Emily and I became friends the year my family fell apart. I sat next to her in seventh-grade art class. I didn’t recognize her, which meant she was probably new. This made her a good candidate for friendship, since I had been on the outs with most of the girls in my class since my former best friend turned against me during an ice cream social. While the teacher spoke, I leaned over to Emily and whispered, “I like your sweater.” It was the only thing I could think of to say. But in the magical ways of 12-year-olds, that was all it took.
Emily became a locker-sharing, lunch-seat–saving, necklace-exchanging, call-every-night-from-home-even-though-we-had-seen-each-other-all-day type of friend. I spent whole weekends at her house, which I knew in the same intimate way I knew my own. Her family brought me to Hilton Head on their summer vacation. She and I agonized over the boys in our classes—did they like us? Could they?—and over what our lives, at that time unformed and wide open, could possibly be about, too.
Emily confided in me easily. She told me about her mother’s taste for vodka, how it made her father yell. I had seen her mother pour a drink during a lazy afternoon and had even witnessed Emily’s father snap, but I didn’t know what advice to give, so I only listened.
Emily knew that my father had moved out. One night, quietly over the phone, I even told her that he was gay. But we never discussed either topic again. When it came to difficult subjects, I kept Emily at a remote distance, just as I did everyone else.
Mine was a family who glossed over, talked around, and otherwise ignored uncomfortable realities. Before they split up, I had no idea that my parents’ marriage was flawed, so quiet were they about their problems. Afterward I watched my mother bury her feelings. Never mind that she had taken to bursting into tears in the grocery-store parking lot. Or that she was getting thinner and thinner. When I asked, she smiled ruefully and told me she was fine. I learned that it didn’t matter whether I worried about my mother or acutely felt my father’s absence throughout my house; if I pretended that everything was fine, then I didn’t have to deal with the fact that everything was far from fine. And I think that’s why, looking back, I didn’t ask about what was happening with Emily.
I don’t remember the first time I realized that something was wrong, but I do remember a time. After we stuffed ourselves with cheese and crackers, Emily left me lying on her bed in front of a football game. She went into the bathroom, not 10 feet from where the TV rested on a chair, shut the door, and turned on the faucet, over which I could distinctly hear her gagging. When the door opened, Emily walked out, acting as if nothing had happened. I took this as a cue that I should act normal, too, and that’s what I did.