Friendship: Buoys & Black Holes

I’ve enjoyed the good fortune recently of being adopted by a group of women, far wiser than I in many ways, who meet for lunch once a month. Along with decadent food and wine, they always bring wit and wisdom, studied perspectives and brilliance to the table. I feel a bit like a mascot in their midst, but so grateful and beloved, I scarcely feel sheepish. And it would be disingenuous to say they have no taste for the youthful and energetic flavors I can stir into the bounty being served.

At the last such gathering, the assigned topic for conversation was friendship, and when my turn came (especially after listening to their nuanced commentary), I had to admit, at 35, I’m still figuring out what it means, and not in the sense of a natural maturation of understanding, but on the most basic level. Playing my life back in sequences, a clear pattern emerges for the viewer. The people I tend to throw the most energy and devotion into have nearly always turned out to be the wrong ones, either in that we were simply unsuited for one another, or more often, that they were social vampires of one kind or another. I’ll give an example of each, one short and one long.

Ironically, my short example comes from what had been a life-long friendship for me. “Greta” and I knew each other from babyhood, as we were born the same year and our parents were friends. Two other girls were born into our little circle and we dubbed ourselves the “The Fearless Foursome” as teenagers. By that time, I’d already started to feel hurt and attacked by Greta’s sparse yet blunt communication style, but due to nature, nurture and the inexperience so central to adolescence, I said nothing, allowing anger and bitterness to grow over years, all the way up into my 20’s. It blew out a few times, but was patched over, each time without finding any resolution. Then, in 2011, I finally decided the bad outweighed the good, and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. I couldn’t take Greta to task for being who she was. I also refused to indict that tender teen I had been for not knowing how to handle it all. We were simply unsuited, our communication styles too different, and several incidents in the years leading up to my decision to break ties, only solidified my resolve. This wasn’t something that was going to get better between us. The important difference, finally, had to do with knowing and respecting myself enough to say goodbye.

And now my long example, again ironic, because “Ashley” streaked through my life in a flash of 14 months. I met her in my creative writing class at the Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA) and it was June of our rising senior years of high school. She left for college in another state in August of the following year. Outside of class, I didn’t spend much time with her during the three weeks of GSA, but just after school started back in the fall, we found each other again, living closer to one another than to anyone else who’d shared that life-shaping experience with us.

It didn’t take me long to realize Ashley held many keys, to all the right hangouts in Lexington, Kentucky where we sought our bliss, to many new people who would become my “friends,” to unexplored parts of who I was becoming. She was the one who dragged me into a Cajun restaurant for the first time. Feeling adrift, having been raised on Midwestern meat and potatoes and looking over the “foreign” menu selections, I asked her what she was getting, and she replied, “Oh, I’m not eating.”

“Then why are we here?” I asked incredulously.

“Because you’re going to try this, and you’re going to love it,” she replied, and she was so right. Every time I go back to Lexington, I try to make it into the current incarnation of that restaurant. The Pazole stew, served over penne pasta with a buttery slab of garlic bread is Kentucky’s version of pure Cajun nirvana.

And Ashley was a type of nirvana for me as well. I can’t remember how many months after I met her, I started driving her everywhere. She got into a minor fender bender and said she no longer felt safe driving herself, convenient as well, since she liked to drink at the parties we went to.

For another key Ashley held was an illegal copy of that which unlocked my freedom. If I wanted to return to my parents’ house on a given evening, the best curfew I could hope for was 10:30 or 11 p.m. Ashley, on the other hand could waltz in and out of her mother’s house at any hour of the day or night. I took to crashing at her place whenever I could get permission from my parents to do so which certainly was not every weekend, but I took what I could get.

So addicted to the way she made me feel and the experiences afforded to me through her access to the city I was coming to love, I ignored the signs that Ashley might not be the best friend. Or perhaps “ignored” connotes too much awareness. It’s no stretch to believe that at 17 and 18, I still swam in such naiveté that I wouldn’t have recognized those signs had I run into them headlong. And once again, looking back over the timeline, I spent a good bit of it glancing off one or another.

She once invited me to an event, some of her best friends planning to streak the mall, and then refused to answer my calls or return my messages after she took some heat from another member of her core group for telling me about the plan. I could’ve taken a major hint from the way she talked about her other “friends” as well, people who I knew thought she actually cared about them, and she would call them sluts, or join in with the guys in our circle on mean pranks against them.

