We didn’t fit in. Floating around us were cupcakes and sparkles and ruffles and bows and fuzzy blushing pom-poms. At the center of it all, a cake fit for Marie Antoinette — rose pinks and seafoamy turquoises and sunny sprinkles melting into a kelly-colored candy mountain sprayed with flowers. It was October 2012, the Rookie Yearbook launch, and my best friend and I — in our thirties — did not blend in. But our friendship did.
By then we had been best friends for 12 years. The term sounds juvenile and, in a way, our friendship was. While other women traded in tight teen amity for adult matrimony, we did the opposite, hugging each other closer with each passing year. For us, one glance stood in for a paragraph, one word for a chapter. We were indivisible, physically — our arms linked even then — but mentally too. We were married without marrying. We were in love without making it. We were family.
But in the midst of that confetti-cluttered celebration of girl culture, our friendship suddenly grew up without me. “I’m trying to get pregnant,” my best friend said.
And I had no idea how to catch up.
It took my best friend more than a year to get pregnant. She wanted it so much that I never told her how much I didn’t. It started with a joke: She said she was knocked up; her husband believed her. It seemed like a bad omen — I don’t believe in them, but she does — and every time her tests came back negative I knew she was cursing some higher power. She took her temperature, measured her ovulation cycles, did everything right, but it didn’t work. Was something wrong with him? Was something wrong with her? She asked, I didn’t — asking threatened to make it right.
Six months in she and her husband started fertility treatments. I watched as my best friend who had never been obsessed with anything quickly turned pregnancy into everything. It was as though the very fact that she couldn’t do it made it all the more important, as though not doing it somehow made her incomplete. She had a full existence overflowing with people — her husband, her parents, her friends — yet it all meant nothing.
I meant nothing.
When the treatments failed I consoled her. I hated to hear her cry, but not crying would have meant it had worked and I hated the thought of that even more. Later, when I showed her a draft of this essay she said she felt betrayed. “It's just that some of those days were the worst of my life,” she said. But I didn’t understand how they could be. How could not getting something you never had, that you never needed, ruin your life? Did that mean every other moment you didn’t have it was moot? Was the only thing that mattered this thing that didn’t exist?
She got pregnant before I had the chance to ask. The news bothered me less than I thought it would, but at the time it was still an abstraction. Over nine months I watched her grow bigger and bigger and bigger as my feelings stalled, less a resignation than an ellipsis. We were back to the rhythms of our old friendship; there was even something comforting about her swelling belly — it was the barrier between me and that baby. And when it broke, my sadness came rushing forth like a flood of angry red afterbirth.
She was the first best friend I actually chose; all the others had been chosen for me. There was Louise in kindergarten, who drifted away before our relationship wanted her to. There was Joanne in junior high, with whom I sang The Little Mermaid. And then there was Andrea in high school, the black tee in a class full of primary colors.
All of these friendships were variations on a “bosom” theme, the kind Anne of Green Gables had taught us about. It was that giggling, hugging, personal space–less intimacy, the platonic preamble to fornication. “It’s like being in love, only they’re not allowed to have sex,” is how My So-Called Life put it. The hormonal headiness of adolescence imbued this dynamic (and its inevitable denaturing) with a new kind of passion. It was a romance particular to the confines of those years. At a time when your family suddenly felt too small, your best friend was the one you chose instead. Until graduation. At graduation the shell protecting that friendship shattered, splintering off into different classes, different lovers, different futures.
I can’t remember when exactly we first met but I can remember how it felt — the same way it did when I met my boyfriend 10 years ago: “Oh, there you are.” It’s hard to say what we liked about each other, but it seemed to be as chemical as it was cerebral. She and I just fit, like two strands of DNA. Only 20, the fumes of teen passion still clung to us. We liked each other so much we couldn’t tell if it was platonic or romantic or somewhere in between. For us there was no precedent. We hung out so much and I talked about her so much that I’m fairly certain my parents thought I was gay. If she hadn’t had a boyfriend I’m not sure what would have happened. But she did. She had met him at 19 (he’s now her husband) and though romance is the traditional threat to friendship, theirs didn’t bother me, perhaps because he had met her first.
More than a decade later the four of us were family — him, her, me, and my boyfriend. We traveled often together, we had dinner even more often together, we spoke every day. The hierarchy was clear: Her husband and I were the kids — stubborn, impatient, irresponsible — my best friend and boyfriend were the parents. They were the more pliable duo, the more likable pair. Because of her, because of him, for more than 10 years nothing got in the way of our friendship, not even our relationships.
The baby came suddenly on New Year’s Day. It was a period day for me (my best friend and I, still in sync, only now in opposing directions). At first it took forever and then it went too fast. We waited and waited and waited, then an abrupt C-section and, just as abruptly, a muted-red raw piece of flesh. We all walked in to the room together — their parents, my boyfriend, me — and found my best friend and her baby among the sheets in a florid embrace.
It was strange to see it move; for the past nine months it had been so still inside her. But a swift deep incision had transformed the baby from abstract to concrete, like a piece of cold gray meat animated by the electricity of life. The way its body stammered, in almost animatronic fashion, made it seem all the more Frankensteinian.
