• Jennifer Neal on the challenges of losing a friend. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
I think we were both just hurt that the other person wasn’t who we thought they were.
By
Jennifer Neal

7 May 2020 - 11:38 AM  UPDATED 7 May 2020 - 11:38 AM

One of my most painful breakups was with my best friend. It’s one of those moments that marks the different stages of my life: getting my first period, falling in love for the first time, moving away from home, and breaking up with Marta*. We first met while we were both studying in Spain. In a class where we were supposed to partner up with someone else for a group assignment, I turned around to the person sitting behind me and said, “What up home skillet?” Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Hey homeslice!” That was all it took.

It’s miraculous how we ended up forming a more than decade-long friendship based off of that one simple exchange. But we were 20 years old, without the walls that make creating new friendships so difficult for our now rapidly approaching middle-aged selves. It could’ve just as easily been an awkward 15-minute presentation, high-five, then an “oh, what was her name again?” kind of situation. But I got lucky.

When she went to Japan, I followed her there. And when I moved to Chicago, she returned the favor.

We formed a friendship that took us around the world. When she went to Japan, I followed her there. And when I moved to Chicago, she returned the favour. We had Skype sessions that lasted for hours, the kind that drove our annoyed partners out of the room, with “There they go again.” And when we broke up with them, we still had each other and the long, detailed emailed confessionals that never made us question the emotional distance. How could there be any if we could still talk to each other like that?  

In the 11 years we knew each other, we didn’t live in the same town for more than two or three years in total. But it didn’t change the fierce urge I felt to protect her, or the fierce urge she felt to nurture me. We honoured the needs of the other. The distance was negligible...until it wasn’t.

The distance was negligible...until it wasn’t.

Marta and I had both been through rough patches, and to remedy the situation, she decided to go on a working holiday in Australia, and stay with me for part of it. Once again, our friendship was to continue in a different part of the world. But when she arrived, after having not seen each other for years, we were both very much changed. She didn’t have much of an interest in meeting my friends or seeing the city, and she found me too serious. I was working a corporate job and wrapping up my masters. Instead of staying in Australia as originally planned, Marta decided to move to Brazil to marry a man she had only just met in Queensland, and live on the spiritual commune run by the now notorious John of God.

We had become fundamentally different people than who we were in that classroom in Spain. It became clear in the time she stayed with me that things were different. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened. It was like watching a long movie and blinking during a crucial moment that makes the rest of the film not make sense anymore.

We fought. We became passive aggressive. I didn’t understand her new-found spiritual path, and I criticised it harshly for having all the telltale signs of a cult.

We fought. We became passive aggressive. I didn’t understand her new-found spiritual path, and I criticised it harshly for having all the telltale signs of a cult. I was afraid that she would get hurt, but when she told me that I wasn’t able to understand, my confusion quickly gave way to frustration. And when I agreed to meet her new love for a brief while, and not the entire evening as she had wanted, she returned the favour with anger.

I think we were both just hurt that the other person wasn’t who we thought they were.

I think we were both just hurt that the other person wasn’t who we thought they were.

Eventually, she decided to leave. And though our last words to each other were bitter and emotional, I was flooded with relief, convinced that ending the friendship would mean not watching her throw her life away. I distanced myself from an outcome that I was positive wouldn’t end well.

But it wasn’t that simple. 

When she left, a deep void came along with her absence. I couldn’t make sense of a life without her friendship, and I mourned. Heavily. For weeks. I’ve gone over this event many times since...but there’s no use in it. When you’re far apart from someone, you see only the best in them, instead of what’s actually there. Just ask anyone in a long-distance romantic relationship.

Just like so many celebrity marriages before, we had grown a part. Pure and simple. Nobody talks about what it’s like to break a friendship as an adult, but looking back many years later, it’s something I wish was taught in school. I still feel partially formed by the love we shared for one another, even though it’s over. And I still want her to be okay. Maybe that’s how I know it was real—for awhile.

Jennifer Neal is a freelance writer.

*Names have been changed.

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