We were 21 and had no gay friends.
I had just come out after meeting the girl who would become my introduction to lesbianism, and we became immediately enamored with one another, as the stereotype insists. Somehow I’d gleaned through jokes or rumors that Andersonville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, was “Girls Town,” the area where gay women lived, and where there were a handful of bars providing them a space to meet, mingle, and mate.
Meeting friends is somehow harder in adulthood, yet just like adolescence, it still has a lot to do with proximity and commonalities. If I wanted to make lesbian friends, I had to go to a lesbian bar, a luxury of the early 2000s.
The most famous of Andersonville’s dyke bars was T’s, a bar and grill that served as the post-game hangout for the sporty dykes, host to weekly L Word viewing parties, and an otherwise ideal spot for ordering a beer and a burger and pretending you came for the food instead of the possibility of picking someone up.
My girlfriend, *Amy, and I first ventured to T’s on a Wednesday night. I expected everyone there to welcome us with communal warmth and chummy joviality, as well shared an identity so special and specific that surely our love of other woman would bond us like a “Closer to Fine” campfire singalong.
But the place was dead, save for a few tiny pockets of duos and trios huddled close together like they’d scheduled their conversations. It was my first taste of queer cliquiness, and I didn’t much like it. I’d been hopeful for a little more fanfare, especially after my straight friends had given me so much as a shrug when I’d announced I’d fallen for a girl.
I was hoping someone might share in the exciting new discovery with me. After 21 years of assuming I just hadn’t met the right guy yet, I’d finally figured out that I’d been working under the misguided assumption I was heterosexual. Coming to terms with my queerness was cause for celebration, but I needed some others to invite to the party.
Having been too shy to approach any other women in the flesh, Amy and I went digital and started perusing MySpace for friendly-looking lesbian couples. Finding them online would allow us to explain that we were not looking to swing or partner swap before being completely shot down. We would also be able to ignore the rejection easier if they didn’t respond (maybe they didn’t see it?), and with a handful of prospects, we figured (hoped!)at least one might work out.
At that time, it seemed so much easier to meet prospective hook-ups or spousal possibilities than to meet new platonic companions,especially if the already minuscule dating pool is the friend pool, too. The amount of women interested in other women is frequently lauded as messy, and that’s because it’s all-too-often there’s an overlap in who dated who’s ex, or their ex, or your ex.
This isn’t confined to city lines, either–the incredible connectedness lesbians and other sexually fluid women share complicates not just dating, but relating on a friendship level, because it’s essentially the same adage as presented about men and women in Harry Met Sally–can a man and woman ever just be friends? And despite that film’s end, the truth is that yes, opposite-sex friendships exist, as do those between women who fuck other women and other women they don’t want to fuck. (Or, just to make things even more exciting, maybe they already have but decided they are better off as friends.)
Back then, I wasn’t privy to this information all the friendships I had with other women when I “was straight” were completely chaste without the problem of one or both of us harboring secret sensual feelings for the other. Girl code was simply “don’t fuck my boyfriend or my ex-boyfriend or the guy I want to be my boyfriend,” and besides the fact there were more than enough men to go around, I didn’t want to fuck any guys, much less my friends’ boyfriends.
On MySpace, Amy and I found a pair of strawberry blondes that seemed nice enough. They listed similar tastes in electro-pop bands, indie films, cult novels–all the categories you painstakingly curate and periodically update according to current trends or nostalgia. *Emma was femme with loose blonde curls and a heart-shaped face people would compare to Virgin Suicides-era Kirsten Dunst. Her girlfriend, Nikki, wrote her hair an androgynous chop that culminated in a slight spike at the top back of her head, a few years past the look’s prime. Emma had a nose piercing; Nikki had a ring through her lip, and they were not too obsessed with their cats. (Amy and I were dog lesbians.)
We composed a brief but lighthearted message about hoping this wasn’t too weird (“haha!”) but we were looking to make some lesbian friends, and they seemed cool maybe we could meet up some time? Emma and Nikki replied quickly that sure, we could– how about we go to Hydrate? It’s one of Boystown’s best-known gay bars, mostly for its drag performances and, depending on the day, music videos and porn on the TV screens (which I’d come to find was not unlike many other bars of this ilk).
