I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately. Not really consciously, but it’s been weighing on my mind heavily the last few months, and it’s something I go to in the moments between falling in bed and falling asleep, between helping a customer and alphabetizing the books, between episodes of The West Wing or even during them- friendship, and those friends that you never quite expected to go or stay- that is what occupies the empty spaces in my brain.
Leafing through a bridal magazine, I am momentarily shaken when I come to an article about choosing bridesmaids. Yes, I know it’s coming, and it shouldn’t be shocking to me any more than it was 9 months ago, but I still get caught off guard. Who do you choose, the article asks, the friends you’ve known since childhood or the friends you made in college? The ones you grew up with or the ones you’ve grown close to in your adult life? How do you let them down easy? How do you encourage your close work buddy, the one you get lunch with every day or hang out with on weekends, to befriend your childhood bestie- the person you only see when you go home for the holidays but who has remained a part of your life nonetheless?
As if life was simple, like a movie.
It’s these articles that bother me more than the ones about including your parents, or making sure you don’t hurt your mom’s feelings. Because I know my parents are gone, and it’s something I was prepared for long before I got engaged.
But I wasn’t prepared, not really, to be standing on the edge of my wedding feeling utterly alone.
I do not have a “lot” of friends. Certainly not ones that I’ve known for decades or shared lunches with in the elementary school cafeteria. I never have. My life is different, and always has been- I accepted that a long time ago. I was the girl with divorced parents in a small school where EVERYONE had parents who stayed married, even if they didn’t want to. I didn’t know anyone who was gay, and we had ONE child in our class who came from Mexico. Everyone around me was white, wealthy, and religious. I look back on it now and it breaks my heart that my mother had to cave so easily to my father- that my father was so wrapped up in winning the small battle of where I went to school that he did not notice that both my mother and I were suffering. He didn’t know how miserable I was, and that my experiences in elementary school and junior high would shape the way I saw the entire world for the rest of my life. How could he? He worked three jobs and yes, he was an amazing father, but it’s astounding what we can be blind to if we honestly don’t want to see it. He thought he was doing what was best for me, everyone else be damned.
So I’m bitter. I have been for years and I probably always will be. I’m self-conscious and awkward. I make weird jokes and I say weird things and it wasn’t until I escaped this country that I realized what it truly meant to be myself. On a bus somewhere in the United Kingdom I found someone, and crossing the Sahara Desert in Egypt I realized I LIKED her. But it wasn’t until the end of my journey, halfway through the middle of the South Island of New Zealand, that I discovered that other people liked her, too. It took me several years and millions of miles to figure out that not only was Modesto bad for me, but so is California. The same for Oregon, Washington, Texas, and New York. It doesn’t matter where I go in this country we call America, I will never feel free enough to be myself. I will never be far enough away from the decades of pain I endured and caused and felt and inflicted to actually survive.
But I came home. I had to. I had changed, but nothing else had. Worse still, no one I knew had allowed for the prospect of me coming home a completely different person. I have a picture, from the day I landed in San Francisco in April of 2012, and I look at that girl, and THAT is the person I want to be for the rest of my life. I have never felt more mature, more alive, more grown up or more free than that woman did, standing on the wall of the lookout over the Golden Gate Bridge. I loved coming home because I hoped things would change. I hated being home because I knew they never would, because yes, I lived here, but like Harry Potter returning to his aunt and uncle’s house for the summer, it never really felt like “home” to me.
So I left again, and came back again. And now I’m leaving again. Each time I’ve felt like I’m leaving something, something important. This time I wanted to feel like I was leaving nothing at all. But you cannot survive in a place for 28 years and not leave something behind when you go. So I go, and I leave family, I leave memories, I leave pain and hurt and depression and hatred. I leave bitterness and anger and history and love. I leave people and places to which it breaks my heart to say goodbye- I leave things behind I never thought I could part with.
But I’m leaving something shocking, too. I’m leaving friends. I’m leaving people who, against all odds, I found liked me. I can separate my life into two sections- the BEFORE, and the AFTER. Before my mom died, before something inside me broke and healed and broke again, and AFTER she was gone, AFTER I came back, AFTER I found the person so many people seemed to like. And I can count on one hand the number of people left from BEFORE, because they are few and far between. There aren’t many people left from before, because there was a space between before and after that I only vaguely remember called “during”, and in that space I was truly lost. There were people I met in that space who held my hand and guided me, and for that I could never show enough gratitude, enough love. There is no amount of kindness with which I could repay them, there are no words in the English language to do justice to the way they saved my life. The friends I had in the “during”; those are the friends to whom I could never really say goodbye.
