Sometimes, the best way to be a friend is just to listen.
There is a picture taken of all of us in the backyard of my house the summer before it happened: my wife and our two kids; Lilith, her husband, and her little scientist; Monique, her husband, and her future goth; and Ophelia, and her two towheads. In the picture, my son has his fists full of chocolate birthday cake, my daughter has a gap-toothed smile, my wife is wearing freakishly large sunglasses and a ’50s-style sundress.
These were the most important people in my life: my family and my work buddies. My level of intimacy with my friends was less than desirable, but I was an adult and emotional connection wasn’t as necessary for friendship. I knew we were friends; they knew we were friends. We didn’t need to talk about it.
Six months later, my wife would decide that she no longer wished to be with me.
Not long after, none of these friends were my friends.
At the tail end of the summer, not long after the photo was taken, my wife began to drink again. She was the kind of person who transformed after a few drinks. When I’d first met her, her bar room habits had seemed artistic and charming: aggressively kissing girls; drinking strangers’ drinks; refusing to ever go home. But over time, I’d recognized the signs of a problem, and these habits became terrible to watch.
On a particularly bad evening, I called my brother over to watch our kids so I could take her to the hospital. She’d mixed her alcohol that night with a dose of morphine, and contracted pancreatitis. A couple of days later, convalescing, she was livid that the hospital suggested she see an alcohol counselor; I told her I thought the doctors were right.
This shifted her anger. She became angry with me.
My friends and I were writers—though I don’t want that to be the crux of this story. I was published, but my writing wasn’t bringing in any money; I’d been working on a novel, drafting and redrafting again, never happy, always frustrated. And while I suffered for my art, I only did half the childcare work and the house was never clean. I was difficult to live with.
My marriage got worse. I wanted us to see a counselor. In counseling, my wife asked for a separation. I was furious. We had kids! How could you do this to the kids!?
In the end, I took my angst to my writing group. I assumed that these people—to whom I’d never been close but considered my friends—would understand and take me under their wings.
I brought in a piece of fiction involving a man who wants desperately to get to the beach to play with his kids while a woman delays their trip by obsessing over finding the proper organic sunscreen. Another piece involved a stay-at-home dad taking his son to the airport to watch planes land rather than getting the groceries for the day, and telling his son over deafening engine roar that his parents were getting separated. A final essay, written a few months later, involved a recently separated man and a recently separated woman, aged in their 40s, who were having sex in their respective Priuses, while their former partners watched their kids.
One evening—it was raining I believe—I showed up to one of these meetings disheveled, unshaven, and wreaking of cigarette smoke. I read my piece nervously, my hands’ shaking. We went around the room critiquing like we always did. One of my friends said, “Your narrator is unsympathetic. He doesn’t seem to know that he’s the asshole in this story.” Another one said, “It seems very sexist.” A final one said, “The narrator is unreliable. He can’t be trusted.”
I left the meeting trying to retain as much poise as possible. I said goodbye to the one person in the group who’d kept her comments mild. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That whole thing was fucked up.” I turned a corner and sat in a warehouse dock. I chain-smoked a whole pack of cigarettes in the rain.
It went downhill from there. It seemed to me—and it’s impossible to tell how much of this was paranoia on my part or malevolence on theirs—that my friends were changing sides at the moment I needed them the most. None of them had been friends with my wife before the separation, but now suddenly they were reaching out. Ophelia arranged to meet with my wife and told her that she should hold out for the perfect man. Monique got furious when I asked her not to invite my wife to kids’ play dates. Lilith whispered about how childishly everyone else was behaving. I was angry at these people; and yet our whole relationship was predicated on everyone always keeping their cool.
I lost it eventually. I blew up at them all one day in an email. I told them I was sick of how everyone was being so unreal. There was a big uproar. How dare you criticize us, each of them said. Monique told me I was tearing apart the greatest writing group in the world. She told me not to dare return.
I didn’t. I pretended it was my decision and bowed out as gracefully as I could.
It took me a long time to figure out what happened: that Ophelia was having troubles in her own marriage; that Monique expected men to hold down jobs; that Lilith was filled with envy about other people’s success. I realized that they needed to distance themselves for reasons that had nothing to do with me. I was a mirror for their own problems; a mirror they had no interest in looking into.
It eats at me, the mistake I made. You can get angry at people who loved you once. But you can’t at people who never actually did.
An acquaintance of mine is going through a divorce now. We’re close, but not terribly close. Like my ex, he chose to leave his marriage without trying to repair it. I was never close to his wife, but I was always envious of them and how I imagined their relationship. His wife has a tinkle of a laugh, makes over $100,000 a year, and lays out a tremendous spread at dinner parties. When he chose to end their marriage, I felt empathy for her and anger at him. Her Facebook posts said how could he do this to his kids; it took me back to the way I had felt too.
But I’d learned something from my own divorce, something I never wanted anyone else to have to experience.
And so I stopped “liking” her Facebook posts. I resisted the urge to contact her and tell her that I cared. Instead, I bought my friend a beer and sat at a bar with him, wanting to hear his side of the story.
We faced outward. Needing drinks and prompting as men tend to do, the story of his feelings unraveled: He and his wife hadn’t shared their emotions; there was a lack of intimacy; he felt dead inside.
I’d be lying if I told you that I was suddenly warm or convinced. I replied about how to arrange for split custody and the advantages of lawyers. But I wasn’t required to reach new levels of understanding during this difficult time in my friend’s life.
The only requirement was not to use my friend as a target for my own hurt feelings: to not make him suffer just because I had.
James Bernard Frost is the author of three novels: World Leader Pretend, A Very Minor Prophet, and the forthcoming Harold’s Ark. His travel guide, The Artichoke Trail, won a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. He has written fiction and essays about men’s issues and divorce for The Nervous Breakdown, The Farallon Review, Cheek Teeth, Trachodon Magazine, and Sexology. In his spare time, he acts as the Executive Director for the Oregon Writers Colony, a non-profit that supports Oregon writers.