Located in the heart of Halsted, the main drag where gay men from around the Midwest frequently flocked, bars like Hydrate were where lesbians went if they wanted to be around other gay people with at least the possibility of spotting another gay woman. We met on Dollar Drink night, which friends and I would later joke “Dollar drinks, dollar people,” which inevitably (and regrettably, during those college years) referred to ourselves.
We showed up early–the sun hadn’t set and inside, the bar was dim save flashing colored lights on the nearby dance floor. It was far from the den of iniquity homophobes like to describe instead, patrons were gleeful and free, with bears and twinks co-existing, complimenting and buying one another cheap watered-down well drinks. Emma and Nikki were chilling nonchalantly by the speakers, making it difficult to hear ourselves as we shouted awkwardly and directly into each other’s ears underneath a disco ball.
“So when did you come out?” I screamed uncomfortably into Nikki’s face.
She cocked her head. “When I was 16. Why?”
Newly out, I had no idea how this whole lesbian thing worked. Was it some kind of Big Sister initiation where someone older and wiser and gayer could help you figure shit out? Important things like how to tell your Catholic grandma you’re living with a woman or what it means when a girl tells you she’s emotionally unavailable but still wants to cuddle.
Luckily, Emma was much more charitable in this way, and she answered all of my questions, giving me ‘90s indie lesbian VHS recommendations like Better Than Chocolate and The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls In Love. We bonded over Tegan and Sara (GAY TWINS!) and the undisputed masc-of-center sexiness of Clea DuVall in But I’m a Cheerleader.
We became a dedicated foursome, and Emma and Nikki fully hazed us into lesbianism, introducing us to other friends of theirs, karaoke night at the local ladies dive bar, Stargaze, and my first-ever Pride, which included Nikki drunkenly volunteering to go on stage during a drag king performance to participate in an eating contest (which led to her puking up hotdogs and marshmallows outside of the bar an hour later).
After more than a year of friendship, it’d become too obvious that Nikki had an alcohol problem. She would drink on the job where she worked serving concessions at a concert venue, and she’d drink at home alone, too. But Emma, an optimist like me, kept up appearances that everything was fine until she stopped responding to my phone calls and text messages.
I tried not to take it personally, but I was worried about her. We’d gotten so good at being friends, sharing a dark sense of humor, going dancing, and affinity for smoking cigarettes on patios and leaning out of our living room windows when we were too lazy or cold during the windy winters. When Emma finally responded, she told me she’d been finding empty beer bottles hidden in the closet, in the car, in trash receptacles. Nikki’s drinking had become an all-too-regular occurrence, and Emma was done she needed out. I understood, but was selfishly upset she’d gone through the break-up alone.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
The intricate politics of meeting another couple while you’re in a couple and you’re all women can leave you wondering where your true alliances lie. I was still new to this; didn’t realize intense female friendships could become even more intensified and confusing with the added friction of love and sex and sharing of personal details you might otherwise not discuss, and with both of them.
Just a few weeks before, we’d been playing a board game Speak Love Make Lovewe’d gotten from the local feminist sex shop. It was meant to be for a couple, but we opened it up four ways, deciding we wouldn’t do any of the extremely erotic bits. It was like truth or dare but with intimate instructions“Dance a slow romantic dance with your naked bodies. Have music or not.”; “Tell your partner what you can do to make more time for love and romance in your lives.” With any other couple, this could have turned into an orgy, but not with Emma and Nikki. With them, the lines had been clearly drawn that this was an ironic interest that turned into a fun way to test our partners on just how far they’d be willing to go; what kind of answer they would give to a pointed question when pressed.
It wasn’t long before their breakup that Nikki’d been asked: “What would you do if your partner was stranded on an island without any hope of coming home?” (one of the more morbid challenges the game possessed.)
“I’d find a way to get to you,” Nikki answered, tearfully.
And then Emma cried, too. They’d known each other since high school; even had massive shoulder tattoos dedicated to one another hearts with one another’s name in cursive scrawl inside. A kiss of death, to be sure.
