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She introduced herself as “Shelley – spelled with an e – like the poet.” I had no idea who Shelley-the-Poet was, but nodded my head as if I knew. Her hair was red and her eyes were green and her skin was porcelain white. She was arresting, if not quite beautiful. I was a sophomore and she was a freshman at Carleton College, and we sat on the hillside watching the men’s baseball team play our college’s crosstown rival, St. Olaf. I was seeing the third baseman; her love-interest was an outfielder. The baseball season was forever-long – game after game after game, tedious inning after tedious inning after tedious inning. We passed the time together. Cheering. But mostly we talked. And talked and talked. That began a friendship of twenty-plus years that ended. With no explanation. With heartache.
Like in Shelley-the-Poet’s poem, “Ozymandias”: Nothing lasts forever.
Vive La Différence
We cemented our friendship that next year when we lived together on the fourth floor of Davis, a 1920s red-brick dorm with gabled roofs, no elevators and no air conditioning. Our all-women’s floor beckoned others to make the interminable climb with the promise of a payoff. “Come fourth onto Davis! Take the stairway to heaven!” emblazoned our floor T-shirts, the italics emphasising the sexual innuendo – as if it might be missed. We had the best double dorm room on campus, a benny of my being the floor’s resident assistant. We had a laddered loft, a love-sized couch, a big rubber plant, a baby blue portable TV, and a plywood divide that split the room into two. That year Shelley and I learned a lot about each other.
We learned we had different interests: She studied literature, took French, and played the piano beautifully; I studied political and social theory, took German, and played the flute unbeautifully. We learned we had different social needs: She was outgoing and I was introspective. We learned we approached men differently: She with fearlessness and I with reserve. We learned we ate differently: She chose with care and followed Weight Watchers and I ate anything at all or skipped eating altogether. We learned we studied differently: She liked the socialness of the library and I preferred the quiet of the dorm room. We learned we drank differently: She binged and I sipped. We learned we thought differently: She in stories and I in concepts. We learned we liked different types of men: She liked mysterious or boisterous and I liked even-keeled and levelheaded. I learned she loved parties; she learned I hated parties. I learned she was self-assured, adventurous. She learned I was self-conscious, deliberative. I learned that she was funny, fun, smart, articulate, entertaining, engaging. That she liked to drink, dance, laugh, and tell stories. She learned that I listened attentively, delighted in her humour, savoured our animated discussions on anything and nothing, and relished the wrestling and reckoning of perspectives on our lives, our dreams.
We learned that opposites attract.
Why Not Minot?
We came from small towns. Mine was Moorhead, in northwestern Minnesota; hers was Minot in northwestern North Dakota. Despite both Moorhead and Minot being river and railroad towns and despite similar size and similar settings and similar Scandinavian sensibilities, they were much farther apart than the 275 miles would suggest. Moorhead had an agricultural economy. Minot had the air force base and the Minute Men Missiles. The military, with the comings and goings of personnel from all over the place, made for a level of sophistication that seldom flavoured small-town America. At least this was how I explained to myself Shelley’s relative worldliness. She knew things I didn’t. She knew about food and food groups. She counted calories and cut her cuticles and used Clinique cosmetics. She read Vogue and The New Yorker. She loved Guy de Maupassant. She drank wine, preferring red. She appreciated antiques and seed pearls and things made of silk. She had a sense of style. She had opinions. She knew what she liked.
And she liked me!
Bryant and Beyond
The commonality at the core of our friendship moved from negotiating college to navigating careers. When she graduated a year after me, she, too, moved to Minneapolis, and into an apartment one floor above me on Bryant Avenue. I worked in marketing and she got a job in advertising. I had a steady boyfriend and she had an off-and-on boyfriend. We borrowed each other’s clothes; we cheered each other on; we shored each other up; we listened to each other’s stories. We seldom talked about the big five – politics, religion, sex, death, money; rather our conversation focused on the everyday. Subject matter abounded: co-workers, family members, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, unrequited love-interests, people on the bus, customers, friends, bosses, altercations, stuff we’d seen, stuff we’d done, stuff we wanted to do. In the absence of our mothers to consult, our fathers to consult, our siblings to consult, or any mentors to consult, we had each other.
