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.

Queen Elizabeth, my husband called her, with just the slightest zest of envy, as I went on and on about something that Liz had quoted or worn or cooked to absolute perfection. Despite our manifest differences in temperature (she was lime sorbet, and I was, perhaps, wasabi), we intersected at so many more places than most friends do: Since Liz writes plays, in addition to performing all over the world, and I write books and
essays, we share much that pertains to both occupations. We’re happiest en route to new destinations, at home completely out of our natural habitat and preferably swimming underwater. She once told me a story about one of her sons that made me laugh so hard, I had to drive off onto a country road and pee in the bushes. I sent her lavender when her screenplay was optioned. She brought me chocolate when the IVF failed.

After our falling-out, it would be days before I realized Liz was refusing my calls.

I thought she was just busy or traveling with her husband, Charles. Liz had never let a day go by without returning my call.
When two days turned into three and then five, I couldn’t believe it. Was she actually mad at me for bringing up the surgery Anthony had had to straighten his nose and give him a perfectly patrician profile? I’m sure Anthony hadn’t told everyone he knew, but his nose job was no big secret.

Lizzie mine, I wanted to cry, is this fair? Her son wasn’t a high school boy; he was a grown man, if a young one. And he was the one who brought up appearances!

After an earlier misunderstanding, Liz and I had vowed total honesty in our relationship, swearing that if either of us was ever angry, we’d talk it out, then and there. This time, Liz wrote me a letter, which took yet another seven days or so to arrive. By then, I was too hurt and outraged to open it. Instead, furious that she would drop me over what seemed a trifle, I had fired off the lowest form of human communication, the excoriating e‑mail, accusing Liz of being stingy both emotionally and financially—reminding her that when we invited her and her husband for dinner, we served steak and Brie; they served soup and salad. I gave her a luxurious shawl for Christmas; she gave me a mug.
Has there ever been a time in your life when you know you’re wrong, then you realize you may be seriously wrong, but you’re in so deep you can’t stop and you keep blundering on, hoping you’ll stumble over a justification?

This was like that.

Slowly, it came to me that I’d crossed a line in reprimanding her son. Even though he had insulted me, Liz’s maternal feelings would never permit her to take my side. Still, she owed me some loyalty. First, in a short, affectionate e-mail, I reminded her of that promise about total honesty. Then I reconsidered, quickly sending a handwritten note wishing her well and asserting that nothing more needed to be said. In truth, I wanted this episode to die a quick death with no postmortem. I didn’t want to hear what I suspected would be a litany of my failings.

And then, nothing. A silence that would never end. Was I expecting it? Of course not! Shattered, wanting only Liz, I told myself that if I had kept my temper in the first place (I was in the right, sort of, but who cared?), I might have kept her, too.

There was still a ritual to go through: the process of dismantling our friendship. A couples vacation had to be canceled; substitutions were made for a seminar in which both of us were to teach; friends had to be alerted lest they invite us to the same dinner party. What I felt replacing my grief was terror. A woman without at least a few come-rain-or-come-shine friends is a woman on an ice floe, drifting. Two years before, in December, one of my scant handful of extraordinary friends, a woman I’d known for more than 20 years, had fallen into a coma when she contracted a rare form of strep. She never awakened. My oldest and once dearest friend was disabled by a chronic illness. This didn’t make her any less beloved, but our contact was often by phone. Our activities were limited. My fourth, and now perhaps closest, friend was much younger, in the throes of making babies. I happened upon an advice columnist named Marla Paul, who after going through an experience similar to mine had written a book called The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Good Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore. “Right away,” she wrote, “I started wondering, gee, who’s going to be there for me? Women rely on our friendships. We need them. I was desperate. It was like, well, there’s no one in the tai chi class. How about the woman who did that bra fitting? She seemed nice. It’s so awkward. You can’t come on too strong, or the person will back away. But you have to put yourself out there. We have to remember that most people do want friends. Most people are delighted to meet for lunch.”

That was the last thing I felt able to do.

Instead, I could think only of the bounty of memories Liz and I shared, the ways in which time had intertwined our families and our other friends. How could all that trust and laughter, touch and comfort and encouragement, be gone in a moment? After the rift, I stopped using the phrases that had been ours. A Thai waiter had once told Liz, “There are three kinds of people. Number-one kind of people? Want to die, can’t.” And that was the message we left for each other when times were hard: feeling like number-one kind of people.

That was how I felt now. Missing her was nearly an ache, proving again to me that most of what we know as emotion is rooted in the physical.

Oddly, it was Liz who unknowingly started me on the path to life without her. A note arrived from an acquaintance: “Saw Elizabeth at the gala, dancing the night away. I asked about you, and she said she hadn’t seen you lately. Where have you been hiding? I talked Elizabeth into joining our running club. What are you doing for fun?”

What was I doing for fun?

Drowning my sorrows in Bugles and onion dip?

I made a big decision. This was a big loss. I decided to visit a therapist.

In our three meetings, she helped me see deeper into my grief, to ask myself why I was having so much trouble adjusting to life without this one person. I did have other dear friends, old and newer, whom I had all but neglected in giving so much of myself, the very best strawberries of my personal life, to Liz. Wisely, however, Liz had made sure to maintain close ties with her other friends: Twice a month, for instance, she drove for two hours to meet another playwright, named Asia, for breakfast.

