Autopsy of a 30-year Friendship
In high school and college, I had two best friends. I’ll call them S and J. They were both bridesmaids at my wedding.
J and I met in eighth grade math after my family had moved home following being abroad for three years. I was dealing with culture shock, social anxiety and all kinds of teenage stress. J became my safe space in Miss B’s math class.
J and I each had two best friends: S was my other one, and K was hers. I wasn’t jealous of K, and J wasn’t jealous of S. It worked.
At some point J & I started referring to ourselves and Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. At one point, probably for a play she was in, I gave her a bouquet. I’d bought Bert and Ernie figurines and tucked them into the flowers.
From that point, our gifts always included giving Bert and Ernie to each other, back and forth.
Over the years, we did the typical teenage friend things: We had sleepovers and watched lots of movies. We went to an ice cream parlor and ordered the same sundaes and fries every time. I went to concerts and plays she performed in (J was incredibly talented).
I hated her boyfriend, who creeped me out and had all of the red flags of an abuser. J thought it was funny that he and I didn’t get along.
We had our favorite movie snacks, and we had our favorite movie: Beaches, with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. We watched it so many times, I lost track, and each time, we both bawled our eyes out when one lifelong friend died on the other.
“Don’t you dare die on me!” we’d declare, sobbing and hugging.
Sometime after my wedding, she took a job as a nanny in Connecticut.
She gave me the Bert and Ernie figures before she left, the figures tucked inside a bouquet. She’d be gone for a long time, and it was a tearful goodbye.
This was before email, an era when texting and Skype and so much more weren’t even dreams. She and I communicated with old-fashioned way: snail-mail letters. But even those were lopsided; I sent way more letters than she did. She said sorry she didn’t write more; she didn’t have stamps.
That hurt a bit, but I shrugged it off. I knew she cared, and though she hadn’t had the best track record on being supportive to me, I told myself that she showed her love and support in her own ways. When I’d had surgery at sixteen and desperately needed friend support, she didn’t visit me in the hospital, though I was there for days. But we’d gotten past that. I could get past her lack of letters.
While she was away, I learned that I was expecting my first child.
Excited, I shared the news with close local friends (social media was way off in the future). I wrote J a letter with the news that I was going to be a mom.
Unbeknownst to me, she got a long-distance (read: back then, very expensive) phone call from a mutual friend from back home. That person had heard my news through the grapevine and then passed it along to J over the phone. My letter was still en route. I hadn’t told that person about the baby, but J found out through them anyway.
We were poor newlyweds, and even if we’d been able to afford a long-distance call to Connecticut, I didn’t have her phone number. I’d let her know the news as soon as I could in the one way I had. Even so, she was mortally wounded that she didn’t hear the news from me, as if I’d deliberately kept it from her.
From that moment, she cut me out of her life.
For almost a decade, the only contact we had was when I received her wedding announcement. When I opened it, my stomach sank. Her fiance was the jerk boyfriend from high school. I went to their reception, a painfully awkward experience. For all I knew, that would be the last time I’d see her.
Eventually my young family moved to a new city on the other end of the county. At the grocery store there, I happened to run into a different high school friend, who’d finally had a baby after years of infertility. On the spot, she invited me to her baby shower later that week.
As I walked into the shower, J walked out. We both stopped and stared. I wasn’t sure what to say. Was she still mad? My son from that pregnancy was now in third grade, and I had three more children. But suddenly, I was back in high school, worried whether one of my best friends hated me.
To my relief, she smiled. She hugged me. She apologized profusely, saying she’d overreacted all those years ago and couldn’t believe something so silly as a miscommunication had kept us apart.
She would not allow that to happen again.
Right there, we exchanged cell phone numbers and email addresses (technology had progressed!). She was determined to stay in contact.
That night, she called, wanting to make contact again right away. We set a date for lunch. For months, I visited her once a week after my daughter’s dance class, though she lived half an hour away. Once she drove to see me and dropped by a basket of bath pampering supplies. We were close again, and I felt as if I’d reclaimed a piece of myself.
Whenever we got together, we picked up where we left off, even though we saw each other only once or twice a year.
I learned that she’d been diagnosed with a mental illness, something that explained so much of her life. I knew in my heart that the years-long rift was likely a result of that mental illness. Now that she was on medication, she was thinking and acting clearly.
Many times over the following years, she told me about her abusive marriage and her addict husband. He was financially destroying them, draining their bank account to cover his addictions, which meant utilities getting shut off, hungry kids, and constantly moving to new apartments.
Wanting to be independent, she set up her own bank account, one he’d have no access to. She went back to school and became a midwife. That last one was a big deal, one fitting of receiving Bert and Ernie. I stared at them on a shelf in the linen closet where I kept them. Something in my gut said that if I gave them to J this time, I might not ever get them back.
Nearly every time we met, she declared that she was leaving her husband.
On some occasions, she said she’d leave soon, but it wasn’t quite time yet. Once, on Facebook Messenger, she said that she’d found an apartment and really planned to leave. This was it.
