When I first get a glimpse of her—ragged jeans, ponytail, dirty apron—behind
the concession stand at a local arts benefit, someone brushes my elbow: my good
reason for turning away before she ever catches my eye. Tinfoil rustles as she wraps a sandwich; the clatter of coins means she’s counting change.
With her smart-alecky wit and ability to skewer pretension at less than fifteen
feet, Liv reminded me of my best friend in grad school, the kind of true pal you think about often, even if she lives on the opposite coast. You remember those times together as among your best: no matter how poor you both were, you were in and out of each others’ rooms in that run-down shack you shared, swapping stories, complaints, cups of coffee.
It’s rare to make that kind of friend in later life, but it was like that for Liv and
me, at first. We’d dish at dinner parties, cruise clothing stores for bargains, head to
wharf bars for shrimp and cocktails, then spring for popcorn and late night showings of Notting Hill or Bridget Jones. I kept Liv’s secrets, trusted her with mine.
So I’m grateful, now, to step aside and listen unnoticed as one of the event’s
organizers chats with Liv. Tonight’s line-up of readers and musicians! How this old
mill building, in case she didn’t notice, is only partially rehabbed. The floor’s concrete, a rough-in. Outside, a generator kicks on. There’s the faintest whiff of AC.
Above our heads, a smattering of silver photographers’ lamps, a dust-coated
constellation. There’s the shriek of a microphone, then a thump from the amp as the blues guitarist, a moonlighting novelist, warms up on stage. Someone’s smartphone goes off; my husband appears with our beers, steering me to a seat with the well-meant counsel that I should probably sometime tonight, sometime, and no rush, say hello to Liv.
Leadbelly or Dylan? Shouldn’t I know by now, as soon as I hear the first few
chords? But tonight there’s distortion, major feedback, and maybe, just maybe, the
mere sight of Liv, my much-missed friend, means I’m off my game. I take a swig,
giving over to the noise, and hum along.
I always imagined Liv would be the last person I spoke to in the final few
minutes before my second wedding. Liv, with her killer laugh, would bring me a
generous glass of wine, drink it herself as she zipped up my dress. And when the day finally arrived, she did exactly that.
I hadn’t a clue I’d never see her socially again.
Was the wedding, for her, less a celebration than a final obligation to be
discharged before we went our separate ways? Tonight, while she slices quiche and
plates pasta, I think too much has passed between us to ensnare her in some
A year after the benefit, during a late winter storm, I’m the recipient of a group
email from her husband: Liv has undergone a mastectomy. I feel more than a twinge of guilt as I remember our awkward avoidance at the arts center, the erratic lighting over the makeshift stage where I read my contribution after mingling at intermission, before my husband and I left. I remember the silence that resounded at the center of the evening’s din—all that I didn’t know that would, in retrospect, continue to trouble me. Had the event where I’d seen and evaded Liv taken place shortly before or shortly after her cancer had been detected? What point did my wedding mark on the timeline of this tragic turn?
According to Norm’s e-mail, the prognosis is optimistic. Still, I wonder: why
was I cut out of her life?
Closed away from the storm’s high winds, I don’t know what to say now that
I’ve learned how much Liv has endured and survived. The e-mail’s upbeat tone looks cheerfully forward, despite emotional currents that run too deep for this group message—currents better shared with kin and closer friends. But I’m not either one, am I?
As the heater kicks in, I find it easier to think about what was then a recent
public radio feature on changing communication customs—which news you might
launch into cyberspace, and which news, bad or good, it’s best to break in person. In this case, the mass e-mail feels like Hadrian’s Wall, a kind of a fortress against real contact. I’m upset, so my husband dictates a draft. I type and edit. We reread, I hit send. Our glasses plink as I place them on the counter. Thank God for screw-cap wine.
When tides turn, they leave you in their wake. For most of us, the tide turns
more than once, separating us from the ex-friends receding in the distance. There’s
Anne, for example, mother of my daughter’s classmate Madison. When our kids were small, we’d meet at the pool in her apartment complex—don’t divorced women always start over in apartments?—where she’d produce juice-boxes for the girls, then dash out on her own to bring us back box wine. While the girls gossiped and shared pastries, Anne and I would sip coffee after Mass (I still attended for my daughter’s sake), often supporting each other against the nuns who looked askance at single mothers.
After school, at Stay & Play, we’d take turns picking up the girls. If Anne had a
date, Madison stayed overnight with us, a secret I didn’t share with my daughter.
When the girls weekended with their dads, Anne and I headed downtown for tapas
and art house movies, but her mind was often elsewhere—on relationships that had
soured, or on high hopes with someone new. Once, after a fight in a Dublin pub, a
boyfriend had abandoned Anne in the midst of a trip abroad. Later she shook her
head, “I should’ve seen that coming. The next time I go abroad, it won’t be with some guy I just started dating.”
Eventually, Anne found the love match she was seeking. The marriage was his
first; for Anne, her chance at a clean slate. Yes, she’d start over—babies and all.
There was less time for girls’ night out now, especially since a devout husband had
returned Anne with vigor to the Church from which I’d grown estranged. Madison
still sang sweetly in the parish youth guitar choir, but at home, she was sullen, enraged at the stranger in her house and the mother who’d welcomed him in. It wasn’t an easy time for Anne. I wished there were some way I could help.
