Thursday, April 9, 2015

Real Heartbreak

by Annabeth Leong

There are things I'm proud to understand about romance, won by hard experience. I know now that relationships shouldn't be judged by longevity. If I eventually leave my lover, or my lover leaves me, it doesn't negate what passed between us. I no longer feel foolish about the nakedness, the moments of vulnerability. They remain beautiful in retrospect, even if they are tinged by bitterness or regret.

When I meet a potential lover, I go forward knowing I may be in for a searing experience. My heart will be marked forever by this person, no matter what, because I don't know how to do these things without caring. I will, perhaps, be beautifully changed, and maybe I will do the same to them. Maybe forty years from now, she will be putting marmalade on rye toast because I liked it and I'll be taking my coffee with extra cream and sugar because of him. Maybe we will be sitting together, or maybe we won't. And maybe six months from now, I'll be sobbing my guts out because I'm longing for a touch that won't belong to me anymore, or maybe I'll be awkwardly watching while someone else reacts to a denial that comes from me.

Those things are the price of admission to romance, and I know and accept them.

With friendship, though, I'm so much less circumspect. I take the idea of Best Friends Forever to heart. I want a friend who is a life partner. When things come to an end, I am inconsolable, sometimes for years.

***

As an elementary school kid, I remember getting assigned exercises and writing prompts that asked for me to make lists of superlatives. What was my favorite color? Favorite book? Who was my best friend?

These lists confused me. I am enthusiastic by nature, and I love easily. Lots of colors are beautiful to me, and every friend is precious. Choosing favorites was an alien concept, something I had to be taught.

At the same time, I have walls up that even I don't know how to breach, and always did. People slip through them, finding various secret passageways in ancient brickwork, but that's a magical, accidental process. As an elementary school kid, I didn't know how to have a best friend, didn't know how to feel that close to anyone. I never really had the experience until I was an adult.

***

I had a best friend once who would invite me to go with her to the grocery store, or to stand and talk with her while she folded her laundry. I could tell she felt embarrassed about it, as if she was taking advantage of me, and I didn't know how to communicate how much I loved being part of that dailiness. I felt stitched into her life, and so safe within it.

I remember that she was nice to me when we first met, and at that time in my life I reacted to her kindness by wondering what the hell she wanted from me. As it gradually dawned on me that she wanted me, my company, my friendship, that dizzying star of awareness produced a complete and helpless sort of love that has become the way I always feel for a best friend.

I can't drop the walls easily, but when they fall, they come down completely. I'm not sure people know how bare I am before them, but when I have a best friend, I am skinless.

***

Sex will ruin the friendship. I believed that, and I think it became a twisted talisman, a way of trying to ward off endings that always seem to come. I accept that romances can end, and when I am blessed with a particularly dear friendship, I am desperate to prevent it from becoming a romance. Without sex, perhaps it can last forever.

This morning, I began to wonder about that. I think it's a vestige of my conservative upbringing to believe that sex destroys connections, or dooms them. Certainly, the times I've lost close friends have ripped me apart so completely that I can't believe things would have been any worse or better if we'd had sex.

That's not to say that I always want to sleep with my friends. But there have been times I wanted to, and I did not out of fear of losing the friend. The irony is that none of those friends are close to me anymore, none of the ones I wanted that way.

***

I want a best friend for life, a friend with whom I outlast marriages and weather changes of all kinds, a friend I can establish unbreakable rituals with. I fantasize about making tea for this friend in forty years, just the way we did last week. At some point, I realized that other girls fantasize about weddings.

I worried that my desire for a best friend was some sort of sublimation of my feelings for women. I think it sometimes has been. But I've also had male best friends, so that's not the only explanation.

***

There are friends I'm thinking of, losses it seemed I could not survive. But it feels like a final betrayal to talk specifically about them now. There is one in particular—I know she wouldn't like to be written about, so I can't do that to her, not even now. I feel like she would be entirely lost to me if I put her on the page, and I need to hang onto that last little shred of what we used to have.

