The Friend Who Got Away
by Dani Shapiro
Relationships can surmount all kinds of difficulties. Until they can’t. A writer considers an old pal’s foibles and failings—and her own
Last week I saw S. on the street in New York City. She was dashing across Lexington Avenue against the light. She looked the same as she had the last time we’d met, more than a decade earlier. Her red hair was still long and wavy, a little gray now, pulled back in a messy knot. She was wearing jeans and a big sweater and carrying a heavy satchel full of books. My heart sped up as I wondered what would happen if she noticed me, whether we’d say anything to each other or just have an awkward, frozen moment: two women who were once the best of friends and now couldn’t even manage to acknowledge each other’s existence. S. kept her head down, gaze on the sidewalk. The moment passed. I could have reached out, tapped her on the arm. But I didn’t. As my breath slowed, I began again the conversation I’d played out in my head dozens of times over the years.This has been so silly, I wanted to say. No, that wasn’t quite right. I’m sorry. This was certainly true. Can we try again? I wasn’t sure either of us would want that. Too much had happened in the intervening years. Children had grown up. Loved ones had died. We were no longer young. How are you? There it was, the truth of it. I wondered how S.’s life had unfolded. I wondered if she was happy. If her marriage was still strong, her children thriving. How her work was going. How are you? I watched as she slowly receded into the rush hour crowd. This is a story about the stupid, unnecessary loss of a friendship. About stubbornness, rigidity, pride and emotional stinginess. About the way misunderstanding and distrust, if left untended, can sprout like tangled weeds in a garden, choking what is beautiful and true at its very root. It is a story about the way we are often too hard on each other. We expect too much, find fault too easily, forgive too little. Most of all, this is a story about regret. S. and I met at an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. I was a young writer, she was a young painter, and we recognized in each other a shared sensitivity and a host of the usual neuroses that haunt creative types (guilt! shame! hypochondria!), all tempered by a fun-loving streak. Our friendship wasn’t one of those fast and furious romances, marked by quick intimacy and oversharing. Ours was more of a simmering, rich stew. We were careful. Neither of us gave herself away too quickly. But as with the best of stews, there was a deepening, a mingling of flavors, a textured warmth. We shared our histories with each other—our complicated relationships with various family members, our romantic travails, our secret sorrows. We laughed together over endless cups of coffee. We showed each other our work in early form—my manuscripts, her drawings and sketches—in what is perhaps the ultimate measure of trust. I remember one sunny Sunday morning when, in despair about a structural problem in my third novel, I spent hours on the phone with S., sorting it out. That book, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say, would not have existed in the world without her. I thought I would know S. forever. Isn’t that what we think of our BFFs? When S. got engaged, I threw her a bridal shower in my apartment. When my mother died, S. came each day to the shivah and quietly held my hand. When I married my husband in a wedding that was closer to an elopement—we invited only 18 guests—S. and her husband were there. I still have a black-and-white photograph of them from that day: S. in a pretty dress and denim jacket, her arms thrown around her handsome husband, her face lit with joy for me. When S. needed an academic job, I recommended her to the university where I taught. When my son was born, she was one of the first people to show up at the hospital. And when he soon became perilously ill, it was S. I called from the stoop of the doctor’s office, petrified and weeping. If I had projected our friendship into the future, I would have imagined us growing older together, sharing the stresses of parenting teenagers, dancing at our children’s weddings, celebrating our successes, mourning our losses, holding each other tenderly through this journey, this lifetime. If our friends are the family we choose, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that our old friends must be treasured? And yet so many friendships fall apart over the pettiest resentments. A friend is always late. Another friend forgets our birthday. Or doesn’t show up at our holiday party. We hold our dear friends to standards we couldn’t possibly live up to ourselves. And then, inexplicably, in a flash of self-righteous indignation, a friend for life becomes a stranger. There were dark undercurrents in my