She was the first person I called when my fiance proposed — the one friend I knew would be ecstatically happy for me despite the fact that the proposal had happened sans ring in our apartment without planning. She didn’t care that I was too young to be getting engaged at only 19, because she trusted me and my happiness. She had always been on my side. As soon as we finished screaming in excitement over the phone, I asked her to be my bridesmaid. There was no one I wanted by my side more than her.
Ours was the type of friendship that blossomed through our formative years and left a paper trail of handwritten notes, movie stubs, concert tickets, printed photographs from disposable cameras and artwork we created for one another while sitting in class or separated in detention. She was supposed to be my forever friend, the one who would always be by my side no matter the miles between us. She had enlisted in the Marines and had just made the move to attend boot camp when I called her with the news of my engagement, but she promised she would be there for me. We still made time to talk regularly.
I had long romanticized the idea that we would grow up together, and this felt like the beginning of that journey. Though cultural nods to lasting female friendships were not as prominent as romantic affairs, I latched onto them with no less fervor. I was enamored with the idea that there was one woman who would see me through all of it from awkward adolescence to married life with kids to the struggles of aging and retirement. One person I could always call, always trust, always count on. She was my person.
But as my two-year engagement proceeded, my friend became harder and harder to keep track of. She sent me her measurements, and I bought and shipped her dress to her. I picked out a bridesmaid gift I would never give to her, because by the time my wedding rolled around, I had been completely ghosted by my bridesmaid.
It started as phone calls that were never returned. I figured she was busy. She was living a lifestyle that was rigorous in a way I couldn’t imagine. I would still get texts every now and again, but they became fewer and further between. Once the dress had been delivered, I never heard from her again. It wasn’t until the month before my wedding that it really sunk in. I replaced her spot in my wedding with my new sister-in-law, giving her the heartfelt gift I had intended for my friend.
She didn’t come to the wedding, or send a card, or call me on my wedding day (even one long-estranged ex-boyfriend did that much). Though the day was full of excitement and joy, there were many moments when I scanned the room, expecting for her to be there against all odds. She had always shown up for me.
After the wedding, the reality of our breakup truly hit me. I saw things almost daily that reminded me of our inside jokes, and I called her still, hoping she would pick up. I texted her things I knew would make her laugh, even though my outreaches remained unanswered. Some nights, l called her in tears, asking what had happened to us. I begged her to just answer me, insist I wasn’t mad at her, that I never would be. Then of course there were days when I was mad, because who does a thing like this? Who leaves their best friend before her wedding day and fades into oblivion?
To be jilted by a lover is one thing, but by a bridesmaid? It was somehow less forgivable, even when all I wanted to do was forgive her and have her back in my life. It is easy to say that a lover never really knew you, never really understood you, was never really meant for you. You can chalk it up to fate. You can move past it in time. But a friendship is different, deeper in some ways. You lose so many more unguarded pieces of yourself, because you never prepare yourself to lose them. It’s a betrayal of trust from which there is no recovery, because unlike a regular breakup, there is no one who can ever fill that relationship. I still feel that gaping space for her in my heart, and part of me wonders if it will ever close.
Breaking up with a best friend, especially one that has been with you from adolescence is a particularly painful and lonely experience. While there is a cultural norm for how we deal with romantic breakups (venting to your friends, binge-watching certain movies, eating lots of ice cream), there is far less guidance on how to navigate the end of a friendship, even though the bond can be much deeper and more significant.
You lose a sense of security that you only fully realize in retrospect. Female friendships are supposed to predate and outlive romances, even marriages. A UCLA study shows what most women have understood intrinsically since we met our first BFFs — when things go wrong, women turn to their friends. Our brains actually produce chemicals that cause us to make and maintain female friendships when under stress. (This has not been shown to happen in men, for whom stress triggers a fight-or-flight response.) According to research from Harvard Medical School, women with more friends were less likely to develop physical impairments as they got older. Not having close friends, the researchers said, was as bad for a woman’s health as smoking. We need our friends.
Which explains why being ghosted has been so difficult to move past, even years later. The residual instinct to call her when I am in need is still buried deep within my mind. Even when I’m not thinking about her, she resides there, dormant.
I cannot erase her from my life, even as I pare down our memorabilia and try to move forward. A song on the radio will bring back her memory. I’ll see a girl walking down the street with a similar gait and ache for it to be her. I’ll find myself trying to fit together the reasons for our split, trying and failing to make sense of it. Or giving myself the half-hearted answer that we simply got older and drifted apart, like people often do. But it’s a sore I can’t stop picking at, even nearly a decade later. I often replay the details in my mind. Nowadays I wonder what I’m forgetting, or what I missed because it’s been so long.
Part of me doesn’t want to move on, wants to keep that space open forever, waiting for her return. One day I texted her a message with some Ludacris lyrics and got a reply — from an utterly perplexed stranger. Even after deleting her number from my phone, I couldn’t help but think how the story would make her laugh. I couldn’t help but think how badly I wanted to hear her laugh again. Part of me hopes she’ll read this. Part of me knows she won’t.
The end of a female friendship is a strange loss to bear. There is no sympathy card to say I’m sorry your friend doesn’t want you anymore. There are no great ballads that encapsulate the experience of losing a non-romantic partner. While there will surely be people to comfort you and take your side, that does little to ease the hole left in your heart. It’s not a loss that society recognizes or validates. Instead it is a quiet mixture of rage and sadness and confusion and grief, the sort of thing you want to call you best friend to talk about, if only she would pick up the phone.