Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Friend, Fool, or Foe

I just finished reading a book called The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away, edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. Women writers created essays of how friendships begin and evolve, only to be ended through a variety of reasons: time, geography, discord, or death. Friendships are formed without the bonds of blood or romantic love, yet these relationships can have the same power in our lives. The end of love is written about in countless ways, yet the loss of friendship is one subject that seems rarely discussed in our tell-all society. Someone asks you "Whatever happened to your friend," and more often than not the answer you give back is carefully worded to reveal nothing. "We had a falling out. It's complicated." We hold nothing back from friends: they know all of our weaknesses, and they remember our history. Often they know a self that is hidden from the rest of the world, yet they accept us as we truly are, and we value this.

I wondered if I could write of a break in friendship through a haze of distance and memory and write with some subjectivity, since it was such an emotionally charged experience. How much could I trust my own accounting of it? There are some breaks I rejected in telling, for the sole reason that they were way too personal and raw, but there was one break that still strikes me as odd. Logically, it should never have happened, yet my friend seemed on a course she had set and could not free herself from, and it scooped me up into the drama and ultimately caused the break. So, we'll begin at the beginning, as they say.

Patricia and I had known each other since we were very small children. Our mothers were good friends, and we attended the same church. That is how I saw her for the most part, every Sunday in church, or at church activities, but also family gatherings. For the longest time, our families, with another family, did Thanksgiving dinner together. The three woman (who were all friends) had arrived at this plan, and this way they would have two Thanksgivings where they never had to cook. They all did, anyway, of course. "Let me bring the pies," or the green bean casserole, or some offering. The children all got along. My brother had three other boys to run around with on that day, and I had Patricia and Mary. One infamous Thanksgiving, we climbed out of Mary's bedroom window and toilet papered a neighbor's house. The police were cruising the neighborhood, caught us, and hauled us back to our parents. To this day, it is a favorite telling to remember how mortified our mothers were, and how our fathers were trying so hard to keep straight faces and not burst into laughter. I think I was five years old when I met Mary and she was three, and I am still friends with her to this day. That is another odd thing about the break with Patricia. I consider myself the type of person who sustains friendships, who works at being a good friend, keeping in touch, being concerned. I've since had to learn that even with that in place, some things just can't be saved.

Patricia was a pampered girl. I make no judgments on that, she just was. Whatever fancy took her interest, her parents let her explore it: music lessons, ice skating lessons, swimming lessons, horseback riding lessons which we did that together at Rock Creek Park stables. (Somehow the subject came up recently with a friend who didn't know they allowed horses in this city. Yes. They do.) Every Christmas when I would see her, she would be flooded with presents, yet I never got the sense she was arrogant about it or obnoxious. I am still in touch with her mother to this day, and I know Patricia had a very sweet, very loving mother. I suppose I report these things because my parents were much stricter with me with the consciously voiced concern of "not spoiling me." She was the first to have a television in her room, the first to wear a bikini, the first to be given a car. When we were teenagers, we would hop in her car and go joy riding. It was through one of her boyfriends that I met a boy I would date for a while, a blonde god who was Captain of his football team at another school. It was also because of her that I can say that I've gone on a date with an Amish boy. We went to an ice cream parlor. Sweet, yes?

We had fun together. In all of the time we were growing up, I can't honestly think of one incident where we had words or there was any tension. Yet she had this terrible need. When I look back now, I can see where she had this strong desire to be married. I think, without exaggeration, that she was engaged to be married at least four times before we were nineteen. She would call them her "fiancé." No one blinked or balked at the suggestion that they were anything but what she said. They would disappear. Nice boys. Attractive boys. What most would call a "catch," yet they would be gone, and another would be on the horizon, and in a remarkably short time they would become the "fiancé." Even then, I marvelled at it. I didn't know anyone with those persuasive powers over a young man of 17, 18, 19 years, other than Patricia.

