“Hey. Are you free this week?”
I don’t understand why today, of all days, he’d reach out.
We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year (my fault, having always possessed the ability to hold an extreme grudge, almost to the level of excessive pettiness; but, if you asked me, it was more a superhuman skill, an uncanny mutation that prevented me from making rash pronouncements in the face of wounds that haven’t fully healed yet) and, to be quite honest, I didn’t expect to hear from him for two years. That was the timeline he gave me on the rooftop of a mutual friend, an impromptu Thursday gathering after which he walked me home but put in one headphone and proceeded to sing along, semi-jokingly, to the Taylor Swift song that he alone could hear. But I saw through his ruse: he didn’t want to talk to me anymore and he was starting right at that moment.
True to my character, I’ve imposed a silence so severe that it’s almost as if our friendship has been jettisoned into the vacuum of space. Without the air’s vibrations, in muted suffocation, the frigid nothingness fells the rarest of wild beasts: an adult-male, gay-straight friendship. That’s the sheer power of my cold shoulder.
“Sure,” I reply via text.
Curt and to the point, sans elaboration, I display a level of restraint unknown to my everyday life, resisting the urge to ask any additional questions—like “How’re you doing?” or “What’ve you been up to?” or “I heard that you got a raise recently. Congrats!”—and simply waiting for him to schedule an available day and time.
“Coffee?” With a one-word question, he predetermines our destination.
Coffee is benign enough. But asking someone to coffee is like sending a follow up email right after a meeting: polite but wholly unnecessary. And a waste of time. I don’t drink coffee for its flavor (more just for the mind-altering quality of caffeine) and I can talk in any setting. Unless, like a proper networking junkie, you’re going to ask me for something specific—that is, flagging a resume or putting in a good word or sharing non-public information on deep background—then we’re just having a chat, and a call would suffice.
And a coffee is public, which may mean he’s trying to preempt a scene (or, more specifically, preempting me from making a scene). But at this point, what bond do we share on behalf of which I can muster up the energy or desire to unleash my wrath? While I’m not one to throw things, my normal speaking voice is point-three decibels below an everyman’s shout—AKA I was loud even before tempers flared. And although I’m not demure, I still have shame. What would people think if I scream in anger, streams of tears and snot running into my mouth, on the corners of which a bubbling pool of saliva threatens to erupt? How would I survive the judgmental stares of strangers? (Also, why would I be crying? Not sure, but it’s best to be mentally prepared for any situation, you know?)
Maybe he wants something public because he’s the upset one and our meeting is a trap, like some modern day stoning, and, under the guise of justice, the other patrons would cast smooth rocks with their right hands while recording the spectacle with their left. And if it indeed is a setup, what would he say first? Would he be able to contain his own rage long enough to monologue?
“I have come before you now to decree that after all these years of friendship, I have judged you wanting and therefore deserving of death.” (But in an Irish accent because there’s nothing like an Irish accent to lend gravitas and seriousness to a good monologue.)
Still, I’m excited for the meeting, if for nothing else than at least to have something to do. Social death is the silent ring of Hell—the one even Dante thought was too cruel to mention—in which I’ve been living these past few months. It’s astounding how friend circles, if perfectly and purposely aligned so closely as to overlap (like the antithesis of a Venn diagram), can at the time seem like such a good idea, but in hindsight prove to be an indictment on any self-absorbed notion I may have once been well-liked. (But hey, isolation breeds introspection, and so here we are.)
No sooner than when I showered after the night on the roof did a steady trickle of messages appear—statements of loyalty to the aggrieved party (in this particular case, not me). Sure, they weren’t declarations of hatred or accusations that I was solely in the wrong, but I could parse through the fluff and spot their disguised intention: They weren’t my friends. We hung out and laughed and exchanged numbers. We went to dinners and celebrated birthdays and occasionally threw up in each other’s Lyfts. But the connection was relational. I would always be tethered to my original friend, from which this web of acquaintances blossomed. And he just cut our tie.
I had arrived new to this city, put all of my eggs in one tall, decently-dressed basket, only to find that basket now broken, yolks scattered across the sidewalk. And, as we learned in one specific nursery rhyme, broken eggs are quite unfixable.
