by Caitlin Lilly
We met as roommates thrown together in a summer program far away from our home states when we were both in undergrad. My previous living situations included a vegan with bipolar depression who justified eating my cheese because it was only immoral if she paid for it, a reclusive tattletale who delighted in reporting me to our RA whenever I had a boy in our room, and a slob whose ever-growing pile of clothes and dirty dishes threatened to bury us alive. She’d arrived the day before, so she was understandably startled when my boisterous aunt and cousin and I burst through the door. We were both apprehensive for different reasons. She was a soft-spoken introvert from the South who’d never had a roommate, whereas I was carrying years of cohabitation baggage and a tendency to take up all the air in the room.
We soon learned of bizarrely specific commonalities, from being vegetarians enrolled in women’s studies programs at our respective universities, to naming the same favorite book and movie, down to pulling identical bottles of face wash from our suitcases. Our closeness developed quickly. We were all each other had in an unfamiliar city. When my parents came to visit six weeks later and took us out to dinner, my dad called out the fact that he had never seen me casually graze off a friend’s plate before.
When the summer ended we returned to our college towns, but she flew out to visit me in California during the holidays. During the visit she blended seamlessly with my four roommates in the crumbling Victorian home we called the Flophouse. After she returned home, we shared weekly phone calls that often lasted hours, and I flew to spend her twenty-third birthday with her the following summer. She moved to the east coast not long after that, and I started making annual trips to see her.
The cracks started forming. They were subtle at first, but they soon became fault lines. The next time we met up, I could do no right. Back home I had resumed dating a philandering ex, and she disapproved. I had joined my local roller derby team, and she disapproved. I wanted us to spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square before we, then 22 and 24, aged out of the window of willingness to do so. Again, she disapproved, aghast that I would even suggest it.
Afraid of losing a friendship I valued so strongly, I started concealing the things I knew she wouldn’t like. It was easy to do, especially given our geographical distance. She concealed, or failed to mention, important milestones too. On one visit she dropped that she had gotten married in a courthouse the week before. When she declined to come to my own wedding, I should have let her go, but suddenly she started emailing again. Long missives about her students, the peculiarities of east coast life, the superiority of New Jersey pizza. I responded in kind, telling her about my retirement from roller derby after four brutal seasons, my writing job, the house my husband and I had bought. These exchanges became a thread that tied us back together, and soon I decided to visit again. When I sent her my flight information, she asked if I would bring the DVD of my wedding.
I planned to stay only one night at her house in New Jersey, afraid of damaging our fragile reunion. After that I figured I’d take the train to my aunt’s house or crash on a friend’s couch in Manhattan. The night of my arrival, she and I watched the video of my wedding from the previous summer. She started crying at the first notes of the Elliott Smith song that carried me down the aisle, put her head on my shoulder, and said “I wish I had been there.” Then I cried too. As I packed my duffel bag the following morning, she hovered nearby, asking, “Do you mind if I come into the city with you?” I wasn’t due at my friend’s apartment in Washington Heights until dinnertime, so I was happy to have company while I wandered around. We caught the train and were soon giggling over wine at an outdoor bar near Grand Central. She and I ended up hanging out all day, to the point that she asked my Washington Heights friends if she could join us for dinner. I finally walked her back to the subway close to 11 p.m.
That trip reignited our friendship for several years. We resumed a habit of daily emails, frequent texts, and annual visits, although she only flew across the country to see me once. The travel imbalance bothered me, but I dismissed it as a consequence of her anxiety and comparatively delicate constitution. I continued to log hours on redeye flights, rolling through Newark or JFK in the early morning and riding three different trains to her house.
But again, as before, our relationship lost its luster. I wish there had been some epic fight, a screaming match, maybe, that dredged up years of damage, but there wasn’t. She merely drifted, faded away like an object shrinking in the distance. Friendships ebb and flow. People can and often do outgrow each other. But I still can’t quite quit her. I remain in the habit of annual New York visits, but I pay for hotel rooms now. I tell her when I’ll be in town, but I make it clear that seeing me is optional.
Summer before last, I brought my best friend from roller derby on her first trip to New York. We had a jam-packed itinerary, bursting with Broadway shows, museums, and standard tourist activities. One of her requests was meeting this east coast friend and former roommate she’d heard so much about, so I arranged a happy hour for us. We met at a pub. My old friend asked thoughtful questions of my roller derby bestie and they laughed and bonded over their many similarities. I ate mozzarella sticks and didn’t say much. As we rode the subway back downtown, my derby friend commented that she thought it went well, that my friend seemed lovely and welcoming. “It’s because I kept my mouth shut and made myself small,” I said. She laid her head on my shoulder with an understanding sigh.
I used to crave her approval so badly because I wanted to prove that I could become the person she would always want around. But try as I might, I can only be me. One day I asked if I’d done something wrong. “No,” she replied, “it’s nothing. I am just taking a digital break. I stare at too many screens all day.” Well, me too.
It’s an oft-repeated self-help mantra: if a relationship no longer serves you, let it go. But how do you cope when you are the discarded thing? I’ll let you know.
Caitlin Lilly is a writer originally from Palm Springs, California. Her recent work has appeared in Jam! True Tales from the World of Roller Derby (ONI Press), and in dozens of concert reviews for Melophobe.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she often complains about the clouds and the sub-par burritos.
Photo by Luisella Planeta Leoni.