Yesterday I logged into Facebook to find a friend request from an unknown sender. The profile picture thumbnail was too small for me to make an identification, but we had a handful of mutual contacts so I clicked on the profile and was surprised to see that it belonged to one of my high school best friends, a woman I’ve neither seen nor spoken to in almost a decade. Her timeline was protected, but I was able to browse through a small assortment of public photos and see that she’s taken up burlesque and modeling.
I deleted the request and went about my business. A few minutes later, Messenger pinged with a notification, so I opened my inbox and was momentarily dumbstruck to see this:
Why do you hate me? What did I ever do to you? I made mistakes, for sure, but I was a child. A child in an abusive family who would have done anything to be different from who I was. You were my best friend, and I miss you. I’m not asking to be your bestest best friend, but I’d love a chance to get to know who you are now. I know both of us have changed a lot.
The message had been sent from a second, unblocked account, and this one was under the name she used when we knew each other. I can’t say “under her real name” because it’s not, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Before I answer the question of what she ever did to me, let me interject a pro tip: If your goal is to persuade an indifferent former friend that you’ve changed your ways, you undermine your own credibility by persisting in making unwanted contact with the aforesaid friend, and especially by beginning your sales pitch with the preamble, “Why do you hate me?”
But since she asked . . .
I met Lucy in an introductory drama class on my very first day of high school. During roll call, she piped up to correct her name as it was printed on the roster. Instead of Lauren Higgins, her legal name, she wished to be called Lucy Brendon. Our teacher, Dana, dutifully made the correction, advised us that we were free to appoint ourselves stage names, finished roll call, and told us all to form a circle onstage. Lucy and I wound up on opposite sides of the circle facing each other, and she smiled and waved at me with such warm familiarity that I was sure we must have met somewhere before and I’d simply forgotten. When Dana instructed us all to greet each other, I approached her first, eager to figure out where and how we’d been introduced.
It turned out we never had. I can’t recall the reason she gave for waving, but she readily acknowledged that we were strangers to each other. As we talked, I detected the twang of an accent and asked where she was from. Australia, she said. She and her mother had moved to the United States a few months ago. I asked what grade she was in. Technically she was a junior, she explained, but due to some clerical error she’d been mistakenly registered for school as a sophomore. Something about her credits not transferring properly from her high school in Brisbane.
I liked Lucy right off the bat. She was friendly, engaging, and quick-witted, and she had an anachronistic sense of style that aligned perfectly with my own sartorial preferences, which at the time were informed mainly by a love of John William Waterhouse and Renaissance fairs. She was slim and willowy, with waist-length golden brown hair, milky skin and a prominent Cupid’s bow, and she was wearing a peasant top with long bell sleeves. Except for her little wire-rimmed glasses, she looked like she could have stepped right out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.
She did have a few odd affectations, but at first they only made me admire how resolutely she marched to her own drummer. When I introduced myself to her, for instance, she didn’t shake my hand but grasped just the tips of my fingers in her own and squeezed them lightly. This was her customary greeting. Her laugh was a pronounced hee-hee-hee-hee. She had a habit of breaking awkward silences by saying, “Dot dot dot?” aloud. And she had an obviously practiced, gliding gait that I supposed was meant to look sexy or ethereal: Her back was always ramrod-straight, her arms hanging motionlessly at her sides, and every time she took a step forward her hips would move before her feet did. It was like the rest of her body was being pulled along by her groin.
She was just strange enough, in other words, to belong right in my wheelhouse.
We bonded immediately and soon became best friends, habitually selecting each other as partners for any two-person assignments we were given in class, writing jokes to each other in a shared notebook, and bonding over a mutual fondness of historical fiction and New Age esotericism—not any specific religious tradition, but the associated trappings of crystals and star signs and tarot cards. On weekends we’d spend hours in Luigi’s, a chichi downtown coffee shop, talking about our favorite musicals, books, and TV shows. We confessed our celebrity crushes to each other: Mine was Joe Lando from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and hers was Nicholas Brendon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I asked whether she’d adopted the surname Brendon with him in mind, but she said no.) From the very beginning I felt a profound, almost sisterly kinship with her, something I’d always yearned for but had never succeeded at cultivating in my many impersonal, jokey friendships. We had both read and loved The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, and I decided we were Anne and Mary. Light and dark, as complementary as we were inextricable.
It was evident from her stories of the many places she’d lived that Lucy had led a tumultuous early life, being uprooted and relocated not only all around the United States but internationally. It was hard to track the chronology of her many moves. I knew she had lived in Brisbane recently, but she also mentioned attending junior high school in Utah and spending at least part of her early childhood in Idaho. This confused me, as it was at odds with what I knew about accent acquisition, which I understood came with a pretty low age cut-off, but I shrugged it off. Probably there was some gap in the timeline that she had yet to fill in, or I misunderstood the sequence of events.
