The Ghost of A Friend

Our friendship didn’t get off to an auspicious start. When I first saw her, in the basement cafeteria of our freshman dorm early one fall morning, she was wearing a dress with heels. The rest of us were shuffling around in track suits and sweats. A mutual friend introduced us, and without thinking, I said “why are you so dressed up?” to which she recoiled. Oh, the honesty of 18. I learned quickly, she was dressed up because she liked to be. She loved clothes, and boys, and to live in a co-ed dorm after four years of an all girls’ school meant that getting really dressed in the morning was a matter of necessity. She didn’t think of boys as simply other humans with a few anatomical differences, humans you could enjoy as just friends. Each and every male, indeed each and every person, was a conquest to be made, whether she wanted that person or not. “Love or be loved” could have been her motto. Mine was more “wanna be my friend?”

It was precisely this complementary mindset that led to our actual friendship. A few weeks later, a roommate of my good guy friend from high school invited her to Rosh Hashanah dinner at their house, to which I was also invited. She was not interested in the roommate in the slightest, nor was she Jewish, but she was flattered to be asked, and she had an intrepid spirit, which led her to say yes to most things (and also meant she was a lot fun.) There may have been other girls there, I can’t recall now, but she sought me out as her guide, and that night, both dressed up, both sipping too sweet wine, and on the most flirtatious terms with the boys around us, we ourselves developed an intense chemistry, and spent the rest of college more-or-less joined at the hip.

It was a miracle to me, to have a girlfriend like this. I excelled at friendships with boys. They were easy and easy going and loyal, once you got past the part where they thought they loved you. But girls were a different story. I’d been burnt before, and hard.

In the eighth grade, I got sick and missed the first six weeks of school. Those might be the most important social weeks of adolescence. When I came back, my friends had disappeared. They had grown up and moved on, while I had stayed the same. Friday nights, once spent watching movies and having sleepovers in a very specific rotation of houses, were now for going to parties with boys. My friends were in basements playing spin the bottle; I started going out to dinner with my parents every Friday night.

And, then, in high school, at the end of my senior year, I learned that my boyfriend had been seeing one of the girls in my friend group behind my back for most of the second half of the year. He told me the night before graduation, at which we were sitting by choice, one, two, three in the same row. Don’t despair, reader, they’ve been married now for a very long time. Hard to begrudge that.

And, while we may bare scars, it’s funny how fast we recover when we are young. I naturally love people and want to be friends, and I yearned for a true friend. Now, I had one. We had each other. And she was a great friend. Fun, and loyal, and true. She had girls school “girls first” code drilled into her. We laughed a lot. We fought like sisters. We supported each other’s insane tantrums and dramas. We gave good advice and took none of it. We gave bad advice and took all of it. We read magazines, and watched “The Real World” marathons on hungover Saturdays. We smoked lots of cigarettes and drank too much Diet Coke. We flirted hard, and partied hard, studied hard and grabbed college by both hands. Once, she accused me of being a thoughtless friend, hours before I was throwing her a surprise birthday party. Once, I told her she used too much slang when we were fighting. We went to Paris together for the first time together. She came to stay with me in London during our Junior semesters abroad, and we danced and flirted and drank our way across the West End. She was an amazing dancer, a big laugher, a hot temper, an eater of life. I was a big reader, a total romantic, a dreamer, an observer of humans, a snark, yearning to try new things. We pushed each other. We dated idiots and acted like idiots and rejected perfectly lovely souls. Boys that liked her, didn’t like me. Boys that liked me, didn’t like her. More importantly, we didn’t have the same taste either. I liked dark and and nerdy. She liked blond and moody. We defended each other and wept when the other was sad. We shared clothes and make up and food. We listened to No Doubt, and Bruce Springsteen, and the Beastie Boys, and Lucinda Williams, and the Smashing Pumpkins. We had fun, so much fun. Other friends came and went, we had each other. We were the best of friends.

And so for the next twenty years, we were friends. Sometimes we were very close. Sometimes we sort of despised each other. We fell in love (she more than me, in those early 20s days.) We cried. We worried. We were each others dates to others’ weddings. We got engaged. We were in each other’s weddings. We bought houses. We got jobs and new jobs and other new jobs and switched careers. We gained weight, and lost it, and gained it again. We took long, aimless walks around New York. We bounced ideas, styles, thoughts, and points of view, off each other. We bought a lot of denim. We made new friends with other people. Sometimes we talked many times a week. Sometimes, as the years went on, we didn’t talk for months. For my part (the only part I can speak for) I looked forward to seeing her name on my phone when it rang, and I’d jump to answer it whenever possible. We grew up.

