Two Weddings and a Friendship Funeral

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By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Keysha Whitaker

My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.

That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.

But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.

“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.

“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”

But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.

As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.

Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.

My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.

We hugged. Then we laughed.

“What the heck happened to you?” I said.

“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.

“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”

Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”

Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.

We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.

I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.

I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.

At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”

I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.

The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.

I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.

“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”

Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.

“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”

The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.

“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”

“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”

“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”

During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.

“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.

At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”

I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.

“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”

“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”  She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

 

[“Justine” isn’t her real name. —ed.]

•••

KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.

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My Best Friend’s Girlfriend

missing him
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Brooke Ferguson

My best friend Dan has a girlfriend. She’s tall, like me. She wears cowboy boots and has a lot of energy and almost a thousand followers on Twitter. She’s a talented artist, and is launching her own business, and is friendly and pretty. Dan says that he likes her very much, and he seems happier than he has in a long time.

This is great. All I want, I’ve been saying to anyone who would listen for the past two years, is for him to be happy. He’s a great guy and he should find a great girl and be really happy. Great!

Except now I’m miserable.

Two years ago, my best friend was my boyfriend and we were living together in an apartment in San Francisco. We were indeed best friends, and roommates … and it kind of felt like that was the extent of our relationship. We were both pretty depressed and in bad situations at work (that is: we hated our jobs). We stayed in and binged on pizza and TV and movies. We didn’t really have any other friends. Everything was almost a flatline. Dan and I were both so easygoing, so low-energy, that if there was a problem we’d just shrug and go bury ourselves in a book (him) or the internet (me). When I told him I wanted to break up, he kept saying, But we get along so well. I don’t understand. I said that was true, that we were great friends, but there was something else that was supposed to be there. A spark that was lacking. An intensity. Just a little passion. For our own lives—to get out of our awful jobs, to go surfing and hiking and take trips like we always said we wanted to—and for each other. I was sorry, but I was firm. It was over.

The next three months were some of the worst of my life. We were both trying to find a place to live, sleeping in the same bed at night but not touching, except sometimes when I was crying and he would hold my hand. We’d mope around the apartment until one of us said something funny, and we’d laugh until we remembered we were breaking up. Then we’d grow sullen again.

We never really took a break. I knew that I wanted Dan to be in my life forever, but I said it was up to him if he wanted to remain friends. If he needed some time and space away from me, I totally understood. But he didn’t, and we moved right into a close friendship. Even though we were broken up, we were still each other’s “person.” We picked each other up from the airport. He watched my dog while I was out of town. He was the one I texted when something funny happened or I heard a stupid joke about Willie Nelson. We went to movies, took surfing lessons, went camping and hiking. We did all of the things we’d talked about doing when we were dating. And I kept saying, I just want him to be happy! We both got better jobs. He dated a few girls, but those relationships just seemed to make him stressed out. I dated a few guys, but that went nowhere. None of them made me laugh like Dan did. And we went on, going to museums together, going to concerts, eating hot wings… Until she showed up.

At first I was genuinely glad for him. And then I was not. Then I was a wreck.

I was hurt, too. Hurt that he didn’t have as much time for me, hurt that he might enjoy another woman’s company as much or more than mine. All the time that I’d been encouraging him to move on, to let go, I didn’t really understand what that would mean, what it might feel like. It felt like a cannonball to the stomach.

I began to feel jealous. Dan and I would spend a great day together, riding our bikes to the beach and getting lunch, browsing second-hand records, laughing and joking the entire time. And then we’d ride back and he’d break off to bike to her house, to spend the night with her while I went home alone.

Choose me, I began thinking at him when we were together, when he would text me that he couldn’t hang out because they were going to some party or some pop-up fashion show or something else so cool and exclusive it would have never even appeared on my radar. Choose me. Choose me. The thing was, he had chosen me, and I had ended it. Somehow I managed to turn his moving on into a rejection. He was leaving me; he was breaking my heart. Somehow I had to prove I was the better woman; I was the right choice.

