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1. Temper Your Emotional Response
When she tells me she has slept with someone, I try to distract myself. I wedge the phone between my chin and my shoulder and walk to the communal laundry room in my apartment building to pull my shirts and underpants and my blue cotton dress from the dryer, and then I fold them. I realize that if I can do this while she is telling the story, I am not as surprised as I should be. She talks for nearly two hours, and by the time all of my warm clothes are in their right places, and I’ve cut cantaloupe for the morning, and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, I feel sick to my stomach.
A few weeks later, though, when her husband calls just before 7 a.m. with more complicated news of a new man, a cabin in the mountains, a declaration of love, I can’t even pour the coffee grounds. I just stare out the window and say, “Oh, my God. Oh. Oh, my God,” and I apologize to him, as if my being her friend had caused this, or as if, perhaps, I should have warned him. In this moment, I have a flash: I am visiting, and my friend shares her blanket with me on a ripped, old couch in their first apartment together. Her husband arrives, covered in big, wet snowflakes and carrying a steaming deep-dish pizza. She runs to pull off his wet coat, to press her hands to his red cheeks. The image is so tender it burns.
When he says, “I am driving to pick up the kids because I do not know if they are safe,” my insides—the guts and the veins and the muscles—become strained, taut, as though they were just about to rip. I am cold and hot at once. I can’t cut or fold a thing.
2. Be Honest, Be Heard
“I am not comfortable lying for you.”
“This is not what 33-year-old women do.”
“They don’t get into fights with someone new every week.”
“They don’t drive their minivan after six beers.”
“They don’t scream, generally, or break things.”
“They don’t leave their kids for a week or two weeks or a month.”
3. Be Grateful for Your Own Sanity
I begin wondering if my boyfriend is sleeping with or would sleep with or wants to sleep with someone else, like maybe the young Russian girl who answers the phone at his office, and if everyone does or is with their young Russian girls or landlords or neighbors or dentists or friends of friends.
I tell her husband: “I read this advice column online and there was this guy who started cheating on his wife, and he was being so callous and terrible and felt no remorse, and his wife and kids were so devastated because he’d been a pretty good guy before? And then, a year later or something, they found out he had this huge brain tumor, and it had affected his decision-making and emotions and everything. Crazy, right? So, maybe she could get a physical? Maybe she could go to the doctor and see if something is wrong because I know it sounds like a long shot, but it’s possible, right? It’s possible?”
4. Try to Listen without Judgment
At best, I see her not as my oldest friend, but as the protagonist in a movie, lost and beautiful and unstable, a character I sympathize with even as she self destructs. In these moments, I find the websites brash. They call her “high maintenance” and “selfish,” rather than using more discreet, civil terms, like maybe “troubled,” or “bipolar,” or even “disturbed.”
At worst, the trope is something more terse. The philanderer. The villain, irrational and cruel. To make myself feel better, I think about the things I can understand, the things about which I can sympathize: the sadness, the boredom.
5. Encourage the Person to Get Help
“Go,” I say. “Maybe these are better doctors. Maybe this is their specialty. Maybe it will feel like a break. Maybe they can help you.”
The day her husband tells me she is going to the clinic, I feel calmed, but less than 24 hours later, she is home.
“They told me that I wasn’t crazy,” the text reads. “I am simply making unpopular choices.”
6. Try Your Best Not to React
One day, on the way home from work, after a series of texts from her, the constant ping from my phone all afternoon as I graded papers, I have to pull my Nissan over on the highway because I am crying too hard to see
And after this day, composure seems so completely linked with stability that I try everything to stop reacting. I don’t read texts from her or from her husband late at night. Her father emails me, tells me to pray for God’s voice to be heard in her head, but I delete it. She tells me she has never felt free to be her true self, and I say, “Huh.” She tells me she is going to move to Denver because she has an aunt there, and I say “Huh.” She tells me this new man is a better man, that it will be a better life, and I say, “Huh.”
