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What We Don't Say
Andrea Jarrell writes about the slow ending to a decades-long friendship.
The HerStories Project first began in 2013 as a collaborative blog sharing women’s stories about friendship. From the very beginning, Stephanie and I have been fascinated by the power of these bonds throughout women’s lives and wanted to publish essays about them because their importance is so often overlooked. Today we are sharing an essay by one of our favorite contributors, Andrea Jarrell.
Do you have a friendship story of your own? Share it with us.
Just we two, my mother used to say. I seemed always to be re-creating the one-to-one closeness I had with her. Never more than with Liz.
We met on move-in day during our freshman year at a small college in Southern California – a gem of Spanish-style architecture with manicured lawns, hidden courtyards and fountains. I was a local but Liz had come from Boston. Later, she confessed that when I’d introduced myself her breath caught because she was sure I was about to say my name was Annabelle, a character in the Rona Jaffe novel Class Reunion, about lifelong friends who meet in college. She’d been obsessed with the novel all summer. Pulling the book from her shelf, she showed me the cover illustration, Annabelle with long red hair like mine. It seemed our destiny to become best friends.
Liz had grown up with a single mother, like I had, yet our maternal crucibles had made me one way and her another. I’d stayed childlike, naïve, forever pacing the sidelines of a grown-up world wanting to jump in. Liz dove into the deep end on a regular basis.
On the first night of orientation, the guys from a neighboring dorm stormed our hallways, banging on doors and dragging girls from their rooms. I hid in my closet, convinced gang rapes were about to take place. After the whooping and shrieking died down, I emerged to find a group of flannel-nightgowned women peering into the courtyard below. On a makeshift stage, there was Liz in pajama top and panties linking arms with a row of girls doing a Rockettes kickline while fifty guys serenaded them. The next day, we admitted our shame to each other – me for hiding and her for giving them what they wanted.
Despite my lack of worldly ways, Liz was as drawn to me as I was to her. When I said I wanted to move to New York after college to become a magazine editor and write novels, she said “Me, too!” She saw past the shyness others often mistook for conceit. In a college town full of Saabs and BMW’s, I was hiding the fact that I was a scholarship kid. She was the only one I’d met whom I trusted enough to take home with me – to see how my mother and I lived. No doorman building or rose-lined front walk. Just a two-bedroom apartment with a carport in back.
Liz was fascinated by my mother – a woman on her own – who hadn’t gone to college but had read every book on our floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and saved enough for us to travel through Europe by the time I’d graduated from high school.
She didn’t judge me because I didn’t summer on Martha’s Vineyard like she did. Late at night in the dorm, she told me her Vineyard stories the way an exile might speak of her home country. Living alone with her mother, she felt the wrongness of her father’s absence like the ache of a phantom limb. Only on the island was she whole again.
And when she ran across our dorm hallway wanting me to drive her to a pharmacy for the morning-after pill, I didn’t judge her either. My virginity had become a burden I was all too ready to unload. “I don’t want to shock you,” she said after telling me she’d slept with the cute senior we’d met at a party the night before. She waited for him to call but he never did, the first of many men I saw take advantage of her.
After I met Liz’s mother, I came to understand why she admired my mother’s capability. Grace was in town one weekend to see Liz in a play. In slacks and turtleneck, she had the slim, athletic build of a tennis player and that old-fashioned upper-class accent you hear in Katherine Hepburn movies. She had the same big brown eyes and apple cheeks Liz had but behind those eyes was someone playing along until she could get in on the joke.
She took us to a Mexican restaurant, where she ordered a Margarita with a lobotomized stare that made you want to snap your fingers in front of her face. I wondered if her blankness was why Liz’s father – a civil rights lawyer – had left her. Or if his leaving was the cause.
Sophomore year, Liz fell deeply, almost violently in love with our English professor. He was young, unmarried and his classes filled up fast. He spotted her in the third row of Modern American Lit, and asked her to lunch one day when I wasn’t in class. Not long after, he asked her to bed. As her best friend, I was in on their secret affair, which stretched into our semester abroad in Paris, where he was on sabbatical, and continued once we returned to campus.