Either way, I didn’t press the issue. Lucy clearly had a painful past, and I never felt right probing for any information she didn’t volunteer. Instead, as our friendship deepened, she disclosed more of her life story to me. Her father, like mine, had been mostly out of the picture for many years. Her ex-stepfather, like mine, had been an abusive, frightening figure. Her mother, with whom she shared not only a bedroom but a bed, was an alcoholic who expected Lucy to nurse her through hangovers and, during our first meeting, described Lucy’s father to me as “a son of a bitch.” I thought of my own mother, an Olympian shit-talker, and her ironclad policy against ever denigrating my father in front of me, and I wondered how remarks like those affected Lucy.
Lucy lived with her mother and grandmother, and though I never got to know either woman well, my observation during my few brief visits to their home was that they were Grey Gardens crazy. I thought it oddly appropriate that the outside of their house was painted black, like a harbinger of the insane dysfunction within. Once, at the end of one of these infrequent visits, Lucy’s mother drove me home drunk. I didn’t realize she was intoxicated until we were already on the road, at which point she laughingly assured us, “Don’t worry, girls! I am a good drunk, and I am a safe drunk.” I spent the ride petrified by the very real possibility of an accident, and alarmed by how unperturbed Lucy seemed. She showed no flicker of fear or embarrassment about her mother’s behavior, which was in itself concerning.
But rather than make me leery of Lucy, knowing what an unstable shit-show her home life was only intensified the compassion I felt for her. This set the tone for the course our friendship took later. During the first year we knew each other, we would talk on the phone for hours almost nightly. In the beginning these phone calls were lighthearted and reciprocal, but gradually our topics of conversation dwindled down to one recurring subject: the many ways in which Lucy had been betrayed, rejected, and abandoned by everyone she trusted. She told me about Dan, the only boy she had ever loved, and how he’d broken her heart. She raged about Heather, a classmate of ours who Lucy used to be close with, who one day stopped talking to her for no obvious reason. She told me about other students who hadn’t wronged her in any concrete way, but who she could tell were talking about her or laughing at her when they thought she wasn’t listening. She had countless stories like these, and hearing them made my heart ache for her.
One incident in particular rankled Lucy for weeks afterward. She and her children’s theatre classmates had been assigned to write and illustrate a kid-friendly short story, which they would all read aloud for each other. Leif, a boy Lucy had been nursing a crush on since the beginning of the school year, had written his story about her. It was a parable about a lonely kangaroo who tried to make friends by pretending to be different animals, but instead found herself shunned by the rest of the outback for resorting to fakery to fit in. Eventually the kangaroo realized that she didn’t have to lie to endear herself to others, and the story ended happily with her finally gaining acceptance.
Apparently, Leif thought Lucy had lied about living in Australia—an accusation I rejected as impossible on the grounds that her accent was too consistent to be artificial—and the story was his way of calling her out. While I understood why his skepticism made her angry, I felt she was reading malice into his intentions where there was none. Was it possible, I suggested, that his story was a misinformed but basically well-meaning attempt to tell her she didn’t have to change herself to please anybody else? No, Lucy was adamant. It was a cruel stunt cooked up to publicly humiliate her. He hated her. All of their classmates hated her. This sort of self-victimizing generalization was pretty typical of Lucy, and I was tempted to dismiss it as paranoia except for one crucial detail: All of our classmates did seem to hate her.
I couldn’t understand it, but nearly everyone I knew seemed to have had a bad run-in with Lucy, and while I didn’t doubt the legitimacy of their claims, I also couldn’t reconcile them with the kind, quirky, funny person she was around me. Even those who barely knew her seemed to loathe her for what I thought were shallow reasons: because they didn’t like her walk, or her dress sense, or her mannerisms. Everyone seemed very eager to judge her. I chalked it up to kids vilifying the unfamiliar and patted myself on the back for knowing better. I also assured Lucy that I would never turn on her the way so many others had. It was a promise I reaffirmed, both to myself and to her, numerous times, but the real test of my sincerity came after Lucy’s mother outed her to our drama teacher.
After the incident in children’s theatre class, Dana began to suspect that Lucy had indeed lied about being from Australia and fact-checked the story with her mother, who confirmed that it was a total fabrication. Dana told his student TA the news, and by the end of the day the truth about “the fake Australian” had made its way all around the school and, eventually, to me. But instead of feeling angry that Lucy had been lying to me since day one, I pitied her. I couldn’t imagine how crushingly unhappy a person must be to not only cut an alternative life story from whole cloth, but to keep up the charade for almost a year. I also couldn’t imagine how ashamed she must have felt about being exposed.