But people grow apart. People change. I’ve changed so much in the last four years that the only parts of myself I recognize from before are the ones I find when I hear a harmonica, when I put my hands to the keys of a computer and let loose. I recognize the laughter and the love I feel when I see my family. I recognize the smile I see in the mirror or in pictures where I am truly, undeniably happy. I recognize the handwriting on my left forearm, I recognize the pictures on my walls and I recognize the love of books. I recognize the righteous anger I feel when I can’t help someone in need, I recognize the person who talks and talks and talks for days.
I recognize the woman who carries a camera everywhere. I recognize the person who reads the news voraciously, who wants nothing more than to talk about current events. I recognize these people as my mother and my father, as the gifts they left me with that will never, ever fade away.
But I also recognize the person who pushed and shoved and fought her way out of a friendship that drained her. There are moments and days when I miss Kristin, and reading those bridal magazine articles are some of them. But I apologized, I wrote letters, I called, I begged forgiveness. I received no kindness in return, no acceptance, no response. I was hurting and lashed out, and when you lose someone you love that is an understandable, if not expected, behavior. So my list of “befores” is small. Only a few, and only one with whom I can truly say I have not ever lost contact. My list of “befores” is, to me, perfection. My befores are the ones I know I will see when I’m 30, 60, even 80. My befores are my forevers. My befores are proof to me that I am a good person, a person worth loving, and have always been, underneath it all.
I never expected the afters, though. The afters are shocking and lovely and wonderful because they love the me that I love, too. They’re the ones that I couldn’t have imagined if I tried, the ones that I miss now and will miss when I leave. They’re the ones who make me straddle countries and hoard frequent flyer miles, because they are everywhere. They’re the ones that surprise me, always, just by being around. The ones I don’t want to leave and the ones I’m running towards, the ones I want to surround myself with, the ones who make me smile at night and laugh at myself.
There’s no telling what will happen to a relationship when you put the strain of distance and time on it. Some relationships break, some stretch thin, and some grow stronger to make the distance easier to cross. The internet has made the excuse of distance nearly a moot one, but not quite- because some people are not made for waiting, for letters, for phone calls and emails and video chats. Some people are only made for the time they can spend with another person physically, and that’s ok too.
I have had a few relationships cross mountains and oceans and years- only a few. But that’s more than most people in the world, that’s many more than I feel entitled to have. I’m going to make a commitment to spend the rest of my life with one of those people, and the other ones has been parts of my worst moments and my best. One has seen me through days and nights I couldn’t fathom surviving, he has pushed me to be the very best of myself when I could only find the worst. He is a before, someone who knows all my deep, dark secrets and helps me laugh at them every day.
The befores, the durings, the afters- this is for you. You know who you are, you have saved my life and kept me alive. You are the best of me, the reason I am here right now, writing this rambling, long essay. You are my always and forevers, you are the light in the darkness, you are the greatest things to happen to a person, and I am so very blessed to call you my friends. This blog, this moment, this day, and all the days when just getting out of bed is a chore I cannot imagine accomplishing- the days when the lights go out and all I can see around me is the darkness- and the days that are so bright the darkness is completely eliminated from this world and all is green and good again- all of these things are for you. Here are some, but by no means all, of my befores, my durings, my afters, and in chronological order:
For Laura, who has known me since before I was born and has happily swung in and out of my life for nearly three decades, always making it brighter and smarter; for Caleb, who, for the past 18 years, has made me laugh at the pain until the pain shrinks and disappears; for MK, who swooped down and claimed me as her little sister and reminded me that guardian angels do exist; for Laura M, who took my hand and walked me out of the fog of despair and shoved me out the door and into the world; for Tiarn, who never once questioned that we were meant to be the closest of friends and who never forgets or misses anything; for Elise, who showed me that we are all of us broken, even if we look like the strongest women in the world, and proved to me that it’s ok, and will always be ok, because we’re fighting the good fight; for Stacey, who still loves me even though she knows how much I can keep her up at night, asking questions about the world, both existential and scientific, and who knows that it’s always worth it to climb the mountain, even if it nearly kills you; for Jess, who saved me in the most literal of ways many, many times; for Daniel, because I could not ask to spend my life with a better person; for Tahnee, who has proved in a million different ways that you cannot judge a book by its cover and that everyone has the capacity to surprise you in the most wonderful little ways; and for Julie, who let me in during her most difficult time and allowed me to help her, which no one has ever given me the honor of doing, who keeps me from losing my mind and laughs at my jokes and makes me feel like a FRIEND, which is quite possibly one of the best things a person could ever be.
You. You, all of you, are the best of me, and I am so grateful and honored and thankful to have you, and to tell you I love you isn’t a good enough way to describe the depth of emotion I feel for each and every one of you.
What do I do when my love is away?/ Does it worry you to be alone?/ How do I feel by the end of the day?/ Are you sad because you’re on your own?/ No, I get by with a little help from my friends/ Get high with a little help from my friends/ Gonna try with a little help from my friends…