One day senior year, I ran into the professor. He was turning down the path to his house when he saw me. He asked if I’d take a couple of books to Liz. I stood just inside his open door as he rummaged around a dining table piled high with books and papers.
“Ah,” he said, plucking the volumes from a stack. With his beaming smile, he walked toward me – books in his outstretched arm, shirtsleeve rolled, forearm flexing – and, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, kissed me. When I didn’t kiss him back, he straightened and retreated to the dining room. For an instant I thought I’d imagined it. But as I met his eyes I knew he was already wondering if I would tell Liz.
I knew I never would. I couldn’t risk our friendship by hurting her. Something else made me keep it secret too. Part of me had liked it. Not because I wanted him, but because he’d wanted me. It shamed me that a rivalry with Liz had begun to burn in me.
Oddly, people often remarked on our resemblance even though we looked nothing alike. She was tall and honey-skinned with delicate bones. I was fair, petite and athletic. But after years of being inseparable we just were alike.
She stayed with my mother and me on weekends, celebrating Thanksgiving and Easter with us. I spent summers with her on the island doing all the things she’d told me about – beach bonfires, blueberry picking, milkshakes at the golf club. We started an alternative campus newspaper together and cohosted a radio show. We shared everything from sweaters to diaphragm jelly once I did lose my virginity. “Les Deux Femmes,” people called us when we took a French class together. “Where’s your other half?” they asked when one of us was spotted alone.
At first I liked it. Who wouldn’t? Liz was smart and beautiful. But as we ran neck and neck, I wondered if I would be able to keep up and even if I could pull ahead.
As graduation neared, Liz spent most of her time at the professor’s house. Then, without any help from me, she learned he was not to be trusted. She found his diary – a Pandora’s box she couldn’t resist. In explicit sexual detail, he’d chronicled encounters he’d had with her and another student on the same day. He referenced each girl by hair color – the sexy blond, the luscious brunette. I still wonder sometimes if he kissed me simply to add a redhead to his collection.
Liz and I did go off to New York to become magazine editors – or more accurately – lowly editorial assistants at competing women’s magazines. We were grateful to land these coveted spots despite the paltry salaries. Liz’s breakup with the professor had chastened her. No longer the girl on stage doing high kicks, she kept her head down and worked hard. I became more ballsy, dragging her to parties downtown, uptown, east side, west side, where we met SNL writers, bond traders, law students, and Julliard musicians.
It was the mid-80s – a time of blink-of-an-eye literary successes like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Spy and Sassy magazines were launched by young editors. I was 22. My boss was 25. People rose up the food chain fast. As I read through the slush pile and edited relationship columns, I no longer wondered if I would make it, I wondered when. Success seemed inevitable, like something you waited in line for until they called your name.
Then I got fired.
The editor-in-chief said, “In future, you would do well to make your boss look good.” Fighting back tears, I flashed on cabals with other assistants, hunched in our cubicles, carping on management’s reluctance to promote us. I learned the Seventeen editor I’d asked about a job had called my boss to report my disloyalty.
Like any good friend, Liz blamed my bosses, not me. But getting fired left me behind as she rose up the ranks first at one magazine and then another. I found a new job soon enough, but without knowing it part of me had already begun looking for a face-saving exit from New York. A few months later, I found one in a guy named Wes.
I don’t remember what Liz said when I told her I was moving to New Mexico with a handsome chef opening a restaurant in Santa Fe. I’d convinced myself I could live in an adobe house with him and write novels. I don’t remember if she tried to stop me. Or if she, too, was ready for our paths to diverge. If I’d never gotten fired, I might still be in New York. Perhaps my friendship with Liz might even have turned out differently.
“Where are all your clothes?” she asked, looking at the empty hangers in my closet when she came to visit me in Santa Fe. The trip had been a Christmas gift from her new boyfriend.
I didn’t know where my clothes were. Maybe when we’d moved from house to house, a box of my jeans and t-shirts had fallen off the back of Wes’s truck. Maybe I’d left the better stuff at a consignment store the way I’d pawned my jewelry. Like every part of my life—from my book collection to my limp, falling-out hair—my wardrobe had winnowed away since I left New York.
