A couple of nights after I had my dream of bleeding breasts, I had another, even more vivid one.
In it, I was having a drink with a woman I used to be quite close with, but have not spoken to in years. I was trying to explain to her that I had missed her often, that I missed her humor, that I missed learning from her. Even though there has been nothing but silence since 1998, the fact that we were no longer friends still sometimes stung me like a fresh wound for reasons that I couldn’t explain.
And then she left the bar, still laughing at me. I followed her into the street and watched her walk away.
“But you hurt me,” I said, sounding weak in every sense of the word.
This made her laugh harder as she walked off into the night.
When I think about men that broke my young heart, I remember the fact that I felt pain, but I don’t actually remember the pain. Losing a friendship with a woman is different. Days after I ran into her in my dream, I ran into her, for the first time in about eight years, in life. With all that time behind us, I still wanted to curl up and cry.
During my mid-20s, A and I were co-workers and co-players who peed our pants laughing while drinking bourbon and smoking and watching “Billy Jack.” (“Watch his feet, he kill you wit’ his feet.”) We lauded each other when one of us turned a particularly good phrase at the alternative paper where we both worked. She had helped to get me hired. We were both obsessed with identity politics and pop culture and law and crime and finding the best ways to write about them. We also gossiped about co-workers, imitated our more annoying sources and tore some of the people we didn’t like to shreds, verbally, behind their backs. Like most exercises in the demeaning of other people, the subjects of our scorn didn’t always matter much beyond of their service to the art of a good story and the sense of belonging that could bring to the teller.
She knew secrets about me that even my mother didn’t – things that she listened to with loving consideration inside of the warm glow of times when the idea that we wouldn’t be friends for decades seemed absurd.
She was my colleague and friend, but became my sometimes boss, a role that probably wasn’t any more fair to her than it was to the rest of us. She was a good editor, but a lousy manager, and her first foray into boss-dom launched our relationship into open water where it sunk with the pressure and only periodically came up for air. Whenever she seemed to pull away or cut me out of the loop (which she often had to as my boss), I’d become clingy and annoying. I’d campaign for my own relevance with her to the point where I’d later smack myself in the eye for recoiling into an insecure adolescent persona I thought I’d outgrown.
There were other people to blame. There was an unreasonably hostile work environment to blame and there was our youth to blame. There was a culture that raises women to believe that they can’t be direct, especially with each other, to blame. But these problems sat around like unclaimed luggage in the office hallways, and were never really unpacked.
Naturally, there were also men involved. One man who I suppose she ultimately preferred sharing her writing with. Her relationship with him once put me in the excruciating position of having to choose between betraying her and betraying myself at work, and I chose the latter, or the “high road,” as my mom would call it. (The “high road” is often on the same sea level as a doormat, I’ve found. Other people were much hipper to that fact than I was in my 20s.) I also had a man who had his own way of butting in. And these things are a whole other part of the story.
I buried her and mourned the friendship more than once, only to have it resurrected when we had a particularly good laugh or accidental heart-to-heart. But after pitches and pitfalls and fits, our friendship croaked, well after our newspaper had met the same fate. She stopped returning my phone calls as I became more and more paranoid that I was now one of the people I used to help her avoid. When the phone rang after hours, I’d answer and she’d whisper “I’m not here,” while smiling and wiping the air with her hands. There were usually colorful reasons why a particular person wasn’t worth talking to or needed to be avoided, replete with anecdotes that summed them up like a well-drawn comic strip. She tended to withdraw from any conflict or tension, and whenever some sprouted between us, I would dread the idea that I might suddenly become one of those two-dimensional characters, animated inside of A’s richly detailed frames.
We also worked with another woman, K, who remains one of the only people I would cross (and, lord love a duck, I believe I actually have crossed) the street to avoid. Sitting in a desk next to hers in my first weeks on the job, I remember how she’d speak sweetly to people on the telephone, then begin cussing them out the second the receiver hit the base. Being one of those people she spoke to sweetly on a regular basis, it didn’t take long for me to realize that anytime she was on the other side of a closed door, chances were good that she was facing it and shooting me the bird. She identified herself as a feminist almost daily, but was no more capable of treating her fellow woman with respect than our publisher, a preening, self-absorbed lefty with the obligatory sensitive new age guy ponytail, treated the office receptionist. Like Kleenex.
Near the end of the paper’s existence, I actually caught K in the act of talking smack about me behind a partition, describing me as universally incompetent due to a rotten sentence I’d written during a 60-hour work week in which, due to our constant downsizing, I’d written over half of the news content. A had been cast back into the role of editor in the final act of the paper, so I complained to her sort of hysterically. She sympathized and apologized, but laughed that we all knew K, and the she had warned her that this kind of thing was bound to happen someday. When asked to apologize, K actually told me she was sorry about how I heard what she said, but that she felt it was all true. It was just unfair, especially coming from a woman who used to sweet-talk me into doing her job while complaining of headaches that lasted well over a year.
We were all like latent characters in scenes from Odd Girl Out.
