The Friendship Contract


My best friend in college was a lot like me. Abby was dark-haired and studious, artistic and shy. She was a budding, impassioned feminist and activist. We met in a Women’s Studies class and protested the first Iraqi war together, marching down State Street in Madison, hopeful we were making a difference.

Abby liked to talk things through endlessly before she made a decision. Should she get a cat? Should she declare a major in Poli Sci with a minor in History, or a major in History with a minor in Poli Sci?  Should she reject the guy whose name was Colin because he pronounced it like the anatomical part?  (Yes to that one.) We talked and talked. We reveled in our similarities. I had also tried to straighten my hair in high school, with disastrous consequences. I, too, had harbored a strange obsession with Amelia Earhart in fourth grade! Abby and I were so much alike that, a month after my boyfriend, Zach, and I broke up, she started dating him.

I was working at a tiny, wooden flower stall on Library Mall, a little trailer, really, with just enough room for some buckets of flowers, a space heater, and one employee. The little stall had a name, but nobody knew what it was. Everyone called it the flower cart, and like its nickname, it was all-purpose and utilitarian. We sold single red roses to hopeful college kids, inexpensive, sturdy bouquets of daisies to young professors on their way home to their wives. That winter, I slogged through my shifts surrounded by the vibrant symbols of love and romance, while my own heart ached. Zach dumped me two days before Valentine’s Day, standing in the doorway of my little studio apartment, looking down at his feet and muttering nervously about commitment and the future and not being sure but definitely really liking me, though.

His timing didn’t strike me then as jerky, but rather, via my superpower of clinging to relationships long after they were over, as romantic. He was so overwhelmed with love for me that he simply had to leave me! On the day he was most overwhelmed with love!

Zach was my first real boyfriend (as opposed to my many imaginary ones). He was my first love. I now credit him with teaching me the hard lesson most of my friends learned by the time they were juniors in college: You can’t give your heart away to the first boy with good politics and nice eyes and a flair for vegetarian cooking. You shouldn’t press your open, beating heart into his hands and say, “Here you go!” like you’re handing him a plate of pancakes. You shouldn’t, but you do. As it turns out, you do it over and over again.

It was my first breakup, and it hit hard. In its aftermath, Abby kept vigilant watch over me. She made sure I ate dinner every night, brought over pints of Ben and Jerry’s and stacks of cheery movies, and she sat with me while I alternately sobbed or droned on, endlessly, about what had gone wrong. I learned a happier lesson, too: there is a friendship contract, unwritten, and when love goes awry, your best friend will pick up the pieces and put you back together.

Shortly after I started working at the flower cart, when Zach and I were newly in love, a tall girl with hair that was shaved on one side and dyed bluish on the other came to my little window and bought one flower. It was a pink tea rose. I remember thinking it was pretty, sweet, its bud just opening – a flower that could serve as an unassuming token of friendship or love. I asked her if she wanted me to wrap it, and she tilted her head and said, “In a second.” She paid for the rose, took it from me and placed it carefully on the ground in front of the cart. Smiling faintly, she ground the flower into the concrete, smashing it hard with the thick heel of her black boot. Then she bent, picked up the corpse of the flower, and handed it back to me. “Could you wrap it now, please?” I nodded. My hands shook a little as I swaddled the wrecked stem in green and white paper. This girl had been through the wringer and had come out the other side damaged. She possessed intimate knowledge of something dark and dire. I felt sorry for her, and fundamentally different from her, and also a little scared she might kill me.

Months later, when Zach and Abby approached the flower cart on a chilly day in the middle of March, I was too surprised to be suspicious. They were friends, I knew. I had introduced them. We had all hung out together plenty of times, going for coffee, watching movies at the local art house. They rode up on their bikes and locked them together at the rack nearby. I watched them do it. I watched them walk toward me together, maybe a little too close? I didn’t notice. It was cold. I could see their breath.  Abby was wearing a gray hat, which she took off and clutched in her hands. They put their faces side by side in my little window.  “Zach and I are,” Abby started, and then faltered. Zach took over. “We’ve decided to see each other,” he said, and I thought, yes, I can see you both, you’re right here. Right after that I understood.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea at all,” I thought, but I didn’t say that. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably something like, “Buh?” or “Gah,” or “Wha?” I don’t remember much about the rest of this encounter, aside from my overpowering wish that Abby and Zach would leave, would step away from me and be gone, or more precisely that the ground in front of the flower cart would crack open into a wide, brutal chasm and suck both of their ugly, cheating, hideous selves down into the fiery bowels of hell.

But who can be sure exactly what I thought? It was a long time ago.

It only took me a little while to get over this bold treachery… oh, let’s say somewhere between a semester and ten years. I knew one thing for sure: I never wanted to see Zach or Abby again. Their betrayal had torn a piece of me right off, and I was done with them. It was Abby whom I missed most deeply, Abby I dreamed about, Abby I felt most wronged by. That friendship contract? I should have had it printed out. And notarized. I had loved him but I trusted her.

In the weeks that followed, I thought a lot about that blue-haired girl who crushed the flower. She was my spirit guide, my familiar. It didn’t matter why she had done it: she was the yearning and the despair lurking beneath the surface – of friendship, of love, of trying to get through your day without turning into a weepy mess. I wished she would stop by the flower cart again, although she never did. I wanted to say, “Hey, sorry for feeling sorry for you. Sorry for thinking we were so different.”

I was twenty years old. My world didn’t actually end. After a while, I found new best friends, and new loves. My story veered off into another direction, and the story of Abby and Zach became their story, one of marriage and kids, and, years later, a heartbreaking divorce – and yes, I did come to care, again, about their hearts, mostly Abby’s. I haven’t spoken to Zach in a long time. There’s clarity to the end of love, finality. I thought my friendship with Abby fit neatly into that same category, but it didn’t.

Several years after they married, Abby sent me an email. She’d made a few attempts to contact me in the past, and I ignored them all – with righteous anger at first, and then with something close to glee. (She wants me? Good. She can’t have me.), and, later, with a tinge of regret. This email was casual and tentative, a shy, hopeful, finger-fluttering hello. She heard I was married and I’d had a baby. She was pregnant with her second child, she wrote.

Maybe that’s what did it, what finally sewed up the crack inside me, that second child, not the first, obviously – everyone knows a first child is a less permanent statement of commitment, really more like a pet. The second kid was the clincher. They had a life together, a family.

I hit reply to Abby’s email that day, and slowly, she and I rekindled our friendship. At first we exchanged the superficial details of our lives, after a while we went a bit deeper, and finally, tentatively, we began to talk about what had happened. She regretted what she had done, she wrote, even while it felt like it had been necessary. She was genuinely sorry but, she said, she wouldn’t change anything. How could she regret the life she had?

For years I was absolutely certain I never would have done what Abby did. I never would have stabbed my best friend in the back for a shot at love. Maybe love is like the North Pole – it skews the compass. Abby did what she thought she had to do to be happy. For a long time, she was. I’ve come to see that a thing can accommodate several truths at once: it can be both selfish and genuine, unkind and necessary, wrong and right.

Abby and I have become friends again. We live in different cities, and that makes things easier. I don’t quite know how we would manage the more potent demands of a daily relationship. Our new connection will never hold the same magical, uncynical love we felt for each other twenty years ago, that bright, fearless bond you have with a person when your hearts are as fascinating and thrilling to each other as the whole wide world – the attachment whose flip side is the impassioned crushing of a flower underfoot.

Lauren Fox is the author of Still Life with Husband and Friends Like Us, out now in paperback. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 1998, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Glamour, and Salon. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two daughters. More from this author →