At some point, in the better friendships, you start to understand that there is an ebb and a flow, but that your friend is still your friend. Time, once so expansive, becomes a precious resource. You have a job. You have a career. You have a spouse. You have children. You have bills. You have obligations. Your friend is still there- in the world- loving you, and you them, but you just have so much less of what you once had, which seemed to be all the time in the world. With the truest friends, none of this matters. They are there. And you get that email recommending a book, or that text with a silly picture of a cat, or that DM, or that call saying they are going to be in town, can you have dinner, and you feel that corner of your heart unfold. The corner that belongs to them. They are under you, supporting you, and you are there, under them, cheering for them. Quality begins to matter far more than quantity of time spent.

But sometimes things get in the way. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s location. Maybe it’s religion. Maybe it’s attitude. Or maybe, it’s babies.

None of us are perfect. That is a fact. And indeed, the thing that might be the best for us, might be unthinkably cruel to someone else. She had a hard time getting pregnant while I had a hard time staying pregnant. And then I had a hard time being pregnant. And she was still having a hard time getting pregnant.

When you want a baby, and you can’t have one, pregnancy and babies are all you can see. The thing they told you in high school- that it was going to be as easy as sipping a glass of wine- slips away as the years do, one egg at a time. Well, for you, but not for everyone else. Because everywhere you look, there’s someone pregnant, there’s a new baby. People you know, people you don’t, celebrities, your boss, your mother’s cousin’s sister’s daughter. Each new pregnancy is like a personal insult. They can. You can’t. It aches constantly. And when those closest to you, those who were in your boat, struggling, have success, maybe you can only be so happy. Maybe one is tolerable. Maybe two… not. Maybe two is your threshold.

The beginning of the end started with a text. It was around my birthday- my 40th. She was in town. I was about 8 weeks pregnant with my second son, throwing up 6-8 times a day, and miserable. I had dreaded telling her, because I knew how she felt, where her head was. I had seen her only weeks before, when, just before I became pregnant, we’d been in Los Angeles for vacation. Even then, I could see the pain in her eyes when she saw my son. And of course, we’d talked a lot about all of it. The treatments, the hopes, the dreams, the hideous, painful failures. So, that day, I told her quickly and bluntly. I think I called her. I’m pretty sure I did. Because I’d want to tell her and not text her. But I can’t remember. Maybe I did text her. I hope I called her. I don’t know anymore.

What I do know is that she texted me to see how I was feeling a couple of weeks later, when I was in the depths of hyperemesis (the scientific name for puking so much you can’t function.) I texted her back how badly I was feeling and that I wished I could be one of those gloriously pregnant women. She quickly responded with “hey, at least you can get pregnant.” This was typical, a rearing of her sharp, spiked sense of humor. We’d joked about our situations before as a form of sympathy. I didn’t realize yet that this time was different. That with number 2, the line had been crossed, and the permission to complain about anything baby related was now denied. I doubt she was aware of the line herself. And I wrote back “good point, well made.”

That was the last time she initiated contact with me for a year. Over the course of the next few months, I texted her. On her birthday, I got a strange response about all her friends being in the same room. I was in New York, sick and pregnant, so I wasn’t there. But I didn’t take it personally. I thought, “It goes without saying I’m a friend. So, how nice.” And a few other times, just a general “hi!” here and there. Did she write back? Probably. I know I was sensitive now that I was pregnant, and she wanted to be, and maybe a lot of contact wasn’t what she wanted. I was only three years out of that feeling myself. The yearning was still close to me. It still is now and I pull it up sometimes, to remind myself on a hard day of how badly I wanted to be a parent.

And then, one warm evening in mid-May, William was born at the moment of his own choosing, in his own time, which was rapid and two weeks early. In that flurry of activity, we notified our list of close friends and associates, through a site Rob built, and kept them updated as events quickly and happily unfolded.

All that time, my comment to her stuck with me. I don’t know why. Ok, that’s disingenuous. Because it sucked and was hurtful, that’s why. Maybe I didn’t think so at the moment, so in my own shit was I, but over time, I could see how callous I had been. I should have just called her an apologized. But I didn’t. I was sick. I was so so so sick. I didn’t feel like it. A petty cruelty to be sure.

And then, suddenly, not only wasn’t I sick, but I even had a little time. To text. To call. To email. So I did! About a week after William was born, she got was seemed to be an amazing new job, which I learned about from seeing the announcement in Variety. I called to congratulate her. No reply. I tried again. No reply. I tried again. No reply. Over the course of a few weeks, I called her at least 5 times, with no response. I texted too.

Then, I saw the pictures on Instagram, a platform she didn’t much use usually, of trips to beautiful places, for work and with friends. I know now it had nothing to do with me, but at the time, it felt like it had everything to do with me. I had leaky boobs, raging hormones, and two amazing, healthy kids. She had the world. The thing that felt weird was the timing.

