I’ve had some sucky breakups in my day. The guy who dumped me after we had sex. The guy I had been living with. But no breakup has hurt for so long afterward as the friendship ending between me and my best friend, James*. James and I became close in 8th grade and stayed thick as thieves through high school, college, and our first few years living on our own in New York City, when we never lived more than walking distance from each other’s apartments. James was more than a friend; he was family. When our friendship ended, I mourned the loss as if he were a brother. He had been more like a brother to me than my own brother over the years.
Now he’s engaged to his longtime girlfriend. And I found out about it over Facebook.
James and I became friends in middle school. We sat near each other in the cafeteria and our friend groups were flirty with each other; he and I bonded over similar mental health issues in our families we had to deal with. I’d had girl friends from elementary school who knew peripherally about the problems in my family for years, but James was the first friend who could relate completely without me needing to explain. He was the one I trusted the most with all the secrets I had been keeping.
And I had to keep a lot of secrets from most people. The next couple of years were really difficult for my family. There was drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental illness, prison, rehab, even a visit by Child Protective Services. But James and his family, especially his mom, were there for me; on nights when things were too chaotic and scary and fucked up in my own house, they welcomed me into their home for the night. I will always be grateful to them.
Even though we went to different high schools and different colleges, James and I stayed in close touch. We were big parts of each other’s social lives and cheerleaders for each other’s careers. As I started working in the New York City media world and met and socialized with a lot of acquaintances with the purpose of furthering my career, he was an important friend from home who I felt fortunate to have keep me grounded. He knew, and loved, the real me. Still, James and I grew up to be very different people. He went into finance; I’m a writer. He would lecture me on saving money; I would lecture him on loosening up. He had a very traditional relationship with a longtime girlfriend; I was slutty and kinky and heteroflexible and wanted to do a little of everything with everybody. He was always more conservative and clearly drawn to me for the spice I added to his life.
These days I can look back and see how our friendship had some cracks in it that we both avoided addressing. Letting sleeping dogs lie and keeping my head down were coping mechanisms that had kept me safe — literally, physically safe — in my chaotic upbringing. I told myself that James was a brother to me and that everything would work out OK somehow; he loved me but he didn’t always understand me. So maybe that’s why when James’ male best friend Ben started cheating on his girlfriend, Rachel, with me, neither of us told James.
It all ended in a spectatular disaster, of course. I learned the hard way that when a man who is cheating makes promises, they shouldn’t be believed. Ben said he would leave Rachel for me; he never did, despite endlessly discussing how unhappy he was with their relationship. Spurned and angry, I told Rachel everything. They didn’t break up and instead adopted a dog. In fact, they stayed together for another full year. (I know this because once they finally broke up, Ben and I spoke and he filled me in.)
James was livid with me. James’ longtime girlfriend Anna (and my friend) was livid with me, too, because she and Rachel were roommates and friends. Anna actually hasn’t spoken to me since, without so much as a goodbye or any sort of closure to our long friendship. But they were livid with only me — not Ben. In fact, Ben, James and Anna all hang out with each other to this day! You see, it was explained to me that I had “seduced” Ben, luring him to cheat and that the whole affair was all, apparently, my fault.
This double standard was, in a sense, the final nail in the coffin in my friendship with James. He was going to side with Ben, whom he had known for a couple of years, instead of the girl he referred to as his “sister”? Okay, fuck you. Now James and I weren’t just fighting about what I had done, but the unfair way he (and his girlfriend) were reacting to it. After a few arguments and uncomfortable conversations, James finally ended his friendship with me with one sharp email that gutted me like a knife. He simply said he didn’t want me in his life anymore.
All of this happened when I was 24 and stupid. I’m 29 now and I better understand how and why everything happened. I’m ashamed by my behavior. To this day, that whole incident — the affair with Ben, the way I treated Rachel, Anna and James — remains the thing in life that I’m most regretful about. Still, for the first few years, I felt extremely angry at James for siding with Ben, “bros before hos”-style, and blaming all of Ben’s actions on me. James was supposed to be my brother. I felt, to put it simply, abandoned.
With a little more maturity and life experience these days, I’m more understanding of why James ended his friendship with me: I’m sure he felt frustrated by my bullshit, pressured by his friendships with Anna and/or Rachel to excise me from his life, and groomed by society to blame a woman’s sexual transgressions but forgive a man’s. I can respect the fact he made the decision that he did, even if I didn’t like it at the time. More importantly, I can continue to learn lessons about love, dating, friendship and forgiveness. I’m not sure he has forgiven me or if he ever will. And so I have had to take a good, hard look at what “friendship” means to me and what kind of friend I want to be and what kind of friend I want to have. For instance, I’ve made the personal decision to never abandon a friend who I’m angry with the way that James abandoned me. I’ve had troubles with close friends over the years, but I’ve always remained loyal to them — even if I put a little distance between us.
I’ve had to ask myself what “loyalty” means, too. My loyalty to James was complicated — I wasn’t loyal enough to not throw a stinkbomb into the middle of James’ social life, but I was under the mistaken impression that after everything we had been through together, he would forgive me. I was wrong; he was done with me. We weren’t family anymore. And that’s been the hardest lesson of all to swallow.
Finding out that James and Anna are engaged brought up all the feelings this morning. As someone who used to love him very much, I wish him well in life. Still, I wish I could honestly say that I’m happy for them — but I know my lukewarm reaction means I haven’t completely forgiven them. While I’m angry at myself for my part in ending the friendship, I’m still angry at Anna for choosing Rachel and Ben over me, and at James for choosing to end his long friendship with me in such an uncompassionate and sexist way. I’m sad I had to hear about his engagement on Facebook; something huge and important happened in this person’s life — this person who used to mean more to me than anyone else in the world — and I’m just a bystander to it.
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[Image of a sad woman via Shutterstock]