Now that we were former-friends, I didn’t see much of anyone else these days, which was in itself not a bad thing (said someone twelve books behind on a one-book-a-month reading goal for this year). I finally vacuumed for the first time this calendar year and organized my Tupperware collection so that I could use my dining table again. And I scrubbed the grime from my bathtub so I wouldn’t bathe in my own dead skin every night. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss happy hours and house parties, or that I didn’t escape into daydreams of my glory days, reminiscing the glow of being social. Of having friends.
However, starting over has its perks. (Or at least that’s what my therapist told me. Or rather, it’s what I interpreted from what my therapist told me. I think she said something closer to “You should apologize.”) I’m excited for all the new friends I can make—all of whom have yet to manifest themselves into my life. Wishful thinking can only get you so far.
“Wednesday?” is his next text, and I take my sweet time (as in a handful of seconds) before accepting.
Another handful of seconds, and then I follow up with: “How’re you doing? I heard you got a raise. Congrats!”
Silence from the other end.
“Are we still good for tomorrow?” (I’ll admit, I’m a little ashamed of the double text, but I need to confirm for my own schedule, as I am currently drowning in conflicts.)
Working from home, I spend the day tidying up, as if he’s coming over tomorrow (he’s not). Conveniently, I’ve saved all of our pictures together, hiding them in my spare copy of Sandra Day O’Connor’s biography. I peruse through captured moments of our friendship. It’s surprising how many of our friends have those mini, new-age Polaroid-adjacent cameras, but these are the only physical photos I own.
I pull out a picture of us on Halloween three years ago. We both forgot to plan our costumes, so I wore a cardigan over my work clothes, brandished a fancy chopstick, and called myself a wizard. He pulled out his denim jacket and a cowboy hat (From where? Who knows?) and very originally called himself a cowboy. We were exactly three hours late to our friend’s rooftop party—excuse me, his friend, David.
A rooftop in October was a gamble, and this year we came up short. David’s building apparently sat on the tornado alley of the city, and we lost many a red solo cup to the same fate as Dorothy and Toto (at the beginning of the movie). David was equal parts apologetic and pissed. I, on the other hand, pretended I was conjuring up the wind with my sorcery.
A now-tipsy cowboy (we had pre-gamed before David’s, hence our tardiness), my purposely-unnamed friend tried to throw his hat to me in an attempt to prove that he could spin it like John Wayne (who never actually threw his hat, or at least that was what I insisted), and ended up throwing it off the ledge. I lunged to catch it but I missed, narrowly avoiding my own tumble off the ledge. We watched as the hat gracefully floated down, taking its sweet time, before landing in the middle of the street and promptly getting run over by a car.
We laughed together because the situation was so ridiculous (and because tequila shots gave us the giggles), crumpling to the floor in unmanageable fits. And that was the moment captured on film, our friendship seen through the lens of David’s knockoff Polaroid. (The 90s are so in again!)
Returning the photo to its hiding spot, I can’t help but chuckle, which then immediately morphs into a soft sob. Staring at my hands, trying to scrub the happy memory from my mind’s projector screen—as the scene itself replays on a nonstop loop—I begin to cry, briefly, as an overwhelmed feeling washes through me.
But tomorrow will be my chance to finally apologize, to clear the air and return things to the way they exist in the photo from David’s roof. Even if I don’t actually believe in my apology, I know it’s necessary for both of us to move forward. We’ll talk it out like adults, and he’ll return back into the fold, and these photos can finally come out of hiding.
My phone buzzes. “Yes,” he finally responds.
Meanwhile, I realize that I haven’t seen David in months.
Uncharacteristically early, I look around, order a coffee, and grab a seat by the window near the door.
On the walk to the coffee shop, I run into Jonah (one of the friends who said he was sorry for the rift between me and our mutual friend, but who had clearly not chosen my side, which was fair enough because they were friends first). He catches me off guard and I do a double take, as if I’ve accidentally walked straight onto the set of my past life.
“Oh, hey! How’ve you been?” Jonah acts polite enough. He even goes in for a hug, remembers, and straightens himself out like a malfunctioning robot. But I can see the discomfort pinching his forehead upwards, as if he’s surprised that he acknowledged me at all.
“Oh, you know, I’m good. A lot of free time to take up knitting,” I joke.
