Old friends. When I hear someone use this expression, I imagine age - old relationships, familiarity, and love. I imagine it’s when your oldest and dearest can finish your sentences or when your oldest and dearest intimately know the details of your life, and you theirs. It’s when you don’t have to speak, and they know what you’re thinking. It’s when you can laugh about experiences shared together and no one else in the room knows why you’re laughing. It’s like the private language of twins. It’s feeling secure and safe in the relationship, certain they will always have your back.
I feel like a fly on the wall, wishing it could have happened to me, but I am merely an observer.
When I was 16 and about to enter my junior year in high school, my family decided to move to another state. Deeply saddened by this news and with my protests marginalized, I had no choice but to accept my parents wishes. Until then, I had only lived in the one home and developed a tight knit group of friends. We were a clique of 5 girls, with 3 of the friendships beginning at 4 years old.
We played and fought and learned from one another. We discussed our feelings and dreams and shared our most private experiences. From childhood to teenage years, we discovered so much about ourselves because of each other. Our lives took many turns and we supported each other through all the trials that we each individually entered together and apart. Our secrets were told and trusted. In school we may have had different friends, yet we always came back to home base. Our social experiences, our commonalities, arguments, ideals, goals, and values created a resilient bond. It was unimaginable to think that these girls would not be in my life forever.
With the explosive news and acceptance of my move, my friends seemed to suddenly yet slowly, almost undetectably, scatter into other directions. I didn’t recognize this at the time but it’s as if our group needed a catalyst to break us apart. Our clique was suddenly opened to include new girls, with the exclusion of me. It’s as if I were already gone before I left. The friendships were clearly changing but I refused to accept it. It’s only in retrospect that I see it was dissolving.
My new school was in an urban setting, differing vastly from the small suburban community where I was raised. I suppose metal detectors on the entrances should have clued me into the type of neighborhood I was transitioned into, but I was sheltered and naïve. The student body was unfamiliar from their clothing styles through their communication and behavioral styles. Their beliefs were foreign and frightening. I was catapulted out of my cradle and thrust into the real world. The girls were tough and sassy. The boys were bold and planned illegal behaviors like robberies. Their girlfriends seemed unphased. I was in shock. I just wanted to go home.
My contact with my sisters was waning at this point so when I received an invitation to a sweet 16, I was thrilled and accepted the invitation immediately.
It was Jill’s sweet 16 and part of me realized that I was invited because our parents had a social connection which was planned to continue after the move. Our parents were of a similar mindset in many ways. The gift I would be purchasing for her Sweet Sixteen ultimately represented my parents, so I was told to spend a significant amount. Each year as Jill and I would exchange gifts on our birthdays, the dollar amount would grow as each set of parents wanted to be sure they were not viewed as the one to break this ritual.
I arrived at the restaurant and spied my group. So happy and relieved to be with my girls, I confidently approached Jill and threw my arms around her in genuine emotion. I missed her so much. She accepted the hug politely. I handed her the gift. A 14K gold ring with a pearl and diamond chips surrounding it. As I approached my friends, one by one, I did notice a cool reception, but I kept pushing through. I needed them. I looked for my seat at the horseshoe shaped dais. Traditionally the best of friends would be seated closest to the honoree. Slowly I walked from center, Jill’s seat, back and forth trying to locate my place. As I kept getting further and further away, I was taking in this reality. One of the girls noticed my search and without expression or words, raised her arm and pointed her finger to a seat at the end of the table. Banished to the dungeon. Dismissed. I walked to my seat quietly.
Why was I there? Why put me through this? What did I do to deserve such cruel and dismissive treatment? After so many years of loyalty and sharing and love, why? I sat and held myself together long as I could, until I couldn’t. I left. Far from home, I sought a phone and called my father to retrieve me.
Arriving home, the phone was ringing as I entered our apartment. My mother answered and called to me to pick it up, it was Jill. With relief and hope and wishful thinking, I ran to pick up the receiver. My brain had instantaneous flashes of an apology, an explanation, an answer.
Jill began. “Thank you for the gift”. Clearly a directive from her parents. She then hung up. Crushed again. Startled, that I could feel the daggers of rejection once more, I just collapsed to the floor and sobbed. I felt foolish and tricked. I was humiliated to even think, I was there in friendship.
Forty years later, I received an outreach from one of the girls via Facebook. Reluctant to trust as the scars ran very deep into my psyche, I answered her request. Skeptical, I waited for her to reveal that this was a disingenuous communication. We spoke for hours. My immediate question to her was, why? She responded with a sincere apology. “Please explain to me what happened. I have been wondering all these years. My life was altered by this experience. Please give me something.” Her reply was simple. She began, “When we found out that you would be moving, one of the girls decided that she no longer wanted to continue the friendship with you. She persuaded the others to follow suit. I was too vulnerable to stand up to her. I was not strong enough to be disenfranchised and if I stood my ground and befriended you, my ousting would have been next.” She continued, “You were there for me when I lost my group of friends and pulled me into your group. You saw me sad and crying on the bus one day and sat next to me to comfort me. When I told you that I just lost all my friends, you immediately invited me to join your group. The others were not keen on the idea, but you persuaded them into giving me a chance. I have had horrible guilt all these years, knowing that I let this happen to someone who was there for me at my lowest point. Knowing exactly how if felt.”
I didn’t even remember that story.
I replied, “I know that I was the unspoken leader of the group. And I know that there were times they were not always happy with me. But I never believed that I would be exiled from my sisters. I was strong and opinionated but never unreasonable. Why not talk to me?”
“For years I would dream of our reconciliation only to be awakened to the painful reality. I would fantasize of a reunion and forgiveness. But most of all the worst pain, was the wondering. What did I do?”
She explained, “I don’t know how to make this up to you, but I want you to know that I have been searching for you for years to apologize and ask you to be part of my life again. I have missed your friendship.”
I took a deep breath as the tears of joy ran down my cheeks. This was a dream come true. A reconciliation with an explanation that I was not a terrible person. I was a victim of young, selfish, girls.
I needed to share with her, “All my future friendships after that emotionally devastating day were temporary in my mind, as I lacked the trust to ever have a true girlfriend. I was always prepared for them to end the friendship. If there were any type of tension, I would walk away from the relationship, preemptively. This experience taught me to be guarded. Sadly, I feel cheated that I missed out on the experience of wonderful and loyal friendships.”
This conversation was in 2011 and we have been the best of friends since that day. She has vowed to never let anything come between us again. She has decreed that I am stuck with her for life. We talk of growing old together as we rekindle years of old memories and now making new ones. As for the others, I have been in contact with all but one. Perhaps the one who started the coup, but no one can answer that question. When I ask, I am met with, “I don’t remember.”
When I listen to others talk of their childhood friends, I can now relate, I can participate in earnest, even with a 40-year hole in the middle.