Sometimes abandoning a friendship is easier than maintaining one.
On that day, the hills of Point Reyes National Seashore had been baked brown by relentless heat. My ’67 Ford Falcon heaved along the curves of the Pacific Coast near the San Andreas Fault line. I’d always found beauty in the precariousness of this place, where the earth might shift at any time.
Suddenly there she was, rattling my mind. Not a quake, more of an aftershock.
Stella had been gone from my life for nearly two years. The same autumn my husband left, she’d pointedly told me: “I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
That’ll happen in divorce, I’d been warned. You’ll lose people. So, I’d braced myself. I thought I knew loss and could handle more of it, no problem. But who can prepare to lose a best friend?
Afterward, strangely, Stella had barely crossed my mind. Amid the rubble of a broken marriage, I was too busy searching for two dimes to rub together to mend a broken friendship. Stella who?
On that day, as I cruised the fault line, she was back. Why? I steered the car carefully onto a rocky precipice, stepping out to greet the sea. My heart roared with the waves below. And I remembered: It was her 35th birthday: August 22nd, 2010.
Happy birthday, Stella. I wished from afar. An emptiness yawned before me.
Loneliness was new to me. Since childhood, I’d always been warmly wrapped in close female friendship. When Stella had abandoned me (and indeed, that’s what seemed to happen) she left me in an unfamiliar wilderness.
Wilderness can be transformative, as we know from the success of a certain bestselling-memoir-turned-blockbuster film. Independence can be forged! Character can be strengthened! Skin can blister till it thickens! Yet being alone in the wilderness can utterly, completely suck. You might go days without nourishment. Beasts might cross your path. Along the way, you inevitably wonder: Is all this self-sufficiency really necessary?
In the case of Stella and me, I think not. With better communication (hers) and listening (mine), I believe we could’ve salvaged our relationship. Was it toxic? Probably. So I’d like to have seen a good, old-fashioned bloodletting. Instead, we outright killed the thing.
What’s left is a ghost—the kind that has become a modern social cliché. Thankfully, what also remains is my surprisingly strengthened set of relationship skills. My trials with Stella taught me a thing or two. I put a finger on the map, trace the chronology of events, and search for the lessons.
When Stella and I parted, I was in crisis. When we met, she was in crisis.
We were juniors at a small state university in the Blue Ridge Mountains when I found her scooping ice cream at the school cafeteria. She was wearing a hairnet and cracking wry jokes. I was craving a sugar rush and good company.
I saw straightaway that Stella was a star, the brightest light in any room (yes, even in a hairnet). Wherever we went together—coffee shops, concerts, student council meetings—her sparkling eyes and quick, Italian, Jersey-girl tongue drew crowds. She loved an audience, and they loved her.
I was never in Stella’s audience. Instead, I had somehow been invited backstage, in view of her innermost workings. Behind the scenes with Stella, she was different, darker—and I loved it that way. It may have been to my detriment that I lingered there, in her shadow.
Stella was fresh from an unsavory tangle with a dastardly professor—an encounter that would haunt her for years. Her grades were plummeting, along with her confidence. She packed on pounds. Confronting these problems directly wasn’t her style. Instead, she fought back with dazzling humor. Her tendency toward avoidance would, a decade later, become part of our downfall.
To cope, she’d call me and ask for a smoke break. I didn’t smoke, but I’d do anything for Stella. So she—that is, we—smoked incessantly and ate copious amounts of junk food. We did this privately, on the shrouded balcony of my apartment. Our mutual friends would not have approved: They were organizing wine-tasting parties, Shakespeare plays on mountaintop parks, and anti-corporate protests at the nearby McDonald’s. We giggled as we hit the drive-thru late at night with a spliff. Our innocence still astounds me.
I did all of this with zero guilt. Meanwhile, Stella’s shame seemed boundless. Her guilt plunged to new depths when she was fired from her job at the school cafeteria for stealing candy. Only I knew.
While I hid Stella’s secrets, she returned the favor, protecting me, too. Many abhor being “the friend” of a popular personality. In those days, I loved it. Never comfortable in the spotlight, I found that being near Stella—who was always the center of attention—let me off the hook. Stella’s big personality let me hide.
We drove matching stationwagons, mine with a broken window and shiny chrome; hers with wood paneling and an ironic bumper sticker: “If you ain’t cowboy, you ain’t shit.” Both cars were manufactured roughly the same year Stella and I were born. Never mind that; we could go anywhere.
We wound up in San Francisco. We were 26 years old when she joined me in the City by the Bay, renting the extra room in a dilapidated Victorian where I’d been nesting. I’d been working at a nonprofit publishing company. Our house was on colorful Valencia Street, tucked between a funeral home and a known crack den. Our digs were filthy, and the roommates were creepy—but I was newly engaged, had just met Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the office, and was learning to salsa dance. What else did I need in life?
Stella, on the other hand, did need something—and not just a more tony place to live. She needed a niche. It was harder to find an audience in the city than in our small university town. Nevertheless, she set out to find one.
