I’ve lost a number of friends in my life; most in the “normal” way–years pass, our lives change, we grow apart. No pain. In my adult life, however, I have suffered some big losses in terms of friendship, and sometimes it takes years of perspective to see my part in the demise of the relationship or to see that the relationship was not a good one to begin with. Over time, as these endings have added up, I am convinced that I must be doing something terrible to my friends, or that I am just a very difficult person, or that I am so totally unaware of my self-presentation that I make the same mistakes repeatedly. I need to figure out what it is and work on myself, I say. I talk to my spouse about this all the time. He disagrees; he points out the differences in communication style (New Yorkers have a way about them–what can I say?), he highlights what he calls a lack of stability in the people I choose. “You’re an artist,” he says, “and your friends are artists.” “Artist” is non-artist code for crazy.
He loves me.
As “tough” as I pretend to be, I am really not. I hate confrontation. That is, I hate confrontation with people who are in my life—taxi drivers who refuse to be paid in coins, customers who cut in line at the store are a different story. I have been grateful to have friends who demand face time, who believe our relationship is worth that, and I have been learning to ask for that myself, even though I can feel every cell of my body urging me in the other direction. To my surprise, though, I haven’t been as quick to let go, cut people off, as I would think; I do ask for an audience or a chance to listen.
The first big loss that comes to mind is B.K., a woman with whom I traveled across the U.S., settling in Seattle. We were both at a time of upheaval in our lives and could think of nothing better than chucking it all and heading west. To this day, I believe all people in their 20s ought to do this (not the direction we chose, necessarily, but the trip, the distance, the dive into the unknown). After two years there as roommates, the tension between us was heavy. I was terribly immature and unhappy. B. had made friends in our new city because there were plenty of young people at her job; I had made almost none (I worked at an all-male securities firm). B. had even dated a guy; the one man I thought had shown interest in me actually called me to ask for someone else’s number. I was dependent on B. for companionship. I had no plans, no view of a future me, so I packed up again, headed back to New York. I tried to keep my friendship with B., but she wasn’t having it. To this day, I’m not sure what happened, except for the enmity in our relationship over our respective experiences in Seattle. The last time I heard from her was just after I’d gotten married, more than fifteen years ago. My fiance and I agreed we’d pay for her ticket to come to the wedding. At one point, before my Judaism took over, I thought of having her perform the ceremony. She never responded to the wedding invitation. For years afterward I felt sad and confounded. I knew I had hurt her, I must have hurt her, but I didn’t know how, and she wasn’t talking. She lives across the country from me, so except for noticing when it’s her birthday, I rarely think of her.
Then there was W.D. We had become very close during graduate school, so much so that she had become part of my family–my kids expected her to be at our table for Friday night dinner. She was funny as hell, smart, sarcastic, maybe somewhat lacking in self-awareness, or maybe incredibly self-aware. Honestly, I’m not sure. I loved her, loved hanging out with her. I was the only one of our mutual friends to help her move, I made her a birthday cake, I made her a bed in my living room when she was too drunk to go home, I took care of her rodent when she went away. Then one day we went off to a professional conference together, and that was it. She got a cold (it must have been a bad one, though she looked okay), and the conference became a misery for her. Unfortunately, from my point of view, it seemed she thought it should then be a misery for me and our other hotel roommate, too. In a plot line that would become familiar to me, I became the target of her wrath, the one who didn’t seem to care about her. I have tried to apologize (I don’t even remember what for) a number of times, and my attempts at reconciliation or even just détente have all been rejected, or seemingly purposely misunderstood. She lives a continent away, and so it is easier to figure out how to move on, which, finally, I have.
D.S.’s relationship with me was short-lived. She and her girlfriend are very smart, well-read, interesting people who are devoted to social justice. I loved being around them, because I always learned something from them and they made me laugh—a lot. D. and I got into an argument on social media about something very, very stupid, and she broke up with me in a text. I was sad, but only for about as long as the relationship had lasted. And I have given thought to her perspective since; I still don’t think she’s right, but it matters a whole lot less to me now. I assume the problem began before this particular argument, but I don’t know what it was. Someone who can’t tell me to my face what the problem is doesn’t need to be in my life. She lives nearby, but as I have removed myself from many of the circles we have in common, I rarely see her.
