Has it happened to you? A bad breakup with a friend, a head-on collision where both parties limp off in separate directions? A passive drift into silence, the years without contact piling up like snow? Being tossed into the trash by another, sold down the river, cut out like a malignancy? Friendships end. I’ve become more comfortable with and accepting of this truth, the older I get. It’s the ones that end when I don’t want them to, when I feel strongly it’s not for the best, that I have trouble taking.
I moved earlier this month and forced myself to go through the boxes and drawers I usually keep shut and relocate, unopened, unexplored, from place to place. It was time to winnow things down and let some things go. At the top of the list was sorting and condensing ten fat photo albums (how analog!) whose contents ranged from elementary school through the advent of cell phone cameras and facebook. I needed the shelf space. I attacked the purging project with a sense of enthusiastic resolve. I was going to let most of it go, because the past is the past.
And then my heart was torn out as I paged through a scrapbook made by an old, dear friend who left me, but not through death.
I met her when she was born, and instantly fell in love. A six year-old only child, I was enamored of the new baby in the neighborhood, and spent as much time with her, “helping”, as her mom would allow. I spent every afternoon after school with her, often staying until her bedtime so I could read her stories. I was at her house most weekends, building dream house forts in her basement playroom and playing dress-up. I was ever the fake big sister and she was the favorite, my little sister.
Flash forward to my senior year of high school, when she was low on friends in her fifth grade class (mean girls were running rampant and had kicked her to the social curb) and we started spending gobs of time together again. I took her to the mall, we strolled the parks in our neighborhood, we sat for hours in the wooden swing on my front porch. She was such a sweet soul, a vulnerable ten year-old bursting with personality and zest for life. She was an actor, starring in plays from the time she could speak. She was precocious, which I’m sure in part was how she kept up with me, charming me.
The day she saw a pack of cigarettes in my purse and her face flushed red in shock and disappointment was among the lowest of my life. I was supposed to be guiding her, and instead I was showing her that it was OK to smoke when you’re in high school. I wanted to be a positive role model, to give her everything.
We drifted when I started college and moved out of the neighborhood, but her starting as a freshman at my old high school as I was wrapping up undergrad glued us right back together. I was back in the neighborhood, and we needed each other more than ever. We were both depressed and lost, and old enough now to talk openly about it with each other, rather than playing the old roles that no longer fit–idealized big sister, innocent little. We were becoming friends.
The boundaries became less clear. She was at once my little sister, sidekick, best friend, and confidant. Wise beyond her years, I treated her as a peer. I knew she was being exposed to drugs, alcohol and sex at the large urban high school I’d graduated from four years earlier, and so I used that understanding as a justification for taking her to parties. She was safer in my apartment with me and my boyfriend (who loved her like a little sister, too) than she was at high school parties, of that I was sure.
One night her dad called me, asking to speak with her. She wasn’t at my place, and I knew instantly she had used me as a cover. I hedged, telling him I’d ask her to call him asap. Surprised, I quickly dialed her up to ask what the fuck was going on, this was so unlike her. She was in a public park, she said. She was drunk and confused and scared. She’d met up with some older guys, some seniors and their friends. They’d proceeded to get her drunk and then ditched her when she refused to get back in the car with them. She didn’t know what to do, so I instructed her to get on the bus to my house, now. And call her dad and tell him at least a half truth–that she’d gone out before heading to my place.
My boyfriend and I lectured her that night. We decided that as long as she stuck by us, she would be OK and wouldn’t get hurt. We shuddered to think of alternative outcomes to that night in the park. We didn’t want her out there, where we couldn’t watch over her, nor were we going to bust her to her parents. We were still kids ourselves, after all, and it wasn’t cool to rat out your friends. She stuck close for the next year, until we moved out of state. She spent many a night at our place, sometimes leaving to see her boyfriend. Sometimes we left the place to them so they could have some privacy. We thought we were taking care of her, practicing a harm reduction approach to handling a teenager.
She came to visit us over a long weekend in our new state. She was newly sixteen and had done a semester abroad. I remember that weekend as one of the very best of my life. She was her brightest, most vivacious and lovely self, but with a new shine of confidence from her international experience. Being around her was intoxicating. She was bursting with good energy and fun and I felt our adult relationship crystallizing into something we would enjoy for years. We were at the very beginning.
Turns out, we were at the very end. We would see her for one last visit, a year later, and she would be haunted, sick, a shadow of her former self. The visit proved to be awkward to the point of torture, and she moved her return flight up a day.
She would not say what was wrong, or acknowledge that anything was. She evaded, changed the subject, turned her back and ran away. She stopped picking up the phone. Letters went unanswered. The era of ubiquitous social media arrived, but she never joined. She went from unavailable to unreachable.
Goddamn, how my heart ached for her. She took off with no word, leaving me to sort through the pieces, trying to come up with some sort of answer. I had vivid dreams about her, ones in which she was herself as I’d known her, asking me to be patient, that she would come back. But from what? What was this? Inside my head, I screamed from the pain of the unanswered questions. I’d never not been on the inside of her life, and now I couldn’t have been farther from her, at a time when she seemed to need the most help. It was impossible to accept something I didn’t understand. I twisted in the wind.
Five years passed in this manner. In that time I moved back to our hometown, and the last I’d heard she was living in a mountain west state. One evening I was reflecting on how long it had been since our last contact, musing about what her life might be, when my husband said off-hand, “well, you’re never going to see her again.” Stunned and angered, I whirled to face him, the hurt from the loss of her welling up inside me. “How dare you say that! You don’t know!”
And he didn’t know, because the very next day I came face-to-face with her in a second-hand clothing store. It was eerie, really. We stopped. We talked. She walked me to my car and we shared a cigarette she rolled. We stood in the sun, propped against my car, talking around the void. It was as though I conjured her, the universe allowing me a brief welfare check before we slipped back into silence.
Another five years have passed with no word. Or maybe the word this time was stumbling upon the scrapbook she made me all those years ago. This relationship is past. Enclosed was a letter that talked about leaving several pages free for us to cover in memories yet to be, and once filled, suggesting we go to the backs of pages. Because that’s how much love there was. That’s how much hope there was. That’s how sure we were.
The void grew vast anew. The need for her smothered me. It wasn’t fair! I wanted her, she was out there, but there was nothing to do. Nothing to say to change her. A mindfuck, how to manage the loss of someone living. I made myself stare directly into the void, face the fact of her absence and the hole it tore in my life. This relationship is past.
Slowly, I began pasting pictures into the scrapbook. I wrote captions, addressed to her. I covered the backs of pages. I pasted one last awkward shot of us standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on that final, ill-fated visit a decade ago. And as an expression of hope, I left a few blank pages after it, because all signs to the contrary, as long as she’s alive, I’ll not stop longing for her to rejoin my life.