It’s not uncommon for a fight between 5-year-olds to end with someone shouting: “You’re not my friend anymore!” There’s an honesty there that I can respect, a directness that’s refreshing: Let there be no confusion — this is where we stand.
Adulthood, however, is something a lot less clear.
I have a friend who I’ve known for almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other through a lot: cheating boyfriends, health problems, depression, divorce. We once went five years without contact because I was lost and selfish and couldn’t bear to have anyone in my life who believed in me. In that time she got married and I wasn’t there, and for that she has forgiven me. Which is all to say, our friendship is the durable kind.
But over the past few years, there’s been a subtle shift that’s been hard for me to admit, still harder to explain. We still love each other. We still want only good things for each other. But separated by thousands of miles and very different lifestyles, there’s a distance between us that is beginning to feel insurmountable. And I’m left wondering: What do you do when you can feel a friendship fading?
Over our past few visits, even though we laughed a lot and had more than a few moments when it really did feel like it once did between us, there was also this nagging feeling that we were playing a game of pretend. That we were just trying to convince ourselves nothing had changed.
I couldn’t articulate what was wrong; I can still barely find the words. Only that we are both so far from who we used to be — that the years have changed us into other people, and these other people don’t know each other very well. And it isn’t clear whether they’d even like each other.
Over the past six months, I felt let down by my friend on several occasions, but I said nothing. I felt I had no right to be hurt given how often she must have felt let down by me years earlier. Most recently, we had plans to get lunch when she was in town, and at the last minute she canceled without apology. And it took me about a month to realize how hurt and angry I was — I was recovering from oral surgery and had too much time alone in my own head. And I got angry, really angry.
And while part of that anger was certainly about the handful of recent overtures of mine that she rejected, I was also upset because of all the ways that life changes and all the distance that those changes can create between people. Because fear and time and accumulated wounds add up to something unaccountable and uncontrollable — and it all just seemed so goddamn unfair. All that time spent caring about each other should guarantee something permanent, I thought.
I couldn’t stand the uncertainty of it all — I felt like I needed to do something definitive and tangible that would, one way or another, move the story along. I needed to hand my discomfort to someone else.
So I sent her an angry text, and we exchanged a few more, until the next day when — as if I was coming out of a trance — I realized that texting was not the way to handle this. I told her that I’d call her once I finished recovering from surgery and felt like myself again.
Last month I reached out to her and we scheduled a phone call, but again at the last minute, something came up and she couldn’t talk. And that’s when I knew — our friendship was over. Maybe it had been over for a while, and I just didn’t realize it or couldn’t admit it. Maybe we’d both already moved on from it, and I had just been hoping that a phone call might provide me with a different answer.
Sometimes there’s no way to fix a relationship except to let it turn into whatever it’s supposed to be. And that waiting — that vague, amorphous state of not knowing — can feel unbearable. I can try to parcel out blame, try to weigh the hurt that we’ve each caused one another, but what’s the point of doing that? We have both made mistakes. My past indiscretions don’t negate her more recent ones — they’re all there, in the huge pile of every beautiful, awful, breathtaking thing about our friendship.
This isn’t the way I would have chosen for our friendship to end — without even a conversation. I wish that we’d had that conversation and that we could have found a way to stay in each other’s lives. But that doesn’t mean she’s to blame for what happened to our friendship. We started drifting long before she started canceling on me, and we’d both already begun to adjust to life without one another.
And actually it’s disappointing that I can’t blame her, because having a target is always easier than facing a long horizon across a vast field as you wonder what’s going to happen next. And yet that’s exactly what it means to be an adult — it means accepting change without burning the thing that has changed to the ground. It means moving forward without trying to minimize what’s being left behind.
It means looking out at that horizon and bearing witness to the loss of a friendship without denying everything that was once beautiful about it.
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