Friendships End, and I Guess I Continue to Care Even After Everyone Else Has Moved On

I wish my college best friend and I had stayed in touch — but maybe it's best that we didn't.
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Lesley Kinzel
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I wish my college best friend and I had stayed in touch — but maybe it's best that we didn't.

I just now realized that I have developed a fear about going to Philadelphia.

It’s nothing against the city itself; I like Philly well enough, although I haven't been there in ages. All of my memories of having been there are positive ones. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I spent a month at the University of Pennsylvania attending a program for exceptionally bright teens looking to go to college for communications; how I got in, I will never know, and that is not self-deprecation but genuine astonishment given the caliber of the other kids I met there. It was a tremendously formative experience, and not just because I saw an unknown pre-“The Sweater Song”-blowing-up Weezer open for a band I really liked called Lush that everyone has probably forgotten about now.

My Philadelphia phobia is rather connected to the fact that a friend I have since lost touch with lives in the area. And anytime the subject of visiting Philadelphia comes up, I have to swallow the sick guilty feeling that comes with it, and the idea of running into her again. I have written about this particular friendship before, and it was a little surprising to reread my thoughts of over three years ago and find that in many ways I feel exactly the same, with one notable exception.

I am not okay with how it ended. Or, rather, how it didn't end.

Our friendship wasn't always the healthiest thing. It had a slightly creepy intensity that friendships between women in those formative years bridging adolescence and adulthood can have. It occasionally bordered on codependent. We seemed more like family than friends a lot of the time. We spent virtually every waking minute together, coordinating our class schedules when we could, sharing lunch and dinner almost every day, eventually living together.

In the early years of our connection we fought and argued all the time; but later we stopped fighting at all, ever, and I still think this is a major red flag in any relationship for me. I can only argue passionately with people whom I trust implicitly, people whom I believe will stick by me even if we disagree on some things. But at some point our friendship became fragile, and I was afraid to rattle it, didn’t want the cracks to show where I could see them.

Moving in to my first apartment. Notice I put up the Pulp posters BEFORE building the futon frame. Eye roll courtesy of 1997.

Moving in to my first apartment. Notice I put up the Pulp posters BEFORE building the futon frame. Eye roll courtesy of 1997.

For much of that friendship, I didn't feel much of a compelling need to date anyone seriously, because the simple truth was that I was getting all my emotional needs met by this friendship (and as a frequent club-goer, any sexy desires were easily enough satisfied on a temporary basis). Eventually, though, I did begin dating, and I’m not sure if this is where things began to shift. I definitely spent less time with my friend, but she had dated people on and off throughout our friendship and I had grown accustomed to seeing less of her depending on her relationship status, so I assumed she would understand. Besides, we were still living together, although eventually she would announce her intention to move out and to leave me in that apartment with her ex, which didn’t actually wind up happening because, enraged by what I felt was her lack of consideration and feeling strangely betrayed, I moved out first.

We never really discussed this, though — we never really got down to the actual feelings and motivations for what we did, to unpack how things between us were changing. I wonder if she began to shut me out because I was seeing someone, or if I began to shut her out because I realized I was relying too much on her for emotional support and, well, my whole freaking identity as a human being. 

We remained friends for a few years. She moved out of state, but we still had regular multi-hour phone conversations, and traded visits. And then, at some point, it all stopped.

I don't remember the last time we spoke. I remember our last visit; I had gone to stay with her for a weekend, and over the course of that trip I had a sinking feeling of detachment, in which I realized how little we had in common now, in which I grasped how much of our friendship was rooted in having created our own private two-person universe of inside jokes and shared experiences. Living so far apart, we became disparate individuals again, people who did not immediately get one another anymore, and, frankly, people who disagreed on some major life issues. After the third or fourth reminder of this, I started to panic: What should I do? How can I tell the person whose presence in my life was so hugely influential for so long that I don’t know how to be friends with her anymore?

Above all else, I really looked up to her — she was tough, and smart, and brilliantly funny, and as loyal as anyone I've ever known before or since. I wanted to be her. I don't know if she ever looked up to me as well. I doubt it. I was so naïve, so anxious to be liked, to be cool. And to me, she was the epitome of cool, of everything I was not, but wanted to be. 

In the end, we just lost touch. I don't know who was the last person to call, who was due to call back, who finally dropped their end of the delicate thread that still connected us. I suppose it doesn't matter, although part of me really hopes I wasn't the one. I looked for her online a couple times, seeking some kind of closure, some kind of reprieve from the worry that I did something wrong, that it was my fault we grew apart — it was certainly true that I had changed a lot. Did I feel responsible because I didn’t keep the connection going? Because I didn’t try to force a relationship to continue past its being valuable to either of us? Friendship shouldn’t be a chore. 

I mean, I get that this is a strange thing to worry about. It’s been so many years. And I don't think about it often, but every once in a long while, something will remind me, and I lose a few moments to remembering, and wishing I could check in with her and see how she's doing. Living as I do in a culture so steeped in social media, her having no online presence at all seems ominous, perverse. But there is nothing. (I have also wondered if she has ever looked for me, but I would guess not. I am very easy to find.)

I have two friends from high school with whom I’ve gained and lost touch again and again in the twenty years since we graduated. Together they comprise one of few reasons I continue to have a presence on Facebook today. We may go months without communicating, but we always talk eventually, and try to meet once a year in person to catch up.

When we do, there is always a brief moment of awkwardness, but soon we fall back into our friendship like we never parted, like we never grew up, like we aren’t a trio of people coming on middle age with two decades between us and the long-ago time when we saw each other at school every day. And the most magical part of this is that despite all the years and all the changes, I look at them and see, at the core, the same people I sat next to in Latin class in 1993, the same people I laughed with and argued with and teenage-dramaed-out with, and this history connects us, but I can also say with absolute certainty that I would want to be friends with both of them even if I just met them yesterday.

That is such an incredible gift. I value their continued friendship more than I can easily express, because I know it is so special and so precious and so rare. We have all changed so much but we also haven’t at all, and when you know someone so well, for so long, even when periods of silence elapse between you, you can still get each other on a visceral level — that mutual understanding goes on. 

More than anything else, I'm sad that I didn't get to have that kind of enduring relationship with my college best friend, and I'm sad not to know how she's doing or what she's been up to all these years. Not that I am owed that, but it would have been nice. New friends are great but the old friends we share history with are truly sacred. (Of course, there's always a possible downside to keeping in touch, as I have also had old friends who changed in very difficult and troubling ways and whose contact I no longer wanted to have — so that's worth remembering too.) 

I'm lucky to have had the long-running friendships I do, and I know it. Maybe I'm just feeling entitled to a sense of tidy closure, a cheery "hey, it's okay that we stopped talking and it's totally not anyone's fault!" that I neither need nor deserve. 

Maybe sometimes close friendships just trail off, and that has to be okay. Maybe.