The Friend BreakupThomas Beller
The friend breakup is an underrated trauma. It is often overshadowed, in the topography of a life, by the romantic breakup. But some friend breakups, for me, have been nearly as traumatic.
The politics of friendship are so primal. You have already been about five different selves before you get near a romantic break-up, but their platonic equivalents date back to the dawn of your own time, or even before — these people have seen you change through the years, which makes their departure from your life even more potent.
I made friends with Mel, my upstairs neighbor, when we were about one and a half years old. We had all sorts of exploits together. A few of the more colorful ones exist in my memory in that refracted way when you are not sure you remember the actual experience or just the story about the experience. For example, there was the time our mothers came back to my room and discovered that Mel and I had covered one of the walls (the lower portion) with finger paint. I sort of recall this, sort of recall the paint on the wall, the wetness on my fingers, the midday light. But I have heard the story so often, it’s like remembering a scene in a book
This, come to think of it, may be a predicament for many of today’s toddlers — the first generation who are, unbeknownst to them, characters in serialized novels their parents are publishing on blogs, social media, et al, for all the world to see now and forever — who will have look back to their earliest memories through a scrim of so much documentary evidence relating to those memories.
Our friendship lasted until we were about twelve. It petered out, mostly, but there was one eruption: we were playing a board game that was like three-dimensional tic tac toe, and I was winning. Mel exploded, and wrecked the board. I got very upset. “You ruined the game just because I was winning,” I said. I recall that Joe, his younger brother, was there, watching, as he always was.
I was wearing a shiny button down shirt that had cacti. A desert landscape of some kind. It was the 70s. We were at the very precipice of teenagerdom. We made it through our childhood to the border of adolescence and parted ways.
This has all been brought to mind because of a situation between my daughter and her best friend. They met at the start of the year, in kindergarten. I was so happy she had made such a good friend. But something has gone wrong in the relationship.
It seems my daughter is not quite as excited about her friend as she used to be. There are other girls in her class she wants to spend time with. But her best friend, she has explained to us, is getting in the way of this. Which is what lead her to utter the incriminating phrase, “You can’t be in my cool club.”
I have one piece of empirical evidence to provide context for this. It was a bright little glimpse into the society of little girls that I saw unfold in real time: my daughter and her lovely best friend were running around at the father daughter dance – don’t ask – when another girl who is friends with them both, interjected. The interloper called my daughter’s name. Innocent enough, so far, though I should note the interloper had long, flaming red hair, and a provocative Mick Jagger sort of mouth. Actually the three of them, when they are together, are so beautiful and intense — dark hair, red hair, blond hair — that all my anti- commercial instincts waver and I start thinking about girl groups.
At any rate my daughter, summoned by the female redhead Mick Jagger in a tiara, ditched her best friend and ran off with Mick. (If there is one rock star who doesn’t suffer by being compared to a five-year-old girl in a tiara, it’s Mick Jagger, who famously remarked, “the little girls understand.”) The actual moment of swerving course, on my daughter’s part, happened in the blink of an eye.
I saw the my daughter’s best friend’s face as she grasped her own abandonment. She stopped running. She looked around. Her expression softened. It lasted a moment, then she lit up and headed off, perhaps to find her father.
She is such a lovely kid, this best friend of my daughter. Or ex-friend. Or who knows. I felt bad for her. I thought the girl who had called my daughter away had played some sinister little game. I thought, “Sheesh, little girls.” Mostly I tried to take a deep breath an accept that there will be, emotionally speaking, blood. It just happens. We all know this.
But then, a few weeks later the terrible phrase was uttered: “You can’t be in my cool club.”
The mothers got involved. They talked about it on the phone. They bucked each other up. For a few days there it seemed that the daughter’s falling out would lead to a real friendship between the mothers, I mean one where expedience was not in the foreground.
Meanwhile, we gave our daughter a lecture. “You shouldn’t say such things,” I said in unison with my wife, or a bit behind her, the way a person pretends to know the lyrics to a song by watching the other people’s mouths. “It’s mean,” we said. I went on a brief jag about treating other people the way you want to be treated.
“It’s important to be nice,” we said. “You don’t have to like the girl, but you have to be nice to her.”
The word “nice” was uttered many times. Then my old allergy to this word kicked in and I said, “I mean, you don’t have to be nice,” and my wife, after all that, gave me such a look.
I later explained to her that I was trying to tell our daughter that she was entitled to her own emotions. It’s just that she is required to behave (“Behave,” David Foster Wallace’s mother told him when he was three. “I am have,” he said.) The school’s motto is “be kind.” I want to lean on this wonderful phrase, but it gets tricky when the definition starts to feel like “fake affection for someone who you no longer find that great.”
After the lecture on niceness, combined with a loss of movie privileges, things seemed to level off. They were holding hands or something — the girls, not the mothers — and all was well. But then my daughter told us she had growled at her friend. Growled. Not nearly as bad as “You can’t be in my cool club,” but still. There was another discussion.
The quality of these exchanges between mother and daughter has an intimacy, and a lack of boundary, that I noted with pleasure but also something else. I told my wife, “Don’t involve yourself too much.”
She seemed to nod and take this on. All is well until the next infraction against kindness. Then the United Nations Of Mothers Security Council will again convene.
I think it’s beautiful, by the way, all this engagement with the kid. I endorse it. It just breaks my heart for some reason.
More about Mel and Joe here.