Nikki was not pleased about Emma’s decision to leave her. She used anything she could to keep ahold on her using their pets, shared phone line, and friendships as pawns in what was inevitably further self-sabotage. Drunken late night phone calls weren’t helping her cause Emma was done, and I was grateful she was letting me help her through it. (Admittedly, I tried to be a friend to Nikki, too, but most of the time, these situations call for someone to bow out and she sheepishly removed herself, though not with any bad blood spilled.)
Post-split, Emma was gleefully single for a while, and she leant her talents as a salon manager and aspiring stylist to an online magazine Amy and I created for Chicago lesbians. We started spending even more time together than usual, which was the beginning of my utilizing her as a crutch when I was unhappy in my own relationship. We threw regular events for the city’s queer women, including a Valentine’s Day party where Emma was the Kissing Booth, but refused to actually kiss anyone on the lips.
“I don’t wanna get mono,” she told a popular socialite columnist who later published that she’d been disappointed by the interaction.
Emma was never someone who could be pressured into doing something she didn’t want to, and her individuality was what drew me and others to her. She created her own clothes, turning tube socks into armbands that somehow looked chic on her; she paired slip dresses with t-shirts and big boots and wasn’t the kind of fashion-obsessor who tried to catch up to the trends she created her own. And while we were distinctly different in a lot of ways (fashion included), we saw the world in a similar way felt lucky and happy to be queer and femme on top of that, thwarting the ideals of how a lesbian behaves or looks like, and proud of it.
I’d met her family, even went to small-town Wisconsin for a summer weekend where her older cousin sang Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” at the local bar while we played pool and wondered if any of the patrons could tell that we were gay.
When Emma fell in love again, it was with a self-professed poet and filmmaker who had a penchant for leaving romantic yet cliche paperback novels (The Time Traveler’s Wife) on her doorstep, and intricate chalk drawings on her back porch. She also had a girlfriend. Who she lived with.
The lesbian libido isn’t so much of a mystery it’s just as lust-driven as any other (heterosexual or gay male), but so many of us lack the boundaries other beginnings seem to have. Our emotions, our wanting, our inevitable decisions being clouded by the idea that what we desire will always be at odds with most of societal norms drives us to feel like we’re outlaws anyway, why not do the crime? This is, of course, not exclusive to lesbians, but what we often refer to as “dyke drama” is so often driven by these feelings that carry a depth and weight so consuming that decisions we make inevitably affect much more than ourselves–it’s a tight-knit community in that way.
Emma’s new love, *Ty, drew her in like an inhale of a cigarette and blew her out with a curl of the lip and blasé raise of an eyebrow. She told anyone who inquired Emma was “crazy”; there was nothing between them–nothing ever would be between them. As Emma’s best friend, this incense me and I confronted Ty, whose mouth told lies but eyes reflected a pained transparency. She denied their relationship, despite the proof on the patio, the faded chalk lines Emma tried to preserve along with her patience.
One of the most difficult aspects of friendship is delivering brutal honesty, especially to someone who is too full up on hope to digest it. Instead of believing or maybe even considering it could be any part of the truth, Emma was furious with me for getting involved in her affairs.
“How could you ask her about me?” she cried.
Ty was now more paranoid than ever that people were finding out about their months of rendezvous, though it wasn’t much of a secret–Ty’s girlfriend so clearly despised Emma that she’d spit in her direction and confront her in bar bathrooms when she saw her in public. Emma took it all, like she deserved the punishment, believing she’d prevail if she could just withstand it a little bit longer. This would be all worth it in the end, like one of Ty’s beloved Rilke poems that she loved to espouse like it was her own. But Ty’s ability to affect her lovers carried a destructive potency, at least when it came to Emma and her heart.
Emma cut me off. She chose the lies from Ty and from herself, doing anything she could to win. My having challenged Ty on her behalf had been the demise of our friendship then. I hadn’t said what she’d wanted to hear; rather, Ty hadn’t, and someone had to be punished. We’d see each other out in public and Emma willfully ignored me, something she was expert at. She was too good at holding grudges, a well-oiled machine when it came to using frosty behavior as a defense mechanism.
