The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Monday, February 02, 2009

And So It Goes, And So It Goes, And So Will You, Soon, I Suppose

“I only wanted to talk to you one last time
not to change your mind,
but just to say I’ll miss you, baby,
good luck, good-bye, Bobby-Jean.”
--Bruce Springsteen

Friendship is important to me.

The reason friendship is so important to me is that when I was younger (up until about my mid-twenties), I really didn’t have any friends. I had buddies, pals, work and school colleagues, but no real friends, no one I could share secrets with, or go places with, or just hang out with when I had no money (which was often the case.)

Regular readers of the BeowulfBlog (all four of you) may have noticed that the vast majority of my entries begin with phrases like; “I once had a friend who…” or “I used to know this guy who…” or “Years ago, my friends and I…” The reason for this is simple—I am once again pretty much alone.

Don’t get me wrong…I know people. I talk to people. I have people in my department with whom I do social things, but there’s nobody I can really talk to except for good old Andrew in California, and my favorite cousin, with whom I am getting very close. As a result of this, I spend a lot of time online, and therefore, the vast majority of my “friends” are found there.

The problem is, though, whenever someone does make a friendly overture toward me, I get so excited at the prospect of having an actual live, in-person friend that I get all obsessed about the friendship and tend to analyze every aspect of it. Now, this is not to say that I play and replay their voice-mail messages like the Zapruder film, but I am somewhat “clingy.” If I haven’t heard from, say, Sue in a few days, instead of asking myself, “I wonder what Sue’s up to?” I am more likely to think, “what did I do that Sue is avoiding me?”

Also, for some reason yet to be explained, people keep…well, they keep leaving me. It began about ten years ago when three of my best friends (who were in my wedding) simply told me, point blank, that they didn’t have room in their lives for me anymore; that I was too “intense” and too “high maintenance” a friend. I understood. I was heartbroken, and I miss them every day, but I understood. It had been that way all my life--I was "the weird kid," so I was ostracized. Then of course my husband left me and that pretty much sealed the deal on my end—something was obviously wrong with me.

I decided it would be emotionally safer to make friends online, and for a while it seemed to work. I made two very close friends in other states (Alan and Jessica, respectively), but those friendships just sort of petered out naturally, and I wasn’t really hurt by them.

Which brings us to Meg.

Meg is not her real name, but I like the name Meg, and I’ve decided to call her that. Meg and I “met” on a message board for a TV show that we both liked about four years ago. We instantly hit it off in the forums, and before we knew it, we had taken it to e-mail, and we e-mailed like crazy for the next three years. I’m talking long, involved, profound e-mails, in which we divulged secrets, hopes and dreams, and most of all…most important of all…she made me laugh. It may surprise some of my readers to learn that, despite the humorous tone of my blog, I really don’t have very much joy in my life. In fact, most of the time I feel very empty and alone. When I would open my in-box and see a message from Meg, it absolutely delighted me. It made my whole freakin’ day.

Although we never talked on the phone, we exchanged lots of pictures and I felt—strongly—that our relationship was growing into a real “friendship” rather than “e-mail buddies.” I knew, of course, that she had other things going on in her life—other friends, her job, her family, her hobbies and interests. But I didn’t have any of that. Aside from Andrew and the aforementioned cousin, Meg was the only one I could really open up to over e-mail. Although there was a significant gap in our ages (she was about 12 years younger), I never once felt ware of that--and she was so amazingly articulate and eloquent that she made the perfect correspondent for an English professor. She was bright, witty, funny, loyal, (and extremely beautiful).

And then it started to happen. Like it always does.

Her life somehow got “busier,” and she wrote to me asking if we could write shorter e-mails from now on. I was totally on board with that—I would much rather have shorter, more frequent messages from her than to have to wait days and days for her to construct one of our usual missives. Besides, with the easy schedule of a college professor, I could roll with it. So I said of course, let’s go for it.

That lasted for about two months. Her e-mails began to come so infrequently that I actually had to save up all the things that had been happening to me in the meantime, then felt guilty because I had to send her a “long” e-mail, which she clearly didn’t want.

Now in the past when this happened (when one of us didn’t get back to the other right away) we would send each other a quick friendly message—simply with the subject line of *waves* and the message reading, “pop in when you have a chance, will you?” And that would be all. This method worked fine for years. However, about a year ago when I sent her one of these friendly shout-outs, I got a very snappish response saying, “I am perfectly aware of when I owe you an e-mail. I don’t need your little reminders.”

Um…okay. That shut me up for about two weeks. But did I take the hint? No, of course not. After all, we were friends, right? Right?

It started to go downhill from there.

Halloween came, her favorite holiday. I wrote to her asking her what she dressed as. No answer.

Two weeks later was her birthday. I sent her an e-card and a note asking how she had celebrated. No answer.

Thanksgiving came. I wrote asking her how her dinner had been with her family. No answer.

Christmas came. I wrote to wish her a Merry Christmas. No answer.

And still…still I refused to admit what was right in front of me. She wanted out. She was trying, gracefully and delicately and with extreme diplomacy to solve “the BeowulfGirl problem,” and I wasn’t letting her because I was so selfish that I wanted her friendship—contact with her, any way I could get it. So I kept torturing myself by e-mailing her, then for the following three days running to my computer every hour to see if she’d written back.

About three months before all the unanswered holiday-related e-mails, I got what I refer to as “the penultimate e-mail,” meaning that I knew—somehow I knew that this would be the second to last time I would ever hear from her. She wrote a beautiful letter about how she needed to concentrate on her “real life friends,” and that stopped me cold.

“Real life friends?” After four years of writing extremely intimate things about our lives, did I still not count as a real-life friend? She and I told each other things we had never told our “real life” best friends, our parents, our psychiatrists…nobody. We spent literally hours every week writing to each other—yet I still wasn’t close enough to count as a “real life friend.” Was there some sort of trial period I wasn’t aware of?

Still shaking and confused, I continued to read the e-mail (which I really must emphasize was so elegantly written) until I got to this sentence: “The nature of our relationship (pen-pals, basically) dictates that…”

That’s as far as I got. My eyes wouldn’t move beyond those three words. “Pen pals, basically.”
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept that that was all she considered us to be. With those three words, she managed to devalue our entire friendship (excuse me, “relationship”) to the level of an assignment for a high school French class.

I was reading this e-mail in my office at Very Serious University when a colleague (I’m frankly too terrified to call anyone a “friend” at this point since people seem to bolt whenever I use the word) passed my door, noticed the look of horror on my face and asked what my problem was.

“I think…I think my best e-mail friend is breaking up with me,” I said, kind of bewildered.

Somehow (I don’t remember how) I crafted a response which wasn’t nearly as expressive as hers and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

What arrived a few days later was, without a doubt, the most beautifully written ending-a-friendship letter I’ve ever received (and I’ve received several). I won’t quote it here out of respect for her privacy, but it was so overwhelmingly eloquent that I immediately wrote back requesting a few days grace because she deserved an answer as carefully written as her letter had been.

Oddly, the same colleague who had read "the penultimate e-mail" was chatting outside my office with a professor from another department and I waved him in. At this point, I was literally in tears. I just got up and he sat down at the computer and read what Meg had written. Because he knows me so well, he was able to point out the exact phrases that were like daggers and said, softly, "she's extraordinarily well-spoken. I can see why you loved writing to her." Then he handed me tissues and closed my door and let me grieve in peace.

I can’t express how I felt (and still feel). I was angry, deeply confused, hurt, heartbroken, crushed, dejected, disconsolate…all with the overwhelming feeling that once again I had done something to drive yet another close friend away. Her e-mail, beautiful as it was, was actually unclear as to why she was ending our friendship, though she did say she was “pulling away from her e-mail acquaintances.” (I have to admit that I wondered, briefly, if she meant all her internet acquaintances, or just the ones who were “high maintenance.”) She also gently assured me that this was something she was “not going to change her mind about.”

My ultimate reply to her was emotional and visceral, and I’m ashamed of most of it now.

I keep thinking about the things I’ll never know about her future. I’ll never see a picture of her in her wedding gown. I’ll never see pictures of her children. I’ll never meet her in person (which I was planning on). She has invited me to continue to read her blog, but it’s much too painful right now—it would be too much like she was writing to me again.

The thing is, though, I know she reads my blog. And I hope if she reads this entry, she’ll know exactly how much she hurt me, and how utterly destroyed part of me is now, how I feel part of my soul is gone, I and how I’m going to think about her and miss her for a very, very long time…possibly years. And I will absolutely never really get over it.

I know a lot of my readers have many online correspondents whom they do not consider to be “real” friends, either, and I only ask one thing of them. Please, please remember that there is a human being at the other end of that keyboard, who feels the pain of rejection just as much as you do. If you are blessed enough to have friends—in person or online—please be gentle with their hearts. You may never know how much you helped save someone.