But my life was changing, too. I’d bought a house, transferred my daughter to
our neighborhood middle school where—at last—she’d get the support her learning
differences required. When my turn came and I got married to my long-time
colleague in the backyard of a friend, Anne and her daughter both attended. Late in
the afternoon, I saw Anne laughing, dancing with the girls. As sunset came, she drew me aside and hugged me, tearfully promising to send the pictures she’d taken.
I remember one that now seems particularly poignant—she’d caught Liv and
me in a quiet moment, laughing together under the backyard trees.
I understand why Anne and I had to grow apart—our lives and priorities had changed, the past we shared a stronger bond than the separate lives that lay ahead. I’d like to think the same thing happened with Liv—that the ground beneath us shifted because of the illness that she faced, her need to let go of those whose sympathy might feel suffocating. Still, that explanation feels incomplete. In the time before her diagnosis, what message had I missed or ignored?
The weather announces itself: there’s always some atmospheric shift; you have
only yourself to blame for the signs you denied or overlooked. Just when you think
the cold’s locked in for the season, it thaws or lifts. Maybe you were just too self-absorbed to notice? Somewhere along the line, there must have been some lukewarm response I shrugged off, a change in the frequency of our contact, or some silence I wrongly ascribed to Liv’s “just being busy.”
What did I do wrong? What did I say, or not say, I wonder to this day.
Over dinner at his house, Alan, a friend of my husband, confides that he’s
received a farewell e-mail from a friend we share in common. The room goes quiet;
we had all liked and respected the e-mailer who is, in fact, Norm, Liv’s husband, for
some of us present, both a colleague and friend. Today, he occupies an ambiguous
space in relation to us all—not exactly an ex-friend (only Alan got the formal kiss-off), but not someone we can be close to ever again. In response to an invitation to
celebrate Alan’s new book, Norm had written bluntly: he didn’t want to come or
receive any further invitations—they didn’t have enough in common—by Alan’s
account, a message strangely cruel in its abruptness. The rest of us feel for him and
commiserate briefly, but save our more honest reflections for the ride home with our spouses. Before we leave, Alan’s wife refills our glasses quickly. My husband cracks a joke; we laugh, relieved to let the conversation take another turn.
After what happened with Liv and me, it’s impossible to feel shocked. Is it less
cruel that Liv’s husband said exactly what he felt or that Liv said nothing and left me to wonder? What role had their mutual devotion played in these partings-of-the-way? Had there been some watershed moment for Norm and Liv, as a couple among other couples, that indicated their lives and interests were headed in other directions? Or had they simply arrived at a point where a particular circle of friends required more than they could give?
Scrolling my news feed the other day, I noticed an acquaintance’s Facebook
status update included a link to a story about the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone which, in the summer of 2011, grew to cover nearly one-third of the bay. Anglers learn how to fish bad water, how to cast, weight, or jog their lines to bypass the algal blooms. They know how to read wave patterns on sonar—to watch and wait so they can spot the cooler currents where fish gather.
Perhaps this is a skill in which I remain deficient: the ability to read and
interpret subtle signs, the willingness to see the bad news breaking in the water.
These days, Anne and I exchange Christmas cards and birthday greetings on
Facebook, notes where we promise we’ll get together soon. We don’t, but our girls
occasionally bump into each other in the halls of our local high school, otherwise
rarely crossing paths. As my daughter struggles with the shifting alliances of the lunch table and what they say about the ways women make or lose their friends, I learn something new about unspoken rifts almost every day. As for Liv, it’s true she was always busy with politics, community service. I knew she’d started—at last—that graduate degree she’d always talked about.
Which is worse: the silent snub or the electronic kiss-off?
Liv never explicitly ended our friendship. Months after I’d begun to feel the effects of her absence but before I received the news of her mastectomy, I e-mailed Liv with a dinner invitation. Norm had gone abroad on sabbatical, and I’d come to
think that maybe we’d grown apart due to commitments they’d shared—that, maybe, Norm’s extended absence meant that Liv’s time was her own again.
I waited. After a week or so, Liv replied: at this point in her life she had too
For someone who’d tell you exactly what not to do for her birthday or what
you’d better not bring to her party—for someone who’d hand you a knife the
moment you walked through the door and put you to work in the kitchen—this line
sounded like something some debutante might offer sweetly: a formality meant to
preempt any genuine exchange.
I had my unmistakable message at last.
Now I know enough of the facts to take into account the role Liv’s cancer might have played. Had we remained friends, the disease that Liv faced would’ve been my misfortune, too, a tragedy shared among friends (not only the two of us), a rift in the fabric of daily life that confirmed how fleeting—and how precious—time can be. That is, if her sense of our relationship to any degree accorded with mine.
I like to believe that Liv knew I was the kind of friend who’d hate to impose—
who would only want to spend time with someone by whom she was truly wanted.
In that sense, then, she’d offered me the chance for a fond farewell—a way to step
out of her life and respect the distance that she needed—though I had to reach out
one more time before letting her go.