friendship / Relationships

The Ugly Breakup

broken dishLast week I was going to blog. It started out something like this:

My best friend got married. I was not invited. I can only guess as to where the ceremony occurred, the way we guess what the dead would say about our world, or how Game of Thrones is going to end. I could not send a gift, because that would look crazy—the kind of crazy I’ve been hiding but have felt for eight years now. It is unsavory, this rotting love.

It’s that ugliness, that fear of looking crazy, that kept those paragraphs I’d written in the draft folder. I’ve tried to write about “Elle” for all those years I’ve mentioned, the years since our falling out. The years that are now an expanse larger than our friendship was, an insurmountable chasm that will continue to grow for the rest of our lives. As much as I’ve wished for reconciliation, my rational mind knows that it won’t happen. It probably shouldn’t, I guess.

I’ve been unable to untangle how deep that “breaking up” with Elle fractured my heart. On the page, the story between us veers and dives into my own emptiness. Why did she write me off as dead? Our falling out had simmered for about a year, right after I met the boyfriend who would become my husband. She didn’t like him. I don’t think this is the only reason someone would sever any and all relations with the person who’d been their coming-of-age sidekick, who held so many memories of what it was to grow up in that singular moment that was ours. I’ve retraced my steps so many times, the path is lost. It’s smudged with the footprints of all the versions of myself I’ve been since, the versions that hated and mourned and wondered and were contrite to Elle in turns.

It is this loss that has brought me away from nonfiction writing, as I have had no luck in telling the story of who Elle and Tabitha were and how they fell apart. Early this year I began a novel about estranged best friends who are involuntarily reconnected and must reconcile their relationship in order to live. It’s a scaffolding I will never have: a place to dissect a collision.

Even though this project is pushing forward, I’ve been uncomfortable in talking about my own experience. Any time I bring it up, it’s with an apology. I don’t have the words for the hurt I feel in the fact that one of the closest friends I ever had denied a Facebook request. That I can’t wish her a Happy Birthday once a year or click Like on her wedding dress picture. I can’t know how her mom and dad are doing. What’s up with her brother. My second family for seven of the most formative years of my life. It’s embarassing to admit that I still think about that, but I can’t help it.

Every so often, you’re fortunate enough to have someone else do the talking for you. That’s the beauty in writing, after all. Today Jezebel featured this essay by Laura Turner, “How Do You Grieve a Friendship You Never Wanted to Die?”  

Her dyamic with M was eerily familiar to the one I’d had with Elle:

“I borrowed a lot from M: Her tan Cabriolet convertible; her confidence that the world would always rise up to meet her; her sense of style. Some of it, like Patty Griffin and Wilco, I never gave back. I constructed my identity with a thousand small building blocks, like so many of us do during our college years, but I borrowed some of those from her, too. I let my sense of self show selectively, holding my heart out and hoping she would take it, hoping she would work her magic on the parts of it I was scared to show. I was anxious, and needier than I cared to admit. She was intermittently available, mercurial, a little bit unpredictable. I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more. She had exceedingly high expectations for her friends; she told me as much early on in our friendship on a walk down State Street in Santa Barbara. I didn’t think much of it at the time. What I see now is that I’m not sure I could have ever lived up to her expectations. What I also see is that I wanted more to impress her than to be her friend.”

Maybe what I was missing in all these years was not the fault, but the facts. I was this, a girl who pretended she was sure when she wasn’t, who wanted to be loved and had no qualms about riding in the shadow. By the time I met my husband Matt, I was starting to emerge from that role. I was beginning to develop a stronger voice and identity. I wanted to be Elle’s friend forever, like the kind of Romy and Michelle best friends I grew up watching. You know, the ones who flitter in and out of each other’s lives, there when you need them. I’m nostalgic like that. I find comfort and happiness in the past, which was a trait Elle did not share. She didn’t like an excess of attachments. The past reminded her of who she didn’t want to be anymore, and she culled it with a precision and finality that I could only marvel at. I think that deep down, I would end up on the cutting room floor of her life story. I just liked to think that I could cheat the system.

When we broke up, I didn’t need Elle the way I had before. And I was no longer the person that she wanted.

For the first couple of years after my Big Fight with Elle, I had a reoccurring dream. We’d meet up someplace on accident—the Starbucks line, a Margaret Cho concert, a Chipotle patio. We’d marvel at the fact that yes, we were here, breathing the same air. I always launched into a string of apologies: What happened? I’m so sorry! I can’t believe that we’ve been apart from so long! Elle would wave her hands and absolve me. Don’t even worry about it. It’s in the past, she would say. It’s time to move forward.

At first I woke up sad, which graduated into anger. Why was I still trying to fix us in my subconscious while Elle had likely banished me like a Kremlin photograph? As time went on, the dream became rarer and rarer. I can’t remember the last one any longer.

Maybe I wasn’t dreaming of our never-reconciliation, Turner’s essay made me realize. Maybe I was dreaming of forgiveness. Forgiveness for myself, for loving so hard, for the difficulty in letting go. For the wisdom to realize that these might be bad traits in this particular situation, but were credits to my heart in so many others. The acceptance that I will never forget Elle, even if she’s forgotten me. It’s part of who I’ve become. And I like that person, with or without her.