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 twelve but could pass for sixteen, 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, so eager we were 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 blithely 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, and 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 wasn’t able to disentangle my obsession with these singular friends from my tragic awareness that I will always pursue someone’s affection, always be on the precipice of loss. This is perhaps why I safeguarded them and the fiction I was intent on living so obsessively because I knew, invariably, the friendships would come to their crashing conclusion. I think of Judy and her sitting on the carpeted steps of her duplex apartment, pressing her hands against her throat and my urgent desire to flee, to run. When you hold onto something so tightly, it always escapes but never quite 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 swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in torrential 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?
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 Gardens 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. This was at a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him and the promise of a life he offered. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.
When we came home, S and I casually 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 that elicited a collective 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 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 finally got sober and stayed sober. 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 then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work, and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it 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 drift, of a friendship that ran its course. How, and to what standard, do you measure a friendship that once throbbed yet now slumbers, becomes a house where all the lights flicker and inevitably 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 never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly and completely. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I unfriended her — seven years ended with a click of a mouse. 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. But in that time, I noticed a gradual shift in how we form bonds with others and maintain 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.
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 co-ordinating 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 as the years advance. We architect connections based on the lives we have now and self-segregate accordingly. A few friends, 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’m starting to think of growing older as achieving a certain kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurtle 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 viw 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. I’ve endured one of the worst years I’ve known and people with whom I thought were close think it’s sufficient that they know of my representation of sadness as opposed to witnessing it first-hand. 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 a meaningful connection it should be a vehicle to further it. It used to be that if you wanted to contact someone, you had to phone them, write 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 Note’s version of your life.
True friends remain long after last call, when the lights have gone out and you’re forced to stumble home. They toast your success and walk alongside you in that dark, and 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 don’t create “content," I tell stories, and I’ll never write simply for the sake of churning out something that “bolsters my brand." I will only cleave to that which nurtures me. I used to love the words “best friend," 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 consider Elizabeth Katherine one of my best friends possibly because she’s put up with my nonsense the longest with a kindness and compassion that borders on saintly. I consider Amber one of my best friends because, during one of the worst years of my life, she’s been a constant. She’s been one of the few people who doesn’t make me feel ashamed that I haven’t snapped out of my sadness.
Frankly, 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 rather it’s about a winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships, rekindling old ones, and adding a few new faces to the mix. I want to focus on mentoring the extraordinary women who used to work for me. Now, I only seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away inspired and excited. No longer do I expect a single person to complete me or fill a void.
I guess 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.
This post originally appeared on Medium.com.
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Felicia C. Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn't Visible From Here (Algonquin/Harper Collins) and the forthcoming novel, Follow Me Into the Dark (The Feminist Press, 2017). She muses on all things food and feline at lovelifeat.com, and lives in Los Angeles.