Memoir: Where Did Our Friendship Go Wrong?

Chalk it up to bad judgment, a momentary lapse that was punished by total rejection. The story of how a painful rift helped one woman become a better friend

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
jacquelyn mitchard image
The writer at her former home in Wisconsin with her ever-loyal friend Hobbes
Photograph: © James Schnepf

When she dumped me,there were times when I thought I had lost my mind.

Days melted as I wrote letters to her and destroyed them, cried until my lashes were spiked with salt, went out for a cup of coffee and got lost five miles from my own house. What was she doing, I thought, without me? Was she at a party with friends we both knew, exchanging the looks we once exchanged, across the clink and banter of an elegant crowd, but with someone else?
For nearly 18 years we two had been one—what Carson McCullers called “the we of me.”

We were never lovers.

We were friends.

Yet our friendship was as powerful as any love affair.

So losing her was, I believe, as crushing as a divorce, and harder to face in midlife than a divorce, or perhaps even a death in the family.

Your marriage ends; someone dies. It’s horrific. It’s unbearable. And yet, quickly, a circle of compassion surrounds you. People offer condolences, companionship and casseroles.

You lose a friend, and unless you tell, no one even knows. If you do tell, no one much cares. Not even other women, who know that the loss of a friend is very different for a woman than it is for a man, that it’s a shattering, terrifying experience—yet they say she was “just a friend.” If you’re part of a circle, it’s foolish, and just wrong, to ask anyone to choose sides. Crying on the shoulder of another dear friend is sure to make that person think, What am I, chopped liver? What do you say? “We had a fight”? Oh, it will blow over, people assure you.

“It seems impossible for such an epic friendship to go down over some ill-chosen words,” said my pal David. “Give it time.”

Now, I’ve given it time.

More than a year.

I’ve apologized for my part in the quarrel, passionately and more than once. She has sent her love and regret, hollow as a greeting card. How I felt at first, and how I still feel sometimes, is that I’ve lost a self, that I’m incomplete.

Some friendships die a natural death. We change jobs. We move. The children who glue us to each other through social rites of passage grow up. Into those vacant spaces move new work buddies, new neighbors and new members of the book club. And then, somehow, life becomes both slower and faster. You turn 40 or 50 or 60, and while you may be at the height of your earning power and your social influence, while you may be busier than you ever were before or will be again, the streams leaping with potential intimates—on the soccer sidelines, in college classes and in new jobs—have all dried up. Everyone else, for better or worse, already has her cadre. There simply isn’t the time to raise a friendship from a seedling to a mighty oak. Unless you are very lucky or persistent, getting to know anyone that intimately, from scratch, without a shared history, may now be impossible.

And then there are friendships that are victims of negligent homicide.

We’d had only two other tiffs in all our years—one silly, one a little more serious, both quickly mended. This was different. Liz has three sons, the youngest a loudmouthed neo-hippie who, at 27, thinks anyone who’s successful has sold her soul. A year ago, at a party his mom gave, he got in my face and finally said that if success were measured by looks, mine would be in the negative digits. Liz overheard the gist of his comments but only pressed her lips together and shrugged. I should have said nothing. I should have asked her to speak to him. But I didn’t. I simmered for a while, and later I boiled over. I wrote Anthony a note, reminding him that in high school he’d had a nose job.

That was the beginning of the end.

I remember our beginning. The first time I saw her was in the lobby of a theater in Chicago, greeting the audience after her heartbreaking portrayal of Thelma in Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother. An actor, she was also writing her first full-length screenplay. By happenstance, we would end up, just months later, working at the same artists’ residence. The chemistry was immediate. In the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, we’d told each other things we’d never told another soul. And oh, how we laughed.

First published in the July/August 2012 issue

Share Your Thoughts!


Maricia Johns07.15.2012

Hello, I loved the article and in fact wrote about it on my blog. Take a look.

Marie 07.06.2012

This article really hit home, as I recently ended a 20+ year friendship. But I was on the other side of the fence - I was the one who walked away. My friend had been through tough times, financially, maritally, emotionally, and I'd stood by her. Yet for several years I'd had an increasingly uneasy feeling when I saw or talked to her. The worse things became in her life, the more she put down others, and the more she insisted she 'deserved' things like a trip to Italy and a luxury car, when she hadn't even been able to pay her property taxes in a year. She took that trip and bought numerous items she could not afford, then cried to me that she didn't have the money to take her cat to the vet or to fix her washing machine. Annoying, but we'd been through so much, I didn't speak up. Then she did the unforgiveable - in an email. Her son had gone on a campus visit to the college my son attends. Her email explained, in most insulting terms, that the school was just not good enough for her child. (I think the exact words were "He saw so many kids who could have been cast on Jersey Shore. Now he knows why Snooki spoke there.") That was the last straw. I never replied to her email, and I never called her again. I don't wish her any ill will, I just don't need someone like that in my life any longer. It took a few months for her to realize she was no longer a part of my life. She invited me to her son's graduation party (I declined) and called a month later to ask a favor (I declined). I never gave an explanation - I didn't feel obligated to do so. She had violated our friendship so thoroughly, there was no turning back. So I hope that my friend learned the same lesson as Ms. Mitchard. To keep a friend you need to be a true fried.

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