The Worst Friend I Ever Had and How I Now Am Whole
I met Kaitlin* at the bar where I once worked. A loud little bottle rocket with hair like a wholly lit matchbox, spastically orange around her face. She was snarky and she was outrageous and she was everything I wanted to try on when I was teetering on the latter edge of high school and testing out new skin.
We lived in the language of late-night beaches and skateboarding boys. A delicately carved chorus of wheels across boardwalks. Sand across soles. She coaxed me into a comfort with my own attraction, the fresh absurdity of people finding me pretty. In her sarcasm and easy wit, my awkwardness and weird clothing was warping, impossibly, into a plus. I went on my first dates with her friends, uncomfortable as hell, and kissed my first kisses, uncomfortable as hell, but exhilarated. Ready to follow wherever she led.
There was always, right from day one, the stark click of something not entirely true in her. Like a song streaming along to a subtle auto tune. She oversold her stories and overstretched her complaints. A head cold could morph into a failing organ with the magic wand of her perception. But it was nothing I couldn’t stomach. I had never been made of much anger or impatience. It was a mere eye roll or a dash of sarcasm in the belly of my response.
Kaitlin was at once a “semi-professional wake boarder” with salt-crystallized hair and a “dialysis patient with a failing liver.” She was a “coke addict” compiling mountain ranges of powder just to razor them back apart. She was wild and single or she was a dedicated girlfriend. It never mattered if the facts aligned. Time and place and context were just formalities. She was a hundred different suits of skin in a steady dance of merging. And I couldn’t give less of a shit. Because I, twitchy youth of ballooning waistlines and pop bottle glasses, saw in her many overlapped skeletons the possibility of some of my own. A silky-haired self of ease masked beneath years and years of doubt.
But the thing about proximity to a pathological liar is the paradox of gut versus guilt. You can never call anything what you know it to be in all actuality. There’s always that tiny murmur streaming through the back of your mind of what-if-it’s-really-true-this-time? When she curled her skinny self into a ball in the bathroom at work for the third or fourth time, who was I to say that her liver wasn’t failing? That she just wanted me to lie to our boss on her behalf. Again. That she just wanted the soothed tones of my sympathy.Again. When she called me at two in the morning saying her boyfriend had beaten her into a cracked pile of herself, who was I not to come running? Who was I to point out a bright, whole body? A timeline? Where had I stashed away my compassion and humanity if these doubts crossed my mind to begin with? These are circumstances NEVER to be doubted (and please, in any other situation, never do). I was bad. I was a bad person. But I was also right.
There is a creeping, instinctual knowledge of this that often surrounds this type of relationship. I could not speak it, and I could hardly think it, but I knew in some absolute corner of my head that something was amiss. And this dissonance of thought, and the paralysis it birthed in me, was beginning to nauseate me to no end. I was passively riding along towards some end, inevitable and dim.
What started as an influx of chaotic information and phone calls soon inverted into white noise. I was away at school, and so I thought less of her failed communication than I would have otherwise. But several weeks and then months passed and I was beginning to grow simultaneously concerned and pissed all over again. This was yet another way she was pulling blood from me just to see that she could. The stage lights of indivisible attention were so necessary, and so rare, that they had to be sought after by new means every time. An unwritten recipe of pinched approximations and experimental dashes.
When I saw her finally, the flame of her head pickled with unnatural light, she would paw her way back to me every time. She would affix those puppy-dog eyes low and spew that familiar easy wit. And the suspicious side of me would fall to slumber.
Do not ruin this for us, Kirsten. Do not recede the smiles into the high school corners again. Do not crawl back into your computer again, your white limbs failing into pixels.
So she doesn’t call you back, but then who does? You could build a cityscape from dial tones if you tried, but here, at least, is a sea. An occasionally found sound.
So I tripped into the limbs of this forgiveness, failing even to smell the smell of smoke when Kaitlin once again went missing. When my money went missing with her. When my paycheck like a mariner shot into blank and untested waters. I called and emailed and complained at the bar. I printed flight records and bank statements and complained and complained and complained. I lasted months on the fumes of my dwindling funds. Finally, I tracked down the check, my scribbled name a foreign intruder on its back. And in its curled, forged letters I knew, instantly I knew, the hands that spit them out from ink, the hundreds of them at once.
All of a sudden I was all the simultaneous skeletons I had asked for. The faint bones of hurt and the sturdy bones of rage. I was wall-puncher. I was tear-taster. I was nostalgia for the lonely prelude, the isolated origins of everything before this “friend.” Rip each boy’s lips from my face. Tear apart the boardwalk, splinter it to mulch. Lay now the cinderblocks of dial tones and make yourself a fence. Call the police. Take that bitch down.
Months tugged themselves along like this. The ink of my own signature made a mockery beside hers, and finally I was paid the money I was owed. And this should have felt like victory, like a body clicking back into place. But all I knew was this sick growing inside of me. This loneliness unknown to those who are merely alone. In everything I measured out fangs, the slapped image of her wandering freely, unaffected. It was easy enough to shed the bones of “friend” or “betrayal” if you had so many more to fill the space.
Almost a year passed, a thin thread of vague police reports and college classes. And then she reemerged, a fat pond of words and apologies and excuses in an email. A request for more of my blood. Again the war chant of take her down. Take her down. Trick her into confession. Make her feel her own shitty vortex of deceit. When she asks if you can ever forgive, sing her the song of worthlessness, of irredeemable beasts. Twist the knife in the bitter gut.
And as my fingers flirt with the trigger, each blinking key a variable in the equation of my sweet, savage victory, I catch sight of their jagged lines. The skeleton I had on now knew nothing of easy laughter. Or midnight shore. It wasn’t even a testimony to loneliness or exclusion. There was no righteous jury echoing in my defense, no scrawled history of excuse for all that occupied my thoughts now. In wanting to be seen, I had defaulted to ugliness—the boomerang of all selves. The easy out.
Do not ruin this for us, Kirsten. In this dial tone city, hear its beautiful sonar implication, a sole phone buzzing with the hope of held connection; you keep calling, anyway. You keep showing up, anyway. Even in the wake of something untrue. Hate is not what you ever really wanted.
I wind my fingers back into the shell of my hand. I breathe. I mute this lust for hurt and the corners it has carved in all parts of me now, the ways she has taken from me and the ways I then took from myself. I hold each angry bone steady and fixed, and I hope for their collision into all the other things that I am, all the other things I have yet to concede.
*Name has been changed
FEATURE PHOTO BY UMBERTO CORISCO