We passed around the baby like a game of show-and-tell. I brushed my lips across its head and noticed it smelled like iron, the familiar scent of blood — I had just kissed the inside of my best friend.
While everyone surrounded the baby I heard the nurse tell my friend her blood pressure had dropped. I pulled away from the group to stand by her side. No one else did.
But I didn’t cry until a day later. It was unexpected. I made plans to visit my best friend but, several hours later, her husband realized their parents were stopping by at the same time. Though I was about to leave town for several days, we agreed I shouldn’t come. My eyes prickled. I imagined all the nights and days I shouldn’t come in the future. I saw myself being stashed away in a toy box like an old teddy, outgrown and moth-eaten, and I cried. I cried over the 14 years that had gone into a friendship that was no longer enough. And I cried over the baby that, after 14 hours, was.
My mother wasn’t surprised. She said I hated my cousin when he was born. My aunt had always treated me like her child, but when I turned 7 her real kid came along. “You said he was ugly and that he smelled,” my mother said. “His mom had to spend time ignoring him and paying attention to you.” It was disheartening to know that after 27 years I hadn’t really matured. My mom said it was common for obsessives to fear change. She recalled how difficult it was for me to integrate into different cultures, different jobs. “It’s part of that rigidity,” she said.
I knew I was being selfish and juvenile and unfair, all the things that not only make you a bad friend but also a bad person. I knew it but I couldn’t change it. So I didn’t. I left. Unable to obscure my feelings, I obscured myself instead. I took a train from my apartment in Toronto to my mother’s house in Kingston and stayed there for two weeks. The physical distance offered a brief reprieve and I could forget. I thought that in the postpartum excitement my best friend would too.
“I thought I was immune,” my best friend said. “I don’t know what to do.”
I didn’t know either. Like our friendship, there was no precedent for this. Our culture caters to the mother — what she thinks, what she wants, what she feels — “the contemporary apotheosis of the newborn,” my brother calls it, that deification of motherhood that is all the more pronounced for the online explosion of post-natal culture. The bourgeoisification of moms and the self-helpification of everything else have rendered babies the end all. They are no longer a part of life — they are life. To question motherhood is to question God himself. The notion that someone else might be unhappy or confused by a mother’s decision to have a baby is superseded by that mother’s potential unhappiness and confusion over the very same thing. In the face of all that breastfeeding and crying and vomiting and insomnia, how could someone be so narcissistic?
The inevitable response by my other friends to my distress over the birth of my best friend’s baby was a smile, sometimes a laugh. “We’re laughing because you’re 35, not 7,” one friend, a mother herself, flatly explained. But neither she nor the rest of my friends or family were laughing as they formed a chorus around me chanting, “Grow up.”
One friend suggested it might be jealousy, but it wasn’t. If I was jealous at all it was over something so simple, so conventional, so achievable making someone so happy. I was ambivalent about having a baby. I was even less interested in anyone else’s. That my best friend had just had one didn’t negate that. “It should be interesting to you not because you care about babies but because you care about me,” she said. But where she had always been more loyal, I had always been more honest. I didn’t know how to fake it. I couldn’t disguise how odd it was to go from having almost everything in common to almost nothing. It was like being married to a fellow atheist for 10 years who one day decides to devote themselves to religion. It was jarring. What was more jarring was the realization that my best friend and I would never again be as close as we were before she had a baby. From now on her mind, her heart, would always be elsewhere.
I was stuck in the second stage of the five stages of grief. I had passed denial and stalled on anger. I was angry at my best friend for fracturing a perfect friendship, for replacing our family with another. I was so angry I started texting her everything I was doing, everything I could do because I didn’t have a child. I recognized only later that I was doing it to prove to her — to me? — that my choice was the better one. I didn’t want to make her unhappy, that wasn’t it. I just didn’t want the baby to do the opposite.
Months after my best friend had given birth, I continued to grieve each time her child distracted her, each time she ducked out early, each time she took that much longer to reply to a text (affection may not be finite, as my mom says, but time is). We fought and cried and fought and cried and in the end found no solution. But she wouldn’t let us go. “I thought being a mom would be enough,” she said. “But it isn’t.”
The choice I faced was one that had never much troubled me before: It was either me or my friendship. The child, knowing no better, chooses the former, as I always had. The adult, knowing best friendships — how rare they are — chooses the other. But I had never done that before. Now that I have, I’m still trying to accept what it means — not that our friendship means nothing, just that it can no longer mean everything.
For Christmas, a month before her baby was born, my best friend gave me the traditional symbol for tween BFFs: a heart-shaped pendant broken in two with the words “Best Friend” split between them. She took one half, I took the other. I wondered why she chose that particular present. We had been friends for so long it seemed the sort of thing you bought at the beginning of a friendship like ours. But in another way it was perfect. It now sits in a drawer like a similar necklace from my best friend in grade seven. The pendants lie together — shiny and still and mute — hard solid totems to friendships that no longer exist beyond the trail of broken hearts in their wake.
Soraya Roberts has written for Harper’s, The L.A. Review of Books and Hazlitt. She is contributing to the anthology The Secret Loves of Geek Girls (2015) and is also writing a book about My So-Called Life (ECW, 2016) as well as a memoir.
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