‘‘The Best Girlfriend You Never Had’’ is the first story in Pam Houston’s 1998 collection of stories, Waltzing the Cat, published by W. W. Norton. Houston won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction for the book. As in all of the collection’s eleven interlocked stories, Lucy O’Rourke narrates ‘‘The Best Girlfriend You Never Had.’’ O’Rourke is a thirty-one-year-old photographer obsessed with finding lasting love. Comprised of a series of anecdotes and reflections in which O’Rourke recounts traumatic childhood episodes with her parents and key events of past relationships—those of her friends and hers—‘‘The Best Girlfriend You Never Had’’ meanders along rather than charging ahead, while musing on the near-impossibility of finding a suitable partner. In this sense, the story is more of a collage of various encounters and insights that comments on a theme rather than a single story with a unified beginning, middle, and end. O’Rourke introduces characters such as her best friend, Leo, a stand-offish ‘‘boyfriend’’ named Josh, and Lucy’s girlfriend, Thea, all of whom appear in other stories in the collection. Houston established her reputation by writing about her attraction to men she knows are inappropriate for her, and this theme also permeates many of these stories. John Updike included the story in the collection Best American Short Stories of the Century in 2000.
In the first section of ‘‘The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,’’ Lucy O’Rourke introduces Leo, her best friend with whom she spends the entire day, and Guinevere, a Buddhist weaver Leo loves. The setting is the gardens of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a romantic place and popular for weddings. Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed the palace for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, making his theme for the work a Roman ruin. The gardens of the palace are lush, filled with ponds, and surrounded by Greek-style buildings. After eating a breakfast of ‘‘flannel hash’’ (i.e., bacon and beets), Leo and Lucy read poems to each other, and Lucy snaps photographs of a wedding, though she is not being paid for it. ‘‘I always get the best stuff when nobody’s paying me to shoot,’’ she says.
In this section, Lucy recounts the reasons she left Colorado and came to San Francisco, suggesting that she was losing her sense of identity to the landscape and to her friends. This is what she means when she says she felt sandwiched between Josh and Thea and was turning into ‘‘something shapeless like oil.’’ Lucy believed the city of San Francisco could restore order to her life. She is proud when she recounts being surprised by a man in a wheelchair who urinates on her while she is walking in the city, likening it to a baptism. The Mission, where Lucy walks and shoots pictures during her first few weeks in San Francisco, refers to the Mission District, a gritty yet vibrant home to more than sixty thousand residents, many of them Hispanic. The name alludes to Mission Dolores at 16th and Dolores Streets, the oldest structure in San Francisco.
Lucy introduces Gordon in this section as well, describing him as a cunning and brilliant young man who knows how to work the system and manipulate people.
In this section, Lucy returns to the present tense, continuing the description of her day with Leo. During a discussion about dating and options, Leo rhetorically asks Lucy, ‘‘Aren’t I the best girlfriend you never had?’’ Leo is referring to the quality of the time they spend together, the subjects they discuss, and the intimacy they share, all of which are stereotypically associated more with friendships between women than with those between men and women. During their discussion, readers learn that Leo wants to have children and that Lucy fears admitting she is afraid.
In this section, Lucy digresses from the present tense and recounts her history with Gordon...
(The entire section is 1,884 words.)