Ellen was everything 16-year-old me wanted in a best friend. She was fun, smart, skinny, and never without a string of guys lusting after her. Occasionally, she’d push one in my direction. I trusted her: she was perfect.
So I ignored the warning signs of her imperfections and mine, I guess.
When Gail who sat in front of me in English class turned around one day and whispered that Ellen had been speaking ill of me behind my back, I dismissed her message. I liked Gail and knew her to be pretty down to earth but I chalked her warning off to jealousy.
When I saw Ellen had scrawled “SKINNY 8s” in lipstick on her bedroom mirror, motivating her to get her weight to 88 pounds, I looked the other way and pretended that wasn’t weird or scary.
When I broke up with my boyfriend because I just wasn’t feeling it with him and told him we’d make better friends than lovers and she started dating him a week later without checking with me, I told myself it wasn’t a betrayal.
We chose to room together at college. That’s when alarm bells blared too loudly to be ignored. Our common boyfriend, still her actual boyfriend at the time, was also at our school. Back in those stone-age days otherwise known as the time before cell phones, we shared a hall phone for four rooms. From about Day One, the time it took for Ellen to meet a new guy, she’d give me instructions on what to say when the phone rang. “If Harry calls, tell him I’m at the library,” she’d say when she was actually in the boys’ dorm across the courtyard with Dave. “If Dave calls,” she’d say when she was with Jim, “tell him I’m shopping on College Ave.”
The problem was not just that I was lying to these guys, all of whom were my friends. The problem was Ellen was instructing me to lie to my friends. It made me wonder: Would my friend Ellen lie to me?
I watched her lie to other girls as she fabricated stories about her life. I watched her tell lies about how much she ate, sometimes lying to herself, as she would talk about how little she ate even after I saw her eat the cookie she swore she never touched.
But I never caught her in a lie to me. And I wasn’t forthright or strong enough at the time to talk to her of my concerns about our eroding trust. But at one point I did tell her I would no longer make excuses for her when the phone rang. I saw the look on Dave’s face when he stopped by one day looking for her and I had to lie about where she was. He was crestfallen as it dawned on him he wasn’t her first (or only) priority. It dawned on me about that same time. If Ellen would put me in this position, causing me to hurt people I cared about, how could I trust her? Why was she my best friend?
So, I gently broke the news to her about my inability to keep up with the lies. She didn’t take it well and started yelling at me.
“That’s what friends do for each other! They lie! They put each other first.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t witty or articulate enough to debate the point at the time. I backed down and we continued to live together until ultimately I manufactured an argument about $2 she owed me for the curtains in our room and got angry enough about it to request another room assignment. I moved across the hall. We never discussed our break up. We didn’t see much of each other as we both had boyfriends who took up most of our time. The next year I transferred to another college and we just lost touch.
Many years later I was in a department store dressing room with my friend Judy. As a grown up I don’t often describe anyone as my “best” friend anymore but if I were to do so, it would most likely be Judy. We were in there trying on scarves. Yes, scarves, an accessory not usually tried on in the privacy of the fitting room. But Judy had lost her hair after having chemo and she didn’t want to expose her bald dome in public. No one but her husband had seen it. Plus, neither of us was the kind of woman who had the “tying scarves beautifully” gene so we figured we’d experiment in private. We laughed until our eyes filled with tears, mostly from how bad we were at designing anything lovely with scarves, but also, I’m sure, because her bald head silently spoke volumes about our fears.
And for reasons I’m not quite sure about, Ellen came to my mind. I realized sitting there basking in the glow of Judy’s head, how deeply Judy and I trusted each other. Trusted each other. Not just how much I trusted her but how much she must have trusted me to allow me the honor of seeing her in her most vulnerable state and knowing how the sight of her that way would only make me love her more. I thought back to my days of eroding trust with Ellen and was only then able to figure out the flaw in our friendship wasn’t that I couldn’t trust her. It was that she couldn’t trust me.
I had never done the work it took to build that trust. I had seen her vulnerabilities – her “Skinny 8s” on the mirror, her constant need to have a string of guys, her penchant for impressing people with stories about how great she was – but I didn’t understand those were vulnerabilities, not strengths. I missed the signals my friend had sent me about the ways in which she needed my support. In my narcissistic view of the world at 16 I thought it was about whether I was getting the trust and support I craved.
I am a better friend now, I hope. These days I strive not so much to have a best friend as to be one.
Deborah Carroll is a former educator, the author of two parenting books, and numerous educational publications for newspapers as well as several young reader serials.