“Wrong, a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that. It’s only out there in the real world that it gets tough.” Nick, The Big Chill
We must have watched that movie a dozen times when it was first released in 1983. Delia and I were in our early 20s then and in the best part of our friendship. Something about that film spoke to us and we would often turn to it on a slow weekend. Armed with pizza, liquor, and chocolate, we would immerse ourselves in the beautiful intricacies of the adult friendships portrayed in the movie. Secure in the knowledge that we would be in each other’s lives forever. When we started to fall apart, death by a thousand cuts, I decided to watch it again. Hearing the line spoken by the William Hurt character almost 40 years removed, it felt as if he were patiently explaining to me in the present what should have been a prescient warning back then.
I’d always longed for a best friend. The kind that the teen magazines and TV sitcoms suggested was not only necessary, but easily obtainable. Even as adults, and mainly female adults, we are constantly being given the impression that everyone has a “person”, a “best friend forever(!)”. Some lucky coupling that apparently happened soon out of the womb and lasted through the dementia years. Like a hearty cup of tea, a cozy and safe backdrop to catch us when life trips us up. As a young girl, the best I’d ever managed were always problematic threesomes, where I was frequently the odd girl out.
Delia and I first became friends early on in high school, and what commenced were the usual escapades of typical girls in suburban America. We were there for each other’s joys and heartbreaks, cheering and crying in equal measure. Her dream was to get married and have babies and mine was to go to college and move far away. While we were each pursuing these paths, we dated boys and drank white zinfandel and laughed. We laughed a lot. I don’t even remember at what. If we weren’t with a boy or at our local watering hole, we would be on her family room couch watching our go-to movie and drinking Kahlua and coffee. He mom would walk in and ask us what was so funny, and we’d just laugh. We didn’t even know why. It was just all so funny.
I had always fantasized about visiting southern California. One day, Delia called and said, “let’s go for the weekend!” This was in the days where flying across the country was not the commonplace experience it is today. We were two wide-eyed New Jersey girls who’d never been much west of Pennsylvania. I’ll never forget walking on Rodeo Drive for the first time, staring in wonder at a world I’d only ever seen on television. I’d go back again later with other friends, but nobody understood the first-time magic of it all better than Delia. We were eating breakfast at a place in Laguna Beach one morning and noticed how jovial everyone seemed. We asked the waitress if it were some holiday we didn’t know about. “Oh”, she says, “every day is a holiday in Laguna!” That was our catch phrase for years if we needed to laugh. We didn’t even know why. We just found it all so funny.
So, I ended up as a part of that rarefied world to which I had always dreamed of belonging. I had my person. She was my person before we both grew up, and made lives, and started paying attention and forming opinions. I had a person for a very long time, until I didn’t. The end was less a slaughter than a form of mutually accepted euthanasia.
Per the wisdom of Scout, the narrator and protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird: “never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to . . . do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, an answer that might wreck your case”.
It was a fall day of yesteryear, the dawn after a presidential election, and I was mourning the improbable results. Sleep deprived and shell shocked, I texted my person. I posed a question that I didn’t know the answer to and then, got an answer that I didn’t want. And it wrecked me.
I had plenty of friends to commiserate with, but I desperately needed to connect with my person that morning. Delia and I had never talked seriously about politics before. I knew she leaned right to my left. I knew she didn’t like “big government”, though she never could explain what that meant for her. I knew that she would never consider an abortion herself but was pro-choice. I knew she owned a gun. I also knew that she had a gay son and a bisexual daughter. So, I held out hope that maybe we were aligned on this election. When I asked her, “did you vote for him?”, she replied, “of course, don’t you know me?” And I had to admit to myself that maybe I didn’t.
In the ensuing years, I told myself that a mature person can separate politics from friendship. I told myself that Delia wasn’t really like those MAGA folks on TV. I tried to compartmentalize the part of her that I didn’t agree with, bargaining with myself that our deep bond should outweigh any political disagreement. I would try and make light of it. I’d send her political jokes. Look how funny it all is! But every time I did that, I’d feel as if I were betraying a part of myself. I would think “if only she knew” . . . so I’d send her article after article trying to encourage an “aha” moment. It never happened. And with the 24-hour news cycle ensuring I was aware of every school shooting, threat to reproductive rights, unremitting anti-immigrant sentiment, and on and on, all I could think of was: my person’s vote did this. And it enraged me.
I wasn’t shrewd enough to keep my anger from spilling over into our interactions. And she wasn’t so obtuse that she didn’t feel this. It was a rift neither of us officially acknowledged, but it was undeniable, and I wanted to fix it. I missed us so terribly. About a year ago, I drove through her state during a cross country trip, so we could meet in person. And it was so wonderful to be with her, as if no time had gone by. We cleared the air, as she felt like I’d beaten her up over the years and I conceded that I probably had. The easy laughter was like a balm. We agreed we would avoid politics that evening. However, it proved difficult not to wander into, even for her. We had vastly different opinions on serious topics: systemic racism (“doesn’t exist”) and the January 6th insurrection (“a peaceful demonstration over a possibly stolen election”) to name just a couple. We departed the evening cordially, but I felt offended by her. After that, our contact was superficial, yet civil, until even that was no longer tenable.
The chat that ended up being the final death knell isn’t relevant. What mattered was that our twosome had turned toxic and that all we could agree on was that we should be done. For as long as I’d been so angry with her, the rapidness with which that anger was let go and supplanted with relief, surprised me. I vacillate between this and feelings of chilling heartbreak. I’m not sure how to deal with the dichotomy because I thought the “best friend” moniker was incontrovertible. I realize now, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship, to expect it to perfectly evolve with the life trajectory of two separate beings. I feel sad though for those two young women on the couch in 1983. Blithely unaware how accurate that quote from their beloved movie would turn out to be. Or that one day they would stop finding it all so funny.