Oh, come on, you selfish asshole, leave him alone and let him be happy. You just want what you can’t have, were some of my first thoughts as, I’m sure, they are your first thoughts.

And to that I will say: fair enough. Except. Except.

I’m not completely sure that’s true. It’s never been easy just being Dan’s friend. I still believe breaking up was absolutely the right thing to do. We’ve become more active, much closer, and a lot more honest. When Dan and I were together, I had a lot of secrets. I was alarmingly preoccupied with my previous relationship. I was a raging, obsessive Grizzly on the inside. I was so stuck on how this other guy had wronged me that I couldn’t be present for the guy who was in front of me, who took care of me when I had a scratched cornea—waking up every three hours to give me pain medicine, feeding me pizza, washing my hair while I soaked in the tub and cried. But I was too afraid to tell him about the beast in my head. How would that conversation go? Sorry I’m acting so weird. I’m just completely obsessed with my ex-boyfriend. Well, yeah, maybe something like that. At least then it would have been out in the open, and we could have talked about it and maybe I would have been surprised by the result. But I didn’t give us that chance. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. I was so afraid I would lose the relationship that I didn’t speak up to save it. And then, after a while, I just gave up.

So what? I had my chance. What was I doing during the two years before the great girl (G.G.) entered the picture? Well, I was alone for a long time, trying to figure out what kind of life I wanted. I was dating other people and realizing how rare it was to connect with someone so deeply. I was getting the proper help for all the bullshit that I was carrying around from my other relationship. I was discovering that intensity wasn’t love, and that Dan’s way of showing love was maybe not flashy, but it was heartfelt. Over the past year I would sometimes look at him, and feel both a warmth and a sadness, wondering if things would be different now. Would I still feel that lack of spark, or would I find it now that I could be really, truly honest and vulnerable with him, now that I was no longer keeping a piece of myself tucked away like a demented squirrel with a rotten nut? Now that I could accept him for what he was, instead of critiquing all the ways he wasn’t my psychotic ex?

I didn’t get a chance to find out. He moved pretty quickly from a tumultuous, six-month relationship into one with the G.G. He told me about her right away, and said he wanted me to meet her. All right, I thought, he’s finally found that great girl! And she is great, actually. We’ve met a few times, and she doesn’t mind if Dan and I are friends. (I honestly can’t say I would be cool with my boyfriend being such good friends with his ex, but maybe that’s because I have a treacherous mind, and she’s a G.G.).

So why am I suddenly not okay with it? I don’t know if it’s because he’s becoming someone else’s person and I’m mourning the relationship that ended two years ago, doing the grieving I didn’t really get to do because we moved so quickly into a friendship. It might be that things are shifting and changing, and that a lot of times that really hurts, even if it’s a good thing. Maybe eventually it will stop hurting, and I can truly feel glad for him without a sting of pain in my heart. I have to accept that we won’t spend Christmas or Thanksgiving together. We won’t go visit his dad in Texas. But that’s what a break-up means, and maybe we’ve just been putting it off. Maybe I feel a sudden, fierce need for him because he’s moved on, and I haven’t yet, and I don’t know what the future holds. I do know what the past holds—someone who believed in me and treated me kindly. And also someone who didn’t have a lot of ambition, who didn’t touch or hug me often or show affection in public. There’s no face on my future. It’s completely unknown. If Dan isn’t my person, then who is?

One night as I was sitting on my floor, crying and listening to Billy Bragg records, I wondered if I my dilemma had ever been represented somewhere. Had I seen this before? Was there something I could look to for guidance, for comfort? I realized that yes, there was something, and it wasn’t very flattering: I was a less charming Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. All this time I was feeling sorry for myself, but I had not been wronged. If anything, I got what I asked for. And if I took things further, if I started to try and pry them apart, to highlight all the ways I was right for him and she was wrong, I was going to be the villain in the story. It doesn’t feel great to realize you’re the bad guy, even if you aren’t trying to be.