I never confronted her about her deception, and I suppose that must have cemented her confidence in my loyalty, because at that point she initiated Mr. Hyde mode and there was no looking back.
The frequency of her evening phone calls increased, and she would keep me on the line for hours, crying about how unfairly persecuted she felt while I made pacifying noises at her. But now when I tried to hang up, she would become hostile and accusatory. How could I abandon her like this in her time of need? I was her best friend. She had nobody else to talk to, nobody else who understood or cared about her suffering. I started avoiding her calls, so she would corner me at school and badger me into spending time with her. Usually I weaseled out of it by claiming I was busy, but occasionally I gave in and the ensuing get-togethers would follow a predictable pattern: Lucy would suggest we go to Luigi’s, and only after we got there would she reveal that she had no money. I’d explain that my mother had only given me enough for myself, and she would hang her head theatrically. I’d compromise by splitting something with her, and hours later when I was more than ready to call it a night and walk home, she’d tell me her mother was unavailable to pick her up. Instead it fell to my mother to drop Lucy off, which made her furious with me, because the sins of shitty friends are transitive
The more I tapered off contact with Lucy, the more possessive she became of my friendship, and the more she resented any time I didn’t spend with her. At first I tried to placate her by introducing her to some of my other friends. Without fail each meeting would end badly, either with her insulting the person to their face or keeping up a polite, chilly front until they left, at which point she would cite some imagined slight against her and pronounce them “a bitch.” On one memorable occasion, a friend invited me to attend a New Year’s Eve sleepover at her house and allowed me to bring a plus-one. God only knows why, but I decided to take Lucy. The first five minutes were uneventful, but then somebody made a wisecrack that Lucy felt was directed at her and she ran from the room. I followed her and talked her into rejoining the group, but the damage was done. I lost count of how many more times she stormed away in a huff that night. It felt like she was testing me to see whom I would choose: her or them. Each time, I dutifully chased after her.
I spent much of what remained of our friendship chasing after Lucy, consoling her, apologizing to her, apologizing for her. At times I felt less like her friend than her handler, responsible for talking her down from her frequent explosive moods, rationalizing her volatile behavior to others, and defending her against her many critics: They didn’t understand her the way I did. Yes, she could be dramatic and abrasive and sometimes even mean, but she was doing the best she could. She’d had a hard life. Even though she exhausted me, I continued pouring time, energy, and empathy into Lucy partly because I still cared about her, but mostly because I was determined to be as good as my word. I would not abandon her the way everybody else had abandoned her. But she kept upping the ante, making greater and greater demands on my time, requiring more emotional labor, and blowing up at me with increasing regularity. She seemed to be deliberately testing my boundaries to see just how much I would tolerate, and eventually my compassion and my patience were tapped dry.
The end of our friendship was uneventful. I was too afraid of the potential fallout to tell her off, so instead I pulled a slow-fade. Since she stopped taking theatre classes our paths rarely crossed at school, and that meant I could simply stop talking to her with minimal backlash. Every time she called my house, my mother helpfully told her I was in the shower. Her calls decreased, and after a few months they stopped altogether. Since then, I’ve interacted with her only a handful of times, briefly and for the sake of politeness rather than real interest. At no point has she ever apologized for the way she treated me or acknowledged any wrongdoing. As far as I can tell, she still sees herself as the victim, misunderstood and unfairly maligned.
The impulse to rescue damaged people is still strong in me, but now I suspect my haste to offer a shoulder to cry on is as much a convoluted effort to heal myself as to help anyone else. Like Lucy, I’ve been abandoned and mistreated by my caregivers, and maybe on some level I think my own refusal to walk away even from repeated boundary violations and exploitation means I’m better than they were. Because if I can tough it out, it proves they went away because they were too weak to stay, not because I made staying unbearable, and I’m absolved of the primal fear that I deserved to be left.
Which brings us to Sunday. I contemplated Lucy’s message for a long time before composing a reply, and when I finally responded I wrote—and then made myself erase—the words “I’m sorry” several times before hitting send. Because to answer her question, I don’t hate her. Even after writing all this and remembering how shamelessly she manipulated me and took advantage of my goodwill, I still feel sorry for her. I’m sorry that she was born into such a fucked up family. I’m sorry for whatever horrible formative experiences made her into such a difficult person to love. I’m sorry she learned that she could only get her needs met through the application of guilt and deceit. Nobody chooses that sort of life, and nobody deserves it.
But I’m also done apologizing to Lucy for the hand she was dealt. Instead I advised her to seek the therapy she so clearly needs and blocked her.
Author’s Note: All of the names in this story have been changed except for Dana’s. I’ve also fudged the locations and a few other identifying details about “Lucy,” but my account of events is factual to the best of my memory.