Did My Best Friend Really Know Me?

For 27 years, the writer had a dutiful relationship with her most devoted friend. Only later did she question who needed who more.

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Jayne would claim years later that she and I first met in the third-floor girls’ bathroom, but in my memory, she and I first spoke during a Physics experiment involving razor blades. In both stories, she was crying. She said it was because Max, the best-looking guy in our class (and, quite possibly, the school), didn’t notice her.

I remember her racing from the classroom, weeping as Max held the razor blade to my wrist in jest, threatening to cut me, waiting for me to flinch. I said to him, “Go ahead, if it’ll get me out of Physics I’m all for it,” and he laughed, and that’s when Jayne fled into the hall. I caught up with her in (yes) the bathroom, but what she told me wasn’t that Max failed to notice her. She said, “My father committed suicide, that wasn’t funny.” I remember stammering some lame high-school apology, and then she held out her wrist—unnaturally pale, and delicate for a girl her height—and showed me a scar.

“I tried to kill myself after he did,” she said. “That’s common. Kids whose parents commit suicide are at much greater risk.”

And that was the moment our friendship was born … a friendship for which there may be no better metaphor than the fact that, for the next 27 years, we remembered its origins differently.

Soon after our bathroom encounter, Jayne was calling me on the phone every night to discuss her unrequited love for Max. At first, the gossip titillated me, but before long I began having my mother tell her I wasn’t home. The nakedness of her desperation made me squirm—I wanted her to maintain some dignity. Unlike Jayne, who was middle-class, I had grown up in the kind of gritty, below-blue-collar neighborhood where showing this kind of vulnerability never seemed to end well, especially for girls; I kept my cards close to my chest, always, and tried to subtly encourage her to do the same. But Jayne did not accommodate my desires, then or ever. As Max, an aspiring actor, kept himself busy as an extra in Hollywood films and engaging in threesomes with older girls, hovering hopelessly out of Jayne’s league, she continued to call me, to stalk me in study hall (which we also shared with Max), pouring out her heart.

When finally I went away to college—the same college as Max, who had by then become a close friend of mine—Jayne wrote faithfully to me. I believed for a long time that she was using me to get closer to him, and in all probability she was—at least initially. But then things shifted. Max intermittently receded, but Jayne remained, a bawdy joke at the ready, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She became an indispensable friend. She had decided to forgo college and instead chose to work in an office, and would save her money—scant though it often was— to visit me whether I was studying in Wisconsin or England or pursuing a guy for a whirlwind romance in New Hampshire. When I threw sprawling parties in graduate school, 70 people crammed into my kitchen, Jayne was always the first to arrive to help set up, and the last to leave, washing dishes with me at 4 a.m. In our late twenties, she was by my side when I developed Interstitial Cystitis, a chronic pain condition, accompanying me on doctor’s appointments and running banal errands with me to pick up prescriptions. When I adopted my daughters, she became their first nanny, talking about them so much to everyone she knew that other people assumed they were her children.

As the years passed, Jayne had developed a kind of wounded, voluptuous sexiness. She had a quality, one male friend said, “that makes men want to hurt her just because they know they can.” Indeed, she had a penchant for drunks, addicts, those living with other women, and her affairs inevitably ended messily, a pattern that I’d been watching since the days of her obsession with Max. She would stalk her exes’ apartments. Once I’d caught her rifling through my grad-school notebooks because her obsession du jour was enrolled in one of my seminars, and she knew we occasionally passed notes in class. She must have imagined that she was the subject of our discussions, not Faulkner—or ourselves. I was angry. I accused her not just of violating my privacy but of being childish and narcissistic. It was one of the few fights in our friendship … but by the end of one tense breakfast, we had recovered.