I took one of those silly quizzes in a fashion magazine, something about What kind of best friend do you have? and scoffed at the answer I got about Ashley. As ridiculous as those quizzes are, this one pegged her as a selfish party girl, using me for rides and one more buoy for her self esteem, but I completely blew it off. Ashley was my very best friend!

I even went to great ceremonious lengths to introduce her to my “former” best friends. I assembled the Fearless Foursome one evening at a busy restaurant in downtown Lexington. I wanted them to meet Ashley and know that she was going to be right on par with them in terms of the important people in my life. When she arrived with a few of her friends, she rode a weak wave and a lame excuse about being intimidated over into a corner booth halfway across the restaurant from where I sat. I don’t recall how many times I tried to roust her over to meet Greta and the others, but I’m sure it wasn’t as many times as I would make excuses for her throughout the evening.

Why did I cling to her so? How could I be so blind? Well, she wasn’t 100% vampire. I still believe she did care for me in her own way. Perhaps the rotten friendships she’d grown up with attending the small private school she went to crippled her from being a very good friend. I think, on some level, she did her best. She certainly imparted some wisdom to me, and not just in learning to steer clear of people like her. She modeled a quiet confidence, a fearless forward motion I so desired to emulate, and as she was opening doors for me, she was also opening me up to my own rising potential. People, places, experiences. So many I would never have touched without Ashley in my life!

Her going away party for college was devastating for me. She gave me a card in which she wrote that she didn’t think she’d ever met a more genuine person. I mourned her physical departure, but little did I know, I had yet to lose the part of her most important to me.

Weeks later, dealing with the displacement of moving out of my parents’ house and into a college dorm, I ran into one of her friends at our favorite coffee shop, and as I would later write, “desperate to bring Ashley into the room,” I recounted to him some of the inside details from our New Year’s revelry, now months in the past. When he seemed surprised to hear them, particularly the part about Ashley having had a crush on his former roommate, I grew worried. Had I revealed to him something I shouldn’t have?

Ashley was right about me in those days. Extremely genuine, I had to know if I’d accidentally betrayed her, and in what I now realize was a foolish mistake, I emailed her about the conversation I’d had in the coffee shop, saying something at the end of the message to the effect of, “I hope that wasn’t an oops.” Unfortunately my instincts proved correct, and Ashley was livid with me for outing her about her former crush. I called her weeping the same day I received her angry response. She tried to calm me with her words over the phone, but what she’d said in the email was that she could never trust me again. Devastated, heartbroken, already in withdrawal from her and now feeling even more cut off, my obsessive mourning for her began, and wouldn’t end for years.

I would see her a small handful of times after that. She came back that Christmas and so many of us gathered at the airport to welcome her home for winter break. I still felt the distance between us, perhaps even more profoundly as she stood right in front of me, her heart now closed to me, at least in my perception. I dreamed about being reunited with her and finally receiving her forgiveness (or not) countless times. When I think now about the exhaustive amounts of energy I poured into mourning our relationship, stretching months and years beyond the number we had spent together in the first place, it’s hard not to chalk it all up to adolescent angst, but in the end, it was real energy, real feelings, at least for my part.

Falling for, fumbling and emotionally flailing after Ashley would prove a singularly unique experience. Subsequent social bloodsuckers I would befriend over the years wouldn’t be after my chauffer services or my undying devotion per se. Some would be after my sympathetic ear, others my unsinkable willingness to lend my sanity to their dysfunction, and still others my uncanny ability to mistake a bad business proposition for something worthy of support and pour hours of my time and talents into it. Most recently, the bloodsuckers have been in search of a mother figure, which I’ve only recently become.

All of this is not to say I haven’t had great friends too, but I tend to neglect the real good ones, instead pouring my time, energy and heart into black hole personalities. I don’t think I have any vampires in my life right now, but how would I know, I suppose?

And this is what I meant when I told the wise ladies at the table a few months ago that I was still learning about friendship. I am still learning, and I believe I’m blessed with several wonderful friends in my life right now. As is my habit, I tend to neglect them. Being a mom to young toddlers gives me a “good excuse,” but how terrible to lean on excuses not to spend time with the people who genuinely love me!

I need to be a better friend, myself. I need to start right now, and maybe then, by practicing it, I’ll learn what friendship really means.