Ten Years, My Friend

Note: With this year being the 10 year anniversary of graduating high school and starting college, this year has got me thinking a lot about the passage of time, the relationships we make, lose, and keep, and how we never really know what is to come. I wanted to try to write something to explore those themes, in a little bit of a different structure/style than I normally would use. I thought it would be interesting to write about these things in a context of a friendship — which in a way, embodies the very things I just mentioned: the passage of time, the relationships we make, lose, and keep, and how we never really know what is to come. I thought doing it this way would allow me to cover a lot of ground while also providing some type of focus. It’s important to point out that this is only one perspective on the last ten years; I could have done this with different friendships and I would have probably focused on different events. Or, I could have done this without the focus of one particular friendship and just described my life overall, but that probably would have turned out long enough to be a book.

It is fall, 2007. It is my freshman year of college. I pledge a sorority, something I never thought I would do (and looking back, can’t believe I did). At some point, I don’t even remember how, it gets brought up that a fellow pledge class member and I both want to get tattoos. We set a date to do just that. As the date approaches, I question internally whether this girl is serious as I don’t really know her. But sure enough, a few weeks later she and I head down to South Street, Philadelphia and get our first tattoos, just because we can. My roommate, who isn’t yet 18, comes along to document the journey. I call my mom on the walk back to the subway and say, “Guess what I just did?” She asked what and I said, “Got a tattoo!” She replied, “You’re full of shit” and I said, “No, I’m not, I told you I would and I did!” She sighed heavily as I got off the phone. My New Friend and I headed back to campus, and probably went to drink or something, I honestly don’t remember.

It is fall, 2008. It is my sophomore year in college. I live with two girls from my pledge class in an apartment. It is the Obama-McCain election. My roommates and I have My Friend and another girl over to eat pizza, drink beer, and watch the results come in. They come in much faster than we anticipated. Soon, we hear a lot of commotion outside. We poke our heads out, and North Philadelphia has erupted. It is an impromptu parade in the streets. We make our way up to Broad Street, and I don’t know if I have ever seen that part of the city so happy. We talk to a ton of strangers. To this day, it is one of my favorite memories, and I think there is something to be said about a group of 19 year olds that spent their election night this way in college.

It is spring, 2009. I am on a literal trip around the world. I am doing the Semester at Sea program, which is by far the best thing I have ever done and likely will ever do. Keeping in touch with people at home has its challenges. We have very little internet access on the ship. We do get free access to a ship email, but with the ever-changing time difference it is very hard to even e-mail people in real time. At times, we “lose” an hour each day while crossing the major oceans. It is not lost on me, the idea of who makes the effort to stay in touch. My Friend is one of the few who does.

It is fall, 2009. It has not been a good summer, and it is not a good semester. My mom has admitted to being an alcoholic, and she is trying to convince us she can “Stop on her own,” but it is becoming clear that is not the case. I am three hours from home and it feels like the other side of the world. I have probably my busiest school year ever, which looking back was an effort to keep busy and keep my mind off what was happening. I have an internship, and a paying job. A friend convinces me to join the executive board of an organization she leads. I have to withdraw from a class, the only time in college I have to do that. But because of the withdrawal, I manage to get a 3.9 GPA that fall and a 3.6 the following spring. Even with the withdrawal, I complete 30 credits between the two semesters. I keep my friends on campus at arms length, trying to put a block between what is going on in my mind and at home and my “real life” at school. I instead lean on communicating with faraway friends via e-mail. Friends from my study abroad program know more about what is going on with my family than my friends on campus do. My Friend is studying abroad this year as well; it is fun to keep in touch with her the way she did with me while I was gone. These types of emails, with friends who didn’t live near me, keep me sane. Those emails, and catching up on LOST on my laptop.

It is summer, 2010. I intern in China for the summer. People are better about keeping in touch this time as it is an even 12 hour time difference, which is a bit easier to maintain than my situation on Semester at Sea. Living in a place, as opposed to the short-term stops of Semester at Sea, adds a new layer to the experience of being abroad, and I return home an even more changed person.

It is fall, 2010. I am disillusioned with my school, my sorority, and so many other things. Sometimes I feel like My Friend is the only one who fully understands. She and I are both back on campus after about a year of on-and-off, life-changing travel. It is extremely difficult to return back to your same life, when you have changed so much and not much else around you has changed at all. I have recently been informed I can graduate a semester early, and I take my school up on the chance. Most of my friends are older, and campus isn’t the same without them. Where most people would be enjoying their last semester of college, I feel as though I am past the point of caring. A close friend from high school has recently “come out.” I am the first person he tells. I regularly take the bus to his college on weekends to try to help him make sense of his new reality. At times it feels that he and My Friend are some of the only people I regularly talk to. One weekend, My Friend joins me to visit him and we attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC. I think on some level I knew that weekend that our friendship would survive into adulthood; someone that would travel to a different city to attend such a ridiculous event with me is probably worth keeping around.

