel didn’t.)
Even strong female friendships encounter conflict. Hillary and CC have theirs over a man who is CC’s play director and whom she loves. On opening night he sleeps with Hillary and afterwards when Hillary returns to the apartment she is happy but full of guilt because CC is deeply hurt. There is pain in Hillary’s voice when she asks CC if she wants her to move out.
I wish I could say I was as gracious as CC, who was able to look past circumstances to keep her friendship intact, on the night a year and a half after Rachel’s and my sleepover when I spoke to her on the phone about what had always been the elephant in the room between us, but I wasn’t. Even when the upset in her voice matched Hillary’s as she said, “This doesn’t have anything to do with our friendship.”
For years we had both cared for the same man, who was my best friend at the time and had changed my life for the better in more ways than a 21-year-old woman could articulate. She hadn’t known my truth until they officially coupled up and looking at her in what used to be “our bathroom” left me walking out in tears. I not only had to finally face that he didn’t love me, but I also had to face that he loved her. CC tells Hillary about her director, ”If it hadn’t been you it would have been some other girl,” and this was true in our story as well, but still I walked away from the both of them without considering that losing me in their lives would be hurtful, too.
While a man wasn’t the cause of Hillary’s and CC’s split, an argument over Hillary’s newfound prissiness towards CC as she has her first Broadway opening serves as the driving force between them. Afterwards, CC asks her husband, “What will I do without a best friend?” and I felt the same way in the absence of two people I had been close to, even though I just couldn’t be around them anymore. During the Creative Writing party that was held at our teacher’s house where we’d last seen each other, Rachel hugged me and told me she liked my story, but like Hillary and CC’s break where Hillary said, “We’ve grown apart,” it seemed as though the damage to our friendship was irreparable.
In the film geographic distance allows Hillary and CC to remain out of touch until Hillary’s housekeeper shows Hillary a newspaper advertisement about CC singing at a nearby nightclub. Later when Hillary enters the club before showtime, CC wants to send her away but instead, they speak many words that result in tears and a hug, proving that they’d never stopped being friends.
Nearly one year had passed since Rachel and I had spoken when one morning in the quiet of a Barnes and Noble Café by school that smelled of coffee and fresh bagels we found ourselves standing next to each other at the register. She said, “Hi Katie,” and walked across the room to sit at one of the high tables where her books were. Like CC, something inside of me was resistant, but I’d heard in her voice that despite everything that had happened she still cared about me. And I didn’t last more than a minute without approaching her to say, “I’m sorry.”
In the film forgiveness allows CC and Hillary to push forward in their friendship and it was Rachel’s openness that morning and my ability to admit that I’d made a mistake that gave us the opportunity to do so. Since then we have faced life’s challenges spanning over more than a decade—graduate school, job hunting, career changes, and other things neither of us foresaw that first night at the bar—the same way Hillary and CC couldn’t know on the beach that their chance encounter would result in years of effort to remain friends.
“I don’t want it to be over with yet,” Hillary says to CC during the scene I mentioned to Rachel as I left her apartment, later remembering to be grateful that our script remains in the works.