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Soul Sisters

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For three hours on May 2, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox Arquette, both looking eye-poppingly well-toned in bikinis, gabbed as they lounged on the sands of Hawaii’s Hanalei Bay. No one could stop them. Not the oglers, gawkers and eavesdroppers who happened by. Not the three rounds of margaritas (round two courtesy of four star-struck sunbathers a few beach chairs over). Not even the fan who interrupted their yakking to tell them, “You both look just as pretty in real life as you do on the show.” After dismissing her with a polite “Thank you,” says the fan, Jeani Martin, “It was back to talking, talking, talking. They seemed like best friends.”

That’s because they are. Since meeting at an audition for Friends in 1994, Aniston and Cox have developed a bond that far exceeds the famously friendly rapport of the cast. “Jennifer appreciates the best of Courteney and Courteney appreciates the best of Jennifer,” says a show insider. “You don’t see that a lot in show business—this mutual friendship and respect, especially on the same show.” As for what will happen to that amity after the show wraps its 10th and final season, Cox’s husband, David Arquette, predicts plenty of dinner parties, lunch dates and girls’ nights out. “They became real friends while playing them on TV. That won’t end because the show is going off the air,” says Arquette, 31. “They can’t just turn that off.”

It began virtually the moment they met nine years ago. “They clicked immediately,” says a veteran TV exec who was present that day. Since then the lives of Aniston, 34, and Cox, who turns 39 June 15, have taken many similar turns. As their prime-time careers have elevated them from pavement-pounders to paparazzi fodder, both have set about building big-screen careers, married actors (Cox and Arquette celebrate their fourth anniversary June 12; Aniston and Brad Pitt reach the three-year mark July 29) and wrestled with the thorny (but as yet unresolved) question of when to start a family. Through it all, says a show insider, “you have to marvel at how these two never seem to compete. No jealousy, no fits of pique over some imagined slight.”

It helps, no doubt, that the perennial one-for-all ethos of Friends has ensured that both enjoy roughly equal screen time and earn precisely equal paychecks of $1 million per episode. In their off months, the two women have also benefited from a steady diet of projects. Aniston is currently costarring with Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, which took in over $85 million its opening weekend, placing it firmly at the top of the box office heap over the four-day Memorial Day weekend. Later this year Aniston will share the screen with Ben Stiller in an as yet untitled comedy. Cox, who has a film project in the works with husband David, is also busy producing a new TV show for the fall lineup of the Women’s Entertainment network called Mix It Up, which draws on her passion for interior decorating. The effort is a direct offshoot of her own efforts to combine her minimalist sensibilities with Arquette’s penchant for accumulating junk. “If I could throw David’s stuff out, I would,” she admits. “But I have to respect his collection of junk and make it work.” She hopes to teach viewers how to do the same.

Still, none of that quite explains what makes Aniston and Cox seek each other out during five-minute breaks on the set and enjoy joint pedicures and manicures during longer lulls. While fellow Friend Lisa Kudrow, 39, often joins the two for lunch, says a Friends source, Aniston and Cox “have more in common. It’s just an easy friendship.” Unlike Kudrow, who “definitely seems more mature and more matronly,” says this insider, “Courteney and Jennifer are like girls postcollege. They act like former roommates who still live together.” The telltale signs? The constant giggling, whispering, eagerness to share stories. “They get up close together and hold each other’s forearms while they’re whispering,” says the source.

At some level Aniston and Cox’s special chemistry may be a case of opposites attracting. “Courteney is so hyper, jumping around, snapping her fingers,” says an NBC insider. “Jennifer just stands there calmly.” Their interpersonal styles are also different. Courteney, Kudrow recently told Hollywood Life magazine, “is not afraid of conflict, and she’s not combative. You talk it out with her.” And Jennifer? “She’s very emotional, spiritual, loving and supportive,” Kudrow said. “Whatever you say, she’s going to find a way to support you with it.” With each other, the pair keep nothing back. “We kind of have a pact,” Cox told PEOPLE last year. “If anything ever bothers us, we don’t hold it in for one second. I never have to say, ‘Are you mad?’ and she doesn’t have to say, ‘Are you upset with me?'” Bottom line, for Cox? “I trust her implicitly.”

Some of that trust may draw on the overlapping emotional baggage the actresses toted to Hollywood. Growing up in New York City, Aniston had little contact with her L.A.-based dad, soap actor John Aniston, who left her mother, Nancy, when Jennifer was 9. Father and daughter finally reconciled in 1989, but seven years later, Aniston suffered a bitter falling out with Nancy after she blabbed family secrets on a tabloid-TV talk show and then in 1999 published a biography that liberally documented parts of Aniston’s childhood. In February, Aniston told W, “I just, at some point I’ll just have to let go and decide to forgive her, which I can’t do yet.”

While Cox remains close with her mother, she too spent much of her youth living at a distance from her father, pool contractor Richard Cox Sr., after her parents divorced when Courteney was 10. During the 18 months that preceded Richard’s death from cancer in 2001, she drew particularly close to him—so much so that after his death, Cox dropped “Arquette” from her surname and returned to her maiden name to honor her father’s memory. Given such parallel family histories, it’s not hard to imagine that when David Arquette says his wife and Aniston “are a great support system for each other,” he means more than sharing Cox’s recipe for Parmesan dip.

These days both women are busy on the home front. Aniston and Pitt, who own an oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, are close to moving into the $13.5 million French Normandy six-bedroom house in Beverly Hills that they’ve been renovating since they purchased it in June 2001. Cox and Arquette host weekly soirees at their Malibu beach house and can be counted on to do the same at the new $4.5 million four-bedroom Hollywood Hills home where they are still settling in. Between Pilates and karate classes, Cox plays with her two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Hopper and Harley, and her Bernese mountain dog Ella. Aniston, who also takes Pilates and works out on a cross-trainer machine, has six dogs to tend to: her own corgi-terrier mix Norman as well as Pitt’s five mixed breeds.

And both continue to want children. Cox, who has suffered two miscarriages, can sound almost mystical on the subject of babies. Last winter she told IN STYLE, “I know I can get pregnant. I’m not panicked about it at all. Since my dad [passed away], I feel like whatever is going to happen is going to happen.” Aniston is more evasive, routinely issuing enigmatic statements like, “That will happen, but not for a while—but I can’t wait.”

As they unwind prior to beginning the final—and what is certain to be emotional—Friends season, the soul sisters have spoken of a happiness only recently attained. Cox recently told Glamour that she attributes her new inner calm to realizing “it’s okay for people not to like me.” Aniston has conquered an enemy a little closer to home. “If there’s one thing I’m proud of,” she told W, “it’s that I’ve finally gotten over not liking myself.” As for their feelings about each other, the final word goes to Cox, who shares a sentiment that will resonate with close female friends everywhere: “I guess the reason why I love Jennifer so much is that I feel very safe with her—always.”

Jill Smolowe

Julie Jordan, Pamela Warrick, Carrie Bell and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles