When I was 13 I carved FUCK on the inside of my left arm. If you focus your gaze two inches south of the crook of my elbow, you’ll see a faint relic of my slipshod handiwork. The word was a curious choice. I had scarcely ever uttered it and when I did, the word fumbled its way across my tongue. I thought fuck implied a desperate fury, an oddly perceptive interpretation despite my general naïveté. In any case, I decided it was the perfect word for my body to bear. I was, admittedly, a child of extremes.
I can’t recall the details of the fight that prompted me to self-harm. I only know that I had angered one of my girlfriends and wanted to punish myself. This wasn’t unusual for me. I have never fought gracefully with women. From the earliest, I felt any misstep on my part carried an elephantine weight. Both shame and pride would burn in my stomach. I was a wretched friend, I would think to myself. No, I was obviously misunderstood. Regardless, I was going to lose her.
I was going to lose her—that was always my fear. My trespass didn’t matter. It was less what I’d done wrong than my paranoia and neediness that would inevitably weary my friend. I would take her departure as a bitter loss, but also as a personal failure. In my adolescence, when my heart thumped to the rhythms of social acceptance, foundering in friendship seemed like the biggest of all recipes for disaster.
I used to fear relationship strife the way I might have feared a hurricane, anticipating tumult while dreading a shattered aftermath. But some time ago I learned the agony of quiet fissure.
My friend and I had known each other for many years. Our intimacy had ebbed and flowed, but in the years preceding our break-up, we were devotedly consistent. Although settled in cities hundreds of miles apart, we nurtured our friendship.
One day I sensed a change. There was a suspicious silence, one imperceptible to anyone but me. We had not arranged a Skype date in months. Our paper trail of emails had thinned.
I know that I tend to need my friends in a more urgent way than they typically need me, and this friendship was no different. Her conversation and emails helped make my world more coherent. I had hoped that my company was similarly meaningful to her, and that she missed me too. So I wrote to her, suggesting we make time to chat. She gracefully evaded my requests. Our interactions on social media remained relatively unchanged, but I felt the emptiness of those superficial exchanges.
“You know how busy she is,” my husband said.
“I do,” I replied, “but I also know something is wrong.”
As afraid as I was of losing friends, I had many who stuck with me throughout our adolescent tempests. We were girls learning what we were about, and, in those perplexing times, we were necessary to each other. Amid our squabbles, we held on to one another tightly and sought reconciliation. My apologies were like clumsy origami. I hid the shame of my self-punishment inside expansive apologies. I was always apologizing not only for what I had done to injure my friend, but also for my own narcissistic masochism.
As I became more self-aware, I grew a little out of this intensity and myopic narcissism, but not all of it. At 30, I still worry that I’ve wronged or even mildly aggravated someone I love. My sometimes-disproportionate reaction to minor gaffes betrays my fragile sense of self, which I have based too much on the opinions of others. I became accustomed to hearing that I was a “good friend,” and so I took on the title as my mantle. Rachel the Good Friend does not make insensitive remarks or behave selfishly. Rachel the Good Friend can only ever be a bottomless well of benevolence and care. But being Rachel the Good Friend means I fear my mistakes but cannot always see the ones that count.
I was gulping coffee in a café by the metro, absentmindedly poking around my phone before heading to a party. It was the weekend, and I wasn’t expecting any urgent emails. I certainly wasn’t expecting any messages from my absent friend.
But there she was. There too was the truth, finally. I had spent months sobbing into my husband’s chest at night, pitying myself but taking no productive action. “She’s busy,” my husband soothingly reminded me. But “busy” had never been an excuse for us before.
And neither was it here. All those times I’d been gripped by the fear that it was my behavior that would end a friendship, this time it was true. I’d fretted over burdening my friends—saddling them with my anxieties without sufficiently alleviating theirs—and that was precisely what I had done. What’s more, my constant worrying over the weight of my emotional burden, while never meant as manipulation, was nonetheless as bad as the imbalanced relationship itself. How could someone articulate her own needs freely if she was forever pussyfooting around mine? I had simply taken too much without paying attention. I thought I had been Rachel the Good Friend, but to somebody else, I had not.
Her email did not say any of this explicitly, but it didn’t need to. As I read, her explanation for breaking away did not shock me. Nor did I shatter as I always assumed I would if my fear were ever confirmed. It registered as the punchline to a nauseating joke, one I had anticipated. Perhaps even one I had feared so much I had made it come true. I tucked my phone in my purse, told my husband what had transpired, and insisted that we still go to the party.
Later that night after emailing a farewell message, I groped in the dark for my headphones and listened for hours to songs I knew she and I both loved. I consoled myself with the thought that I wouldn’t be forced to see her and behave with polite familiarity, but that was cold comfort. Distance rarely tempers the sting of fraying friendship. When I closed my damp eyes, I saw her outline in the dark, walking away from me.
I was going to lose her. Sometimes we do.
The dark underbelly of romance is dependency. I have loved my women fiercely; I have also taken more than my share. When you credit falling in love with women as the event that saved your life, the slip into neediness can be facile. Some imbalances smooth themselves out, in the natural ebb and flow of two people who need in unique ways. But in the course of loving women, I’ve grappled with the lesson that affection is not always shared. Even when it is, it can still become unwieldy.
My most aching and enduring losses have not been with boyfriends but instead the fading, fizzling, or harsh breaks with women. But only recently did I confront the paucity of vocabulary available to someone who mourns a broken friendship. Perhaps the issue is not so much lack but a stranglehold on certain words. We can have a friend crush, be totally in love with a new friend, love our friends dearly. But that in love-ness and that love do not seem to hold the weight, in language or otherwise, that they might in a romantic or sexual relationship. Certainly, we don’t speak much of the heartbreak of losing a friend, and there is much less talk of surviving a friend break-up than a romantic one. Maybe we think straight women should not use the language of romance for anyone who is not a romantic partner. Maybe, at least in terms of heterosexual female friendship, the fears around queer desire still makes society fumble in the face of any ardent attachment other than traditional, straight romance.
As we push back on these fears, we must also be less stingy with our words. We can relinquish the air quotes when we refer to friendship break-ups, or the melancholy of being dumped by a woman who mattered to us. When we belittle friendship heartbreak, we imply that the most legible forms of love are those that adhere to traditional practices and rituals. Hearts shatter every day for all manner of tragedies; it’s both limiting and invasive to dismiss this pain as less than because it is not heterosexual love.
In the midst of friendship strife, I draw from a vocabulary underpinned by decades of loving women—decades washed in heady joy and devastation alike. I have learned to say, “She broke my heart” without pause because I no longer give credence to that diminishing phrase, “just a friend.”
Friendship is not a pale imitation of sexual romance. It is a romance unto itself. I have not always loved as well as I could have. I am sometimes selfish in the wrong ways. There are women I still mourn—and I might always. Yet as I consider my brief, romantic history—history brimful of glorious, challenging women—I remember that no one is ever lost to sea. I close my eyes, and they emerge at my back: friends in girlhood, companions from boozy college nights, women who said goodbye, others who I hope never will—all glimmering brighter because we claimed a little space to love each other.
Lead Photo: (Photo: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock)