I’ve never been good at making friends. Or, rather, I’ve never been good at keeping them. My friends from childhood moved away: They are a blur of lemonade stands and sticker collections, fallen leaves, then pen pals, then the silence of our desert, the dryness of the mountains in the red sun. Later, I traded one group of friends—swear words, cool shoes, parties in that desert—for a quieter, more comfortable one with a violin case, a library card. I liked these friends—we spent high school in turquoise pools and cheap mall stores, dreaming up lives that, for the most part, we’ve accomplished, give or take the riches, the travel, the great successes; but that’s all still in the making and we are still sixteen with sun-dyed hair, with best-friend chokers tied around our necks. We have what we wanted, we stay in touch—some more than with others; some more with each other than with me—across state lines, across party lines, across horse farms and teaching jobs and engagements. We send each other Snapchats, usually of babies or pets, pictures of no consequence, as if to say, I’m still here, I know nothing about you, I’m lighting candles on the periphery.
In high school, I had a best friend. We shared classes and aspirations; we slept at each other’s houses, inventing theories about love or stars, the origins of knowledge, fairy tales. She had a horoscope hanging on her wall, a web of colored lines and angles denoting the positions of stars and planets in the sky when she was born. She said she’d never had it read. She feared it might be too powerful and would reveal too much, so instead it hung above her bed like an omnipotent dreamcatcher.
She and I were similar: We’d both moved to America when we were little, spoke a different language, had strict parents, loved books, liked school, liked words. We made high school bearable for each other; we were, for a while, inseparable. We communicated with each other with just a glance, a motion of the hand, a complicated language of inside jokes and allusions. We were two parts of an ambitious, curfew-abiding, Gilmore Girls -loving, grammar-obsessed whole that couldn’t wait to launch itself out of school and see what else lay in store.
Then her family moved to North Carolina. We still talked; we still messaged each other and texted. Then I went to college—in North Carolina, incidentally—while she left the state for Boston. She got sick, took time off from school, moved back home, and got a job at the university I attended.
By that time, I had molded myself into a new life, desperately trying to figure out who it was that I was, exactly, inexplicably severing ties with my life back home. It was too hard for me to keep an eye on the past, to keep a foot in that desert. It was too hard when I was always on the brink of tears, always recovering from just having cried, always walking too slowly through the green grass and carefully planted tulips of the campus I should have found beautiful, always thinking too much, always thinking too little, always working too hard, working too little, having established a different life here that I strongly felt should not overlap with any previous lives I’d led.
My phone would ring and I wouldn’t answer it. Sorry I missed your call , I would text or chat her later; I was studying; I was so busy, working, at dinner, crying in the garden, hating my hair, hating my feet, hating my bones; just so busy, you know how it is.
I saw her once on campus as she was walking to work. I was sitting on a wall outside the library, on the phone and smoking a cigarette; I waved it at her in a gesture of hello, and she smiled a bitter smile. From then on, if I saw her on campus, I altered my route and walked in a different direction, into the stone arches, into the night.
My parents are getting a divorce, she told me once when I picked her up to go somewhere—dinner, maybe, or a movie; something we used to do before we stopped entirely. Aren’t we too old for that, I thought; I’m sorry, I said.
I invited her to a party at my house, and she came, eager to meet my friends, but she soon started to feel sick. I made my bed reluctantly. There’s someone in your bed, someone said to me by the margarita machine. My friend from high school, I said, the words sour in my mouth like pennies, dry like paper. She’s visiting.
She would call me again and again and I ignored it again and again until she stopped calling altogether.
Eventually she went back to school; she graduated; she got engaged. By then we’d stopped talking, stopped leaving comments on each other’s posts, stopped calling each other on our birthdays. I only know the superficial facts through others, errant social media posts, and a few of the friends from high school I still occasionally see at Christmas, back in the arms of our desert—at once familiar and brutally foreign.
What happened to her, my mom asks me, and I say I don’t know. She says, You used to be so close. What kind of a friend are you?
A few years ago the concept of “ghosting” floated into the collective consciousness: ghosting a Tinder prospect, ghosting an ex, ghosting a friend. Leaving forever, without a word, with no excuse. Just floating away into the darkness.