But I'll say this. I can lose a romance. I believe in clarity and clean breaks and the knowledge that I'll obviously survive once I get through a couple of weeks of sadness. I believe that it's a favor I can do for a person to really know that to my bones. When I told my ex-husband I wanted a divorce, I did it just like that. Calm, decisive, with no room for hope or further torture. Then I walked away and never looked back. I missed my spice rack, and I missed our home, but I knew the romance was finished and I never let myself doubt it.

A friend, though… I suddenly become a font of impossible hopes. Maybe it's only an accident that they haven't called in six months. I lie to myself. I lie to people around me, telling stories about things I did with my "best friend" eight months ago, then nine months ago, trying to act nonchalant, as if those adventures happened just last week. I call long past the point I should stop calling. I cry when I mention their name. I cry when I hear songs on the radio that remind me of them. I wouldn't understand heartbreak if not for those experiences with friends.

***

I don't have a neat ending for this. My heart is still broken. But what I figured out while I was writing this is that I don't want to feel embarrassed of the past confidences. It's an amazing, addictive feeling to feel loved for who I am, and to love another with my whole heart. When I lose a friend I've loved that way, and who I thought loved me that way in return, it doesn't have to mean that the love was always false, just as I don't think it does for a romance.

I am terribly embarrassed in retrospect by the revelations that can come at the end of a friendship, ashamed to think of myself so open and trusting when things were going wrong around me and I wasn't even aware of them. But I don't want to be. I'd like to be as brave as I can be with romance. I would like to open my heart again in the future, knowing full well that if I wind up broken again, it will be because it was all worth it.



(I apologize for the lateness of this post. I didn't have the heart to write it any earlier. I've lost a few friends recently that I'm still torn up about. They were all that came to mind when I thought about the topic. It took me a while to work around to a more general treatment that didn't feel distanced and dishonest.)

13 comments:

  1. I don't know how realistic it is, expecting a friendship to endure through all the changes folks go through. When a kid, our 'best friend' status could change every year or even shorter spans. Momma and I stay in contact with one couple we knew from high school, but that's about it. Our focus changes, our needs change. people head in different personal directions. People have kids and separate from those who don't. People separate from each other. Different things become important. Few things stay the same. It seems to be the way of the world.

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    1. You're definitely right about this, Daddy! What I realized as I was writing this is that, while I don't fall for the romantic comedy narrative of romance, I do fall for the romantic comedy narrative of friendship. I see stuff in movies or on TV where a character has a best friend she's known since she was 3, and I want that story. It's slowly dawning on me, though, that it's a narrative representing a rare phenomenon...

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  2. Funny how you have a double standard for romance versus friendship, Annabeth. Although perhaps one of your points in this post is that this duality is breaking down as you gain life experience.

    Nothing is forever. Nothing. Not friends, not life, not love -- no matter how much we romantics would like to think differently. The only constant is change. I'm so glad you've pointed out that brevity doesn't reduce the meaning of a relationship (any more than longevity per se confers any special value). I've had one-night stands that profoundly changed me. And how many empty marriages have you seen that have lasted for decades?

    Your post also made me realize once again how lucky I am. Some of my most enduring friendships are with people who were once my lovers. Of course these relationships went in the opposite direction from the ones you are discussing - we began as lovers then became friends. I've always enjoyed the extra hint of warmth that's there, the shared past, even though we're not physical at all anymore.

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    1. Yeah, it's weird to notice (as I did while writing this) that I've been so naive in this one place. Your comment and Daddy's make me want to do another draft of this because there are things I'm thinking I ought to have put in or explained better.

      The weirdest thing I noticed as I was writing this was the idea of not having sex as a way of preserving the relationship, like if I don't have sex with the person, then the friendship should be everlasting. I think that's a vestige of conservatism, and I'm glad to have found it still rattling around my psyche.

      I think your friendships with ex-lovers are a great counterpoint to that, and I'm glad you've got that experience.

      This is what happens when writing about something so raw, I think. I'm still figuring this stuff out.