Relieved for her, I said I’d be there for her in any way she needed me: babysitting, loaning our truck to help load and move her things, helping her pack, whatever. Just say the word, I told her. I’ll be there.
As she had every other time, she changed her mind and backed out. She wasn’t leaving her husband. I didn’t blame her; leaving abuse is hard. I figured that at least she knew I’d be there to support her when it finally happened.
One summer as her birthday approached, I realized I hadn’t seen her in a bit longer than usual. Not a crisis; we’d gone months and months at a time without contact. Our friendship was strong enough once more to not need constant contact.
So I messaged her: let’s do lunch for your birthday, I told her. I miss you.
Days later, she hadn’t replied. Odd.
I pulled up my Christmas card list for her most recent address. I bought a gourmet cupcake and brought it to her apartment. No one answered, so I left it by the door with a note.
When I heard nothing after that, I confirmed with a friend who lived near J that she did, in fact, still live there.
I sent another message. Nothing. I texted her. Nothing. I called, wondering if I even had the right number anymore. I did. I left a message. No reply. I emailed her. Nothing.
I worried that her abusive husband had cut her off from social media and friends. After all, isolation is a key tool of abusers.
I reached out again, leaving more messages. I dropped another note off at her apartment. Nothing.
I was this close to calling the police to do a welfare check to be sure her husband hadn’t locked her and their kids up somewhere.
I reached out to K, the other best friend, figuring that if anyone knew if J was okay, she would. “Oh, she’s probably just overwhelmed right now, what with her ex getting remarried.”
My jaw dropped. Her what getting what?
Forget about her husband getting remarried; I had no idea they’d even divorced.
I messaged her again, and finally, after four weeks of constant attempts to reach her, I got a reply.
One filled with vitriol and hatred. Why do I care about her now, the words demanded, when I’d abandoned her when she’d needed me most?
This didn’t sound like J. I’d seen her sad and depressed and angry. This was something else, pure rage that matched nothing I knew of her. I said as much, wondering if this was actually her husband (ex?) writing, having hijacked her social media account.
“You’re just not used to me standing up for myself and having a spine,” she told me.
I was stunned and hurt and confused. I still had no earthly clue what she meant about my not supporting her; I’d always been there for her.
I scrolled back through our messages and finally pieced some of the mystery together.
Apparently a year or so prior, she’d mentioned (for the ninetieth time?) that she and her husband were going to split. That particular time, I’d replied with sympathy but didn’t directly offer the truck or babysitting or whatever. The information had been vague enough that I’d expected an update. When one didn’t come, I figured the split didn’t happen . . . again.
Reading it that time, knowing that the divorce did happen, I noticed a tiny but significant detail I’d missed before: she’d said that HE was moving out.
In other words, separating hadn’t been her choice. She hadn’t been able to back out as she had every other time. He left her. That’s why it happened.
I’d had no clue. She’d never updated me. Never said he was gone. That papers were filed. That he had a girlfriend. That she was officially single. Nothing.
She’d gone radio silent, all the while resenting me for not helping her through something I didn’t know was happening.
Sometime later, I learned that she’d moved a couple of hours away. I tried to find her and discovered that she’d blocked me on social media.
More than four years later, my heart still aches for what was lost.
This rift feels a lot like the first one, which I’m convinced was triggered by her illness. And that makes me wonder if she’s gone off her medication (maybe as a single mom, she doesn’t have insurance to afford it?), and maybe that’s why this happened.
As I look back, I know in my heart that I was always there for her when I knew she needed me. I know that she often abandoned me when I needed her, but I never held that against her. I did everything I could for this friendship. I did nothing wrong. There’s nothing for me to feel guilty about.
Even so, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the friendship that we once had, the one going back to foul-mouthed Miss B’s math class.
A few realities have landed in ways they didn’t before:
J never viewed herself as the talented singer and actress she was. Instead, she was envious of my talents as a dancer and writer. She might have felt bad that I got better grades. (I’m ambitious and a perfectionist; I could have learned a thing or two about enjoying life from her.)
Senior year, a guy she’d had her heart set on tried to date me. I sent him packing pretty quickly, and after that, when he treated J poorly as a way to get back at me, I laid into him. Treat me like crap, by all means, if you’re mad at me, I told him, but do NOT take this out on J. She’s only ever been a good friend to you. (I did not add: And she’s in love with you, you idiot.)
More and more memories have returned, making me think that J was probably always envious of me in various ways. That while she hated having an audience hear her sing a solo, she envied the attention I got during a football halftime performance, where I was one of many on the drill team.
The idea that she had anything to be jealous of seems crazy to me, but since when are feelings logical?
Understanding the past has given me a measure of peace, along with these two realizations:
First, on Beaches:
J always viewed herself as Barbara Hershey’s character, the quiet victim. And Bette Midler’s selfish, spotlight hog? In her eyes, that was me.
I was right to keep Bert and Ernie.