Last week, I took my 6-year-old son to the park. Within minutes, he informed me that he had three new best friends.
“What are their names?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I dunno,” he said and raced back to the merry-go-round where he spent the next hour playing until I called him to go. He waved good-bye, and just like that, the friendship was over.
I marveled at my son’s ability to make and lose friends in an instant.
No rules, no conditions. You like to swing? Cool, me too — let’s hang. He seemed to understand the ephemeral nature of most relationships and had accepted this truth with a Buddha-like tranquility.
As adults, we know that not all friendships last forever — we graduate, move to different stated, change jobs. But when my best friend of five years ghosted me, I wasn’t as enlightened as my son.
I was hurt and confused and embarrassed. There were no big fights, no angry arguments to mark the break-up — she simply vanished from my life.
June* and I met in grad school. We were two young moms who’d spent the last half of our 20s raising babies but felt a yearning for something more. We joined a small group of English graduate students that fall semester, a mix of hopeful writers and earnest academics, each of us wanting to find meaning in the world through literature.
June and I grew close quickly. She was quirky, beautiful, funny as hell and wickedly smart. We spent hours talking about everything from the genius of Flannery O’Connor to our favorite South Park episodes.
When she divorced her husband and moved downtown, her apartment became the unofficial hangout. The “perk” of having a divorced friend is that you get all the benefits of the single life without any of the heartbreaking loneliness.
When we were both accepted to our Ph.D. programs three years later, it was bittersweet. We hugged good-bye, promised to be loyal friends, and for two years, we shared our lives through texts, phone calls and short holiday visits.
One afternoon, June called me.
“Why?” She was one semester from finishing her coursework. To give up so close to the finish line seemed unthinkable.
“I can’t do it anymore. It’s too hard as a single mom. I’m always broke. I can’t pay my rent, and I have a couple of sorority girls who are trying to ruin me. I’m done.”
I tried to talk her out of it, but she’d made up her mind. I offered to let her and her kids live with me, and she accepted.
We packed her house in an afternoon. On the drive home, the skies opened up on us. Everything in the bed of her truck got drenched. We pulled into the nearest Waffle House, bought matching Pepto-Bismol colored trucker hats that said “Lady Leadfoot For Life,” and drank bad coffee while we waited for the rain to stop.
“It’s going to be OK,” I said. It was easy for me to be optimistic. I was still married, still in my graduate program. I didn’t lay awake at night worrying about how to feed my kids.
June looked outside at the total of her life possessions, most of them ruined beyond saving. The tarp fluttered in the wind, exposing a box of textbooks, their pages swollen with rainwater. She gave me a half-hearted smile.
“I never liked Steinbeck anyway,” she said. When the rain stopped, she chucked the entire box in dumpster and never looked back.
I loved having June live with me. Every morning, we ran the hills by my house only to negate our efforts in the evening by smoking cigarettes and drinking Jameson. June looked for jobs, and I continued to study. When June started hanging out more and more with an old flame she’d recently reconnected with through Facebook, I was skeptical.
He was an artist, dabbling in music and painting, and when she came home from his house, her face was flushed with happiness. He was also jobless and married.
Five months later, she told me they were moving in together.
“You hardly know him, June. And he doesn’t have a job. You can barely support yourself, let alone him.”
“We’ll make it work,” she said. “I love him.”
"Making it work" meant she would work as a sales associate for a cell phone company while Sean* stayed home and painted self-portraits in oils. I wanted to be happy for her, to be the supportive friend who didn’t judge, but the whole idea seemed crazy to me. I tried to talk her out of it, but June was stubborn, so I let it drop.
She and the kids moved out that December, and then — nothing. My phone calls weren’t returned, my texts were left unanswered. I was hurt and confused. I tried to imagine every possible scenario that would explain why she was avoiding me.
Had Sean given her an ultimatum; me or him? Had he brainwashed her? Should I have kept quiet about my concerns about her moving in with Sean? We’d always discussed our lives with raw honesty, but now I felt punished for speaking my mind. The rules of our friendship had changed, and no one had told me. People would ask what happened to us, and I had to admit I didn’t know.
I got pregnant with my third son and found out June, too, was pregnant. I was ecstatic. This would be the opportunity for us to reconnect. Our due dates were weeks apart. I imagined us shopping together for little hipster onesies. But those moments never came.
My phone calls weren't returned, my numerous text invitations rejected. Desperate, I asked her for help with my Modernism comp exam and, surprisingly, this time she agreed to meet with me.
As I sat on her couch trying my best to deconstruct Eliot’s Wasteland, June calmly knitted a pair of booties for “Bean,” the nickname they’d given the baby. Every couple of minutes, Sean would walk into the room on some imagined errand — to grab a book from the shelf or refill his tea glass. The entire afternoon was bizarre, as if I was participating in a David Mamet play and no one told me.
“OK, so explain to me again what Eliot means when he writes ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,'” I whispered.
Sean magically appeared in the kitchen and started loudly clearing our lunch dishes.
“He’s describing how we arrive at meaning,” June said. “We gather up the bits and pieces of our broken life and try to make sense of it.”
“Oh, right. I get it,” I said, distracted.
When Sean started dusting the mantel, I took my cue and exited.
I passed my exams, and reflexively, the first person I called was June. I left several message on her voicemail, but she never called me back. I busied myself in my dissertation and pretended that our crazy lives kept us apart.
The last time I saw June was at my son’s birth. She poked her head in during the delivery and asked if it was OK for Sean to come in, too. At seven centimeters dilated and on the outside edge of my pain medication, her timing couldn’t have been worse. I told her no. She never talked to me again.
One afternoon, months later, I finally gathered up the courage to confront her. I grabbed the stack of books she’d loaned me during my comps, planning to use them as a pretext to talk to her, and drove to her house. I knocked on the door, and a woman answered.
“Can I help you?” She said, wiping dust from her forehead. Behind her I could see an empty living room.
“Uh, the people who used to live here—?”
“They moved to Austin. Are you looking for a place to rent?” she asked, a hopeful look crossing her face.
I said no, not bothering to ask for a forwarding address. Five years of friendship, and the only thing I had left to show for it was a stack of esoteric poetry. I threw the books in my trunk and drove home. Just like that, the friendship was officially over.
Even now, years later, I find myself thinking of June at random moments. I’ll read a passage from a book and wish I could call her to talk about it. Occasionally I’ll see one a Facebook post from her daughter, now all grown up and looking painfully similar to her mother, and I’ll get a pang of sadness and regret.
Why didn’t June want me in her life anymore? Was I too judgmental of her relationship? Or did I constantly remind her of what she gave up? Did she ever miss me like I missed her?
It would have been so easy to put all the blame on June, and for a long time I did just that. I blamed her for being weak and a coward, but over time my anger has softened.
I’ve come to realize that sometimes we no longer fit into people’s lives. Not everyone can handle conflict. Did I deserve an explanation? Of course. Will I ever get closure? Probably not, but I have to accept that fact or drive myself crazy.
Like Eliot, I’ve shored up those fragments of my friendship with June and cobbled my own meaning from them. I decided to be grateful for the five years of her life she did share with me. Instead of carrying around the unbearable burden of resentment, I chose to become light again. And the only way to do that was to finally let her go.