Once upon a time.

30 05 2012

Once upon a time I had a friend.  We met my sophomore year in college; after a grueling first year at school, in which I had fallen in with the meanest group of women that I’d ever found outside of middle school, I was looking for a fresh start with different people.  This small and vibrant woman showed up on my dorm floor and I was enchanted.  She told stories, smoked and drank and had sex without apology.  She was the center of every gathering and she allowed me to be one of her inner circle.  She became my best friend.  It’s hard for me to look back on that time through the eyes I had then.  That’s over thirty years ago and many lifetimes ago.

My mother never did like her.  What I saw as this sparking personality, gathering people around her everywhere, my mother saw as a pathological need for attention.  I was in the inner circle.  When people gathered around my friend, they gathered around me too.  I felt like one of the cool kids, certainly a new experience for me.

After college our group of friends went on to other things.  A few of us went to grad school.  My best friend got married within just a couple of months of graduation, and a few months after that was pregnant with her first child.  She married a man who was projected to make a lot of money in his profession, and with that in mind they bought a house and started having children.  There were constant upgrades to the house as the family grew, including a major remodel that nearly doubled the size of the house while also destroying the existing equity in the home.  In spite of the money that her husband was projected to make, cash flow was always a problem, and I sent occasional infusions of money to pay for food and utilities.  It didn’t stop me from loving her as I always had, and we were on the phone a couple of times a week, for two hours at a time.  We lived hundreds of miles apart, but stayed in touch on the phone, and then later through email and online chats.  I followed her through a variety of AOL chat rooms, often those that had to do with some type of alternative sexuality, in keeping with her by-now-famous dedication to life on the edge.

It was, in retrospect, untenable.  Her husband never did make enough money to keep up with the spending, which was always predicated on what he “should have been making” instead of what he actually did make.  And those trips through the chat rooms meant making contacts that shouldn’t have happened.  My friend didn’t have the life – the money, the sexual fulfillment, the appreciation – she thought she deserved, and she did what a lot of people do.  She tried to find a way to fill the gaps in herself outside of the defined boundaries.  I can’t really judge any of that.  Marriage, even a really good one, has times when anyone considers stepping outside of the lines just this once, just enough to take the edge off, just enough to get me through this time when I want to run screaming.  And that’s what my friend did – and because I loved her and I wanted her to keep loving me, I didn’t insist to her that any of this was a terrible idea, that she was risking everything she had even if it wasn’t everything she thought she wanted.

Everything did fall apart.  I kept sending money, made the phone calls, wrote the messages, listened and accepted and supported.  Her new life without her husband was a lot tougher.  She was harder to reach on the phone and her email messages got shorter, with longer breaks in between.   And when there came a time when I needed support, I found that it wasn’t there for me.  I had a scare when I thought I’d found something in my left breast – a situation that, reversed, would have sent me immediately to my friend’s side.  (Thankfully, a mammogram told me I had “entirely unremarkable breasts”… thank you, doctor.) And then I needed brain surgery to decompress a cranial nerve at my brainstem.  It wasn’t life threatening… but, brain surgery. I recovered okay at home but didn’t see or hear from her during that time.  I left messages that weren’t returned.  I had repeat brain surgery two years later.  At that point I had seen her when we got together with our friends, but the phone calls and emails had ceased altogether.

A year after the second surgery, my husband died.  My friend arrived at my house the next day, distraught.  My husband had been dead less than eighteen hours when she came through my front door telling me how she hadn’t slept at all the night before, because she had been up crying over my husband.  That evening my pastor was at my house, and my friend got drunk.  Really drunk.  In front of my pastor, my mother, my son, and my son’s friends, who had gathered to surround him in love.  My mother remained cordial, but I could see the flames behind the grate. I get that grief manifests in different ways, and my friend probably was genuinely upset.  But in those days after my husband died, when things were mostly a blur to me, one thing was abundantly clear: my friend DID have a pathological need for attention.  She had to be the center, no matter what, regardless of the cost to anyone around her.  Even in the wake of the most devastating loss I’d ever known, she continued to talk about the crater this had blown in her life.

It was silence again after that.  In spite of her emotional display of grief and loss, it was all about her.  And I was unwilling to do anything to mend the distance.  After decades of being in her supporting cast, I had too much to deal with on my own to spend the time dealing with her dysfunction as well.  Initially it was hard to make that break, to leave behind all of what I thought I had with her – until, with enough time, it was obvious that what I thought I had was what I had brought to it myself.  I had carried it in, and now I carried it out, leaving no trace.  Other than anger, but even that was washed away over time.

Other friends had fallen away from her over time as well.  At the time I couldn’t figure out why they had seemingly walked away from her.  I thought that they were unable to deal with the intensity of her personality, that staying her friend showed some kind of strength or quality in me that they simply didn’t have.  I thought they were weak.  After I cut my own ties, I knew it wasn’t a matter of weakness.  I knew why they had left.

I have, in the years since, occasionally thought about reconnecting, with some idea that I could do it on my own terms, but it has become obvious that such a thing wouldn’t be possible with her.  A few years after my husband died, my former best friend wrote to the only college friend we still shared in common, about how her life had changed.  How she was so ashamed of how she had behaved in the past, but it was all because all of our college group had encouraged the worst in each other… and how she had changed her life since my husband died, because she would want to be an example to him, to make him proud.  Which certainly wasn’t anything that seemed to concern her overmuch when he was alive, but it has again made her the noble centerpiece of her own personal drama, which again stars her with the rest of the world as her supporting players.  I just don’t have the energy any more.  The time.  The patience.  Or even the tiniest inclination.

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