I hated it. I missed her. She was the only friend I had who I felt fully understood certain parts of me–parts even my girlfriend couldn’t quite grasp. She was the kind of friend who I could sit with, doing absolutely nothing, and feel at peace with; at home with. That’s not something you can easily obtain with another person–it’s special when you find it, and hard to forget when it suddenly disappears.
But it wasn’t long after that she gave up something that I’d heard through mutual friends. She’d finally realized she’d been a distraction for Tya talisman? A toy? It was Valentine’s Daya year after the failed kissing booth experiment when we ended up at the same party. Amy and I were still together, hanging out at a cool Ukrainian Village bar called Darkroom with another couple, Kristy and Raquel. Kristy was a bubbly blonde with a lot of ambition; she was loud and slightly self-absorbed, but very into Raquel, an older, more-established career woman who partied as hard as she worked.
We were at waiting for a drink when I saw it–Raquel and Emma met eyes from across the bar. Kristy saw it, too. And she saw it when later, Raquel and Emma were talking, and when they were in the bathroom together. She stormed out of the party, and Raquel looked pained at having to chase after her. They weren’t together much longer after that.
A few months later, Raquel told me she’d asked Emma out, wondering if I thought it was a good idea. This is how cyclical it is to be queer; how interwoven and inevitable that your paths will cross again and again, especially with your own subset of the subculture. Its not necessarily scarcity, but a culled community that can feel familial at best, and suffocating at worst.
Despite the cold shoulder I’d gotten from Emma, and over someone who she eventually saw for the liar she was, I still wanted the best for her. I’d also seen them together at that party and no matter what I said, their connection was going to be explored.
“You should go for it,” I told Raquel, and they went to a Feist concert where they later relayed having spent most of the time sucking face on the lawn and on the train ride back home.
Emma immediately wanted back in my life. She’d taken my approval of her dating my friend as my forgiveness. She never apologized, but I didn’t care. She’d seen that Ty was a narcissist and she’d moved on, and I was genuinely happy for her and Raquel. Emma was happy now, and so it was easier for her to accept that things with Ty had been less of a romance novel and more of a bawdy mystery.
A few months after rekindling our friendship, Emma and Raquel moved in together, just in time for me to go through my own breakup. After four years, Amy and I realized we’d been co-existing as friends and roommates, and our love for one another was no longer romantic or sexual.
That didn’t make it any less hard, though I took the bus a half hour every day to spend the night on Emma and Raquel’s couch, and back down to the place I still shared with Amy during the day so I could work at home and be with my dogs. They supported me through my split and newfound singledom, jokingly calling me their “bad teenage daughter” when I started going out and coming home late.
I’d been dating their friend Jackie, who I met at their New Year’s Eve party. Her boyish charm appealed to me, as did her telling me she wasn’t getting too drunk that night because she planned to wake up early and watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan.
Jackie was older than me by five years, and deep into her career as a scientist. She was the portrait of stability–she owned her own condo and was a serial monogamist, having split from her last partner months before. The more time we spent together, the more it became clear that she was on track for moving up the ladder of adulthood (which suspiciously mired heteronormative expectation), and up next was marriage.
A year after that New Year’s, she forced me out of bed, sleepy and in sweatpants with no idea that her nervous conversation was leading up to popping the question. And because I was so unprepared, young, and too unsure of what I wanted to think I knew better, I said yes.
What was so strange about that morning, outside of it being a complete surprise, was that it had affected my best friend in a way that was even more unexpected. Emma and Raquel had been together months longer, and apparently, my new engagement had not just said something about my relationship, but theirs. Hours later after we’d notified friends and family (this is what you do, right?), Emma and Raquel had news of their own: They’d, too, gotten engaged. Ours had prompted a discussion and a decision for them, sans ring but an engagement nonetheless.
It felt odd to have to share something like this, but we’d shared so much else–maybe it wasn’t so strange. Getting married wasn’t something I’d aspired to–I had never been a little girl dreaming of the dress and the big day, so it was less of an issue to me than it might have been grown women who had been fantasizing about their wedding for as long as they knew what one was; that a wedding meant someone in this world thought you were worth keeping.