Jonah winces and, not fully understanding my meaning, replies: “Well, that’s fun. It’s almost scarf season so you’ll be ready.”
He pauses, then asks: “Have you seen… you know. Have you spoken at all?”
Our mutual friend lingers in the background like the surveillance state, forcing Jonah to flex his doublespeak skills. I won’t give him the satisfaction though, so I keep our coffee rendezvous to myself.
“No,” I lie.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” And then, as if oblivious to how awkward our conversation has been thus far, he continues: “I saw him this past weekend. A bunch of us got together on David’s roof. Have you been there before? Great view. We just hung out and then we hit the bars. You know, a typical Saturday. We missed you though!” (He’s lying, of course. My name was probably only invoked in derision, as someone both ostracized and exiled.)
“Fun!” I smile, then look at my wrist, pretending I have a watch there. “I have to run, but it was so good seeing you!”
We say our goodbyes and Jonah looks almost relieved to be done with me.
Waiting at the table, I stare at my phone. He’s late. The barista calls my name so I retrieve my coffee, and right when I return my phone buzzes.
He spots me from the door. I wave at him and his shoulders physically tighten and pull back and upward.
“Hi,” he says as he takes a seat.
“Hi,” I reply, making direct eye contact in my own personal brand of defiance, even as my eyes themselves start to twitch and droplets of water collect in their corners.
We stare at each other in silence for a few seconds, and I use that time to sip my coffee.
“So…” we finally both say in unison, before breaking out into a light chuckle at the mind-meld. A flash of reminiscence darts through my mind’s eye, recalling the many times we’ve said things simultaneously or finished each other’s sentences.
“So,” he continues, “Remember that biking backpack I gave you?”
I nod. It was a birthday gift so I had something that could hold my helmet. I notoriously biked sans helmet, which was reckless, but I hated carrying it around. He was thoughtful enough to gift me the backpack last year, insisting that I needed to take bike safety seriously.
“Well,” he starts and then pauses, as if deliberately selecting his next words. “Can I have it back? It was kind of expensive and I don’t think you’ve ever used it. Right?”
I stare blankly at him in shock, as if he the audacity of his request just slapped me in the face. He wants me to return his birthday gift?! I mean, I know we’re no longer friends, but that backpack is mine. And yes, I haven’t used it. (Yet.) But I could. Matter of fact, I’ll take it for a spin tomorrow.
As I purposely withhold my answer, the backpack morphs into a physical representation of every memory and good feeling from our former friendship. He wants it back. And what he’ll do with it, I don’t know. But it’ll no longer be mine. And if I let it go, if I relinquish it at his request, will I ever get it back? Should I fight to keep it? It’s just a bag full of pizza nights and neighborhood walks and so? many drunk stories. But are they worth preserving now that we’re longer friends
I finally concede. “Sure.”
“Cool. You can drop it off whenever.”
He gets up to leave and a jumbled plea trips and falls in my throat as it tries to escape. I cough and he fixes his gave on me for an uncomfortable handful of seconds. I expect a smile to creep along the edges of his mouth, sinking tiny patches of his cheeks into the subtlest dimples. I imagine that he bursts out in laughter, as if these past few months have been one long-running joke. Hitting the punchline (and physically punching me in the shoulder, in friendship, of course), us giggling uncontrollably, almost tequila-derived, I imagine we then head to a bar. I can almost see myself saying the words “I’m sorry” and meaning them. He then forgives me and we hug. I imagine his apology, and I smile-cry.
Instead, he says, “Well, okay then.” And then he departs.
I know the once-cowboy and I won’t speak again after this. (I’ll probably never speak with either David or Jonah again too.)
Watching him walk away, I try to conjure up relief. I try to trick myself into manifesting betterment—as if this is the one and only best option, as if I’m going to let it all fade away like a shaken Etch A Sketch masterpiece, gone forever.
“Fuck you! I’m keeping the backpack,” I start to type out in a text before pausing. I can’t help but think about the pictures hidden in my O’Connor biography. The me in those photos wouldn’t have wanted present-day me to stain the memories contained in each picture. He would’ve wanted me to just watch the hat fly away, even if it inevitably got crushed. So instead I delete his number and finish my coffee, following his shrinking silhouette through the window as he crosses the street and disappears from sight.