Smoke And Ashes: On The End Of A Friendship

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Alison and I met when we were both fresh from graduate school. It was impossible to get full-time jobs in our field without books or much experience yet, so we both applied and got jobs at a college preparatory organization looking for people to teach high school students how to write college acceptance letters. We met at the all-day training we had to attend, which was held in a hotel conference center. I knew I wanted her as my friend when we were both in the restroom in the same time and she said, “If that woman uses the phrase ‘writing process’ one more time I’m going to stab her with my no. 2 pencil.”

I responded, “Here’s my writing process,” and we laughed.

We spent lots of our friendship in bars, meeting boys. I was flirty, smiling and eager, while Allison wore an expression of doom. More often than not, I was the one who attracted the guys to our table.

I told her, “You have to smile!”

She said, “Why would I smile when it’s all going to end in smoke and ashes?”

I laughed, but I also understood what she meant. I felt desperate about boys. I needed them to want me in order to feel like I was worthwhile, and boys, feeling that neediness, often got away from me as soon as they could. I shared this with her, and she shook her head.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “You’re young and pretty. I’m the one who has to worry.”

Alison was a good seven years older than me, so while I wanted to get married as some proof of my worth in the world, her desire to get married was more like panic. There was the old maid thing that still hung around our culture after all these centuries. There was also the baby thing. She talked about it often, and when I suggested she had plenty of time, that she was pretty too, she said things like, “That’s easy for you to say.”

Eventually, Alison and I both landed boyfriends. Mine was one of those experiments all late-20-something women try: a great guy I wasn’t actually attracted to. It lasted about six months before I finally gave up. Alison’s was exactly her type, but he was also in his early-20s, and although in love with her, wasn’t interested in settling down and becoming a family man. She secretly hoped he would change his mind over time. Meanwhile, both of our writing and teaching careers grew. She got herself a full-time teaching gig, and I signed with an agent. Soon after, I met the guy I would marry.

I think it was when I got engaged that things began to slide, though I didn’t see it at all at the time. She still met me for drinks. We still took walks through the neighborhood and spoke often on the phone. I spoke animatedly about my wedding plans while she swirled the beer in her glass.

Then, someone at the college where she worked introduced her to a man. She liked him, she said. He was basically good, and he was her age. She had some worries. He had an angry streak, and he had already turned that anger on her. He also drank a lot. But, he wanted a baby too, so she got pregnant. We shared information about our wedding and baby showers, and when we mistakenly planned them for the same date she said, “Yours is just a wedding shower, Kerry. Mine is for a real live person.”

As my wedding neared, she sent her regrets. Her baby was due right at the same time. I understood, of course, although all these years later, I still wonder about the coincidence. The day she came home from the hospital with her baby boy, I went right over to see him. He was so tiny and fragile, his little head bobbing at her chest. I was happy for her.

A year later, I got pregnant too, and soon after my baby came, I sold my first book. It wasn’t long after this time that I called Alison, just to say hi or check in or tell her something, and she never called back. I tried again, and again her cell went to voicemail. As the days passed, my paranoia about her not returning my call turned into reality. She actually wasn’t going to call me back. I combed every moment we’d spent together over the past couple months. I tried to remember everything I’d said. Had she misinterpreted something I said? Had I hurt her unintentionally?

As the weeks passed, my mind went to more painful places: What was it about me that made her leave?

I didn’t see her for two years, and then one day, I went to Whole Foods to pick up some food for my son. I was eight months pregnant with my second baby by then, and I was in my over-worn maternity pants. My face had broken out, and my ankles were swollen. As I rounded an aisle, there she was, talking happily and intimately with a friend. My heart jumped into my throat. I stopped breathing. I backed up my cart, walked quickly away from it, and went out the sliding doors to the parking lot. As I got into my car, I saw her familiar Subaru, the dream catcher hanging from the rearview mirror, the crack along the bottom of the windshield. How had I missed it as I came inside? It was as familiar as an old lover’s.

I barely made it home before the tears came.

“What is wrong with me?” I asked my husband. “Why did she do that?”

He held me. “Shhh,” he said. “You didn’t do anything.”

But I didn’t believe him. All my life I’d assumed—as so many of us do—that there was something unlovable about me. It’s why I’d had those issues with boys. She knew that. All my life I’d held that shameful belief, had trusted her with it even, and then, in my mind, she had confirmed it as true.

It was another two years before I saw her again. We were in front of the same Whole Foods. I had my younger son with me in the cart. She was alone. She greeted me as though we were friendly acquaintances, and we caught up. I told her about my older son’s diagnosis with autism, the strains on my marriage, a couple bad reviews for my second book. She cocked her head and nodded, told me she was sorry, and then she told me everything in her life was just great.

I said, “I’d really like to know what happened with us.”

She smiled and nodded again, but said nothing. And I left feeling as though a hole had been born through my insides. Why did I keep opening myself up like this? Why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut?

The next time I saw her, my husband and I had separated and I was with my boyfriend. She said, “Who’s this?” And I stupidly told her about my separation. She cocked her head and apologized again, and I left furious with myself.

The last time I saw her, I was prepared. She walked into a literary event where I knew many people and she knew only the woman with whom she arrived. She saw me and started to smile, and this time I met her eyes but looked away. I ignored her the entire night, and I stayed busy chatting with people who hadn’t done something that led to me wasting so much time wondering if I was unlovable.

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.

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