Semi-fictional piece on friendships that build and break and haunt you with regret.
Once upon a time, I thought I had a best friend. As I’ve grown older my mind has gotten weaker, and I’ve allowed myself to forget the location of every wrinkle on her face and the exact pitch of her voice when she asks a question. But even though my memory is no longer pristine, I still can trace the bridge of her nose, and I still hear echoes of her voice.
In second grade, we met on the playground. I was sitting on the wooden platform before the monkey bars began, and she was hanging upside down by her legs on the yellow bar.
“Can you do this?” she asked me as she did a backflip and landed upright on the ground, kicking up a few wood chips in the air,
The thing that struck me the most about her was her desire to create – to create an identity for herself that she was proud of, unlike anyone else’s. To her, the word “conformity” was a curse word. She dyed her hair blue and made garlands of paper cranes to hang around her room. She even dipped her shoes in paint and stamped them on her ceiling to make footprints.
She also deliberately sought out beauty and the under-appreciated, from abandoned log cabins in the woods to secret spots on the rooftop to watch the stars. Sometimes, she’d share these hidden treasures with me and remind me of why people wanted to be alive.
As the years went on and we grew up, the red string of fate became a strangling chain. For reasons unrelated to her, I felt the control of my life slipping away from me as I entered the world of adulthood. In a desperate measure to cling to the order that I had maintained before, I tried to control my body. It’s ironic how in doing so I lost control of everything else. My abilities to function in school. My enjoyment of the world around me. My relationships.
One day, after not talking to her or anyone for weeks, I met her eyes. As we walked up the stairs, discussing some sort of test we took last period in geometry, she tried to walk ahead of me. I didn’t like how she was leaving me in the dust, so I sped up too. Then she increased her stride again, and I gave up trying to outpace her in the hallway after that. A silly incident that seemed to mark the start of a never ending cycle of feeling inadequate and constantly racing against one another.
Fast forward a year later, and I had mostly moved on from my issues but turned to academics and anxiety about college anew.
Her, on the other hand – she was still struggling, I saw. Brittle bones, sagging pale skin, wispy, sheenless locks of hair. Leaving sandwiches and ruby grapes untouched, green paisley lunchbox unzipped. But in a way, she was the same as I. Devouring everything in the classroom and growling at anyone who dared try to approach and steal it away. I didn’t want to look at her or be with her, but at the same time I was fascinated, because it was like she was my mirror image.
I cannot forget those days, because it was an animalistic battle for superiority, as if the high school classroom were a fragile ecosystem and we were in a game of survival of the fittest. It was furtively eyeing one another’s tests or essays, collecting SAT books, accusing one another of relying too much on AP scores, tests – not caring enough about actually learning.
One day, she wrote a college essay about me. She called me “anal” and “grade-obsessed.” She disguised my name in it, but it was obvious that it was about me – “my best friend, the valedictorian.” And she asked me to edit it for her.
I should’ve said something. I should’ve said, “Is this about me? Can we talk about this?” But I kept quiet, nodded, said with a smile as I slid the papers back over the cafeteria table that it was good.
The irony of it all is that we just somehow couldn’t stop being friends. Maybe it was just my weakness and naivete, but I thought beneath the poisonous competition, the passive-aggressive remarks, the gossip flung around in the cafeteria about one another, we had something there. A link. We both loved silly, overly romantic young adult novels, songs with beautiful lyrics, creating art. We both preferred to be alone, and yet we both were exceedingly ambitious and wanted to know more and more people, everyone.
On occasion when we weren’t surreptitiously competing, we’d sit on the roof of her house underneath the stars, trying to create a harmony to “Blank Space.” We’d reminisce of those times when we’d performed a flute and clarinet Bach duet. We’d remember how we’d tried to save a purple dragonfly’s life and then gave it an elaborate burial when we saw it was beyond hope. And we’d think of the future – how one day we’d go travel the world together, how we’d go to London, her favorite city in the world.
One day, we did go to London together. That was where it ended.
I should’ve said no. Being with her for 72 hours straight reminded me too much of those shameful, painful high school days.
I’d had enough when we went to see the Victoria and Albert Museum. We walked into the central garden in the heat of day, looking at the shallow fountain, two children in yellow and white frocks zipping in the water. She mumbled a clipped remark about how “cool, interesting” that was. Watching those two children laugh as they skirted around the water, splashing water on each other, smiling to their eyes, I turned to her and said, “Can we just… give ourselves a little bit of alone time?”
So we went opposite ways down the paths in the courtyard.
The last time we saw each other was in a vegetarian Japanese restaurant in that city, London. She pointed her chopsticks at me and said, “I’m more Asian than you.” I think she had at least 4 shots of alcohol that night. I only smiled and nodded.
By the end, I decided that I’d had enough. I cut it off once and for all. We no longer speak.
I took up a babysitting job not too long ago. The girl I took care of was wide-eyed, always smiling, adventurous. She built tiny houses from woodchips on the playground, weaved crowns out of clovers, did backflips on monkey bars.
One day, I took her swimming at the local pool. As I sat beneath an umbrella on a chair, she shrieked and flailed her arms about as she tried to splash her friends.
I watched this girl and thought of my past friendship, sunken now beneath the soil. It leaves a bittersweet taste when I think of it, and sometimes I need to close my eyes and let it recede.
But though I’ve regretted it during many a moment, when I take a look in the mirror and see myself rather than her, I realize that I made the right decision. I’m free of a red-string chain that was once strangling me. I hope she is too.