So, what am I going to do? Nothing, really. All this confusion requires no action except that I back off and keep my mouth shut. I will not spill to him about my internal struggle. I will not tell him that when they post Instagram photos of their adventures together I want to punch a wall. I will not say, I think maybe I might want to try again? Because as it stands, he’s unavailable and I am unsure. Even if I were sure, I would have no right to interfere with his new relationship. His happiness is, in fact, very important to me, and so is our friendship. What I am going to do is keep working on myself, and figuring out what I want, and keep moving forward. I will wonder, and be sad, and write about it, and just be his friend. Part of me thinks I’m a terrible person for even having these feelings, but then, they’re just my feelings. If I’ve learned one thing from sitting in a rut, thinking isn’t doing. I can dissect my thoughts to the atomic level and no harm is done. Like I said, there is nothing to be done, unless he becomes single and I am certain I want to risk our friendship for another shot at romance.

Who knows—maybe she really is his person and their relationship will finally close the chapter on whatever it is Dan and I have been doing the past two years. Maybe her arrival will be the best thing that ever happened to our friendship. Maybe I’ll send her flowers.

Maybe not.

•••

BROOKE FERGUSON lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her dog. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, Index/Fist, and Sparkle & Blink, and she was recently a writer in residence at Starry Night Retreat in New Mexico. She blogs about movies at http://tallbrooke.wordpress.com/

The Break-Up

nest hand002
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Dorothy O’Donnell

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been dumped before. Or ended my share of relationships that had disaster written all over them. But this particular break-up hit me harder than most, even though, technically, I wasn’t the one being dumped.

It happened at my eight-year-old’s school on her first day of second grade, the hottest day of the summer. Seeking shade while I waited for the screech of the bell to release her, I headed for the courtyard with the big oak—the one the kids called The Barney Tree—by her classroom. The mother of Sadie’s closest friend was already sitting on the wide, tile-studded concrete planter that surrounded Barney. I smiled and sat down beside her.

I liked Janet. I considered her my friend. We made small talk—about the weather, our husbands’ annoying habits—as we had so many times before while we waited for our girls.

That summer, they’d spent hours bouncing on the trampoline in my backyard, dissolving in peals of laughter as they played a game they called “Butt War.” They dressed up like Hannah Montana and danced around my living room belting out “The Best of Both Worlds.” They went to day camp together and called each other B.F.F.

Just before the bell rang, Janet turned to me and sighed. “I need to let you know what’s been going on,” she said.

My stomach clenched. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.

She told me that during their last playdate, Sadie kept punching and pinching her daughter, Amy. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, Janet confided. Sadie had even kicked her in a fit of anger.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, her eyes wide.

I stared at the tawny oak leaves scattered on the asphalt and pushed them around with my foot.

Sadie was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder when she was five. Frequent mood swings—including extreme irritability that can be triggered by something as innocent as a playmate saying “hi” to someone else—are symptoms of the illness.

Usually, she saves her explosions for home. It’s where she feels safe to lose control. Maybe all the time she’d spent with Janet and Amy made her comfortable enough to reveal her ugly side to them, too.

When the girls first became friends, I expected each playdate to be their last. Although she’d never physically attacked another child before, Sadie’s explosions had pushed most of her few other companions away. But as the months rolled by and their get togethers continued, I made myself believe everything was okay. I was desperate for my daughter to hold on to her one good friend. And Janet never mentioned any problems.

I’d told her about Sadie’s condition, although I’m not sure if she understood it. And I get that. It’s easy to see my little girl’s outbursts of rage as bad behavior. Or the product of poor parenting.

I wouldn’t want Sadie to play with someone who hurt her, either. But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when, as the classrooms’ turquoise doors swung open and chattering kids flooded the courtyard, Janet said she thought our girls should “take a break.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: I knew their friendship was over. And so was ours.