Our friendship rolled along over the years.
We went to summer camp together. We egged cars together, with our brothers. We'd go to parties together. We made out with boys in cars in dark places together. We lay on the beach together. We'd see each other every Sunday. We spent shared holidays. Probably in my junior year of college, that spring immediately after finals, Patricia approached me about driving to Alabama because she needed "a rest." Some down time. That was always how it was presented to me: a rest. I didn't believe her for a minute. Patricia's mother was originally from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and she still carried the accent of her birthplace. Back when we were in high school, Patricia's parents had taken a young man from Tuscaloosa into their home to live for a while. His name was Dan. He was slightly older than us, and he was the son of a longstanding friend, I think. He had finished college and done a stint as a Marine. He was attractive, but not in a way that appealed to me, and I never had a sense Patricia was interested in him during that time, what with four fiancé's being juggled around. Ultimately he moved back home to Alabama, and when she first approached me with this trip, the light bulb went off, and I thought "she wants to go down there after Dan." I just "knew."

I was quite worn out from my finals. It seems I was recovering from some minor illness. I only remember being overwhelmingly exhausted and in need of rest myself, not feigned rest. I told my boyfriend at the time how much I absolutely did not want to drive to Alabama with Patricia. I told my mother. I told Patricia's mother. The deal was: Patricia couldn't drive down there alone. She had to have someone with her, and I was the logical someone. I made the rounds again, citing my own fatigue in not being up for it. I knew I couldn't help with driving that far, but that was waved off as not important. She would be doing all of the driving. I made the rounds again: boyfriend, mother, Patricia's mother. My boyfriend backed me. "Don't go." My mother initially backed me, especially when I told her what I thought Patricia might be up to, but she had no easy way of presenting that explanation to Patricia's mother. I forget how many times we went through my rejection of this trip. Three? Four? More than should be required, but it wouldn't stop. Finally, my mother begged me, out of her friendship to the mother, to please just go. It would only be a few days. It might be fun. I would see a part of the South I had never been in. In retrospect it's amazing someone didn't cave on this plan and write it off, but they did not, and the persistence paid off. After talking with my mother that one last time and hearing her awkward position and perspective, I folded and I went.

I can honestly say that from the minute we got into the car, somewhere heading into Virginia, I knew it was a huge mistake. Patricia was flying. Speeding. Driven. I could see it in her face, this focus and determination that disturbed me. We had made plans to stop at one of my Aunt's home to spend the night. I remember we didn't get there until quite late, and I could barely swallow a sandwich before hitting the bed. Between my lingering illness, existing exhaustion, and the tension in the car, I was drained. I remember sitting in my Aunt's kitchen and quietly voicing concern to her over the trip. In retrospect, I find it very disturbing that everyone kept telling me things would be ok, and me having this horrible sense that things were not ok. At the worst, I pictured us arriving in Alabama, staying at Patricia's Aunt and Uncle's who were in Florida, so we were in the house alone, and then her running off with Dan the entire time, and me either being a third wheel, or sitting alone, and neither vision sat well with me. This is what I had warned everyone about from the start, but other than my boyfriend, who did see what could happen, the adults were all trying to put the best face on it.

Early the next morning, we were back on the road and speeding, speeding, speeding. I remember falling asleep at one point and this seemed to piss Patricia off. Somewhere in Alabama (I think Montgomery, I just can't remember), we had stopped at a carryout store, and I stayed in the car. When Patricia came out, she had a young man in tow, and she announced we were driving him to Tuscaloosa with us. His name was Patrick, I think, and his father was a drama professor at the university. He had been in that part of Alabama participating in some theatre event and was returning home. I yanked her aside and said we couldn't take a stranger in the car with us, but she pushed my concerns aside and off we went. Patrick was pleasant enough. Engaging, locaquious and intelligent. He was also attractive. He sat in the back seat chatting away, and at some point he and I connected on something, but it left Patricia out of the conversation. I could see her becoming angrier. He was paying attention to me, not to her, and I could also see he was an intelligent enough boy to try and keep her involved in the conversation where most would not have that sensitivity. Her answers became terser, and I knew things were not good. I certainly had no interest in him. I hadn't even wanted him along. This was solely her doing, and it was turning on her. When we arrived in Tuscaloosa, we dropped him over by the university, and then she went ripping through town to get to the house. As soon as we entered, before we even unpacked, she was on the phone and calling Dan. My heart sank. "Here we go," I thought. "Now, it begins."

