Everybody knows what it feels like to stand in the shower and try to catch water in your hands. You don’t know why you do it, especially when you know how it works: You’re not a bowl, you’re a sieve made of waterproof flesh. It was never going to stay. You watch it pool and leak, pool and leak, until you get frustrated and you let your hands fall and decide it was stupid anyway.
That’s me and friendship.
I could blame my childhood: I was born an Air Force brat, and moved every three years or less until I was 11, managing to switch schools three more times even after my family settled down. On the one hand, it gave me a sense of independence and a passion for finding my own path, but on the other hand, it gave me an insurmountable need to regularly start over, and what a therapist once called “abandonment issues.” That’s a term that rarely gets applied to the people doing the leaving, but here I am, mourning my own exits.
As a kid, I was a little weird and a lot shy, and terrified of connecting to anyone. I was sure that one of two things would happen: We would be separated as soon as I started to feel safe, or they would never want to be bothered by me in the first place. Either way I ended up alone, and either way I felt invisible.
So, instead of putting myself out there, I prayed. Not just for a friend, though – for an angel.
Now, look, God took his time before he sent me anything at all. And when he did, it was decidedly not an angel. It was a boy – an unfathomable specimen whose acquaintance I first made at 11, in the mess hall of a summer camp for the gifted. We’d just moved and my parents wanted me to make friends.
That’s not exactly what happened, but it was close enough.
There I was, perched at the end of a long lunch table, picking at some pizza, scanning the crowd for the least intimidating potential buddy and wishing I could just go home. Enter a tiny, bespectacled blur racing laps around the cafeteria, throwing bread rolls at everyone and jittering with excitement.
Definitely not what I had in mind.
I didn’t know then, and I didn’t know when we finally met again five years later – fuck, I didn’t even know another five years after that – that our friendship would be the longest, most formative, and most disappointing relationship of my life to date. I didn’t know that when you leave someone, they can leave you even more, even worse, even bigger in return. I didn’t know that, as much as breakups with boyfriends would haunt me, watching a friendship die is one of the most painful experiences the heart can encounter.
What makes it even worse is that the bastard still has my cat.
It started with a bus ride, curled up, conjoined by a pair of earphones, talking about Shakespeare. I don't think either of us was quite sure what the fuck the other was saying but we liked the space between us where it felt like what we had to say actually counted.
Besides some vague, desperate-to-prove-ourselves-smart chattering about Hamlet, I don’t actually remember what we talked about at all. We were on our way to see The Phantom of the Opera, and in a couple of years I’d know him well enough to know that he liked dropping in random bits about the book when everyone else was talking about the play or the film because he always liked to be the most obscure guy at the party, so it was probably something about that. I remember wearing a pink pin-striped skirt. I remember having braces and no mobile phone. I remember that he gave me his hat: a classic-him grey newsie number he wore through the halls of school even though it was against the dress code. I remember that being really exciting. I remember feeling seen.
It sounds a lot like falling in love, and I guess that’s because it was. I mean, it wasn’t – not falling in love the way you think of it, not the kind of falling in love that’s probably making you smirk right now and think, OBVIOUSLY THEY HAD FEELINGS FOR EACH OTHER.
And yes. Obviously we had feelings for each other. Lots. Just not sexy, let’s-get-married feelings, which in the grand scheme of things is only one very specific kind of feeling in a big fat pool of other, equally strong feelings that we deal with every day.
He was my brother, and he acted like it: He annoyed the shit out of me one second with his obviously-smarter-than-you attitude, and the next I was defending him when he annoyed the shit out of anyone else. He was my co-star: We were famously banned from talking to each other at all after an impassioned argument about monogamy caused me to miss my entrance in my one and only scene in our high school production of Romeo and Juliet. He was my roommate: Even before college, he slept at my house more than either of his parents’. He was my getaway driver: I could never hold it together behind the wheel. He was my child; picture me cutting his hair in our bathtub and begging him to go to class before his low attendance forced him out of uni. He was my cat co-parent. He was the other end of every inside joke, the kid puking in the next stall over after we drank too much vodka, the person who knew exactly what I wanted to have for dinner before I’d even said it, the executor of the brilliant plan to only eat ice cream that week our air conditioning went out in July.
We fell in love with being friends, and true love in friendship is weird and one-in-a-million. He was mine, and now a massive wall juts up between who I was when we were us and who I am now.
And I miss a lot of things about the shape my life used to have, but the things I miss the most are screaming Something Corporate lyrics out the window of my best friend’s car, cooking up our next matching Halloween costumes, sharing a birthday party because we’re only 12 days apart. Finding Rainbow Twizzlers outside my dorm room because I’d had a shit day, because even though we were fighting and even though we were both pretty dumb, we also both knew some things are bigger than that.
But then, some things aren’t.
I guess oceans are one of them.
University ended; I moved abroad for my master's, and distance can kill good things because distance creates fear and takes away intimacy and leaves room for other things to worm their way in. You don’t think about keeping a friendship alive the way you think about spicing up your love life. Friendship is supposed to be there. Constant. Reliable. The backdrop against which all the other stuff you can’t count on happens.
And maybe it wasn’t that we had some cosmically fated connection. Maybe it was just that we had a connection at all. We were still young enough that we could bond without looking for reasons not to; we were just different enough and just the same enough to rely on each other and grow together. He was charm and chaos. Bravado and bullshit. I was heart and hope. Anxiety and alienation. A shakily drawn yin and yang that if you looked too closely had plenty of gaps for life to push through and break us apart like so many glaciers, left to float out there wondering where our other half went. If we ever even had another half to begin with.
He was the thing I sat in my bedroom and prayed for nearly 20 years ago. The thing I asked for and actually got. The thing I thought would be there, even when I wasn’t.
I picked up and flew off with the naïve belief that things would stay the same. I left but I tried to stay as much as I could. Tried to call, tried to write, tried to pay for him to visit, tried to keep that one connection from wilting.
Sometimes he’d answer but he’d always disappear soon after. Sometimes he’d be gone for months and only resurface to let me know about a typo in a tweet. He left me bigger, and meaner, and more, and it makes me crazy, like watching all that water fall between the cracks of my fingers no matter how hard I clench my palms together to hold it in.
I stopped trying to catch him, let my hands fall to my sides and figured it was stupid anyway. Watched him rush away, and hated his fucking guts for it.
Two years ago I went home. We ate lunch – Olive Garden. We walked around – the local park. We rattled off bullet-point lists of what we’d been up to. Hookups made, jobs left, degrees earned, books read…they all fell out of our mouths like we’d turned the tap on and left it there. But we weren’t really listening; we weren’t even quite sure what the fuck the other was saying, and what used to feel like freedom felt like a dried-up sponge. We cast off confessions like weather updates; the promises we’d made to tell each other first about this life-altering event and that flopped on the table between us like a fish flung from its aquarium.
I think we said we’d try harder. I think we thought we meant it.