Did that hurt, the therapist asked? Yes, I said, quickly adding that Liz and I had had our own traditions. Do you think Liz would have gone so far for you, she asked? In fact, I’d quizzed Liz about that very thing, and her answer had been curious: She’d asked me why it mattered so much. And although when I mentioned a new person I’d met, Liz would sometimes say things to me like, “Do I have anything to worry about?” (this touched me deeply), she always meant it as a joke. For me, it was serious. I thought someone more glamorous and secure, someone like Asia, would take Liz away from me. What it boiled down to was that I was only one of the elements that made Liz’s life happy. While the same was true for me, Liz took up a whole lot more real estate in my heart.

In therapy I confronted some hard suspicions—about myself. With my other friends, was I more often the one who made the call or the one who returned it? As we exchanged news, did I listen first, and listen well, no matter how much my own update quivered on the tip of my tongue? Was I the one to postpone the coffee date because my life was too busy? Not always, but too often, the answers were uncomfortable.

I wasn’t being the friend I wanted to have.

And, really, neither was Liz.

Admitting this was like losing her all over again. Still, it’s a fact. One of the essentials of any great friendship is the ability to idealize the cherished one, to overlook most of her flaws, to shrug off most of her idiosyncrasies, unless they’re genuinely toxic. For Liz, I had done that. I’d overlooked her inflexibility and stubbornness, and the tiniest tendency to save her best china, literally and figuratively, for people she wanted to impress more. She had not been so understanding with me. Two bursts of temper and a bout of tears, earnestly repented, should not tip the scales of a friendship marked by so many joys. It wasn’t as though I scorched out every week at Liz, or even every year.
There was also the matter of balance. Even factoring in Liz’s need for tranquillity (six times a month, she spends a day in prayer and meditation, ignoring the phone), I always believed that a portion of Liz’s time was enough for me. But it wasn’t . . . not really. I do know that friendships aren’t always truly mutual. In some, one person offers the kiss; the other offers the cheek. Most often I was the one who asked, and Liz the one who agreed. She only occasionally sought me out. That in itself didn’t bother me very much. I’m no extrovert, and as an actor, Liz was always the center of a circle of admirers. That she wanted me at all made me feel worthy. But that prompted the question, Why did being without her make me feel not just sad but like an outcast? Wasn’t it her loss, too?

How willing I was—and not just with Liz—to first lash out absurdly if I felt wronged and then to feel overly culpable. Righteous indignation lasted about a day, and then guilt took over. I now realized, however, that after a point, even if I did the wrong thing, I had to stop beating myself up, as long as I hadn’t committed outright betrayal or actual harm. It really does take two to end something. For Liz and me, there was blame to share. I should never have lost my temper and had those shameful tantrums. Still, nearly 20 years of supportive love and lyric memories deserved, if not lavish forgiveness, more than a kiss-off letter.

This year has changed the landscape of friendship for me.
The cliché about being sadder but wiser is a cliché for a reason.
Of course I turned to my other friends, panicky, nearly ashamed of my need. I did not want to lose them. To my surprise, they welcomed me, happy to have more of my time. And I gave it, but with a difference.

Finding out how important I really wasn’t to someone who meant the world to me made me examine why that was true.
I tend my friendships better now. I listen more and gently probe beneath the surface of things. More often, I remember the occasion or make the date, even though the timing may be less than convenient. Friendship isn’t convenient. People don’t know by telepathy that you care, and you can’t keep them suspended in time until you’re ready. So I make dates rather than mere promises. At first, yes, I had to force myself. My link to Liz had made me smug; I always had the world’s most charming pal in my back pocket. But although it might seem that doing something artificially makes it less than genuine, that’s not the case. It’s like regular exercise: At first you have to remind yourself; after a while, it feels essential.

Several of the friendships I once considered second tier are now filled with life and sentiment because I’m giving them the attention they always deserved. When something irks me, I still put it forcibly into context. I’ll never be a pushover, but now I’m not so blunt. Before I hit the wall with an opinion, I’ll try the detour. Now I honor the child’s rule of counting to 10 before I speak (and the cyber-commandment of waiting overnight before I send an e-mail).

Inevitably, there came a day when I ran into Elizabeth and Charles at a play. My three younger children, including my youngest, Elizabeth’s godson, were with me. Liz stretched out her arms to him, but he was shy; it had been a year, and he didn’t remember her.

“How are you, Jack?” Liz asked me. She looked genuinely concerned.

“I’m really OK,” I told her, as bat wings of mascara, formed by my tears, gave the lie to my words. “It’s so good to see you.”
It was good to see her. My heart had hungered for the hard hug of those fragile, graceful arms, for the luster of her smile. As the kids and I walked away, I glanced back. Liz had drawn down the brim of her straw hat and was leaning on Charles’s shoulder. Perhaps there was a shadow in her life that still held my shape. I got into the car and adjusted the rearview mirror. In it I saw Liz throwing her arms wide and leaping with delight at the approach of her friend Asia.

Well. I would have wished it otherwise. I would have wanted to be the one who lit the light in her eyes. Still, I could be philosophical. It had taken half a century and a hard knock to teach me not to be prouder of having friends than of being one. Now it’s the other way around. Friendship for me is made from a tapestry of personalities, each of whom shares a part of all I care about.

With just a little more time, I expect to be able to give my relationship with Liz the place it deserves in my life history. It’s over. But it was, as my friend David said, an epic friendship.
I fold it tenderly, as I would the baptismal gown of a child now grown. It is no longer useful. But it is still precious. It always will be mine.


All the names and identifying details in this story have been changed.


JACQUELYN MITCHARD’s 23 novels include the award-winning The Deep End of the Ocean. Out this winter: What We Saw in the Dark.

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First Published Thu, 2012-05-31 10:06

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