Within minutes, we were back out and into the car, drivin
g to Dan's apartment. Here is where it gets very crazy. Dan opened the door, we entered, and there was a young woman. A redheaded knockout. "Surprise, surprise, surprise," as Gomer Pyle used to say. I could see that Patricia was clueless that he had been living with this woman. Even now, I cringe at remembering how the woman looked. Bewildered. Hurt. Who were these two women, and what did they mean to him? Why were they here? It was all in her face. I can't remember her name. I want to say "Kathy," but I just don't recall. I do remember being entirely in her corner on this, and I worked very hard through unspoken action to let her know I was not a threat to her relationship. Patricia, however...what can I say? She was flirting, she was overt, she was horrible. I was so ashamed to be there. I forget what was said during that time. I know it was established that Kathy was a nursing student, still in classes, and I could see her wondering "Just how safe am I going off and leaving him with this girl?" I sat off to the side feeling incredibly trapped and sunk.

From that point on, I resolved I would stay far, far away from any more trips to Dan's place, and that's exactly what I did. That night, I did not go b
ack with her, nor the next day when Dan, Kathy, Dan's cousin and Patricia all went off to shoot guns somewhere. I declined. I was there to "rest." I remember lounging around, reading magazines, realizing that even my worst fears had somehow been exceeded, and knowing there wasn't going to be a "best face" to put on things. I went outside, and there was a young couple at the house next door with their baby boy, sitting on their steps. Friendly person that I am, I wandered over, introduced myself, made small talk, and spent the afternoon with them, watching the little boy stumble about on the sidewalk, learning to walk, diaper drooping, and realizing I was far better off than going with my other option. Patricia returned home that night, and I could tell things had not gone as hoped. Her fallen dreams and fury came off of her in waves.

Things weren't any better the next day. She
had me join her that afternoon at Dan's place. I probably declined at first, but I am sure some reason was proffered as to why I couldn't stay behind--dinner later, some activity, I don't recall. I asked Dan if he would mind me resting on his bed for a while. In truth, I couldn't bear sitting in the room with them. I went and lay down, listening to their voices in the living room. Somewhere during their conversation, Patricia totally turned on me. I don't even remember the transition. She started ripping me to shreds: how I was such a pill in her efforts to be there, how I was being a total drag now (true, but I was trying to protect myself), and then the real attack launched. Venom, venom, venom. I listened for a while until I couldn't stomach another word. I entered the living room, I never made eye contact with her, but I quietly asked Dan if he would drive me back to where we were staying. She started screaming at me then. She may have called me a "bitch," I can't remember it all, but it was nasty. While in the car, Dan and I said very little, but close to the house he asked me, in this very low voice, if I was ok. The whole time in the car, I had turned my face from him and stared out the window. I was afraid I was going to lose it and start sobbing, and I absolutely did not want to put him through such a thing. I told him I was not okay, but that I would be and not to worry.

In truth, I was a wreck. I had just walked away from character assassination and now what was I going to do? I didn't have a credit card. I had very little money on me. I didn't know. I had to take a key or something and lift the latch on the screen door to enter the house (thank God for lax security). I do remember purposefully going to the bedroom and packing my things. In that act, there was never any hesitation. I knew I had to leave. I went next door to the couple's house where I had spent time. What amazing people they were. They had two children, one who was three and one under two. She had just had back surgery and was white with pain. I sat and told them everything. Everything. I used their phone, reversed charges, and I called my boyfriend. I must have been sobbing at that point, just to get rid of everything I had been holding in for days. He was incredible. So calm. So sure of himself. Because of his father's work, he had been travelling the world since he was a small child. When he was ten, he flew alone to Korea. When he was 16, he flew alone, via a European route and stopovers, to Vietnam. He was far more worldly than your average teenager. He asked me if there was an airport or a bus station? Yes. Was there a Western Union? Yes. He took the number where I was staying, and he set about wiring me money and made all of my travel arrangements to get me back home.

The next day, early in the morning, the woman and I walked in her garden while she showed me her vegetables coming up. She was so kind to open her house to a troubled stranger. I remember I slept in her child's bed that night, with the black lab sharing my space, and I tossed all night, just sick with worry about the whole mess. During the night, I heard Patricia arrive back home, and she began screaming at the top of her lungs when she realized I was gone. You could hear her cursing me through the opened windows. I had never told her about my getting to know the neighbors, so she had no idea where I was. That morning, the neighbor drove me to Western Union, and then the airport. I made sure I had their names and address so I could send them a small gift and thank you once I had arrived home (which I did), and my return back to Washington was interesting, to say the least.

