I remember the first time I saw the girl who I now refer to as my ex-best friend. I was a Sophomore in high school, sitting in history class, and she walked in to deliver my teacher a note from the front office. She had long blonde hair and was wearing black boots, black jeans, and a black flight jacket. The black mascara around the bottoms of her eyes enhanced the “I hate this” expression on her face.
I asked my friend Matt, seated at the desk next to me, if he knew who the girl was, and he did. Her name was Kelly, same as mine. My version of a Kelly, in the early 90s, was like a Polaroid photo not yet fully developed. Predawn. Half-cooked.
Her version of a Kelly was like the part in Wizard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. I didn’t know if I wanted to have sex with her or become such close friends that when she exhaled from a Marlboro Red, I inhaled.
That decision ended up being made for me.
I don’t know how people in high school start dating, they just do. Like waking up one morning with a craving for coffee, having never previously tried it. Kelly and I “dated” for what I want to say was about a week, when I was 15 and she was 16. Nothing happened. I sat next to her on the carpet in her parent’s living room once, drinking Boone’s Farm and watching a VHS copy of “The Wall.”
Kelly put her arm around me, and I was terrified. I knew that all I had to do was turn my face to hers, and we’d kiss. But I didn’t. And we never did.
I went home that night, and the next time we talked, she told me “JJ thinks you’re getting between us.” JJ was her boyfriend, who had, up until seemingly that moment, been “cool” with her dating girls while they were together. I was heartbroken for a long time, but then we were friends.
I really wanted to be special to her and decided that my way of achieving that would be to show her how special she was to me. My devout loyalty to her, my hunger for an “us against the world” level of friendship would sustain the both of us. It would be enough. I would call her a best friend, and that’s what she’d be.
The earliest email exchange with her, that I have access to, is from 2007. In this one, I say “I still can’t get over Vicky’s baby. If I had a baby, you’d automatically be the Godmother. I also want you to help carry my casket (don’t let my parents refuse) when I die many years down the road. I think we should look into purchasing side by side cemetery plots. I don’t want to be buried by strangers.”
To this she responded, “Carry your casket?!?!?! You bet, sista! As for being buried, I want to be burned up instead… think about it… worms eating your reproductive organs, eww… burn me up! Perhaps I can get my brother to steal our bodies from the morgue, and build a funeral pyre for us in the desert? I’ll call him and ask.”
Reading this, it feels like this friendship was so real. But then I read our last exchange, in 2013, when I told her my mom had died. She responded, “maybe you and your dad can help each other get through this.” That’s how you respond to someone you just don’t care about at all.
So many things, both big and small, came sizzling up in my throat like bile after receiving her response. For the last 20 years, I’d been giving her a pass for her behavior. I ignored her trying to ditch me on my 16th birthday, in favor of hanging out with a new boyfriend. The blowout we had over a part-time babysitting gig that led to us not talking for 7 years, mended only by me putting a note on her car one random day.
At that stage of our friendship, we were in the habit of getting into frequent fights, mostly via emails and texts, over the smallest of things.
It always went the same way. She’d be snippy, distant, retreat, and I’d grab after her, trying to hold on to the bits I could squish together to maintain this fantasy best-friendship. But her not being able to muster up even the smallest bit of compassion for me on the saddest day of my life brought me such clarity. Having a “best friend,” suddenly, at least for me, felt like shit.
I told her I’d never talk to her again after that, and I haven’t.
I’ve never been the sort of person who feels the need to have a bunch of friends. I’m an only child, and a loner by nature. My primary social landscape has always consisted of one main friend and one main romantic partner. And yet the only time I can ever recall feeling truly lonely in my life is when Kelly was my best friend.
All the ways she repeatedly hurt me were so emotionally confusing to me. In my mind, I was doing everything that a person should do in order to be part of a team, so why didn’t I feel like I was in one?
Anna Akbari Ph.D. writes about two different kinds of adult friendships in an article for Psychology Today: passive and active. She describes a passive friendship as one where neither party seeks each other out, but “occasionally pleasantly share space.”
An active friendship, she writes, is described as “the ones you go out of your way to schedule with, to show up for, to learn from, to make new memories with.”
I had been in an active zone with Kelly, and she was passive all the way through.
It would be easy to say that I “wasted” those 20 years of friendship on Kelly, but a better, healthier way of looking at it for me is to see that time as training. I learned what friendship, and love, should and shouldn’t feel like. It shouldn’t hurt, that’s for damn sure.
When I closed the book on Kelly, I closed the book on that version of “best friends,” which opened me up for a much more sustainable kind of love.
I’m married now, and my wife is the kind of best friend I’ve been looking for my whole life. And I’m not just saying that because we get to do the hanging out parts AND the boob touching parts. She wakes up every day and re-chooses to make me a priority. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and now I have everything I need.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone and more. Find more of her work here.