And we laughed. Her sense of humour was such a joy; nearly anything could be found funny through Shelley’s eyes. It was easy to be swept into the moment with her. We’d laugh at ourselves – our missteps, our mistrials, our misgivings, our mistakes, our misunderstandings, our miscalculations. Armed with humour, we took the struggles and stings of life in stride.
We were like sisters: We lived different lives and we loved each other. Or at least I loved her.
Life moved forward; so did we. I left for Chicago and graduate school in business. We kept connected by phone. I moved back to Minneapolis. She lived with a guy and then she didn’t. I got married. She left for New York and a Madison Avenue advertising job. The years rolled by. She stayed in New York and summered at Fire Island. I got divorced. I remarried. She was in my wedding again. She dated, here and there, on and off, but no one stuck. My husband and I had a child. We moved to Los Angeles and I had a crazy job drumming up marketing consulting work for an advertising agency. I quit my crazy job. His Hollywood job in programming for network television found us flirting with the fringes of pop culture. She worked with her advertising agency’s sexy blue-chip clients and her career grew. She moved out of New York and back to Minneapolis. My husband and I had another child. I focused on raising kids in Los Angeles through the freakish maelstrom: riots, earthquakes, O.J. Throughout, Shelley and I kept in touch; the telephone was our lifeline. The rare times we were together, we were reminded of the pleasure of each other’s company. But our lives no longer resembled each other’s lives.
Stress fractures began to develop.
Yearning to Discern
I’d always admired her sense of certainty. She knew what she wanted. She was discerning. I longed to develop this skill and broke it down into its parts: To discern is to evaluate, and then make a judgment. Droste chocolate trumps all other chocolate. The Limited has cooler clothes than Casual Corner. The New Yorker has better short stories than The Atlantic. He/she/it is smarter/cooler/niftier/nicer. A beats B, and C is better than D. F outshines them all. She was wired to evaluate and judge the world as she went. And that included a comfort in judging people. Her analysis wasn’t openly shared, but there was evidence: She had strained relationships in her past and present – a younger brother she wasn’t in touch with. Then a younger sister. Sometimes she would ice her parents. And then her best friend from high school went. Explanations were vague. And when new friends entered her life I’d hear of them without reserve and with bullish enthusiasm. I sometimes felt tinges of jealously and wondered if that wasn’t the intent. She spoke of new friends in tones that I reserved for her. Was she insensitive? Was I oversensitive? Through all the years, though, it never once crossed my mind that her predilection to discern would apply to me. Until it did. Over some period of time, she measured, assessed, appraised, then one day she judged.
I came up short.
The Long Goodbye
Cracks became crevasses. Like tectonic plates, the movement was slow, but unstoppable and over time, catastrophic. Looking back, it likely began with the birth of my first child. Her lack of even slight interest was remarkable. This was when I most could have used the ear, the advice, the reassurance of a good friend – these years of adjusting to the triple shocks of marriage, pregnancy, parenthood. Not to mention a move across country to a foreign land – Los Angeles.
Even though she and I struggled to stay connected, to find topics of mutual interest, we were on different trajectories, different timetables. After the birth of my second child, her father, John, died. She had a complicated relationship with her father and I feared his death might unleash an emotional tsunami. I called and called and called to check in, see how she was doing. She was always busy. Unavailable. I left messages on the machine, but they went unacknowledged. Then one time she answered. She told me she was lying on the couch with Steve, her new man. Crying. She’d been drinking as her words slopped and slurred. She said she’d call me when she could. I waited. And waited. And waited. She never did. As her relationship with Steve flourished, our friendship died.
