I’ve been mulling this situation over for a couple of years and I’d like to lay it to rest. Beware: I don’t come off very well.
I traveled with two childhood friends to a “bucket list” destination, the trip of a lifetime. We had been in frequent touch, and the two of them connected through me. We’ve taken different paths but have supported each other through travails, including the cancer I’ve had for many years. Two weeks before the trip I recurred, and was put on an alarming combo of meds.
We’ve traveled together before, but this trip really highlighted our different styles. I like loose, casual, spontaneous, local — they both like more creature comforts and structure. It didn’t take long for things to go sour. It was obvious they’d spoken behind my back about…what? My loose opinions? My refusal to freak out every time something didn’t go exactly as anticipated? Okay. My condescending, elitist, world-traveler snobbery? Fine! I cop to that as being the worst of my crimes. I did cringe-with-a-smile when there were endless demands for Diet Cokes in a ramshackle cafe in a remote village. I did say, “Can we change the subject?” as they discussed their retirement accounts for the millionth time (I hope I live to retire!). I did express incredulity when neither would jump off the boat and swim with me in a spectacular, bath-warm grotto.
One day, there was a lot of drinking. I assume — don’t know — I said something insensitive that was hurtful. I obviously crossed a line, and at breakfast the next day, the silence was terrifying. I tried to say, Let’s talk about this, and got stonewalled. The rest of the trip, the tension was palpable. We were cordial but distant. Back home I reached out in email apologizing (and also reminding that I was on a brand-new drug combo, terrified about my diagnosis, was experiencing physical side effects, and if badly behaved, perhaps could be forgiven — or at least, heard out. In other words, giving the others some small responsibility too.)
Nothing. Again I texted, called, emailed. Silence. I feel terrible. I clearly screwed up and I am ready to take responsibility for it. But I also feel hurt. Fifty years of friendship undone by stupid, drunken, anxiety-fueled nonsense? I didn’t steal anybody’s husband or money. I betrayed no one. I was thoughtless and mouthy and judgmental a week after getting an advanced cancer diagnosis — not an excuse, but surely, a consideration. What to do? What am I missing? Hard to just shrug and move on from this one.
I think you know this is done. The relationships are. The two friends have made that clear. But you’re not done with it. You’re roiling with hurt, confusion, resentment. You speak as though you keep looking for the source and the fix—and as though the agent of your discomfort must be outside you. Your language suggests you’re trying to get someone else to take it away. I cannot do that, and I think—I know, this sounds crazy—that nothing your friends could do now could do that either. They dropped you for reasons compelling to them. And it hurts to be rejected. (Although that hurt is not quite the same as the hurt of not being with them. That sort of pain—loneliness—I didn’t hear you mention that.) To free yourself from this agony, you will have to imagine their point of view, discover and face how they experienced you, and respond. Not respond to them, but respond to what arises then, inside you. You can’t slip around or jump over this. You have to go through.
(Now, don’t be thinking Salty knows nothing of the sting of rejection. Nope, she’s felt it. More than once. More than twice!)
You refer to unpleasant behavior on your part—“insensitive, screwed up”—but you’re awfully vague, and it’s less important to tell me what that was, than that you tell yourself exactly what it was. Except you say you don’t know, quite. If that’s really so, why don’t you know? Are you hiding from your memories of that drunken night, of those argumentative days? (Hiding protects us, but keeps us from growing.) Or did you have a blackout, where no memory of events was ever stored? (That could mean that you might consider looking at how you drink. And it could also mean that a complicated soup–alcohol, nasty chemo drugs, the toxic metabolites of all those chemicals—poisoned and altered your brain in ways you didn’t expect. And that’s medical information you very much need to know.)
You said these were people you’ve known for fifty years, but you’ve “taken different paths.” You copped—sarcastically—to “condescending, elitist, world-traveler snob-ism,” to “loose opinions,” to annoyance with their “endless demands” for First World amenities. Put all that together in a compressed time and place, with none of the usual breaks away from each other of mundane life. You got a squeeze, a claustrophobic chamber of contrast between the people they remember you and themselves to be, and who you appear to be now and—hey, critical mass it was. Explosion ensued.