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The truth is, the moment the plane touched down, I knew I’d made a mistake. Wes wasn’t a mean drunk like my father. He was a depressive one who spiraled into long, silent broods, lining empty wine bottles along the windowsills. When his restaurant failed, I’d gotten a clerical job. I’d written a few freelance articles for my editor friends back in New York, but I hadn’t touched my novel.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” Liz said as she looked into my empty closet. “Leave,” she whispered when she hugged me goodbye at the airport.
It took seeing my life through her eyes to convince me. I went back to L.A. to start over. Driving over Mulholland on my way to a new job, I told myself I’d never lose control of my life again.
I’d been in L.A. for a couple of years the night Liz called to tell me her boyfriend had given her a ring. I returned her excited shrieks with my own as I thought oh god, oh god, I’m being left behind. The following summer, I watched her marry on the lawn of her grandmother’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. Her aunts teased me because I cried when I made my toast. Perhaps I didn’t have the right to love her as much as I did or to be so proud. I wasn’t family. But even as I worried I would never have what she had, her beauty and happiness pierced me in a way I would not feel again until years later when I had a daughter.
“I like the other one,” she said to me on the phone a few months after her wedding. I’d been dating a lot of guys. At the moment, there was a lawyer and a Bank of America executive. But I’d also told her about someone I’d met while volunteering on a political campaign. We were just friends but he took my breath away. We’d been talking on the phone a lot, seeing movies together. Liz sensed from the start that he was the one. The summer after she married, I had a wedding of my own.
For a time after that, we seemed to be on the same path again. Like two sledders on a hill, she’d thrown her flexible flyer down, gliding smoothly on her way. I’d followed, flopping on my belly, unsure of the terrain. But now it seemed we’d reached the same destination. My detours and bad choices hadn’t mattered after all.
Despite the adorable photo my wedding photographer took of Liz sitting in her husband’s lap, her arms around his neck, I suppose there were some signs we were on different hilltops altogether. At the reception, I’d found her crying in the bathroom. She’d had the scared face of a child waking from a bad dream. She couldn’t tell me what wrong, only that she didn’t want to go home to New York. “I’m okay. Don’t worry,” she kept saying, not wanting to spoil my day.
Not long after, she called to say she couldn’t stop thinking about a writer friend of hers. “Maybe I should just sleep with him and get it over with,” she said.
“There’s no going back from that,” I said.
Through the receiver, I heard her exhale. Then, “You’re right,” she said, as if I’d reached into the deep end and pulled her back to safety.
The year Liz had her first baby, I was in New York for a conference. Rather than a hotel, I’d been sleeping on her couch. Imposing on a couple with a newborn probably wasn’t the best idea, but I was still operating the way we always had, taking any chance to be together.
We’d reserved the last day of my trip just for us – carving out the morning to conjure our old days of scouring vintage shops and hanging out at the Columbus Bakery. What I wanted for our morning was a glorious fall day – the kind only New York City can unfurl before you. What we got was gray. What I wanted was our uncanny simpatico, each of us adding another building block to the conversation until it towered and toppled and we started a new one. Instead she stared straight ahead, gripping her wallet as if she’d just run out to buy a loaf of bread. In silence we walked down Broadway, her son in a Baby Bjorn like a star on her chest, his tiny arms and legs dangling.
In college, when Liz was overwhelmed by deadlines or heartbreak, I would help her clean her room. Disaster made me want to scrub and vacuum. Not that day. Tempted as I was to wash her dishes, we’d left them dirty in the sink. We’d left hardwood floors in desperate need of a sweep. And we’d left her husband.
As rain began, we agreed to skip shopping and head to the bakery. Espresso machine hissing, muffins piled high in the case before us, we waited in line. Liz whispered, “I’ve got to nurse him again,” and took off to find a table.
Trying not to slosh our coffees, I spotted her in a corner, Baby Bijorn unsnapped, shirt lifted. She watched me make my way. Did she feel the same rising panic I did? I tried not to meet her eyes, not wanting to say what was on our minds. For days, I’d pretended not to hear the yelling down the hall. I’d pretended not to be scared of her husband screaming at their crying baby, Liz screaming back. Their fights had been a train wreck out in the open, cars mangled, casualties moaning. I might have been the only one she would have let see them like that.