It is spring, 2011. I move home for a few months due to the somewhat unexpected early graduation. My plan is to save money and travel, but it is hard to save money because I am going out of town so frequently as I can’t stand being back in my hometown, especially with the few friends I still have from high school still being away at college. I have a falling out with the one close friend I thought I would have in the area, the same one who I spent a good portion of my last semester helping. This only reinforces my need to get out of the area. My Friend and I toy with the idea of me moving back to Philadelphia and us moving in together, and before I know it, I am in Philadelphia looking at apartments with her. I’m only back in the DC area for about six months, and although I feel the need to leave quickly, I am also thankful for the time I spend there. I’m able to repair what had become a very fractured relationship with my mom, who has thankfully been sober since November, 2009. I have interesting professional experiences, including helping conduct research for a book and having the chance to write movie reviews for a website. At some point during this six months, I travel to Atlantic City with my “friend with benefits,” and I convince My Friend to come along. As always she is up for anything, but she emphasizes the fact that she can’t spend a lot of money. I tell her I will bankroll her, but in reality my FWB pays for a lot of her gambling and alcohol that weekend. I am struck by his willingness to treat my friend so well, despite us not being a couple. We have by far what is one of the most outrageous weekends I have ever taken part in. We all leave a little bit of our dignity in Atlantic City, but I go home more excited than ever to move back to Philadelphia and live with My Friend.

It is summer, 2011. My Friend and I have moved into our apartment, and my most ridiculous summer on record commences. I get to enjoy Philadelphia in the summer for the first time, as other summers I have been in China or at home working. I think I am drunk more often than I am not. I somehow thought it was acceptable to move back to Philly without a job, so I have essentially no responsibilities, for what is probably the first (and likely last) time in my life. Unsurprising to everyone but me, my FWB and I get into a relationship very soon after I move back. This works out fine as he and My Friend get along well; our Atlantic City weekend propelled them to form a friendship of their own, separate from me. The whole summer is a blur of alcohol, hookah, and a major heat wave during which My Friend and I unsuccessfully try to fry an egg on the street.

It is fall, 2011. I’ve started a master’s degree program and have decided to nanny part time to keep from running out of money. My Friend has started a relationship with someone in her hometown, and she is also building professional connections there, so she is not home often. Without her home, I also often spend time at my boyfriend’s house, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Despite not being home much, she and I make an effort to have frequent W(H)INE nights when we are both in Philly. As can probably be deduced from the name, this consists of sitting on the couch and drinking a lot of wine and sharing/venting thoughts about our lives. (And by “couch,” I really mean chaise lounge, as that is all that would fit into our apartment. We essentially lived in a tiny house before the tiny house movement was trendy.) Although I love my boyfriend and I like the direction my life is going in, nothing beats W(H)INE nights on the half-couch.

It is 2012–2016. The next few years flow by without major incident. In 2012 I find a “real job” at a nonprofit and embark on a career path I have since grown very passionate about. I eventually move in with my boyfriend. We adopt two dogs. I have a weird suburban existence I did not think would happen so early on in life. My Friend moves back to her hometown, works as a photographer for awhile, and eventually embarks on a new and exciting documentary project, re-tracing her grandmother’s escape from the Holocaust and documenting her family’s history. This project takes her to Europe for over a year, where she begins dating someone she has known since 2009 when she studied abroad. They get engaged, and in 2015 he moves to the United States and they get married in a private ceremony. Our lives are very different and yet also quite similar. Throughout these years, we keep in touch regularly. Sometimes we speak frequently, and other times we go several months and only send a couple of text messages, which seems to be the nature of adult friendships sometimes, but the mutual support for one another is always there. When she fundraises for her year-long project, my boyfriend and I both donate. Whenever she passes through the Philadelphia area, for work or for family, she always comes to stay with us — one of very few friends who will make the effort to visit my boring suburban town. After she and her husband get married in late 2015, we talk about going on some type of adventure to celebrate their wedding within the next year. We throw some ideas around, and while we don’t plan anything concrete, I am confident it will happen because she and I have always done the things we said we would do together. The tattoos, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Atlantic City, moving back to Philadelphia…when she and I commit to something, we commit. I look forward to our group adventure.

