A long time ago, when I was a young and fluffy and eager to be loved, I had a friendship that ended abruptly.
I witnessed its death. Saw the moment his eyes went blank. From that very moment forward, I was, to him, erased.
We worked together, sat within ten feet of each other, no walls or visual barriers, first the receptionist, then me, then him, in a wide zigzag pattern. Before my fall from grace, we played all the livelong day. Not ten minutes could pass without a crank call, a projectile on my desk, a haiku on a telephone message slip. Not a single walk past his desk to the bathroom without an all-out wrestling match. We sometimes had lunch together too, the walks back to the office often ending in me being hoisted over his shoulder (he was 6’4) and spun in a tight circle – à la Olympic figure skater – until I’d threaten to ralf my meal on his shirt. We were monkeys. I couldn’t say how many times we were called by our H.R. director and asked to “behave”. “What’s the hell’s the mattah with you two,” she’d say, crazed, flabbergasted, her perfect Long Island accent hitting decibel levels known only to her preadolescent offspring. I don’t know what the hell the matter with us was. We were in our early 30s, for the love of cheese. Most folks thought we were sleeping together. Alas, as gorgeous as he was and as nice as that might have been, it wasn’t that way with us.
We were as close as work friends can be, Ralf and I, although our outside circles didn’t overlap very much. He had friends and lovers I knew nothing about, and I was in the throes of life after a Major Breakup with The Ex. But for 40-50 hours a week, we knew each other’s every mood, tone, and rhythm. And if Ralf loved anything about me, it was the part of my heart that ached. Every joke was aimed at lifting my spirits. Every scribbled thought left on my desk an ode to my longing.
At some point in my recovery from The Breakup, I began to spend most of my free time with an old college buddy. Red was a friend to me and to The Ex during our college years a decade earlier, but with The Ex now on the other side of the planet, some bonds frayed and others strengthened. Red was also in the throes of a complicated ending. And so, as anyone (but me) might have predicted, after about a year of playing show and tell with our demons, spending night after night in conversation at the pool hall, in a restaurant, or on the living room couch, the voices said, “Oh, fuck this.” And so we did, until, as also predicted, we crashed and burned.
I was devoted to The Ex. And I was furious that he was not devoted to me. I was full of love and adoration…and bitterness and revenge. I felt it all at once. In every single breath. Every single thought, word, and deed contained threads of all of it. But I couldn’t see it then. Couldn’t name everything yet. Only the love. Only the part that filtered the lighting and gave me a glow. As for the bitterness and revenge, I found another name for it: loneliness. It’s the story I told. An excuse. Maybe only because it sounded nicer. Frankly, I had never been less lonely.
For a very long time, I kept the details of my time with Red close to my bitter heart. Whatever was obvious to others, well, fine. But when directly asked, I denied it. My business. My life. My ugly. But at some point during an honest and open moment over lunch with Ralf, I stepped up to myself. I’m not even sure why. Maybe I thought he’d be glad. I’d stopped bleeding, after all. Stopped pining. Stopped drifting to the windowsill at the back of the office, the spot where I’d swirl in cigarette smoke and longing. But when I said the words, “I’m with Red,” Ralf froze, then looked away, then only barely finished his meal before running off to other saints and sinners. He’d tell me later it was because I’d betrayed The Ex. With a friend. And because of that, every sign of affection, empathy, and connection went silent. In that instant. For good.
Back then, I called it unforgiving. Harsh. Judgmental. Childish. But these days, I pause. Because I find myself solidifying against my own personal heroes. So many are falling fast, and falling in an instant, the moment their darkness comes to light. The old friends capable of embrace and encouragement, exclusion and mockery…The family elders capable of devotion and generosity, betrayal and cruelty…The leaders capable of inspiration and motivation, chaos and doubt. All at once. In every single breath. I am tempted to erase them.
I’ve fallen. I must remember. And it was good to fall. Not a single regret stirs. I’m not sorry. And I must remember, when I catch myself clinging to grace’s heights, I never belonged up there. Chances are, neither does anyone else.