friendship with S. Aren’t there always? Life had its way with both S. and me, as life tends to do. Her third child had some developmental delays. My son’s illness was a long and scary chapter that left me raw and vulnerable. Our careers took different directions. I sold a book for a significant amount of money. S. struggled to find a gallery to show her work. I moved with my family from Manhattan to the New England countryside. S. and her family decamped to Brooklyn. It was harder to find the time to laugh over coffee, or pore over drawings and manuscripts, or dig into the meaty truth of our lives. The years were churning by. Our kids were toddlers, then middle schoolers. Small insults accrued. S. had always been a more private person than I. She had a more depressive nature and tended to hide out, not answering her phone. When I’d call and leave messages on her voice mail, I had the sneaking suspicion that she was screening calls and not picking up. I began to take it personally. There were other, larger insults. S. was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, and she broke this news to me via an email that read “Bad News” in the subject line, and then “I have cancer” in the text. Receiving the news in an email stunned me. I picked up the phone instantly and called her, but she didn’t answer. I covered her academic classes while she was in the throes of treatment, but I didn’t go to the hospital to keep her company. I didn’t know the protocol. She was my first friend facing cancer of any kind, and I didn’t know that I would be welcome, even needed, at the hospital. Her reserve deepened, and I had the sense that she was quietly, privately disappointed in me. I was quietly, privately stung and hurt by her. I would find myself reaching for the phone, then hesitating. She probably won’t answer anyway was my bitter thought. One morning, I lost it. I wrote S. a snippy, mean-spirited email. I didn’t pick up the phone or ask her to get together. Instead, I made the mistake of hiding behind my laptop keyboard for an important, emotional communication. I think now of S. opening that message from me and being shocked by its tone. Within minutes, she had fired off a response, calling my note passive-aggressive in the extreme, and she was right. I saw it immediately—that I’d screwed up by writing her the way I had—and I wanted to apologize, to fix things between us. This time I picked up the phone and called. Naturally, she didn’t answer. Our friendship, left unnourished for far too long, snapped like an old dry twig. A decade has passed since that impulsive, fateful flurry of hurt feelings and anger. S. and I have never spoken again. When mutual friends ask me what happened, I have no satisfactory answer. There was no terrible betrayal, no deceit, no malicious intent. Rather, there were two proud, sensitive women not yet old enough to understand that what existed between them—however imperfect—was something irreplaceable. I’ve made peace with the fact that S. and I are not likely ever to make up. I’ve told myself that I’m better off without her, that beneath her diffident nature she had issues with me—perhaps envy, perhaps disapproval—that were at the root of her distance. But who among us hasn’t felt a flash of envy toward a friend or a moment of secret disapproval? What’s required to keep a lifelong friendship, well, lifelong is a willingness to forgive each other our humanness. What would have happened if I had shown up at S.’s door and gently but clearly told her she’d hurt my feelings? What would have happened if she had done the same? You didn’t come to the hospital. You never answer your phone. Sometimes I don’t think you care about making time for me. I wish you had let me get closer to you. I’ve learned a great deal from the loss of my friendship with S. I’ve learned not to allow hurt feelings to fester. The strongest friendships are ones that have withstood the test of confrontation. It isn’t easy, I know. Our voices shake. Our palms grow damp. Our hearts beat a little faster. But when we tell our friends the truth of our hearts—even when it’s scary, especially when it’s scary—we are allowing ourselves to be seen and known. Once in a while, I’ll notice two young women walking down the street with arms linked, or at a bar, heads bent together in deep conversation. Hold on to each other, I want to tell them like some crone who has been around long enough to recognize the mistakes she’s made. Maybe you’ll grow in different directions. Maybe you’ll even grow apart. You won’t like the way she sends back food in a restaurant. Or the way she’s always cold and needs an extra sweater. You don’t need to like each other all the time. Just show up. Tell the truth. And be kind. If you’re lucky, someday you’ll be two old ladies who have stuck by each other all their lives, come what may.