It’s early summer, 2016. My boyfriend breaks up with me at 3 a.m. the night before I am supposed to go to New York to visit family. I am in a state of shock. I call My Friend on the drive up to New York. She tells me I sound surprisingly calm. I tell her I haven’t processed anything, and I don’t really feel anything. She tells me that she thinks that this will turn out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me. She says it in a serious way, not in the petty way people usually say when you go through a breakup. It strikes me that she would say that, because she and my (now ex)-boyfriend are so close, but I don’t have the mental energy to question her at the time.

It is mid-summer, 2016. My Friend is in New York doing some work for a summer camp. I drive up for the day to spend the day with her. It is several weeks post-breakup and I am still living in the house with my ex. He began hooking up with his coworker four days after we broke up so, suffice it to say, my living situation is a bit tense. I have finally found an apartment, but I can’t move for a couple more weeks. In total, I am in the car for just as long, if not longer, than I am with her that day but it is worth it. Not only to see her, but just to be out of the house for a full day, somewhere other than work. It is one of the first times I feel like a normal, functioning person since the breakup. My Friend tries one last time to convince me to come to Europe in August. Because she and her husband had a private wedding ceremony in the U.S., they are having a public celebration in Europe next month. My boyfriend and I were unable to attend due in part to us both working in the education field and the event taking place at the beginning of the school year. I wasn’t really concerned about us not attending as we had been planned on taking that group trip. Now that he isn’t in the picture, My Friend tries to get me to go to the wedding by myself, but with all of the money I am spending on moving, it doesn’t seem feasible. Plus, the timing is still difficult with my job. I make what I believe to be the responsible decision. I regret very few things in my life, but not attending this ceremony would come to be one of the few regrets I have.

It is September, 2016. I have lived in my new apartment for about two months. My Friend and her husband are coming next weekend to stay with me while they pass through the area for her job. I am driving to New York to visit family, and I stop in Philadelphia on the way to pick something up from my doctor. As I am about to walk into the doctor’s office, I get a text from My Friend that just reads, “Please call me.” The curt and abrupt nature of the text immediately makes me think something is wrong. My mind immediately rushes to her parents and I hope nothing has happened to them. I tell myself I am being ridiculous and she probably just needs to confirm some details about the following weekend. I go into the doctor, grab what I need, and leave a few minutes later. On my walk back to my car, I call My Friend. She tells me that the night before, her husband collapsed suddenly and died. I make her repeat it three times, partly because the streets of Philadelphia are very loud and she is speaking very quietly, and partly because I truly can’t believe it. The following week, I fly to Boston for the day for the funeral. I sit in the back of the service and watch my 27 year old friend give a reading at her 28 year old husband’s funeral. I think about how my ex should be here. I think about how no one should be here because this shouldn’t even be happening.

It is October, 2016. I go up to visit My Friend to help her move out of her apartment. It is the same apartment she moved into immediately after she moved out of our apartment in Philadelphia. The symbolism of this does not escape me. I am determined not to bring up my ex, and how we have officially cut ties and stopped trying to “be friends,” but she brings him up. She talks about how upset she is that he hasn’t reached out to her during this time. As much as I hate knowing she is sad, this serves as a reinforcement to me that he is not good enough to have in my life and that I should not be upset to have lost him. We have this conversation in her parents’ basement, and then I put my ex’s HBO Go information into her computer and we laugh spitefully as we watch a movie on his dime — because sometimes in the worst of times, you have to focus on the tiniest, most trivial things that can make things feel even slightly less horrible — and the next day we finish moving her out of her apartment. A few weeks later, she heads back to Europe to continue her work on the project and to spend time with her husband’s family, and I head home, for the first time feeling 100%, fully and completely, “over” my ex.

It is March, 2017. My Friend is back from Europe, and although we texted while she was gone and skyped once or twice, we have a phone call that is our first chance to really catch up in several months. We speak for almost two hours. We talk about where she is in her grieving process. We talk about where she is in her documentary project. We talk about what my past few months of dating have been like and what I have learned about myself and others during this time. She comments that these phases of our life — entering into serious relationships, no longer having those relationships — while they have been under very different circumstances, have in a way run parallel to one another. I hadn’t really considered it, but when she puts it that way, I realize she is right. And for a brief moment, I wish we could start over, go back to South Street, get our first tattoos; or, at the very least, go back to our tiny house and our half-couch and drink wine with so few cares or responsibilities. But I know that can’t happen. Instead, we say we will talk again in a few weeks. As we are getting off the phone, she tells me the next time she will be in Philadelphia. As we say goodbye, I think to myself that when she gets here, I will have plenty of wine ready; and, although I have a new full-sized couch now, I may make her sit on the chaise lounge with me, just for a few minutes. A few days later, she texted me to say that next time we’re together, we should get new tattoos.

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