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.
During spring break of our senior year, Emily and I, along with a larger group of girls, drove to Florida. We found that the house we had rented was stripped of its siding, infested with lizards, and on stilts. It was also over the causeway from the beach. To get there, we had to walk, single file, on a sliver of sidewalk adjacent to a 45-mile-per-hour overpass.
We didn’t mind. We were in Florida and unsupervised for a week. Drunk on our autonomy (not to mention any alcohol we could get our hands on), we crashed the beaches of fancy hotels, throwing our towels down in front of their chaises. We shimmied under the ropes around open-air bars that lined the boardwalk. We traipsed the beach after the sun had set, brazenly approaching bonfires and clusters of kids.
One night, as we stumbled home half-drunk over the causeway, Emily suddenly collapsed onto the sidewalk. We tried to pull her up, but she refused to move. She squeezed her eyes shut, blossoming tears. Cars whizzed past, blowing up our skirts and pelting us with dirt. We were the only people on foot, the night humid and black around us. I had the feeling of being somewhere I decidedly should not be.
We begged Emily to tell us what was wrong. Between sobs she choked out that it was everything: her family, the boys at school. She was just so unhappy. The other girls squatted to her level, put their arms around her shoulders, bowed their heads to hers, nodding as if they understood. I stood over them and watched. Then, in a single motion, I reached into the circle, grabbed Emily by the wrist, and started to pull.
“What are you doing?” asked one friend, her brow tight.
“She’s fine,” I said. “Let’s just keep walking.” I pulled at Emily’s arm, but she resisted.
“Maybe you should leave her alone,” another said.
“But she’s fine,” I said, more loudly. And then once again, and more defiantly still, “She’s fine!”
I dragged Emily back to our stilted house, repeating the same mantra that I had been feeding myself since my own family collapsed. The one that allowed me to get up each morning and go to school despite the fact that everything felt so rotten. In my mind, Emily had to be fine, because if she wasn’t, then possibly neither was I. This faulty logic would ultimately cost me my friendship with Emily. But first I would do something even more unfeeling.
Soon after we returned from Florida, Emily’s mom called and gravely told me that Emily was going into short-term psychiatric care. Her dentist had found her molars caving at his touch. The rot was the result of her bulimia. I felt both relieved (she would get help) and envious (she no longer had to keep her secret).
Emily spent a few weeks in the hospital. But I don’t know what those weeks were like, because I didn’t visit her. And I didn’t ask. When she came back, I acted as I had in Florida, as if nothing were wrong.
Just before high school graduation, Emily confronted me. She informed me that I was a bad friend. That I was closed off and difficult to get to know. “You keep secrets,” she said. “And you never came to visit me.” Those words surprised me. She was right, but somehow I had seen her being away as a reprieve, a time for me to sort out my own falling apart. A respite from worrying about her, too. Because although I hadn’t shown it, I had worried. And somehow carrying both her pain and my own had been too much.
I spent my few remaining high school days alone. I even decided to switch universities rather than go to the same one as many of my friends. I needed to start over.
Emily and I didn’t speak for years, but she was a fixture in my dreams. In them, we were still friends and happily doing all the things we used to. But each time I awoke, I would hear her say, “You never came,” and the feeling of failure would wash over me yet again.
Six years went by before I saw Emily. I was on a trip to the city where she lived, and we agreed to meet. Perched on bar stools, we recapped recent events. Her parents had moved; they were still together. My mother had remarried; my father had decamped to the Caribbean. It was a nice place to visit, I told her, but far away. She started to confide some of her problems, and I was able to see her issues as separate from mine—to truly empathize. High school came up and I laughed, then admitted I had been a mess. “You know,” she said, “you really seemed OK.” I had fooled more than just myself, it seemed.
When we hugged good-bye, we promised to stay in touch, but I knew that our friendship could never be what it had been. Friendships are fragile. There was no taking back how rough I had been with ours.
At age 36, I have another group of girlfriends not very unlike the one from high school. We are a motley bunch, all trying to figure out our lives and just get along. I like to think that I’m a better friend now. I’ve learned that though I don’t have endless reserves of empathy, though I can’t shoulder every problem I encounter, I can choose to help those closest to me. I’ve learned that such help nourishes; it does not burden.