By Michele Karas
With some friendships, even the best of friendships, there comes a time when you have to wonder why you ever tolerated that other person. It’s an epiphany that is especially heartbreaking to fathom on your wedding day, but that’s what happened to me.
E and I met when we were twelve and struggling to negotiate the awkward, hormone-infused limbo years that were Junior High. I was all legs and feet and greasy hair, and I had no clue. I’d spent most of my life learning to step lightly over the emotional landmines of my chaotic household, but I didn’t want to be that girl at the lockers who everyone thought was standoffish or stuck up. E was friendly and generally well liked. She was also an excellent disco dancer, a talent I admired. Physically, she was my opposite, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and prematurely curvy figure. (I think she hated her body, even then.) Nearly a whole year older than me, she possessed one strange tendency that made me uneasy from the get-go: a compulsion to mimic others. I was surprised when she asked to be my friend, plunking herself down next to me in Mr. Whipple’s social studies class, but I was not surprised when she began imitating the left-leaning slant of my handwriting or using my favorite brand of pen. “You don’t have dibs on the color green,” she’d snap back viciously when I asked her—more out of bewilderment than anger—why she was always copying me.
We carried on a knotted-up friendship like that all through high school, with E’s odd behavior only increasing. If I came to school wearing, say, a new color of lip gloss or pair of crocheted espadrilles, the next day she’d be standing alone on the Freshman lawn, wearing the exact same thing. When I’d attempt to confront her, she’d give me the silent treatment for days on end, and I’d be left to wonder what I’d done wrong. Our friendship was of the love-hate variety, so much so that I often wondered if it was worth the emotional toll. People I looked up to told me I should be patient; that imitation was the highest form of flattery. But if E held any admiration for me, she had a strange way of showing it: She frequently mocked the “dramatic” way I described things or the way I put my outfits together. Most horrifying, she liked to call attention to the ever-present, nervous sweat circles on the underarms of my cheerleading uniform.
But I needed a best friend. My father had died unexpectedly my Freshman year in high school and I’d forgotten how to be young. When things were good between E and me, we were teenaged hurricanes of spontaneity. We would plot toilet-papering convoys, sneak into college fraternity parties to flirt with boys, choreograph winning modern-dance duets for the annual talent show, take dorky puffs of her big brother’s stale joints, and generally laugh until we collapsed. When I got my driver’s license, one of the first places I drove was to Planned Parenthood, so E could go on birth control. But my own need for individuation and self-expression was all too frequently eclipsed by her insecurities. When we were both nominated to be Sweetheart Princess and I unexpectedly won, my first response was guilt, because I knew how much that kind of recognition meant to her.
As the years stretched on, we continued to circle each other like wary predators, continually piecing our friendship back together. In college, I applied and was accepted to an exchange program in New Hampshire. It was my ticket out of my unhappy household and my first chance to really discover who I was as an independent, young adult. Instinctually, I decided to wait until after the application deadline passed to tell E about my acceptance, but as soon as I did, she went to the head of the English department and lobbied to turn in her application late. Her acceptance into the program was a blow, but I decided to make the best of it, requesting a dorm assignment clear across campus so I could make new friends and enjoy my adventure independent of E. I think she found it hurtful at first, but she knew that I loved her. Didn’t she?
Throughout the coming years, I tried to be a good friend to E. I agreed to be the co-maid of honor at her wedding. I was the first one outside her immediate family to hold her baby boy. I was there to support her when she got fired from her dream job. I held my tongue when she began an undignified office affair, and when she ended yet another telephone conversation with the empty promise: “We’ll talk more about you the next time, okay?” I was there to comfort her when she began to regret (far too belatedly) having dismantled her marriage, despite my abiding affection for her ex-husband. With each new life drama, however, I could feel the lens of her scrutiny shift back onto me, each time with increasing intensity. When I’d go to visit, she’d rifle through my toiletries and declare that she’d found her new signature scent. The walls of her apartment were painted the same Martha Stewart “Natural Twine” color she’d admired in my home. Once, I walked into the guest room and caught her going through my coat pockets and checking the names on all my clothing labels—a pair of my size 6 jeans stuck half way up her thighs.
The biggest emotional shift came when I began planning my own wedding. Her emails became more stilted and her words less chipper. When I learned yet another one of her romances had ended abruptly, I knew she was pulling away. Her tolerance for me was fading as my wedding day drew nearer. By the time E set foot in New York, she was in a full-blown, depressive funk.
On the morning of my wedding, E declined to come to my hotel room to have her makeup done. I was wearing the stunning, ivory-chiffon cocktail dress I’d told her all about. I’d wanted her to be one of the first people to see me in it. I wanted her to sip champagne and get ready with my sister and me. When it was time to leave and we all went down to the lobby to meet E, she was standing there waiting for us, dressed all in ivory chiffon, just like the bride. I had read about things like this happening, and my heart ached for her. Was she really that desperate for attention, or was it an act of aggression? A lifetime of resentment, it seemed, had gotten all twisted up like the cherry branches I’d ordered to decorate the sanctuary, and I could no longer untangle hers from mine. She saw the look on my face, and we both seemed to understand this was the end. It wasn’t a breakup so much as a slow leak of caring.
E and I spoke just a few more times after the wedding. The heavy labor of our conversations had become a burden for us both. I went on to develop new, much richer and more balanced friendships, and went back to graduate school to fulfill my dream of becoming a writer. I went into therapy, which, not surprisingly, helped me come to terms with what had happened between E and me. I learned at our high school reunion that E had begun calling herself a writer, too, and that she’d remarried a quiet cabinet salesman from Chicago. I hoped that he made her happy, and that he would be able to provide her with all the reassurance and love she so desperately needed.
When my sister passed away and E sent me a sympathy card, more than five years since we had last been in touch, and said she was so very sorry for my loss, I felt her sincerity. I no longer had any hard feelings toward my former friend, but I had to make a choice. I could risk backsliding into a fraught relationship that left me feeling diminished, or I could keep marching down that aisle of self-discovery, trusting that I was headed in a healthier and more loving direction.
Michele Karas is a poet, playwright, and an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the City College of New York. By day, she works as an associate copy director, crafting national ad campaigns for bestselling authors. Her creative writing has appeared most recently in Right Hand Pointing and Pea River Journal, with work forthcoming in Promethean and Alaska Quarterly Review. Michele writes about simple happiness on her blog.