It took time, but she did it. Ever the social butterfly, Stella began building a new circle of friends—mostly wealthy bankers and tech professionals. Her new circle still included me. Bouncing around between subleases and blind dates and therapists, she tentatively found her footing. Just after my marriage, she moved back in with me for a few months to recover from an especially hard bout. I never thought twice about helping her in hard times. Isn’t that what friends did?
One fall morning, as I was practicing yoga in our shared living room, Stella walked in. “A plane crashed,” she said, as sober as I’d ever seen her. I unraveled myself from my pose and we listened, stunned, to the impossible news. The date, of course, was September 11, 2001. Huddled together on the broken springs of a dirty secondhand couch, we held each other while the world shifted.
Seven years later, I boarded the subway in New York, where Stella had since moved. Her horizons had brightened considerably. I gripped a cold steel bar with one hand and my cell phone with another. My world shifted again.
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” Stella declared.
I flashed back to seventh grade, when my then-bestie Kate had ditched me for gossiping about her. At the time, I’d deserved Kate’s disdain. Did I deserve this, now? Had I wronged Stella? I couldn’t think how. And perched on the brink of divorce, I needed my friend more than ever before.
Stella lived in New York now, and I’d traveled 3,000 miles to whisk her away on a girls’ weekend, complete with tickets to a Broadway show and spa getaway. To my bewilderment, she wanted none of it, canceling at the last minute. With these certain words, she’d delivered a seemingly final, decisive blow.
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” It echoed in me then, and now.
Mere months before, I’d stood as a bridesmaid at her wedding. What happened?
Over the years, I’ve tried to answer this question, but only come up with more of my own: Was I a victim, or just paying my own karma? Was Stella acting badly, or was I acting badly, myself? I am easily lost in these questions.
It can be no coincidence that this particular autumn was the one during which my husband and I split. It was awful; I was awful. The marriage was a place where I met my demons, challenged them. Stella saw it all, watched me burn. I didn’t worry about our friendship. Hadn’t we’d watched one another rise from ashes again and again?
At the time, she was basking in the afterglow of her own wedding. As a show of support, I’d painstakingly designed and hand-printed 200 programs, place cards, and wedding favors. Then I was late to the ceremony, and could hardly find the heart to dance at the reception. In the photos, I am bloated and greasy haired, with bags under my eyes. Worn and weary, I showed up with the hope of someone—my dearest friend—having love, even as I could not.
Maybe I should have stayed away. Maybe I should have politely excused myself, so that Stella and everyone she knew did not see me in such a wrecked state. Maybe I should have remained backstage.
As I see it—and sure, I realize my perspective is just that—Stella had finally succeeded at creating the audience she’d long needed. For years, she’d crafted a dream of a life. Didn’t she, like the rest of us, deserve happiness? Once the dream was complete, and her groom was by her side, I (and my messy divorce) seemed an annoyance. So she cast me out of her life, and into the wild.
It seemed an unconscionable betrayal. These days, it’s the type of betrayal that happens every day. We accept this type of ghosting as commonplace. And why not? Abandoning a friendship is easier than maintaining one. We tell ourselves that silence is golden—that when we walk away from difficult conversations, we take the high road. Yet silence can be a weapon that cuts as deep as the sharpest words. I never want to pay that pain forward to anyone, friend or foe. So:
*In a basic, Golden Rule kind of way, I try to offer friends the same kind of clear communication that I desire. It’s not always fun, and sometimes I must speak when I’d rather stay silent—but it nearly always results in a deeper understanding and richer relationship.
*I do not to “ghost” friends or lovers. Unless I am fearful for my personal safety, I do not simply leave a personal relationship without a trace. An explanation can save the other person significant emotional strife. I offer that kindness where I can.
*I try to be more sensitive to the needs of friends. If I’d been a more approachable listener, who knows? Maybe Stella would have felt comfortable telling me what wasn’t working, and I might’ve had the opportunity to correct the situation.
*Finally, I have eliminated the phrase “toxic friend.” No person on this planet is toxic. We are all flawed, every one of us. If I blame the other person for relationship woes, I shirk responsibility. Isn’t it always a two-way street?
The loss of my best girlfriend—the same month I lost my husband—set me on a journey I never intended. “We make the path by walking,” the saying goes. My eight-year, zig-zag path has sent me over fault lines and up cliffs. I’ve stepped out of the shadows and into the light. (What was I doing there, anyway?) I’ve emerged better able to discern relationships that diminish my strengths, that I may stay out of them.
I do miss Stella, and somehow can’t let her birthday pass without smiling. Yet I find that being alone is better than being in the dark. My road gets lonely, but I now see it so much more clearly.
It’s a great, wide world.
A veteran of the book industry, Amy Bess Cook has left her mark on everything from children’s book manuscripts to travel guides. She now helps operate a boutique winery in Sonoma, California, and writes for wine publications. Her personal essays have been published in The Manifest-Station and Grape Collective.