I sat alone (with no other passengers arriving) at that Tuscaloosa airport for hours. I had to fly first class, because that was the only thing available. So I flew knowing I was going to be out that money. Then I was told the flight would ultimately take me 10-12 hours to get from Tuscaloosa to Washington, D.C. with a stopover
/switch at the Atlanta airport. The plane looked like something out of 1953. A real rust bucket. You had to enter via the rear of the plane, and we made several puddle jump landings before arriving in Atlanta. At one point we landed in a cleared corn field. I didn't even know a commercial flight would land in a corn field. A pickup truck blew up red dust driving out to pick up the passengers getting off. I had a lot of time to think about things on my flight back, but even then I couldn't get clear in my head what had just taken place. I was sleep deprived, my nerves were shot, and I was a contained mess.

My boyfriend was waiting for me at National Airport. I probably burst into tears again. I remember feeling the sheer relief of being free of it all. That night, I went over to my parent's house and told them the entire story. I held nothing back. I know that my mother never discussed the situation with Patricia's mother. Shortly after all of this, my mother told me that Patricia's mother had heard from Dan, and that he wanted my address. Would that be okay? I said, "no," and I never knew why, but I am guessing to write a note of apology or explanation. He had never spoke against me that afternoon, but I do think he felt badly about what transpired. I also later heard he had sent a letter to me, via Patricia's mother, to be forwarded to me, but it disappeared, so I never saw it. I do think Patricia's mother knew that I wasn't the kind of girl to walk away from her daughter, unless something really bad had happened, and even now when we talk, she has never asked me about it. Just this past year, however, she did say to me out of the blue, "Do you hate Patricia?" I told her I had never hated Patricia, and she said she was relieved. That was it.

If I had to guess what ended our friendship, I would say thwarted need. I was there to shamefully bear witness to it, and I walked away from it. I don't know where this need came from in Patricia. She was secure, she was loved, but it wasn't enough. She married at 20. She married a divorced man with custody of his children, and she married a man her mother can't stand. Her mother did tell me once, "He doesn't tr
eat her well, and I have told her that she needs to have him show her more respect." I don't know what to make of that, either.

Now, for my kicker of a postscript. My mother died a few years ago. I never dreamed what happened would happen. No one did. I always saw her as her own mother was: strong, autonomous and able to do anything. It was too soon, and it was horrible to watch, and it was incredibly sad. She went into a coma a week before she died, and I never left her side at the hospital, other than to honor my father's wishes and go and choose her coffin and plan her funeral. The day she entered the hospital, the word was out in the c
ommunity of friends, and Patricia showed up in the hospital room. She told me she came to "pay her respects." She didn't stay long. She also showed up for the funeral. I have never spoken to her again.


Blogger Smash said...

That is an amazing story.

5:27 PM  
Blogger ThaiMex1 said...

Wow, Cube. I have never had a friendship "China Syndrome" like that on me. Many of my friendships have changed because of moves out of the region. I would still like to think that friends of the past remain friends now if I were to see them on the street. In fact, I'm still very close to many friends that I've made in grammer school (graduating class of '69). We still get together for unofficial reunions annually when friends are in town during the summer. That's what I get for staying in Washington DC all my life, I suppose.

It's hard to say when those transitions from "close friend" to "good friend" to "distant friend" to "mere aquaintance" occurs. Like all things I suppose nothing remains stagnant for too long and things are always subject to change.

Kuddos to you, Cube, for opening up and expressing yourself about this particular friendship.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous new p said...

first time i'm reading this blog. great post.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Megarita said...

Astonishing story. Tuscaloosa can do that to people, I reckon...

8:01 PM  
Blogger MKD said...


Well written and it wasn't about stupid boys. Losing a friend is one of the worst things ever. It is much, much worse than a break-up with a significant other.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful, tragic story. One of the saddest parts of my life is the loss of a good friend. Distance, time, missing an opportunity to reach out, I'm not sure.

I am sorry for your loss, Cube. Let's hold onto the ones we know now.


9:07 AM  
Blogger aisy said...

what a sad ending to a friendship... the book also sounds very interesting. a few years back i read "necessary losses" by Judith Viorst which touched on some of those same thoughts

7:38 PM  
Blogger always write said...

I had a similar (though far less dramatic) event when I was 19. The woman is still in my life because our mothers are best friends, but I never forgave her and our once-close friendship has been little more than an acquaintanceship for the last 10 of the 19 years I've known her.

You're a brilliant writer. Love your blog!

7:36 AM  

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