Jackie and I married first in Iowa both where she was from and where it was legal, and Emma and Raquel followed suit. I stood up for them, read something aloud I’d written about their all-consuming love for one another and, as it began to sprinkle, I held an umbrella over their heads while they shared their first kiss as wife and wife just steps from Lake Michigan. I delivered a tipsy speech at the reception, and Emma and I stole moments to smoke cigarettes outside of the venue, huddling close to the building so the rain wouldn’t mar her up-do or her dress. We cried and hugged and espoused how much we loved one another; how special our friendship was.
Even though we both had said the vows to be with another person forever, we had some unspoken ones of our own–the kind that have nothing to do with romantic or sexual love, but a deep kind of sisterhood bonded by secrets and past hurts and wrongs we’d since righted; true forgiveness and understanding that comes from knowing someone so well because they allow you to, and you, them. Sometimes that means being the ultimate friend to them even when that might hurt another friend or person in your life. That’s when you’re ultimately choosing an alliance to someone, and I’d chosen her as that person.
Once, Emma had come close to cheating on Raquel. We went to Las Vegas together, and she’d confided she found a musician undeniably sexy. The woman was there to play bass during a women’s weekend, a small gathering of lesbians who were all huddled at a hotel called Rumors. She had shaggy black hair and a Keith Richards vibe, low-slung jeans that hung off her lanky frame, hip bones and clavicle pronounced.
“She’s so hot,” Emma said, and I followed her eyes to see the rock star smiling back at her from the next booth inside the bar. Emma turned to me and I could see her face was asking for permission.
“You know I don’t want to cheat on Raquel,” she said. “But if something ever happened”
“I know,” I said. “And just so you know, I would never say anything. I didn’t even have to consider that I ever might be tempted.
She nodded, and when she left for the bathroom a few minutes later, and the rock star followed, I sat there, wondering if the sentiments expressed about things happening in Vegas staying there were true for most people. But Emma came back not long after she’d left, and sat close next to me, making sure no one was paying attention to her words.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “I thought it might but we both have partners.”
I nodded, and that was it. Emma was faithful, and I wasn’t having to keep a secret bigger than the others I’d already been keeping for her, only that there had been a moment where she’d briefly considered a passionate interaction with the bassist of a rock band while partying in Las Vegas.
Our closeness wasn’t always beneficial to us. Emma and I had been using each other as emotional crutches outside of our wives, and there were times it was overwhelming for me. She’d get angry if I didn’t want to stay out as late as she had to with Raquel, who was never one to leave a bar or a party early. Some of the expectations Emma had for me had become stressful, and I started to see it as her looking for a validation she couldn’t get from someone to whom she already said “I do.”
Another facet of friendship is not being able to keep your chosen ones close. There’s always the opportunity for you or they to grow out of a place or a necessity to relocate. So when Raquel took a job in Seattle, I made peace with their moving, penning them separate goodbye letters, promising we’d still talk daily and visit one another often; that I understood why they were moving across the country. Something new might benefit us all.
But Emma needed me even more when she lived across the country. She’d had a hard time finding a job at first, a shock after spending years at the same salon in Chicago, knowing the clientele and their needs like she knew every intersection and CTA stop. Raquel was working all the time. I video chatted with Emma regularly, kept up our regime of texting and calling like we were still only a few minutes drive from one another.
So when a recruiter reached out to Jackie, asking if she’d be interested in a job in Portland, Oregon just three hours away from Seattle. I immediately shared the good news with Emma.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Now I’m crying at Starbucks!”
“Crying at Starbucks” became a joke for usa frequent phrase we’d use when something was exciting and joyful. If it was worth the public tears in a well-lit space filled with strangers, then that was really something.
Emma and Raquel were the first people we saw, the same night Jackie and I arrived from our three-day-drive across Middle America. We were so happy to see each other singing, hugging, fawning over each other’s dogs. The simultaneous newness and familiarity was electrifying, and I felt so much gratitude watching fireworks decorate the sky above the Columbia River. Soothed by the souring nature–massive trees that felt more protective than perilous, water that was flowing without furiousnessI remember feeling happy, and comforted.
From Portland, Seattle was a quick scenic drive up the interstate, a chance to put on some Sleater-Kinney or Hole, grunge and riot girl or current reincarnations, bands with members born the same years the originals had reigned supreme. The Pacific Northwest always rang nostalgic for me, despite my never having been there until deep into the 2000s. It reminded me of the music my sister and I’d grown up listening to, imagining the city filled with guitarists on street corners, creating the sounds that would make their way to the alternative radio stations in our Michigan college town.