7. Put Yourself in Your Friend’s Shoes
I consider the way I occasionally break down—not from this, not from her, but before, always, from work or a lack of sleep or from, usually, something far less specific. Once in a while, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, while walking or using the bathroom, I might become fixated on a conversation from the day or the month before, and decide I was wronged. Or I snap at my mother. Or I feel an anger I cannot quite articulate, something missing, something sad. This is a loss of reality, too, and I can imagine, as I lift myself out of it, or wake the next morning recovered, that maybe hers is a similar kind of struggle, only it lasts for months, for years. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps she, too, sometimes wakes the next morning and sees herself more honestly, sees that she was groundless, but the embarrassment of admitting this is too much for her, and so she holds onto those feelings, makes them more true, makes them more elaborate.
8. Set Clear Boundaries
“Please email me,” I finally type into my phone after ignoring her call. “I can’t talk to you on the phone right now.”
I write this because it seems reasonable. Because every time I hang up the phone I cry for an hour or two, or I get impatient with my students, or the night is ruined and my boyfriend must be getting tired of that, and I am too. Because the last time I saw her, that morning she flew in wearing a floor-length purple dress, I lied and said we didn’t have any wine at the apartment, and she told me that she has figured out that she is a master manipulator with her husband “and with other people.”
“Sorry to be annoying,” is the text I get back, “but do you mean you’re too busy or that email is the only mode of communication you are willing to have? Because I need you right now and I no longer see email as a viable form of communication.”
She sends text after text, some hurtful, while others are simply pictures of the kids. In one is the boy’s bare bottom. In another the girl runs through a sprinkler in the shade.
9. Know that it’s Okay to be Angry
I do not know if it is true that her husband has been manipulated, but this is how it feels when he instructs me, from 1,154 miles away, to find my “deepest root of empathy.” I chuckle, knowing but not caring that I sound callous. I wonder, though not out loud, what the fuck that means. Is it imagining myself less lucky, less sane? What about when a student cries in my office about his dad, her boyfriend, his grades, her roommate, his veteran-status tuition falling short, and then, after they leave, I can’t help but want to cry a little bit for them? Does it mean staying up late thinking about the girl with Down Syndrome who works at the sandwich place, and her joy at work and her mother, her poor mother who comes to pick her up, probably wondering every single day what her daughter will ever do without her? Does it mean these things? Is there a distinction in empathy for someone who has summoned, sought out her own tragedy?
When I try to find my deepest root of empathy for her, I often see her telling her husband that she is thinking of another man. I see her sleeping with that other man, in an apartment with a stained carpet, a punched-through screen letting in all the mosquitoes. I see her surrounded by Miller Lite bottles and cigarette butts poised in the overturned caps. I see her blaming her husband, her parents, her uncle, her friends, the medication, the church, her brother, the men who came before this. She says, “I am rotten. Forgive me,” but means only the very last part.
10. Don’t Take it Personally
But occasionally, late at night, after the crying and the Google searches and two or three glasses of wine in the dark of my living room, I see her as she once was. I see both of us that way, at sixteen, whispering with our faces so close, hidden by a high school locker dotted with chewed bubble gum. Sometimes I see her mother’s terrifying stare, a grimace from the driver’s seat of the family minivan when my friend says something normal but something her mother deems unchristian, and I kick the underside of her spray-painted boots, not in a mean way but to distract her, so that she won’t scream or get out when we stop at the next light. Sometimes I see us at 18, in a funeral home, and her hands stroke my hair, her lips kiss my temple because I cannot stop shaking. She drives my old car in the procession with her right hand on my neck while I heave next to her. Sometimes I see her fingers laced around mine. We weave through trees and people and smoke and the thick, mid-summer Virginia humidity, and she stops to whisper, “Are you all right?” and moves on only when I say, “Yeah.”
And still other times, I see us even younger, as girls lying across my bed. She is outlining with her finger the ivy print on the sheets my mother bought me, because I love green, because she is there a lot. We are talking about boys whose faces I can no longer picture, about their skater shoes and how they go down to the bridge after school, but we are too afraid to join them. These are the places I can find my deepest root of empathy. All of my blood seems to pool at my neck, and then it rushes up against the back of my head, in a way that is sudden, uncontrollable, forceful. We talk about science quizzes. About our older brothers and their pretty girlfriends. About what will come later. She is telling me I am so lovely and so smart. She is making me a less lonely girl, and I am doing the same for her. We are listening to Nirvana and wishing we looked more like Winona Ryder. We are buoyant and soft, and neither of us has had sex or lost anything important yet.