The Friends describes a transitional period in the life of Phyllisia Cathay as she learns about herself, as well as the responsibilities involved in both family life and friendship. As the novel opens, Phyllisia, the first-person narrator, is sitting in her classroom contemplating her dislike for Edith Jackson, a poorly dressed classmate who is determined to become her friend. When Edith enters the room, typically late, she is mocked by Miss Lass, the teacher. Edith simply disregards the snub, trying instead to speak to Phyllisia, who ignores her.
Phyllisia, who has recently moved from the West Indies to Harlem, feels lost and unhappy. The other children constantly mock her and call her names. They dislike her accent, her intelligence, and her willingness to respond in class. Their hostility culminates in a fight between Phyllisia and Beulah, a much larger and tougher classmate. Phyllisia astonishes everyone (including herself) by butting Beulah with her head, which enables her to escape. Running home, she feels even more alone since no one, child or adult, had tried to help her. She contrasts this with her previous life on the island where "everybody cared about everything.'' When her mother, Ramona, questions Phyllisia about her disheveled appearance, she learns that both Phyllisia and her sister, Ruby, have had problems at school because they are seen as outsiders.
That evening, Calvin Cathay, Phyllisia's father, brings two strangers...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
The section opens in Central Park where Phyllisia is picnicking with Edith and her sisters. Although she knows it is cruel, Phyllisia is bragging about the elegant new clothes that she'll be wearing to high school. Edith shifts the subject, asking about Phyllisia's mother and criticizing Calvin for not treating Phyllisia fairly. When they are about to leave, Edith picks some flowers for Phyllisia's mother. Ramona, who is delighted to learn that her daughter has a friend, wishes to meet her. However, Phyllisia refuses because she is too ashamed of Edith's clothes: this automatic betrayal of her only friend stuns her.
Five days later, Phyllisia visits the Jacksons' apartment, learning that Mr. Jackson has disappeared. Edith swears her to secrecy because she is afraid that the family will be separated. Soon Edith drops out of school. Gradually, Phyllisia discovers that she is becoming paired with Miriam Robbins. Just a few months ago, Phyllisia desperately wanted this friendship, but now she finds Miriam to be shallow and uninteresting compared to Edith. As Ramona becomes increasingly ill, her moods become erratic. When Phyllisia attempts to comfort her mother by mentioning that Miriam thinks she's beautiful, Ramona bares her chest, showing the scars where one breast has been removed. Desperately, she warns the girls against relying on something as superficial and transitory as beauty.
Phyllisia doesn't see Edith for over two months. During that...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Ruby wakes Phyllisia from a recurring nightmare where both her mother and Edith appear. Phyllisia has been unable to eat; she is weak and too ill to attend school. Ruby tries to entice her with her favorite food, but all Phyllisia wants is to be left alone. She believes the spirit in the dream won't allow her to eat. Eventually, Calvin decides to force-feed Phyllisia. Every day, he threatens her with a beating unless she eats, and gradually her health returns.
Throughout her illness, Phyllisia longs to see Edith, but once she recovers she is afraid to defy Calvin. She spends most of her time studying, socializing only when Ruby forces her. One evening when Ruby drags her to a party at Miriam's, she learns that Randy, Edith's brother, has been killed by the police. She rushes to Edith's building, only to find herself afraid to go in. When she returns home, Calvin is enraged because he caught Ruby kissing her boyfriend, Orlando. He keeps both girls virtual prisoners in the house. Cousin Frank and Mr. Charles try to reason with him to no avail.
Ruby obeys his rules, hoping to regain his trust, but Phyllisia rebels. She starts skipping school, picking up a boy in the park. When Calvin learns of this, he decides to send the girls back to the island. After visiting Calvin's restaurant, Phyllisia learns that she has been deceiving herself about her family's wealth and status in order to feel superior to those around her. She decides that she has to see Edith in order to renew their friendship. When she gets to Edith's apartment, however, she learns that Ellen, the baby of the family, has died and the other children have been taken away. Edith, too, will be going to the orphanage soon. Phyllisia tells Edith that she will always be her friend, and will visit her no matter where she goes.
When Phyllisia returns home, she makes her first real attempt to communicate with her father in order to convince him not to send them to the island. She finally breaks through to him, and he indicates that they can stay in Harlem. Phyllisia will be able to keep her promise to Edith.