I fretted in a way I hadn’t for ages. I worried during night feedings and chewed on it during stroller strolls. Was it that stupid comment? Did I do something else? What had I done? I turned to one of my wisest friends, who gave me her usual wise counsel. Based on this counsel, I wrote as sensitive email as I could, one that said “I feel like I may have done something to hurt you. Please let me know, I’d like to make amends.” And after stressing about it and sitting on it, one summer evening, I hit send and went to bed, jittery with expectation.

In the morning I, with trepidation, checked my email. Nothing. And nothing all day. Check. Nothing. Check. Nothing. I didn’t hear back. I didn’t hear back. The days ticked by, and I didn’t hear back.

And then, a few weeks later, just at the moment I was starting to despair of ever getting a response, I heard back.

Her note that said something terrible had happened, and that she wasn’t up to having cross country friends right now, but I had her address, and if I wanted to, I could send her something in the mail. It was a very confusing email. First, I could only imagine what had happened to her and my heart broke for her. Then, there was the rejection of friendship period. And the sort of exhortation to send something to her. Do I sound bitter? I think I might be, a bit. It was twenty years of friendship. But also, it was a note from someone in pain, and what answer is there to that? I wanted to know and I didn’t want to know, and I felt grief. My response to her note was a lie. I said I would be there for her “whenever you’re ready.”

But I’m not, am I?

I didn’t realize, it was already the end. It’s still the end. There is only an end. It’s over.

A couple of months long after the email, she let me know, via text, that she’d adopted a beautiful baby girl. I was over the moon for her. I wrote an effusive text back to which I received no response. I sent her a gift, and a note. I did get a perfunctory thank you note. Which to be fair was more than some people have gotten from me! For Edward! Who is nearly 6.

She got into a habit of texting me an occasional picture of the baby but with no real message, other than a kind of winky caption, like “this is my life now.” Each time my phone pinged and it was from her, my heart leaped and sank when I saw there was nothing real there. And then, I’d respond right away and never get a response in return. I read into it- of course I did- that she wanted to know I was still there, the validation of some sort of ancient relationship approval. But for me, it was an emotional roller coaster. At a certain point, six months or so later, I pulled the plug. I blocked her. I unfollowed her on social media. It was as hard and strange to do as any romantic break up. I winced as I did it. I dread running into any old friend that might ask me about her.

I guess what I’m getting at is the absence of a dialogue. The conversation was controlled and went one way. My role was as sponge, should I choose to accept it.

But, I started to realize, I’m not a sponge. I can be a sponge. But sometimes I also need a sponge. Or a tennis partner. Or just another human with whom I can go back and forth with. I couldn’t keep on thinking I was a friend and that I had a friend- that the usual rules applied- when she so clearly didn’t think I was a friend at all. I realized with heart stopping clarity, that the friendship was actually over.

She. Did. Not. Want. Me. And, all that time, I had kept waiting for her to call me. To want to talk to me. But the painful fact was, she didn’t want to talk to me. I was not part of her support system. I was not someone that she could turn to, that she felt safe with, that she wanted to confide in. It hurt my heart. I’m sure I deserve it somehow. All relationships have those mutual petty cruelties over the years. In some cases they are put to the side. In others, they accrue and acquire and fester. The shifting of positions, the missed birthday party, the pushing away that comes with growing up.

And once I understood that there was no real friend, that I was no real friend, I had to stop it all. Because it was finished.

I’m wrestling with why I’m even writing this. All I know is that something here needs expressing. Maybe it’s gratitude for things I’ve learned? For my friends? Maybe’s it’s bitterness that something I thought was true was rotten at the core. Snow White’s apple as friendship.

In my 40s, the friendships I cherish most are easy, accepting, supportive. Like any gardener, I’ve pruned here and there, in the hope that flowers blossom more and bigger and better in the years to come. My friends are many ages, many genders, live in many places. We laugh, we share, we don’t get to see each other as much as we’d like. But when we do, we talk and talk. One of my closest friends from high school emails me every few weeks to see what I’m reading. Currently, I have no idea where he is; he could be in Thailand or in London. He could be next door. I don’t care; I cherish every email. I am in a WhatsApp thread with two old friends, one in LA, one in Sussex, and we spend most of the time texting silly memes, old pictures, jokes. Every time I see the notification, I smile. I text constantly with a friend from work who was once my boss about everything; from real woes, to career concerns, to the actual dumbest shit. I have friends! I love my friends. But I also have ghosts and they haunt me too. Pictures from the past that were once warm and are now wistful.