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  3. Here's a thought that I might or might not ever have articulated, per se, if I hadn't read this piece: Friendship really can be more complicated than romantic partnerships, and perhaps it frequently is. The fuzzy boundaries and unpredictable limitations, the ambiguities, the often unacknowledged nature of the transitions into or out of closeness, the compatibility of strong friendships with scenarios in which people rarely, or never, interact in person, and perhaps only have their remote interactions very infrequently... The "poly" nature of most friendships, where your good friends also have other good friends that you have to "share" them with, even if you and the other friends don't click. The relatively lesser acceptability (compared to what goes on in romantic relationships) of saying "This friendship isn't working for me anymore" or "What have I done to push you away?" I know that in my life, the majority of fraught, complicated, sometimes permanently broken interpersonal relationships have been with people with whom I was "just friends" (with no sexual tension at all in the picture, AFAIK, even at the unexpressed level).

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    1. Granted, since my wife and I have been a monogamous couple for almost our entire adult lives, I'm not drawing on a pool of romantic relationships (apart from high-school and college ones) to make the comparison. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that even looking only at friendship relationships, the potential for complicated, angst-ridden experiences has been well represented (with the friendship "framework" not so well suited to accommodating that).

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    2. And friendships that aren't necessarily romantic in nature won't have the mitigating factor of sex to smooth things out. No 'make-up' sex, in other words.

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    3. These are a bunch of good points, both of you. Many times I've expressed a wish for "friend breakups," or other social norms that would help manage the way friendships change. I completely agree that the "poly" nature of friendship gets really confusing.

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    4. David Mitchell wants "friend breakups" too, by the way!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5javs0euqc

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  4. You have a rare gift for opening yourself to deep emotions, Annabeth, and even though it's painful at times, I hope it's also a blessing. You also have a rare gift for portraying deep emotions as a writer, which is probably also painful, but definitely a blessing for your readers.

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    1. Thank you on both counts. I totally consider it a blessing to feel deeply, and to have ways of sharing that. :)

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  5. I'm always loathe to let a best friend slip away. I've sent birthday and Christmas cards for over 30 years to friends who only occasionally acknowledge they're still alive, usually on facebook or on-line. We were roommates in college, swore to be friends forever, and once I started having kids, a couple dropped me like a hot potato. One even wrote me a "Dear John" letter about how now that she was single and childless (both by choice) and I was popping out way too many babies (4 in total), that we had nothing in common anymore, so goodbye. Sigh. That one really hurt.

    One of my college friends wasn't a roommate then, but was for a year afterwards. We're still in touch, though we didn't see each other much while our kids (she has 2) were growing up, due to both of us working and raising them. But we have the occasional dinner now, and it's so comforting to talk to her, knowing that we've known each other longer than we've known our husbands. I see her in ways her kids don't, and she wishes I could share my vision with them...but then kids never listen to old folks, so I haven't tried.

    Another friend, this one from high school, dropped me when she got divorced (she told her husband he was "no good in bed and she'd been faking it for years"...I told her she was cold and should have kept that to herself.) Then she wanted me to start partying with her like we used to do, going to rock concerts, drinking in bars, etc. I was busy working multiple jobs, raising my 4 kids, and happy to spend what little time I could spare with my husband. She felt offended when I didn't celebrate with her when she was having sex with married men she worked with. So she stopped contacting me entirely. Both of her parents died, and she never even let me know, though I'd have gone out of respect for the importance they had in my life when we were teens. I invited her to my mother's funeral, and she brought her mom...mostly so she could fill containers with food to keep her eating for a while afterwards. I don't begrudge her mom that, but I wish I could have paid my respects at her wake.

    Sometimes friends ARE more important than lovers. I feel very lucky that my husband is also one of my closest friends. I do love my women friends also, but he's the only best friend I've ever had that I have sex with.

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    1. Fiona, thanks very much for sharing these stories. It's hard to do life partnerships of any kind. I've definitely experienced some of the types of changes you're talking about. It's tricky to navigate single v partnered/childless v partnered, married v divorced—especially when people have bad behavior on top of that. Hugs to you!

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