I’m going to take a leap. Is it possible you have nothing in common with these women now? OK, you once did, but have you perhaps come to feel contempt for their life choices, and your contempt is not so well hidden? Perhaps it’s their politics you think are horrifying, their spouses you find vile or dull, the suburban milieus they’ve mired themselves in, the hideous furniture they paid extra for. Is it possible your contempt had, for quite some time before the trip, led them to feel put down by you? So they felt hurt at that, and then resentful at feeling hurt? And then commiserated with each other for weeks or months? Could it be that their own twosome friendship encouraged a gossip habit that circled around this topic on the regular? Chips—check. Guacamole—check. Margaritas—check. Bitch about Salt-seeker—check.
Because, Salt-seeker, you and I have never met. Yet I have a picture of you now as a woman who is urban and literate and hungry for experience—edgy enough to push herself, even when she knows the next week is going to be stained with chemo-brain and painful inflammation in an impoverished tropical country with no air conditioning. A woman who went ahead with that trip, just because azure ocean pulls her, and she knows her time may be limited. (All of us have limited time. But only some people have this shoved in their faces.)
See, I wonder if what happened is not about one drunken rant. I wonder if it’s about a series of widening rifts that all three of you kept ignoring over a period of years. All of you held on to the myth of the perfect friendship, even as it was slowly collapsing. We do that—hold onto belief—because we need the comfort, and because sometimes we still do occasionally feel a glimpse of the old excitement. But those “different paths” you all chose were not just superficial—you diverged in real ways. And even if you secretly no longer much respect these women, they’re not stupid. They can see what you think of them. And they’re furious.
Oh, and—I heard you call your opinions, “your crimes.” Did your upbringing teach you that you should be modest and sweet and tolerant and nonjudgmental? Are you rebelling against your childhood—and your family and longtime intimates—by insisting on more in life than the conventional? You’ve come to the right place, Salt-seeker, as you surely know by now. We’re sisters in crime here—the crimes of being critical, ambitious, curious about the world. Own it, Salt-seeker—own all that. But part of that adventurousness also means being demanding of ourselves. Yet instead of examining yourself, and acknowledging what you see there, you cut straight to excuses for your actions. You want to make it about your illness, your fear, diminished capacity. Defense and suspicion—all strategies for escape.
You cannot fix it with these women. They’re gone. So you’re now left with yourself. And being stuck with ourselves with no distractions can be very uncomfortable. With nobody else around, there’s no one to blame. There’s no one to feel better than, to show off to, to disparage, to compare ourselves favorably with.
Has it occurred to you that maybe you’ve done enough? Salty thinks maybe you have. I learned a few years ago that friends, like lovers, are not always forever. I’m not going to describe all the mess, but let’s say I had to face that, just because back then my life was a wreck in fifteen ways medical and financial and personal—none of it my fault at all—it was still understandable that my woman friend didn’t want to put up with my acting out. Yeah, sometimes people overcompensate for feeling powerless by throwing imperious fits! By acting impatient and better-than! It’s a little game our egos play to keep from going over the edge, I suppose, but it’s damned annoying for other people to be around.
Sadly for me, if we’d still really had something alive together, this friend and I, we probably could have untangled this knot. But she just didn’t want to deal with me anymore. She was already loosening the hand holding that tether. My arguments, and one cowardly act, allowed her to snip it right off.
And I think you’re angry with these women for not getting with the program—the program of being interesting to you. You’ve tried to model to them what you think smart and cutting-edge looks like, and they just don’t care. A lot of people don’t care about learning and exploring, Salt-seeker.
Your friends maybe observed you drifting away from the comfortable existences they cosset within, out into the life of a person confronting drastic, continual change—in fact, change on a steep up-slope, change that keeps on changing. They watched you already metamorphosed into an unknown. You were not the person they knew and liked anymore.
What’s important is, are you someone you like? It’s up to you to decide who you want to be.
They held on to the familiar. But haven’t you held on, too hard, to the familiar as well? The only thing remaining is for you to consciously realize this. Admit. Forgive yourself for moving ahead on the road your destiny has taken you. And watch yourself a bit more now. Do some walking meditation on that road.
We’re changed by crisis, changed by intense experience. We leave others behind. We don’t go back.
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground And you may ask yourself How do I work this? Tell email@example.com.
Susan Nordmark’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in Entropy, Peacock Journal, Draft: The Journal of Process, Porter Gulch Review, Matrix, and elsewhere. She studied anthropology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and Harvard, and now lives in Oakland, California.