When Lifelong Friendships Go Astray
Over the weekend, I watched my wedding video for the first time in more than three years. Hubby and I had just received the new DVD version (hello, 21st century) and, much to our five-year-old’s chagrin, we decided to check out a few highlights. As I watched old friends and family dancing happily across the screen, I recalled the one and only time I got choked up during the entire day: the moment when my two childhood gal pals gave a joint speech celebrating our friendship. And then I remembered the events six months later that irreversibly changed those friendships long after the final piece of wedding cake had been nibbled on and tossed away.
In case you didn’t know, small-town childhood friendships are incredibly tight and loyal. Growing up, my friends and I knew everything about each others’ lives. We knew the shampoo and soap our families used in the shower, the fights each of us had again and again with our siblings, and whose parents were around and whose weren’t. We knew where, when and how everyone lost their virginity, and we knew before the guy did when he was about to be kicked to the curb. In small towns, friends really do become your family. Think of my childhood pals as the foursome in Good Will Hunting, only without Matt Damon’s hunky biceps.
Despite these close friendships, I took off from that small town as soon as I could to escape my family and all of the shame and pain associated with it. First to Florida and when that wasn’t far enough, I ran to Israel, Poland, and then back to Israel again. When I finally touched down in the U.S. at age 26, I tucked myself deep into the heart of Manhattan, a concrete and anonymous fortress that couldn’t seem any farther away from the rolling green mountains and identical split-level houses that lined the streets of my childhood.
But the past kept tugging at me, not only because of a horrific home life, but because of the indelible imprints of those precious friendships. In the years after high school graduation, I stayed in touch with the two women who would one day speak at my wedding. Our correspondence didn’t add up to much, but these were the days before Facebook and daily emails. When it became obvious that my return to the U.S. would likely be a permanent one, the pace of our communications increased. These women were among the few links I had to my past, and my relationships with them could not have been more valuable to me. Who else, after all, would tell my kid stories about the SunIn that turned my hair orange, throwing up on my bedroom floor, sneaking into my boyfriend’s house at night, or tripping over a tennis net during a flying leap that ended with a resounding thud?
Right after my wedding, these pals and I decided to meet up again six months later, in the winter of 2004 in Scottsdale, Arizona. We picked Scottsdale so that a fourth buddy, who would at that point be seven months pregnant with her third child, could join us. I couldn’t wait, although I have to admit I felt a little anxious about spending time alone with them. I wanted them to know that I was no longer the girl with the garbage outside her house but didn’t want them to think I was bragging. I also wanted to avoid the tension that I felt brewing with one of the women, a tension whose origins I couldn’t decipher.
As the four of us hugged at the airport in Scottsdale, I tried my best to allay my anxiety. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to shut up. But I couldn’t do either. You know how some people immediately change the topic when they realize they’ve hit upon a sensitive subject? Well, I did the opposite. I found a sore spot, namely politics, and I pounded on it. Meanwhile, one of my friends was returning to her religious Christian roots and evolving in her views on many social issues. Another was worried that her husband, a pilot in the military, would be shipped off to war. And then there was me, spouting off about Bush and Cheney as only a left-leaning liberal former Peace Corps Volunteer Jewish New Yorker can do. Within about a day the tension became unbearable. Something snapped and I ran away.
I don’t mean this in a figurative sense. I mean I literally ran away. After a particularly unpleasant exchange with one of my friends at the pool with the other two women looking on, I did what any mature and married 30-year-old woman would do. I retreated back to the hotel room the four of us were sharing and packed my things. It was winter, and I had brought along my heavy coat, along with just about the ugliest pair of sneakers you’ve ever seen in your life. In my haste, I left these items behind as well as a note to my friends saying I didn’t feel comfortable staying with them. I rushed to the airport to catch a standby spot on a flight back to New York.
The whole time I sat at the airport, I stared at my little Nokia phone, willing it to ring. I even pushed the rubber keypad every few minutes to make sure it was working. I’d been in the same situation with at least one of these gals before, although at the time she had been the one running away, and we knew the drill. Follow that girl. Only this time, nothing. No phone call in the hours I waited for a flight and no phone call in the days, months, and years afterward. No delivery ever came with my winter coat and ugly gym shoes packed inside. I was out and our friendships were over.
That evening when my plane touched down in Newark, New Jersey, hubby was there waiting for me with a new coat. And he filled the bathtub for me night after night in the weeks after, as I soaked in my sorrows and tried to figure out how three friendships could evaporate in an instant. For years after Scottsdale, I was plagued by self-doubt and recrimination as I analyzed all of the things I had done wrong. I wondered if I had ever really been friend worthy. Most of all, I thought about how fragile even the most durable of relationships could be. As time went on, though, I began to wonder how secure those friendships were to begin with. Could one 36-hour period ruin everything or had we been growing apart and this was simply the final straw?
In the years since that sorrow-filled cross country flight, a lot has changed. I no longer struggle with anxiety the way I did. Once I got control over that, I found that I could feel safer in my relationships with my husband and my friends, safer in the hurt, pain, kindness and love we share and inflict upon each other. I also discovered that I’m actually a good partner and friend. Yes, there are times when I’ve hurt and I’ve been hurt, but I now have the confidence to disagree and then say, “Talk to me, so I can apologize and make it better.” I only wish I’d had the ability to do this back then, with my old friends, instead of running away.
About four years ago, I took responsibility for what happened with those three friends in Arizona and emailed each of them saying I was sorry. I’m not sure how much good it did. Something still holds them back from fully trusting me again. And something holds me back from trying too hard. Perhaps it’s too late, although I’ll probably never entirely give up hope. There is still hope, even as I acknowledge that some friendships are for life while others are meant to be tucked away like my wedding DVD, brought out every so often and celebrated for what they captured in that sweet and fleeting moment in time.
(photo credit: Spa Flyer)