A year and a half after the paper folded and several phone calls to A had been unreturned, I hadn’t lost all hope. I have plenty of friendships that have gone through stretched, elastic phases and eventually snapped back. Other former co-workers I ran into complained that they hadn’t heard from A either, expecting that I had. And she was in a one-year master’s degree program, which seemed like a legitimate reason to be out of touch.
Then I ran into a former co-worker who I saw fairly regularly who said “so, it was good to finally see A last weekend, but you didn’t miss much. Were you out of town or just so annoyed with her no-calling-anyone back act that you’ve written her off completely and decided not to go?”
It turned out that K had a party for A’s completion of her masters degree that I, who hadn’t moved, changed phone numbers or become in any way unfindable, hadn’t been invited to. This seemed strange, since people from our old accounting and production departments had apparently received their invitations.
A party snub is no big deal when you’re regularly in touch with a person. Apologies are made and you just see them the next time. But before I’d been a co-worker, I’d been a friend. And if I had just been forgotten – if people from accounting were a priority to reconnect with and I wasn’t – then that was almost worse. At best, I was simply forgettable, at worst, I was snubbed with the intent to h
arm. I held another funeral for the friendship in my mind and tried to banish the viral feeling I had that close relationships with women simply weren’t worth having.
A few weeks later I went to a bookstore where I often took refuge from the isolation of freelance writing among the crowd of weekday strangers that always appeared to be doing the same thing. As I charged toward the coffee counter to get a cup to take for a lengthy browse, I realized K and A were right there, chatting animatedly at a table in the cafeÃ?Â©. It was too late to just turn-tail and run, so instead I opted to act oblivious. I ordered my coffee and poured in my cream with my back to them, acting like I had no idea they were there. Then I bolted for the highest book stacks I could find to hide among, then sat down and tried to catch my breath. Not only did it physically hurt my heart to see them, I was immediately ashamed that the feelings it provoked in me were so strong that I didn’t feel capable of doing anything but fleeing.
Maybe it would have been different if A had been alone, or with anyone but K, who I thought could probably benefit from a 12-step program for people who apparently derive their entire sense of self-worth from demeaning others. I’m sure I felt hurt that a person who I had seen talk smack about virtually everyone she ever encountered was someone A saw as more deserving of loyalty, or who was in any way a more rewarding friend. I thought about calling A so many times to get angry, spill my guts or cry that year, I’m not entirely sure that I didn’t.
But I thought I’d let it go. In recent years I’ve worked with several people from her city and publication, so I hear of her sometimes. On the rare occasion that I’ve seen K, I’ve just looked past her, crossed the street or walked away. But it’s a little like cutting out a three and a half year period of my life which, while it was often absurdly stressful, was also formative and a time in which I produced work I’m still proud of.
And here we are eight years later with this dream, coming at a time when I’ve really just started to foster some of the deepest new friendships with women that I’ve dared to try since the A experience. Motherhood opened up all of these new possibilities for healthy, loving friendships with other women and I have tried to let go of some old fears and embrace that – to trust that we don’t have to be petty with each other or stop communicating because being direct is too painful. And maybe once you’ve had 16 doctors stare up your hoo-ha while they ponder the safety of you and your baby, you learn something that no one can really explain about humility and fear and love.
So this past Saturday, just a couple of hours after I had left the company of one of my newest, dearest friends – one of the only people that I exchange “I love yous” with regularly outside of my family (as I once sometimes did with A), I stopped by Target to pick up an extra set of lights for the Christmas tree. Declan was 19 pounds of asleep in my arms and the baby carts were blocked by a kid cart and A, who was talking to her younger sister right in front of them.
Maybe it’s because the dream was such a fresh event that I’d Googled her just a week before, or maybe it was petty self-consciousness over the fact that we’ve practically traded body types in ten years – she is now rail thin and I’m more Rubenesque – but I immediately felt kind of winded. But I wasn’t going to waste the trip by leaving and I wasn’t going to walk all the way to the Christmas decorations without a carrier of some kind. So I marched through them awkwardly and started yanking at the kid cart to get to the baby cart, apologizing under my breath for moving them aside.
“Tracy, is that you?” she asked. I think I tried to act surpised, but frankly, I’m terrible at faking anything. “Is that your baby?”
We had an awkward exchange, at least from my end. I babbled incoherently and sort of breathlessly about the writing work I’ve been doing lately. I let her know that I’d been vaguely aware of her whereabouts for years and met a few folks who knew her. But I didn’t say how much I love being a mother, only that I’d wished Declan wasn’t asleep so that she’d gotten to see what a nice person he really is. I didn’t say that I saw that she’d done something amazing with her career last year and that I was struck with both pride in once having known her and envy that I’m not currently in the position to do something similar.
She said something about how I should call her at work sometime, or let her know when I was in Cleveland, which I am a couple of times a year. But this became the thing it was hardest to let go of as I went on to buy my extra string of blue pearl lights. I think I made some kind of obligatory “that’d be great” kind of response, but then I contemplated that situation and couldn’t imagine any outcome other than I call, and then never hear back.
Having unresolved pieces of my past seems harder than it did before I became a mom. I want to be wise enough to know what to do when my little boy, whose eager smiles are so quickly returned by most of the world right now, suddenly aren’t. And how do I convince him to let go of rejection when my own old wounds can still feel so fresh?