When my best friend and I met in 10th grade, we had a lot in common: we were both smart, sheltered suburban girls, slightly goofy, just emerging from our awkward phases. We were also young enough that a shared naïve sensibility and similar class schedule were enough for us to form a bond. We giggled a lot; we learned dance routines together in our flame-red drill-team polyester skirts and sweater vests. We were 14 and not prone to introspection.
We didn’t realize at first that we also both had family histories of unhappiness, a bond that was far more lasting. This was the undercurrent that ran beneath our friendship. When I felt churning anxiety, I had a tendency to be controlling. Her response was to be adventurous, to make bold choices that provided an escape. But by then, the friendship had acquired an aura of permanence, each year adding another protective layer. “It’s been that way for 6 ½ years and always will be,” she wrote in a collage she gave me for college graduation, spelling out the words with colorful letters cut from glossy magazines. “That’s why we’re still best friends.”
For the next two decades we passed through life’s stages in tandem, marrying in our twenties, having kids in our thirties, and then beginning to care not just for our children but for our parents and our spouses’ parents.
We knew the family legacies we’d inherited: the anger and depression, the legacy of suicide attempts embedded in our family trees. In her case, productivity masked bipolar tendencies; in mine, being moody and critical was a cover for depression.
The flaws in our friendship usually retreated into the background. But there were times I criticized her, my own insecurities more visible in the radiance of her many successes. And she could wound me with her words, calling me on my shortcomings when she felt hurt. It was easier not to dwell on these rough patches, to focus instead on the longevity of our friendship.
Then, when we were 42, a single conversation triggered its collapse. “I have news,” she said. “We’ve decided to move to Israel!” In a happy rush, she shared a flurry of details, including how they’d now be near her in-laws. Her husband had already negotiated a job transfer.
Perhaps I should have simply been happy for her. But as we sat in my living room that warm fall California afternoon, I swallowed back my own feelings of loss. I wondered, too, about the other plan now evidently abandoned: the cross-country summer road trip to visit the key landmarks of her parents’ lives. It had been one year since her father had died, just over two since her mother had died. The trip had been a major focus of hers as she’d channeled her grief into planning.
Later, I told her I was bummed she was moving and that I’d miss her.
“A lot of people have said that when we told them,” she said sympathetically.
If she were someone I’d met as an adult, I might have let the comment slide, or dismissed it as the verbal mis-step of someone still coping with loss as well as the immensity of a trans-Atlantic move. When we talked on the phone the next day, I might have been secure enough in our friendship not to get hung up on her words. But perhaps I’d never really transcended the dynamic of our teenage years. I couldn’t help revisiting it. “It doesn’t make me feel any better to know how popular you are.” Even as I said it I knew how petty I sounded.
She hung up on me. The legacies that had been held in check for so long had finally broken through. She sent me two lengthy emails, then called my husband the next morning at work. She told him tearfully that my comment sounded like one her mother would have made.
I hadn’t told him yet about our falling out and was embarrassed he’d been dragged into it. Over the next several days she continued to call him and to send emails to both of us, each one escalating in tone.
The unhealthy subtext of our friendship had resurfaced. Even as I saw the breach tearing open, I couldn’t resist being angry too. Our argument echoed with the discord of old family patterns; I felt justified in my anger yet panicked by her rejection. If only I could find the right words her anger would soften into understanding.
I chose my words carefully. I left a voice-mail. When she didn’t respond, I sent a follow-up e-mail recapping my apology. We had stirred up powerful emotions in each other, but over the years she’d been my closest confidante.
“First, I wanted to apologize for what I said. I know that the comment I made wasn’t kind, so I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” I wrote. “At the same time, though, your response seemed disproportionate – the volume and the intensity of your anger.”
But by then it seems we were too far gone. Soon after, I realized she’d unfriended me on Facebook and severed our connection on LinkedIn. It pained me to realize the foundation of our friendship was far less solid than I’d thought. Three weeks after she’d announced her move, I sent her a final note of good-bye.
As May Sarton wrote, “Though friendship is not quick to burn, it is explosive stuff.” I didn’t anticipate the final eruption, the lengthy e-mail she sent to my mother two days later detailing my numerous shortcomings as a friend, daughter, wife and mother. Various confidences I’d shared had been twisted and distorted in one final missive. She blind-copied the note to me and to my husband.
I wish I could say I didn’t crumble. That I didn’t feel the old, familiar dread as I watched my mother temporarily come undone, the adult relationship we’d carefully built wounded by the serrated edge of those final accusations, the knifepoint scraping away at the emotions of our own relationship during my teenage years. That I weathered the next few weeks calmly until our mother-daughter bond shakily righted itself.
“She’s trying to destroy all of the relationships that are important to me!” I sobbed to my husband, who wondered how I could even think she somehow had the power to corrode my marriage or my family bonds. I wasn’t yet able to see that I’d become the focal point for her displaced anger. The dormant issues in our friendship had bubbled up, providing an outlet for the other tensions pooling below.
My kids are still too young to understand why the close ties between our two families were suddenly severed. They miss her kids, but they’re content for now with my explanation about her family’s overseas move. I can’t explain to them that the breach that’s torn open is far less navigable than the ocean that now separates them from their friends.
I can see now that the ending was entirely understandable, fueled by powerful undercurrents. We were too steeped in common hurts, too vulnerable to regressing into old adolescent patterns. For nearly 30 years our shared history had bonded us together. But eventually, it was what broke us apart.