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12/21/2015 08:04 am ET

How My Best Friend Broke My Heart

The author of What's Never Said shares the truth behind what severed her closest relationship.
Javier Mayoral/Getty Images

"Happy birthday, butterfly!" I left the phone message for my best friend, Claire, using her childhood nickname. She never returned the call. I knew she was busy with two babies, but she didn't respond to my last three emails either.

I was beyond hurt.

We had spent most of our lives being each other's closest confidantes. Our elegant, suburban Midwest mothers had been best friends, and pregnant together four times. They each produced quartets: one dark-haired girl and a trio of boys. Claire was my pretend sister and mirror. We didn't like cooking brisket for the boys or cleaning up after our brothers -- as our mothers so often suggested. Instead we snuck to the lake down the block. There we chain-smoked cigarettes, painted our toenails blue on the edge of the broken picnic table. By junior high, like me, Claire was five foot seven, with the same size-nine feet, big shoulders and an uncannily similar sadness of not quite fitting into our own families. Claire was my home.

Unable to compete with our Supermoms, we became Serious Manhattan Career Women, struggling toward urban glamour (and often failing). She chose architecture; I picked journalism. We were afraid we'd never be pregnant together even once. Then, in my late thirties, I married a tall, brilliant screenwriter. It took time to feel ready to have children. Unfortunately, when I went off birth control, nothing happened. For two years we struggled with invasive, expensive fertility treatments that left us broke and arguing, feeling like failures. It almost ruined our marriage. Finally, I gave up.

In her forties, Claire fell in love with another acclaimed architect. But he soon moved his job -- and her -- to the West Coast.

"You'll come back to visit," I said at her wedding brunch, my heart lurching.

"We have one-way tickets," her new husband interrupted.

Across the country, Claire and her husband were determined to have kids. She did in-vitro for five years -- until it worked. When she had a baby boy, I was thrilled. But then she didn't return my calls or emails for six months. I was shocked. I knew we were now long-distance and she was busy with her newborn. Yet how could someone I'd adored for more than 40 years just disappear? It felt like a betrayal of every promise we'd made to be there for each other always.

I bombarded her with cards, presents, letters, phone messages, emails. I missed her every day. Not having Claire in my world was devastating. I mooned over her Facebook page, feeling like a stalker, noticing how big her son was getting, spying on his first swimming lesson, staring at her photographs to watch her new life unfold without me.

I threw myself into work but found myself overeating candy late at night after my husband was asleep, my worse habit when upset. I tried to socialize with new colleagues and promising students, including one who lived nearby and was available to come over all the time, like Claire used to.

But it wasn't the same.

A year later, I went to California for work. I planned to confront Claire on her abandonment. Before I could, she showed up at my hotel with cupcakes, driving me to my book signing as if nothing had changed. That night, she generously threw me a party at her place in her huge backyard in the suburbs, complete with wine, beer and catered food. During the event, I noticed her husband hung out in their son's room, reading to him. Did he resent the sudden disruption of their baby's bedtime routine? Or was it something else?

Still, when she came to my hotel and we had drinks and caught up breathlessly until 3 a.m., I was so ecstatic to have Claire back.

Until she became pregnant again, with a daughter.

"Congratulations!" I emailed. I was worried I'd lose her again, seeing her new perfect family as the barrier between us. I wished I could also have rallied in my late forties, figuring out a way to make up for lost time and have a baby. Alas, my husband -- who was older than hers -- was dead set against trying.

The day she gave birth to her little girl, I received a rambling email. She confessed the pregnancy was really hard on her body. She wasn't sure if she'd chosen the right path, the right life. She was jealous of my freedom and exciting job. I was stunned. I'd myopically assumed she was happily married, like me, that having babies so late would be blissful. Calling to see if she was OK, she was taken aback that she'd sent the message from her hospital bed.

"I can't believe I sent that. Forget it. I was under sedation," she told me.

Catching her on the phone one week later, I blurted, "Why haven't you returned my calls? I can have a husband and still be close to you. What's going on?"

"Susie, we were too close. I'm having a rough time adjusting to being a stay-at-home mom," she confessed. "I don't know how to love you and be a good wife and mother. My husband and kids need all my energy. Your life is great, you're launched. I'm still a work in progress."

"But you don't like talking to me?"

"It's the opposite," she explained. "Whenever we talk, I want to hop on a plane to New York and go back to being a skinny, busy, successful working woman there. But that's not who I am anymore. It doesn't do me -- or my kids -- any good when I feel like that. Can you understand?"

I wanted to. I tried to see it from her side. While I'd been awed and envious of her, she missed having a big-city career and freedom. Indeed, I'd remained obsessed with my career, responsible only for myself. Yet she now spent every hour of the day taking care of two little kids. How hard and exhausting it must have been, leaving her friends and past to reinvent herself as a wife and an older mother in her fifties. But why did it mean she had to ignore me? Was it unrealistic for me to expect our link to remain the same as we'd diverged into opposite lives on different coasts?

"I get it. I love you. I'm proud of you. I'll back off," I mustered, holding back tears.

I contacted her less, giving her more space to return messages (sometimes months). She sometimes sent adorable updated montages of kid pictures in group emails. And when I had a breast-cancer scare, she emailed me immediately, showing she still cared. Yet when I wanted to hear her voice, my calls went unanswered.

It took a while but I gradually realized I had a choice. I could either have some of Claire on her terms and deal with feeling rejected, or walk away and have none of her. I wasn't a victim who'd been left, I decided. I'd been the older one of the two of us -- and often the leader our whole lives. Now it was time for me to step back and follow her lead. So, once a year, when she's in New York or I'm in L.A., we hang out, laugh all night, like the two artsy Midwest misfits we used to be. Yes, in between, I miss her, and I may always. But being best friends means I'm leaving it up to her -- letting myself be the ally who will adore her forever, from whatever distance she needs.

 
Susan Shapiro is the author of What's Never Said and Five Men Who Broke My Heart.

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