By our thirties, however, Jayne had slipped into celibacy, seemingly resigned, exhausted, and frightened by her brushes with instability, worried that she wasn’t resilient enough to bear the kinds of disappointment that other women seemed able to weather with grace. And so she led a solitary life, working a safe office job at a school staffed entirely by women. She would spend her evenings drinking Jameson and listening to Nina Simone when she wasn’t tagging along as an extra in my life: serving as a reader at the publication where I edited; loving my children like a parent; nursing a nonthreatening crush on my husband (whom she joked she would marry once I—always sickly—kicked the bucket). At parties, she would give both me and my husband massages, and people would mutter confusedly that perhaps we were involved in a menage a trois.

It was the sort of relationship that only makes sense from the inside, and even then, not entirely. The truth is that if Jayne’s adulation seemed excessive, my acceptance of it—or, let’s face it, embracing of it—was potentially even more mysterious. Though I was neither beautiful nor “well-bred,” I had somehow grown from our mousy school days into the kind of woman to whom certain things came easily. I had a loving husband who earned enough to enable me to concentrate on my writing and kids without financial anxiety. I had scads of friends, from childhood stalwarts to my new “literary tribe.” I had my two beautiful daughters, and in my late thirties, I gave birth to a son. I had devoted parents who lived downstairs and helped take care of the kids while my husband and I worked with them on the daily tasks aging suddenly makes complicated. My life was full to bursting, and there was scant explanation for this single woman’s constant presence in my life, insinuating herself into every corner of my pursuits.  Some of my friends suspected that Jayne was “madly in love” with me, though I knew her attraction to me wasn’t romantic. Other friends regarded my tolerance of her neediness to be “saintly.” Only those sharper observers of human nature recognized that she must be meeting some deep need in me, too, for … something. What was it?

When she turned 40, Jayne broke her near-decade of celibacy with a turbulent affair that set off an intense depression. She sat at my kitchen table day after day sobbing, shaking, drinking my booze, popping my benzos, freaking out my children, and I began to question exactly why I was allowing this in my life.  Did I need this kind of drama? Amid my juggling the demands of work and family, Jayne often kept me on the phone for hours, analyzing every small detail of her past and psyche. For all her apparent hero worship of me, it became clear—perhaps it had always been clear—that I was rarely the topic of our conversations. I suspected she was blind to my struggles. During those dark Interstitial Cystitis years in our late twenties, when I was addicted to painkillers and going to doctors three or four times a week, and couple’s counseling due to the strain my illness put on my marriage, Jayne had told me with a straight face at a bar, upset over being jilted by some other unsuitable man, that I “had a perfect life.”

At the time, still four or five years before becoming a mother and a decade away from having my first book published—did she mean merely my husband? Was marriage a fair trade for health? I’d been borderline suicidal, cutting myself, unable to bear the thought of 50 more years in my agonized body: How could she be so blind? I thought. Only two decades later would I see that she was not blind, merely trusting of the version of myself I fed her volitionally. I never mentioned the cutting. When people asked me how I was, I usually said, “Fine,” smiling. I went into remission at 30, and the clouds of my life parted, but from the outside, I probably appeared much the same. I had taken the ethos of playing it cool—instilled in me in my old neighborhood—so far that even my closest friends had little idea what it was like under my skin.

The deep need in me she was meeting … was it that she saw my life as “better” than it was, and that if I held tightly enough to her narrative, to the reflection of myself in her eyes, I might be able to believe it too?

Now, here we were at 40. Despite my sudden uneasiness with our unequal dynamic, I saw Jayne through her depression, rejoiced with her when the Paxil kicked in, then wrote the profile she used to meet the man who would become her fiancé. He gave her the happiest two years imaginable—the kind of blissfully gaudy PDAs usually reserved for high school; the surprise gifts that always perfectly reflected her tastes; the weekends away at Frank Lloyd Wright houses and fancy beach resorts—before a sudden diagnosis of late-stage ovarian cancer pulled the magic carpet of her new life out from under her and sent her spiraling once more into the black night. This time, the depression did not loosen its grip. It sank its claws into her for four long, brutal months, until one morning, while I was away on a teaching gig in California, Jayne abruptly dropped dead, at 43, of a pulmonary embolism, alone in her apartment while getting ready for work. There would be no “coming to peace,” no gradual decline and acceptance. Jayne died as she had lived: with her heart on her sleeve, full throttle, persevering through the pain, and all too often alone.