I broke the news to Sadie as gently as possible on the drive home. She kicked the back of my seat and pummeled it with her fists. She shrieked that she hated Amy. But by the time I pulled into the driveway, she was sobbing as the realization of what her behavior had cost her began to sink in. Inside the house, she grabbed paper and crayons from a kitchen drawer to make a card.

“I’m so, so, so sorry!” she scrawled beside a giant purple heart with a sad face and a jagged line severing it in half.

I squeezed her tight and told her I was proud of her for taking responsibility for her actions. But I warned that the card wouldn’t magically fix everything. She said she wanted to give it to Amy anyway.

I wish I could say that I handled the situation with as much grace. I didn’t. I’d expected my child to be destroyed by the break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how devastated it left me. I missed talking to Janet, who, like me, was an older mom with one child. I missed our occasional outings to the beach, barbeques, and dinners at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor.

Like a scorned lover, I obsessed over every conversation I’d had with my former friend; I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our relationship had soured. Was it the afternoon when she’d called me a soft touch when it came to discipline? Or the evening I showed up at her house to pick up Sadie and she’d hesitated a second too long before answering when I asked how the playdate had gone?

“Great!” she’d said with a strained smile, peering over my head into the dusk. “Everything went just great!”

The more I kept hitting the rewind button on our relationship, the more bitter I became. I went out of my way to avoid Janet at school. One day at pick-up time, I saw her walking toward me as I sat in the car line waiting for Sadie. She was holding hands with Amy and another girl I recognized—a docile creature, who, I was sure, never lost her temper or hit anyone. As I slouched in my car and watched the happy trio cross the parking lot, a wave of envy and anger crashed over me. How could they move on so easily with their lives after leaving such a gaping hole in ours?

I hit rock bottom a few weeks later. I was walking my dog in our neighborhood when a blue minivan chugged by. The driver lightly beeped the horn to say hello. I recognized docile girl’s mother behind the wheel. I gripped Max’s leash tighter, wondering if this woman lingered in Janet’s living room to chat after playdates the way I once had.

From the back seat, Sadie’s ex-bestie and her new sidekick turned to grin and wave at me. I feebly wagged a few fingers in return. What I really wanted to do was flip them off. Because I so wished that my daughter was crammed in the back of that van with them. I ached for her to have a normal childhood, for me to be a normal mom. As the van disappeared around a bend in the road, it felt as if the life we were supposed to have was vanishing with it.

I yanked Max’s leash and turned for home, ashamed of the jealousy and self-pity churning inside me. Janet had every right to protect her child. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that Sadie is the way she is. It wasn’t my fault, either. A gray river of fog tumbled through the valley below the street where I was walking. I imagined it washing away the anger and pain I’d been lugging around since the break-up.

That night, I clicked on the website of a local support group for parents of kids with special needs. I’d thought many times about going to one of the group’s monthly coffees but always found an excuse not to when the day came around.

The following Friday, I printed out directions to that morning’s coffee and drove to the house. With a trembling hand, I pressed the doorbell. A woman with long black hair and a kind face opened the door and welcomed me. She led me into her living room where a dozen or so other women sat on a cream sofa and dining chairs, nibbling blueberry scones and talking. No one looked shocked when, after introducing myself, I told the story about Sadie hurting her playmate. They just nodded or flashed sympathetic smiles.

The next time I saw Janet heading across the school courtyard in my direction, I didn’t look away. I said, “Hi,” and asked how it was going as we passed each other. It still stung to know that she and Amy weren’t part of our lives anymore. But I was finally ready to start moving on with mine.

•••

DOROTHY O’DONNELL is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Her stories and essays have been featured on greatschools.org, brainchildmag.com, mothering.com and NPR. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with early-onset bipolar disorder. You can find more of her writing at dorothyodonnell.com.