I’d make the drive up to Seattle with Jackie every now and then, but most of the time, I was alone with my thoughts and music, and I preferred it that way. I’d been spending a lot of time alone. Like Emma when she first moved to Seattle, I was lonely. Working at home keep me more isolated than I’d felt in Chicago, where I could go somewhere anytime of the day and find someone I knew who could fulfill my need for instant companionship.
My wife, finally in a position the felt respected in and could grow from, was putting in a ton of time at work. Portland agreed with her–she spent her weekends crafting homebrews and participating in CrossFit tournaments. A true Midwestern butch, she enjoyed backpacking and snowboarding and working on home projects. I tried to join her in her enthusiasm for these activities, but it was a failed experiment every time.
I started venturing out on my own to the kinds of places and events that I enjoyed feminist readings, queer art shows, lesbian dive bars and a lot of that was in Seattle, a larger city that more closely resembled Chicago. It gave me a respite from the slower days I spent thinking of new hobbies I could try to appreciate in my new slower-paced lifestyle with a wife and a house and the kind of domesticated life society teaches young girls to aspire to.
But I was not a housewife and I didn’t want to be a mother, either. Luckily, Emma felt similarly, and we’d bonded over the fact that we’d never have kids.
“If one of us changes our mind, though, we have to tell the other one,” Emma said. “So we can have them at the same time and they can be best friends.”
We agreed we preferred vacations to worrying about vaccinations; drinks to diapers. Our sisters had children, and we were perfect gay aunts. When it came to our own, we weren’t having them–and that was that.
My marriage started to fall apart, and even though Emma would never say it–just like I couldn’t voice mine, somehow I could tell she was unhappy, too. Raquel was drinking a lot, and she was a mean drunk. She’d get angry and take things out on Emma. Her moods would shift in a matter of seconds, and she was constantly jealous, though it was rarely justified. Emma an I needed each other at the same time–we were closer to one another than we were to the people we’d married, and our shared secrets were sacred.
Jackie and I started going to couples therapy, learning about love languages and taking home worksheets on how to communicate better using “words of ownership” and “positive affirmations.” These methods worked in theory, but not so well in practice; rather, lack thereof. Despite our both wanting (or for me, wanting to WANT) our marriage to work, we were destined for divorce.
And then I cheated on her. It was selfish and horrible and she deserved better, but that’s the truth of it. Jackie wanted it to work so bad that she insisted we try even harder–go back to our therapist, try and talk through the pain and distrust that would never leave us now that something had been inextricably unfixable. The timing was tragicEmma had just opened her own salon in Seattle, and I’d promised to be a hair model for her website’s look book–a bridal look book.
So I brought my wedding dress and jewelry up to Seattle put it on, trying not to cry as Jackie stood by, holding in tears of her own, watching me pose like the worthy wife I’d presented myself to be two years before. We tried to move through the day like it was normal and fine and not completely heartbreaking, but even Emma’s reassuring words as she put my hair into fishtail braid couldn’t keep me from feeling how badly I needed to get out of there. If I could have, I would have ripped my dress off, shook my hair loose and taken off sprinting like the Runaway Bride.
A few weeks later, I was dropping the dress of at a non-profit that donates dresses to women who can’t afford gowns of their own. I didn’t anticipate how embarrassed and judged I’d feel bringing it into a woman at a desk who I was sure wondered why I didn’t want to keep the outfit I’d worn for the best day of my life. Thankfully, she didn’t ask.
But the jeweler asked. She took my ring in her hand–the one that Jackie had specially designed and made for me in secret for months leading up to the proposal at the lake and asked “Honey, how’s your heart?” I hadn’t anticipated she’d need the details of the ring, but I had to answer the hard questions for a stranger, who could sense I was full up on tears and tipped the boat. I couldn’t stop myself from crying, and was grateful it was just me and this elderly woman in her antique jewelry shop, surrounded by other people’s diamonds and other relics of romance gone wrong, where she would eventually give me a minuscule amount for a piece of jewelry I’d grown accustom to seeing on my finger, proving someone thought I was worthy of love. Its absence was new proof that I wasn’t.