I was ghosted by my best friend , confessional headlines popped up on blogs. I hope it never happens to you the worst inexcusable crushing pain I wasn’t worth an explanation. Why why why , the essays wondered.
Now I had become the ghost. I’d ghosted our friendship, one we had spent long, easy years building. In a few swift months I’d torn it down like a petulant child toppling a tower of blocks, impervious to the destruction, wondering what happens next.
I had no excuse, really. I had grown selfish and invisible, shedding my former skin in favor of a worse existence. I’d retreated far into myself, smiling with effort, staring at the ceiling and the dirt and the sun. If anyone tried to get close to me during those years, I’d reveal some aspect of myself—only to quickly lock it away again, avoiding eye contact afterwards and pretending not to hear my name called across the lawn. It took me quite some time to realize that what I’d done was awful and, I later learned, caused a lot of pain.
We saw each other at a wedding recently. My parents are getting a divorce, I wanted to tell her. I didn’t. I laughed. She seemed on edge around me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wondered if she’d ever ended up getting her horoscope read. I wondered if it said anything about me. I didn’t ask, and we went our separate ways again, burrowing back into our long-separate worlds.
I’ve made other friends since then—friends I like and admire and enjoy having in my life. But inevitably I drift apart from them after a couple months or a couple years or else keep them at a distance from the start, limiting our friendship to pleasantries or occasional Gchats, catching up over cocktails only to retreat into myself until the next time we drink margaritas and summarize three years in optimistic exaggerations and self-deprecating jokes. I never try to get too close. That kind of intimacy is too intense for me.
It’s the year of the female friendship , headlines offer these days, pointing to pop culture, to Hannah and Marnie, Lila and Lenu, Abbi and Ilana. Best friends are the new husbands , they say. I don’t have a husband, but I have a partner of six years. He has several good friends, best friends. They talk on the phone for hours; they plan trips together; they, too, share photos of pets and babies. But they also know about each other’s jobs, families, plans, goals, fears. I tell him that he’s my best friend, and he scoffs. People want to be friends with you, he says. You should let them.
Instead I continue softly treading through the strange wilderness of friendship. I walk alone through the red, dry desert of my old home, through the redbuds and dogwoods of my new one. I often think of that friend I abandoned and whom I don’t think I’ll ever find again, about other friends I haven’t seen in years. I think about what an unexpected time in my life that was, and what an unhappy one.
I don’t expect best friendship again—to be a maid of honor, for instance, or to have one, at least not in the way others do: best friends like sisters who know each other’s seams and secrets; two parts of a living, breathing whole. Close friendship requires something I feel like I can’t give, for some reason I can’t know. It requires phone calls and letters, shared joy and grief. It wants me to pick up the phone and say happy birthday, how are you, guess what, that thing we were waiting for finally happened . It wants me to want that, but I don’t. I don’t want to divulge my thoughts and fears and hopes or intrude on other people’s inner lives. After all, they might not want that either, and I’m afraid of a misstep.
Close friendship demands effort and interest that I’m reluctant to muster, but most of all it demands a tearing down of barriers. I impulsively stacked bricks and stones and blocks of wood around myself back then, in college, walling myself in to keep from getting hurt as I pulled away from the things and the people I cared about. And those same barriers, while protecting me, did irreparable damage elsewhere. I pulled away, my presence a ringtone, a turned back, a futile knock at the door.
And though those barriers have eroded a little, some combination of introversion, self-absorption, and fear has kept me from removing them entirely in the many years that have passed. I still prefer to be alone and expect little in return. I am happy to see friends when they’re in town, happy to share brunch and gossip, to exclaim over photos and hear about vacations. Let’s visit each other again soon, we say; let’s go to California, Minnesota, Spain, we say. And I smile, a slight panic rising beneath the surface as I wonder, what is this friendship and who are these people? Why do they like me, and why are they here? Often the panic is only a flicker and then it recedes, and we part ways smiling, grateful, until the next time. I am still afraid of ghosts. I don’t want to expose myself too deeply. I am happy floating in the rafters, coming down once in a while for birthday parties and fragrant summer nights and trips to the beach, enjoying the brief respite, then floating away again.