There she was again. Although rationally, I knew that she couldn't help having her kids go to school in my neighborhood, I resented seeing her. It would have been easier for me if she had moved to the 'burbs, so at least I could pretend that this death of our decade-long friendship was a real death with closure. Instead, I still feel nausea and longing whenever I spot her chatting with other mommies. But I know the drill. I pretend to be incredibly busy checking voicemail in order to avoid glancing her way as I briskly walk by. For a few minutes after seeing her, my heart beats rapidly and my hand trembles.
The friendship began in the most normal of ways. We were both first-time mothers with infants born a few months apart. Eager to meet other adults in what can be an isolating experience, we bonded over bubbles in a "Mommy and Me"-type class in a dark synagogue basement. Our sons kicked their chubby legs as we danced around with them in our arms.
Our similarities brought us together. Both of us sported shoulder-length brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses on long, oval faces. We had left careers in different areas of publishing to be stay-at-home mothers. And each found this choice somewhat overwhelming at times. Later on in our friendship, strangers would ask if we were sisters. Although not by blood, eventually, it felt like we were.
Initial conversations, of course, centered around our babies. We would phone each other often for advice on their different stages and needs. Since both of our own mothers hadn't parented babies since the sixties, we used each other perhaps the way younger women did their moms. The talk would veer to funny anecdotes, which made the exhaustion and nervousness of new parenthood bearable.
Our first mommy "play date" was lunch at my apartment. As I cooked and we chatted, her son started to shriek, which, for some reason, upset my cat. Thankfully, instead of swatting the baby, Max the cat scratched my friend on the ankle. Running for band-aids, I thought this would be our first and last visit. But it turned out to be the first of many.
We had plenty of telephone talks, as email was still fairly new. I remember phoning for advice on giving my then 2-year-old, Ben, medicine. It was a battle to get even antibiotics into him. "Oh, it's easy," my friend chirped. "I just fill the medicine syringe, hold it in my mouth, then I sit on his legs, point the syringe towards his cheek, push the plunger and the medicine goes down!" Although Ben probably was twice her baby's size, I was game. In a scene that recalled The Excorcist, cherry-flavored liquid sprayed from my son's mouth in a parabolic shape above his bed and onto his nursery wallpaper. Ben screamed so loudly, his cheeks turning the color of his medicine, that I was certain Child Welfare would soon be at my door.
Beyond the general mommy stuff, we supported each other in a way I rarely experienced. There were times when I became uncertain about my identity because I had stopped writing. In a city where people recite their curriculum vitae as an introduction at cocktail parties, the words "stay-at-home mom," often would end the conversation abruptly. After one of those times, my friend reassured me, "It's old-fashioned, but in the best way possible."
Looking back, I had ignored several red flags. A few years into our friendship, she seemed to go "underground," and was unreachable. Since nothing I could recall warranted this, I checked in from time to time, but gave her wide berth, assuming something difficult was happening in her life. Finally, she did call back explaining that her father had been ill. She assured me that we would get together soon.
Things went back to normal for the next few years. We would call to pass the time waiting for camp buses, exchanging anecdotes on everything from our love for our late grandmothers to travel plans and tips on feeding vegetable-phobic children.
We discussed our marriages often, the good and the bad of which we knew every, (honest), marriage experienced. Although my husband and I would battle out difficulties, not letting go until coming to a mutual solution, my friend and her husband's style was silence. They would stop speaking, avoiding contact in their own apartment.
Still, I rationalized, this would never happen to us.
And then it did.
Although two years later, I remain unsure of what led to this break-up, I think it started with this: My friend's relative created a new online product which she asked me to review as a customer. Although initially I said yes, my husband later advised me not to because of possible conflicts. When I called to explain, my friend's tone changed and she rushed off the phone. Planning to help her shop for new eyeglasses the next day, I received an email from her saying that she'd rather go alone. When I asked if my review issue caused her cancellation, she replied, "I'll get over it. Just not right now."
She seemed to "get over it," a few weeks later though -- true to her style -- she would not discuss it with me. She invited me over for coffee. At that visit, I had a queasy feeling that something had changed. While sitting in her kitchen waiting to see a dress she was considering, I glanced at a book I had suggested for her son. "Oh, I see you got Hatchet." I said. She glared at me as if I had read her secret diary. Although she quickly tried to appear relaxed and continue our visit, I felt off-balance. Her goodbye at the door had a feeling of permanence.
In hindsight, I was in a needy stage of life at that point in our friendship. My children had both begun new schools, were making transitions, and I wasn't sure how I fit in at either place. At the same time, I was so proud of my kids' successes in acclimating. Our friendship was often based on difficulties. Perhaps my pride in my children came off as gloating. On our last phone call, I didn't have much to say, but missed connecting with her even for small talk. When she seemed to tire of chatting, she mentioned that she was passing a boutique that she liked, quickly said, "Gotta run," and hung up.
Finally weary of her abrupt behavior and distance, I emailed her a note. It read:
I feel like there has been a rift this year, for reasons that I wish I could understand better. But whatever the reasons, we have had a meaningful friendship for nearly a decade, and I hope that that will continue. If you'd consider talking about this, it would mean a great deal to me.
I never heard from her again.
Shortly after the email, I saw her walking with her children and her son's friend. She pretended not to see me, twisting her body awkwardly to whisper to her son. Each additional time I'd see her she would tilt her head towards her companion and avoid eye contact. For a while, due to some odd, masochistic trait, I tried to put myself in situations where I would run into her -- timing my walks to pick up my children in synch with hers. Would she pretend not to see me? What if she did look? What should my expression show? Anger? Confusion? Sadness? All of these feelings spun in my head like a centrifuge of pain.
The spinning continued over the next two years, even when I didn't see her, as I futilely tried to solve the mystery of how I had offended her. In the context of a ten-year friendship, didn't I at least deserve a conversation? I vacillated almost daily from a victim of my ex-best friend's irrationality, to wondering if I no longer deserved her friendship. When I wasn't conducting this silent monologue, I mourned.
Although to this day, I remain baffled by this abrupt end, time has helped me to come to accept the loss and stop trying to solve the puzzle. I have discussed it with close friends. My insecure side worried that the story might make my other friends "see something" to lead them to reject me as well; they did not.
Because of my friend's actions -- or lack thereof -- we lost an opportunity to air our issues, perhaps improve our friendship or, at least, provide closure. There remains a part of me that wishes she would apologize and explain that something -- a psychological break down, health issue, anything -- caused her to foolishly end our friendship. I realize that this is pointless because I could never again trust her. I do forgive her in absentia, however -- being unable to discuss difficulties is a loss for her as well. Just the same, I still miss her and our complete openness, ease and comfort. I'll never know if she misses it, too.