Emma was devastated. Although she supported my separation from Jackieshe knew I was unhappy and it wasn’t working for a multitude of reasons she could list far before anyone else could–she’d never considered I’d move away. If anything, she thought I’d head to Seattle, which I did ponder, but knew my time there had passed. There’d always been a kind of disquiet in me there, a going-through-the-motions that, just like my marriage, I’d given an optimistic go. It just wasn’t my place it’d never been mine. Just like I’d never really been Jackie’s.
We didn’t say goodbye before I moved–not in person. I’d moved quickly, attempting to make things the least amount of painful as possible. So the last time I saw her was that photoshoot, where we’d said the goodbye, see you soons of normalcy. Once in Los Angeles and so happy, it didn’t take long for her to release me.
Emma emailed me to tell me she’d decided I was a disgusting human being. She wrote the kinds of words I’d seen her say to other people in efforts to push them away in the most violent means possible, desperate attempts to restore her own sanity and independence.
I couldn’t argue–I knew her too well. Bitterness was second-nature to her; she almost thrived off of the passion she felt for the ones who’d sliced into her the deepest, and that included family, friends, former lovers, and now me.
Almost three years passed. And while in other circumstances I might have been voyeuristically enthralled, I had to shove anything to do with Emma and our decade of closeness into a compartment locked tight. Sometimes I wondered if she had to do the same, or if she’d been as obsessive about checking my photos and tweets as she was with her wife’s exes or the poet who’d broken her heart, even years after affairs had ended. There were times I’d look at my public persona from her position, trying to see what she might in an image of me, smiling, or in a bit of bad news like my getting let go from a job I’d once loved.
So when I got an email from her, it was unnerving; unexpected.
I’m not really sure what I even want or what even can be accomplished by writing you, but here I am, doing it. I thought a lot about what kind of response you might give me, and if it would bother me if you were cold, or didn’t at all, but again, here I am, typing.
I was on my way to my ultrasound (yes, that’s a thing that’s happening) and I think I just want you to know that I don’t hate you.
I maybe did for a little while because I felt so hurt and replaced and just generally confused, but almost three years later, I don’t. I worry for you. I hope you are ok and happy. I think about you from time to time, especially when I was in Palm Springs a couple of weeks ago. Even though our friendship was long, complex and truly one that can never be replaced for me, I don’t think it would work anymore and I’m finally ok with that. It took a long time.
I don’t expect us to be friends or even necessarily acquaintances at this point but I guess I just wanted to clear the air and let you know that regardless of how things ended between you and I, I really do hope the best for you and hope that you are ok. And that I really don’t hate you. I do still hate Ty, for the record.”
She was pregnant. that was the first surprise.
The second was how I felt about it. Even though I’d been removed from her life for more than two years, hearing about such a significant development that I hadn’t been a part of was bizarre; a kind of feeling I’d never felt with exes when they’d moved on had made some kind of major life change. She’d changed her mind about something so big, and I hadn’t been privy to any par of that decision.
We’d sworn we’d never do this–we’d remain happily childless forever, spending wild nights and weekends drinking and smoking weed without any kind of concern for crying babies or taunting toddlers. We’d never have to save money for someone else’s college tuition or shop for someone else besides ourselves or our significant others. We’d never have to schedule sex in between bottle warmings or soccer games or breast feedings. We’d be in the non-moms club together.
Now in my mid-30s, I’m closer to the age where motherhood gets brought up much more often by my own mother, my peers, by think pieces from hip mamas and cool muthas, women I’d always admired who decided to get pregnant or adopt after achieving things I have on my own to-do list. This had been a different kind of feeling, though, hearing about Emma’s pregnancy–she was bringing an extension of herself into the world that I would probably never know.
I wrote her back.
Nice to hear from you and I’m glad you’re doing well. Congrats on the pregnancy–hope it’s all going smoothly.