We saw each other once more. I was visiting family in Minneapolis. I met her at their apartment. She introduced Steve. Then the two of us went off to dinner alone. It was strained. Painful. Whatever she had to say, she left unsaid. Her intractable coolness alarmed; I left feeling sick. What could I have possibly done that was of such gravity and yet been unaware I had done it? There was no event, altercation, exchange, nothing that might be grounds for discarding our relationship. I wrote a letter. I preemptively apologised for whatever I might have done, whatever she thought I might have done; I pleaded with her to take the time to help me understand, make amends. Nothing. I consulted my husband; I solicited help from a mutual friend. No one had ideas, advice, answers. Short of begging, there appeared no redress. Months moved into a year, then two.
Simply: Shelley shut me out.
The summer of 1997, three years after we’d last had contact, I heard she was getting married. Barely a month before the wedding, a typed, one-page, single-spaced letter along with an invitation to their wedding reception arrived in my Los Angeles mailbox. The wedding, she explained, was a small, private affair being held in St. Paul. She apologised for the lack of communication and in one brief paragraph, as if it were merely the last few months that we’d been out of touch, blamed it on a broken ankle, subsequent medical issues, followed by a series of mishaps. She apologised for not inviting me earlier, and justified the short notice by blaming it on the very letter she was writing – how it was “awkward” to write it. Then, by way of explanation for the last several years, she simply said she was “unhappy with our last visit. But uncertain why.” That was it. She added that she would understand if I did not come to the wedding reception, but either way she would call me within a few weeks of returning from her honeymoon. I sent a gift. Wrote a card with a heartfelt note.
She never made that call.
Digging through the Dust Long after It Has Settled
It’s been over twenty years since we’ve known each other. I’ve never understood what happened between us, which might seem improbable. Who abandons a friendship without an explanation? About the only thing I know for certain is that she judged me harshly. I’ve formed plenty of theories; I feel the explanation lies amidst and across them. I wasn’t the person she thought I was. My true colours: I was a faux feminist – forgoing my got-an-MBA, gonna’-break-the-glass-ceiling corporate career; I was a traditionalist – marrying, having two children, raising my children, moving for my husband’s job; I was now a rich girl – living off the ample fruits of my husband’s successes instead of succeeding in my own right. Or maybe there just wasn’t a need for me: She had Steve – one intimate relationship was enough. Or maybe she came to see me as merely ordinary, living an ordinary life. Or then again, maybe it was the erosive process of time.
My hurt was palpable. Years passed before I could even think about her without tearing up. Losing a friendship of value and meaning and importance is painful enough; not knowing why made it excruciating. I couldn’t help it; I judged her. It occurred to me that there was an elemental flaw in her and the way she valued friendship. It occurred to me that the friendship had always been on her terms, yet since our terms had been so similar for so long, I had not realised it. It occurred to me that it was complicated and she was complicated. I looked for contradictions and found them. For all her joie de vivre, she was a private person, meting out information as if it were currency, doling out her inner thoughts here and there or not at all; it was me that was more open. She knew me, but maybe I never knew her. Further, for all her feistiness, her pluck, she had no courage. Or she would have put up a fight for our friendship.
That presupposes that it mattered to her.
Forgiveness as an Act of Friendship
Now into my seventh decade, I know a lot more about friendship. I know that friendship can form in peculiar places and unforeseen ways. I know that friendships ebb and flow. I know that friendships have a lifespan, that they can limp along, explode, fade away, die on the vine, or if you are lucky, die with you. I know that different friends serve different needs. I know that friendship is essential to my well-being. I know that love and heartache are tightly bound cousins. I’m grateful for the sustained friendships I have, as I’m grateful for the friends that have come and gone. In that way, I’m grateful to Shelley. For many years, I was the better for her friendship. She helped me grow up. She taught me about myself. She taught me about the power and value of storytelling. She taught me about love and how not to take it for granted. She taught me the importance of forgiveness.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of friendship is to forgive.