In the last few years of her life, Jayne experienced both the greatest highs and lows she had ever known. And in the three and a half years since her death, I have followed suit with the greatest highs and lows of my life, in ways set in motion by the loss of her. Two months after her death, reeling, manic, clawed with grief and hyperaware of my own mortality, I began the affair that would shake me so far out of my role as the “perfect” friend/wife/mother that the woman Jayne used to know would begin to seem like a photo of a stranger in someone else’s picture album. In these ensuing years, I would write my best novel as if in a fever; I would fall in a kind of heated, frenzied love I’d have once seen as unseemly; I would tear down the walls of my family’s home—both physically and metaphorically—ending up unmoored, sharing custody and living half-time in a small apartment alone for the first time in my adult life. There, I often think of Jayne: of her quiet, small spaces of Jameson and Nina Simone, as I, too, now, for the first time without a husband and children to care for, have nights of calling a couple glasses of red wine “dinner.” I want to pick up the phone and call Jayne not daily but nearly hourly. To say, Can you believe this? To say, I am happier than I ever believed I could be. To say, I’m scared out of my fucking mind. My life—the less and less it resembles the life she knew me to live—is increasingly a ghost town full of her echoes. I began to understand her from the inside out only after she was gone.

What is devotion? What makes love “mutual?” Is “equality” an essential ingredient in friendship?  In the years since her death, these questions have haunted me. It’s become abundantly clear that Jayne was there for me in ways that no one—not even my former husband or mother—ever had been: no detail of my daily grind was too trivial or boring for her to want involvement in it.  I never had to attend an event or run an errand alone—she was perpetually available, tuned to my attentions like a little sister, endlessly seeking approval, studying me, emulating.  The loss of her relentless intensity left not a hole but a fucking crater—a loneliness that my other, more superficially “reciprocal” relationships could not seem to fill.

I have had to accept that my love for Jayne was, in some ways, the narcissistic one—a love for the image of myself reflected in her eyes as wildly more idealized and strong than I ever could be in reality.  Since her death, this has shamed me, made me fear I was really the “user” between us, that I loved her wrongly, was not a good friend.  And yet in the end, I took her to chemo most weeks, while her fiancé was at work.  I loaned her money when she was in crippling debt, bought her classes in massage therapy and bartending to help broaden her career options, let my kids watch hours of mindless television while I talked with her about yet another disappointing lover, took her to the literary events she loved and listened to her, let her in…something her self-involved, often warring mother and older siblings rarely offered. We laughed until we could barely breathe—we bought leather pants and wore them together to baby showers; when I was hospitalized, she smuggled me in flasks and I loved her for it even when I was too sick to partake. When she sobbed in my car about her father, and I was unable to pay close enough attention to the snowy roads, getting into a car accident while comforting her, it never once occurred to me, even as I trudged painfully to the chiropractor for my whiplash, that I should have done anything … different. We were friends. We were complicated, wildly messy surrogate sisters. We had become that rarest of things, more rare than equality, I’d venture: unconditional.

Were we also mirrors for one another’s dysfunctional, immature needs? Of course we were.  And yet: I loved her. And yet: I miss the hell out of her. And how I wish she were here … that I could meet her on new adult terms and tell her at last, “No, my life is not perfect, but thank you for the way you loved me, even if you didn’t always see me.” I wish I could thank her for how her skewed vision of me strangely gave me the confidence and heart to take on the world, and now that I have learned to live without it, I wish I had the chance to invite her in to see the real me.


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