It took me 30 years to realize one person can’t be your sun
First, there was Paula in second grade, picture books and games of hide-and-seek. Then came Cindy, who waged a constant, violent war with her mother for leaving her father; Jennifer, the most popular girl in grade school, who would end up in five years time stalking Madonna in front of her apartment in Manhattan, addicted to crack cocaine; Judy, who cut class, danced to Taylor Dane, smoked “loosies,” and once choked herself until she passed out.
There was Sarah, who was 12 but could pass for 16, bumping The Low End Theory on a subway platform in Queens. We were two girls desperate for fiction; we dreamed of having a different family, eager to annihilate our past riddled with bounced checks, dead mice in closets, and dollar-store sweaters. Sarah and I left the ramshackle homes in which we lived, our masks firmly affixed on our faces.
There was Z, my freshman-year partner in crime, who took me to a bar in Manhattan — a single, cramped room fashioned after a zoo. Once, I remember walking into her room as she compulsively brushed her hair, nude, and I turned away, embarrassed by her body, the shape of it, how she was unaware of the fact that her shades weren’t drawn, her door wasn’t closed, and the danger that occupied the spaces in between the two. Then there was Elizabeth Katherine and Katherine Elizabeth — two beautiful, affluent blondes with whom I shared a familial intimacy.
Once, someone joked: Are you starting a doll collection?
That comment hurt me then for reasons that are different now. I went from a quiet, soft-spoken child (who clung to another chosen girl like a blanket whose pattern would rub off all too quickly from the intensity of my possessiveness) to wanting multitudes.
A teacher pulled me aside once and said, it’s not healthy to have just one friend. In response I thought, who cares about health when there was the promise of love and consistent companionship? I didn’t realize then that I used the words “best” and “only” interchangeably. I hoarded and safeguarded this delusion because maybe I knew I would invariably lose what I was so desperate to keep. I think of Judy sitting on the steps of her apartment, pressing her hands against her throat and my desire to run.
When you hold onto something tightly, it always escapes but never resumes its former shape.
Then there was S, and soon after, the realization that it was unhealthy to excise parts of myself, hoping that the graft of affection would take.
I met S in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked. The buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. I remember her being volcanic; she moved from one train of thought to another, speaking in spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and neurology. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm, she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?
How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone?
For the rest of our time in Russia, I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in the Summer Garden for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms; she was in a constant state of unraveling and I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed free. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.
When we came home, S and I met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities — an experience with dead babies in bottles and the smell of sulfur that made us shudder. S and I coupled off, and we spoke about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother).
How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.
For years, the world was reduced to us. We spent every day together, dissected the food we ate and the books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember a mutual friend approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and my friend receded, folded into quiet.
Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a new job at a burgeoning digital agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I was consumed with work, and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. We could always fill the spaces until the day we couldn’t. Until the day we realized that the only thing keeping us together was old memories.
How do you say that out loud?
It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a friendship that ran its course. How, and to what standard, do you measure a friendship that once throbbed yet now slumbers, that becomes a house where all the lights flicker and burn out? One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was as if we had never existed, and I was devastated that she cut me off so completely. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I cried.
I unfriended her — seven years ended with a click of a mouse. A love excised. Our history wiped clean.
I spent the next decade avoiding my habit of putting a single person on the top shelf. It’s taken me that long to open the door and let everyone else in, and more importantly, to make myself whole instead of being a barnacle — cleaving life and energy away from others. At the time, I noticed a gradual shift in how we form bonds with others and sustain them.
I grew up before the internet, before a time when people broke plans or evaded tough talks through text. A time when you had to physically show up in your friendships and do the work. With the advent of technology, many relationships have devolved into a scrolling, passive affair where people don’t need to call or write because they’ve been keeping up with you via social media.
It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a friendship that ran its course.
Most of my friends are married, have children, or have moved across the globe. Where we once had days to laze, we now spend time organizing and obsessing over time — to whom we allocate it, how to maximize it, where to spend it. I’m at the age when coordinating a lunch is the equivalent of a CIA operation. There are multiple texts, chats, calendar consultations because now we have to consider children, work, AA meetings, therapy, after-work engagements, and all the other weight we carry.
We architect connections based on the lives we have now and self-segregate accordingly. A few friends who are new mothers tell me they now spend their time with other mothers because of a real bond, a new sense of understanding they now share, and how could I fault them this, a Darwinian need to surround themselves with people who will ensure their survival. And we’re all getting older — our world no longer feels infinite, scattered.
Now it’s purposeful and focused, and I think of growing older as achieving a kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurdle ourselves to as many shores as we could navigate. We achieved all that our parents had designed for us, we made all the friends and lost them and gathered new ones along the way, and then what? What then?
Growing up involves opening outward. We search out new experiences, wider social connections, and ways of putting our stamp on the world. When people reach the latter half of adult hood, however, their priorities change markedly. Most reduce the amount of time and effort they spend pursuing achievement and social networks…
They focus on being rather than doing and on the present more than the future…If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re old? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.
— From Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal
We scroll through Facebook photo albums, filtered Instagram images, and blog posts, comforted by the fact that this passive consumption is an adequate and worthy substitute for dinners when our phones are safely out of reach. Studies tell us that we discard people as easily as objects.
People accept that they have the whole story of someone’s life because they read a tweet or status update. While social media has been invaluable in the way that it allows you to connect with people, true friendships require one to still physically show up. Technology isn’t a replacement for meaningful connections. It used to be that if you wanted to contact someone, you had to phone them, write to them, or show up at the doorstep.
Technology should create more doors, not replace existing ones. Friends who show up, FaceTime, text, Skype, message, visit, phone, write — they’re not satisfied with the Cliff’s Notes version of your life.
True friends remain long after the last call — when the lights have gone out and you’re forced to stumble home. And even though they walk alongside you in the dark, they call, text, or message the next day and ask, are you okay?
Over the past year, I’ve made some very clear and definitive choices about my life and the friends who inhabit it. I will only surround myself with people who challenge and comfort me. Our relationships are symbiotic, reciprocal, and I never leave a dinner drained — I’m always invigorated. I always want to create, build, be. I will only take on projects with people whom I respect, people who have integrity and challenge me.
I used to love the words “best friend,” but now I’ve stripped those words of their power, given them less weight, and in that way, my friendships no longer have unhealthy expectations. I don’t want piles of new friends, nor do I want singular, suffocating ones — I’ve lived in the extremes and now I’m edging toward a healthy middle. I’m not at the place in my life where I need to hoard and accumulate. Now, I’m winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships, rekindling old ones, while adding a few new faces to the mix. I want to mentor the extraordinary women who used to work for me.
Now, I seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away filled with verve.
This is what happens when you grow older — perhaps Atul Gawande is right. Because all I want is to focus on what’s in my life, right now, and the circle of people who inhabit my strange world and make it brighter even on my darkest days.
I no longer believe that one person can be my sun.