But now there’s M.I. She is a mother, a leader, a poet. She has been a teacher, a journalist, a boss lady, a fundraiser, a stay-at-home mom, and probably other roles I’ve forgotten or haven’t learned yet. She is a loving person who seems to have endless room in her heart for everyone, even people the rest of us might think were lost causes because of the evil they perpetrate. In solidarity with her, I quit a job at a place she’d been mistreated. I was in fact the only one to do so. Together we made a plan to help others doing what we love. We gathered around us like-minded women, but I was the one who continued to be her rock (and she mine), to actually perform the task we set out to perform, while everyone else did nothing. Our vision and motivation may have been slightly different, but only enough to give our goal needed energy.
Now that I am outside the great circle of warmth and friendship she creates, I can see the persona she has quite carefully constructed, built and fortified over time such that she has lost sight of the fact that it is just a construct. Her heart bleeds blue upon her sleeve. Her clothes are a costume; she embodies the word “poet,” she is earth-mother-warrior, she is a victim. Everything that happens or is said is about her. She has decided that I am an angry person. In some ways, it reminds me of the roles I always felt my parents had constructed for their four children–nothing we ever did or said was going to change us in their eyes. This is actually not quite true, but it is how I felt. I know there is nothing I can do to change her mind about how she has characterized me. My frustration at that is eating me, and I need to let it go for my own sake. Anger is not my state of being, but I am angry at her, for sure.
Shortly after M.’s father died, we went out for drinks, and were eventually joined by a mutual friend. M. got very drunk. And while she was drunk, she proceeded to verbally attack me in ways that were both ludicrous and prejudiced. It was crazy. I felt unable to defend myself against the wall of nonsense before me. The friend that was with us tried to get M. to see that what she was saying was out of line, but drinks plus grief had won the night. The next day, I made a fatal error. I wrote a lot of what I could not get across to her the night before in a Facebook post. No one knew what I was talking about except M. and my husband, but it was too much for her. It was the second time in our friendship that I had been bluntly honest about her privilege (a word she uses readily with others but doesn’t like to hear applied to herself). And I had done it “publicly.” Faced with reality, embarrassed by her own flaws and hypocrisy, she rejected the source of that truth. Does it matter that our mutual friend made the same arguments to her? No, the bile and venom is all for me because I put it on Facebook. There have been other times she has “forgotten” things she said to me when she was drinking. I have learned that she cannot be wrong. I have learned that my friendship is not worth much to her, that even though, in her mind, murderers and rapists deserve our sympathy and understanding, I do not. She has been so cold to me, I’d actually be impressed by it if it didn’t hurt so much. And so I feel I’ve been on the losing end of a great injustice, that I’m calling out my pain, only no one hears me, no one is listening. I have been sad ever since, though the direction of my sadness has been all over the place. My social life has taken an enormous hit, that’s for sure.
So, you could say I’ve learned some important things. I need to use social media differently; that is to say, I must use it cautiously. The temptation these days is to do all our communicating with a keyboard, and even as I yell at the kids to put down the phone or the tablet or the laptop, I have become utterly devoted to the fluidity, speed, and immediacy of typing and clicking. Bad idea*. Some things don’t belong on social media, and among them are personal conversations between friends, whether those talks are full of love or full of anger.
I’ve also learned that you can’t change someone’s opinion of you, and more importantly, you shouldn’t try. What people think and feel is not under my control. I don’t get to have a say, so allowing myself to be so upset and wrapped up in it is a waste of my time, my energy, my health. This is easy to say, less easy to do, but I am trying. I can only be responsible for my own crazy.
The common thread in these losses? Not one of these women would talk to me. They refused to tell me what I had done or said, or what their own issues were that required an end to the friendship. Upon reflection, I see that is very odd indeed. Schoolyard-level behavior, in fact.
Now that I am nearing 50, I am also learning what a friend is. A true friend. I am not as good a reader of people as I have always liked to believe. Because I can be used and abused for quite a while before I realize what’s up. I’m so pleased to have someone around who seems to like me, you see. The key to avoiding that pitfall is to learn that I am deserving of people’s admiration and affection just as I am. I don’t have to do things for people, nor do I need to hide what I think. If someone is my friend, she will love me because I’m me, and not because I can be manipulated or because I keep my mouth shut. Not because I fill a quota. Not because I embody something envied or something pitied. I think if I keep those things in mind, I can be a better friend, as well.
*I am aware of the irony that I am posting this essay on my blog.