We both knew where talking about it could lead. The same way we’d known when she’d thought of cheating on him. Women alone raising children, what we’d both feared most.
I remembered the apartment my mother and I first moved into. The way the lights went out when we couldn’t pay the electric bill, the alley in back where I’d been molested after school. Always aware it was just we two, with no one else to help us.
I tried to concentrate on the cheeriness of the café. But Liz must have seen my judgment of her situation, my pity. Is that what made her reach for my wrist to check my watch? I had plenty of time before my flight, but she said, “I better get back. He’ll be wondering where I am.”
Out on the street, she stuck a hand in the air to hail a cab. A scrum of yellow taxis raced towards us, the victorious driver lurching to the curb. Liz cupped her baby’s feet as she slid along the black vinyl seat after me. She called her address into the front. The cabbie tsked as he pulled away. It was the kind of short, low-fare trip cab drivers hate.
We’d barely come to a stop at her apartment when she stuck a twenty-dollar bill through the plastic window, saying, “You got the food. I’ll pay for the cab.” It was a point of pride. Her marriage may have been falling apart, but she could manage cab fare.
That’s when the taxi driver said, “No.”
“Excuse me?” Liz said.
“Need small,” he grunted.
I reached into my purse. “It’s okay. I’ve got it.”
“No,” she shushed me. “He can make change.”
I caught the cabbie’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He must have understood just enough to get the drift of our conversation, but he’d misinterpreted. He turned around in his seat, one arm hugging the wheel. “You play with me?” He glared. “Get out.”
“Liz, I’ve got it,” I said, but she didn’t want my help. She shrugged at the driver as if to say, “Whatever, your loss.” She put the twenty back in her wallet and we scooted across the seat, Liz cradling her son.
I thought the driver would peel off in a rage but he opened his door and climbed out. He was young and big. His short-sleeved shirt strained to contain his biceps and chest. “Stupid women,” he said, towering over us.
“Here,” I said, holding out money. Instead of taking it, he spit on the ground in disgust. Liz and I hurried up the front steps of her apartment building.
She began to pat her pockets, and I knew she’d forgotten her keys. The cabbie stood behind us, shifting on the balls of his feet like a boxer. He puffed up his chest, directing his anger first at Liz, then at me. “I know where you live,” he said.
Liz banged on the front door. We could see her building super through the glass. “Let us in,” she called to him, but he didn’t want to open the door because of the yelling driver. “Please,” she said. “I’ve got my baby.” Finally, the super opened the door. Liz slipped through, without even checking to see if I’d escaped.
Why I pressed my luck I’m not sure, but I turned to the cabbie and said, “We weren’t playing with you.” This time he drew back and spit directly in my face. “I know where you live,” he said again. I reached for the closing door, feeling his spittle on the bridge of my nose and cheeks. Wiping my face with my sleeve, I saw Liz standing by the elevator, the button pushed. As we rode up, the driver’s words lingered: I know where you live. But he had no idea. This was Liz’s life and I was going home.
For years after the taxi incident, after Liz had another baby and I had two, I still called her my best friend. Even though it took her days to return my calls and sometimes she never did. Still, when I was in New York we’d get together, and on one of these trips she told me she was getting a divorce. She’d been dealing with it for over a year. It stunned me to realize I was the last to know.
What we didn’t say, hadn’t said, is that she’d divorced me long ago.
When I go to New York now, I don’t call her, but I think of her every time. I think of a postcard she’d once tacked up in her dorm room: a couple on a bed with the caption, “This photograph is my proof. We were so happy. It did happen, she did love me.”
Looking back, I think Liz stopped loving me on that rainy, gray afternoon we spent in the Columbus Bakery. Sitting across from me, stroking her baby’s velvety head, scared about her marriage, she must have seen my relief. She must have seen the slightest glimmer of smugness I felt – so glad to be me and not her.
This essay was first published in our collection, My Other Ex: Women’s Stories of Loving and Losing Friends.
Andrea Jarrell’s debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. Jarrell is a VCCA Fellow whose work has appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, the Washington Post, and other sites, journals, and anthologies.
Can you tell us briefly here about a lost friendship from young adulthood of your own?
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