I appreciate your email – was definitely surprised to see it pop up in my inbox. I’m happy that you do not hate me and that you are still able to value the friendship we had because, as you mentioned, it was irreplaceable and will always be special to me as well. In case it wasn’t clear, I do not and have never hated you, and think about you often as well, hoping you are healthy and happy, too. I never had any intentions of replacing you in my life, and even though things worked out how they did, I still haven’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t.
Things can get lost on email so I am genuinely hoping you can tell I’m being sincere. And you do not have to worry about be because despite having gone through a lot of changes in the last three years, I am doing well.
We went back and forth a few times–she told me she was having a lot of morning sickness, and that it was a girl. “Two things I’m sure neither of us ever thought I’d ever be saying,” she wrote, “but I’m really glad I did it.”
She said she wanted to know what was going on with me; that he had no idea as she’d not been active on social media and then wanted to know if I was curious about her life, how she was, outside of the morning sickness. I told her about my new job, girlfriend, life in L.A. She responded detailing that she’d had a miscarriage before this pregnancy stuck–it hit her hard, she said, but didn’t go into much detail. She instead told me about being diagnosed with CPTSD, something she said had to do with our “break up.” (“That’s how we all refer to it, BTW,” she wrote. I’m still unclear on who “we” is.)
She explained how she visited with therapists and doctors to figure out why she was so panicked all the time after our “split” but found meds to help her.
Toward the end, she referenced what I’d told her about how content I was with my girlfriend, how compatible we were, how into her I was. So it surprised me when she wrote, “I feel like maybe you’re always going to be a free bird.”
The subtle judgement in one line–a dig? Her true feeling? A hard truth? It took me out of the moment; reminded me why perhaps the friendship was left better off in the past, and that his might be the only kind of closure and future we’d have in each other’s lives, faceless, voiceless words transmitted through high-speed internet.
“So I guess this leaves us in a better updated version of where we were, yeah?” she wrote. “I’m glad we aren’t on a negative note any longer and I’m glad that isn’t as though we both vanished into thin air. Thank you for the check-in and for being kind. I don’t really know where to go from here… do you want me to shoot you a line when this kid comes out of me?”
“Please do,” I told her, wished her a happy, healthy baby. A healthy, happy life.
I thought about the things we’d said and agreed on years ago, pinky swears and I would never; vows and legal documents that we’d committed to at the time. We thought we knew ourselves better than the future would. We could make decisions for the both of us and stay true to them, and true to each other. But we weren’t infallible, and I’d been lying to her when I was pretending to be content, when I’d really been complacent.
I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want the routine. I didn’t want to be so bored. I tried not to be–I tried to want everything I was lucky enough to have had, including a best friend of 10 years who wanted to be so involved in each other’s lives that it could be emotionally exhausting. But it wasn’t me. I was going through motions and that had involved her, maybe unfairly, as I needed her friendship to keep me going through the things that were inevitably causing me so much anguish.
That was something I could never find the words to explain. I couldn’t stay for her; I had to go for me. She was the one who severed the friendship; she was the one who decided to have the baby she always said she never wanted. I didn’t once begrudge her that just felt a familiar kind of hollowness that appears every now and again, usually one of nostalgia or knowing I was experiencing something she would have appreciated, too.
I hadn’t heard from her and it’d been months since she’d written, well into her second trimester when we left off. I did my due diligence–I looked at the public Instagram for her salon and saw her co-workers had posted a photo, congratulating Emma and Raquel on their brand new daughter, born a few weeks earlier (#newbaby). She was beautiful“born happy and healthy” just as I’d hoped for my former best friend.
I imagined Emma being so overjoyed, blissful in a way that mother claim only they can be when they bring a new life into the world, something from themselves that will always and forever be a part of them; theirs. And part of me felt a bizarre kind of ownership in that way, too, over the little girl I’d never get to meet or know.
I envisioned my alternate life, taking photos of our growing baby bumps and eventual bundles of joy; birthing a friendship from our bodies that would carry them through their whole lives, as dictated by their mothers. These fantasies were appealing for a brief moment before it became clear that my life and perhaps the life of any future daughter or son might decide to have after all, was a best left a solo pursuit.
Then she popped up in my inbox, a photo of the baby after three months in the world, an update that they were all doing well. How was I doing?
Either in spite or of because of our history, I found myself wanting to answer, and so I did.
*names have been changed