***Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.**
I am sitting at the set for a music video my partner is being featured in. He is in the other room where the video and artistic directors are arranging the room to look like a trap house. I think to myself that they won’t have to work that hard.
We are on the third floor of a rundown apartment building somewhere in Brooklyn. I didn’t pay much mind getting here and I don’t know Brooklyn like that. I take out my journal and begin a free-write as I sit on the lumpy oatmeal colored couch that faces the fern green door. The door has a chain lock with no actual chain and a peep hole in the center.
There are empty containers everywhere – old Chinese food takeout cartons, a Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, half drank bottles of Poland Spring and a few Red Bulls are scattered on a dingy taupe colored carpet and on top of two slate gray storage bins being used as makeshift end tables.
Side note: Do you know how hard you have to work to make taupe look dirty?
This is definitely not what I expected a video shoot to look like.
After a few takes, I find myself next to one of the crew members. This bearded white man with a lumberjack look must have been in his late twenties. He was wearing a plain white tee, but it felt like he belonged in a red plaid shirt. Maybe it was the beard.
He breaks the ice by asking me what I am writing. I oblige and tell him about the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Martir and how I’m making a list of all the possible topics I might write essays about in the coming weeks. He seems interested and we continue to talk. He tells me he majored in creative writing at one point.
He is either very interested in what I’m working on or really bored of shooting this music video because he continues to ask me questions. “What kind of stuff do you have on your list so far?” he probes. I go through some, skipping over others. I did just meet the man.
I get to the topic I’ve been wrestling with for months and the words slip out of my mouth without thought, like children on wet floors, “I lost one of my best friends this year. I might write about that.”
“Wow, I’m SO sorry to hear that” he responds with compassion in his voice.
I try not to laugh, and reply with a lightness in my voice I didn’t know I was capable of feeling around the subject “This was the first time I said that out loud and I just realized how bad it sounds. She’s not dead. She’s very much alive. We just don’t talk anymore.”
We both laughed.
“I get it. That’s life. This kind of stuff happens.” says the lumberjack man.
It was a sticky, humid Saturday night in July around ten in the East Village. The humidity forced my inner thighs to sweat against the cotton fabric of my pants suit. My partner and I had just attended a film screening.
My best friend, Naomi, wanted to continue the night celebrating her boyfriend’s birthday. It did not even cross our minds to skip out despite how tired we felt or how far we were from home via public transportation.
A decent sized group, maybe around ten people, walked from the film screening at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to Mama’s Bar on Avenue B, one of the last remaining neighborhood bars in the area. There was no one table big enough for the group, so we dispersed to different tables.
Around eleven, Naomi asked myself and our friend Taylor to accompany her to Sweet Sugar Sunshine to get some cupcakes and candles for his birthday.
All we had to do was step foot out of Mama’s Bar for the the harassment to begin.
A tall, frail looking Black man looked me up and down a few times, clearly undressing me with his eyes. “Beautiful,” he whispered throatily as his hand grazed my waist. I forward jerked out of his reach and muttered, “too close” to no one in particular. I did not confront him or stop my stride. I continued to walk with Naomi and Taylor.
“Ewww” Taylor commented and I saw the anger in Naomi’s eyes.
“Leave it.” I told her. I knew Naomi had a tendency to be overprotective and confrontational, especially after a few drinks and when faced with disrespectful individuals. Alcohol gave her the liquid courage to compensate for the all the things she never said.
As we started to walk towords the bakery, it happened again. This time a white SUV with five men inside. “Beautiful, let me talk to you for a second,” one of them called out with his head out the back window.
“Do you feel like a man? Does that make you feel like a big man?” Naomi yelled back.
“Fuck you bitch,” one of them howled as they drove away.
I tried to rationalize with Naomi. “Ignore them,” I counseled her, “It’s not worth it.”
When we saw a park coming up in our view, we crossed over to the other side of the street. There weren’t any men gathered, but we wanted to take precautionary measures.
It didn’t matter.
The next series of harassment came in the form of a shiny black truck, also filled to its capacity with men. Their tanned skin indicated they were probably men of color. I didn’t get a good look as I try to never look at them directly. Ironic, considering that I could feel these men tracing the outlines of our bodies with their eyes.
They said things. Naomi responded angrily, rightfully so, but all I could think was DANGER.
What would have happened if all the men had come out of that car? In a society that videos everything on their phone while yelling, “WORLDSTARRRR!” who would have stopped them from hurting us? I valued my mortality more than my dignity.
Where I’m from, women treat groups of men, especially ones under the influence, like herds of wild animals. The men on the corner and the ones hanging out of car windows carry invisible signs that warn: “Engage at your own risk.” And I’ve never been much of a risk taker.
The shiny black truck pulled over and Naomi was ready to fight until I convinced her to cross the street and keep walking. “You’re the ugliest one in the group anyways.” one of the men hollered at Naomi. Classic.
There is no rhyme or reason to this harassment. Naomi was wearing a cotton black dress, fitted – but not spandex. No excess cleavage or cheeks hanging out at the bottom. I was wearing a fitted pantsuit with a small opening in the center of my back. Taylor was wearing a mid thigh length dress with geometric designs and gold embellishments. I’ve worn less in the streets. I’ve also worn more.
I asked Naomi what she thought this would accomplish and she whispered in a defeated voice, “I just want them to know I’m human,” she paused and then continued, “to see my humanity. Every time these men say something to me and I ignore it … it’s like they take a piece of me.”
I understood her anger.
She recently moved to Washington Heights from the suburbs in Long Island and started experiencing the heightened incidents of sexualist harrassment I’ve known as an everyday reality before my breasts even came in.
It’s not right, but it’s what I know, what I expect and what I’ve learned to ignore.
A few weeks after the incident, I invited Naomi over for a writing session. I took the time to tell her that what transpired that night was frightening for me because it was dangerous. I worried for our safety and her safety were she to confront these groups of men on her own.
She seemed to respond well. She talked about how she was going to reflect on the night and we went on to discuss some other topics. She hugged me goodbye before she left.
I dropped a bit of peppermint essence into a pot of water and set it on a low flame. I took a deep breath in and relished in the silence of being alone in the apartment. My partner had just left to the gym and I opted out in hopes of catching up with my to-do list.
There is a thrill incomparable to any other high that I get from checking things off of my to-do list.
I thought to myself that this would be the perfect time to call Naomi.
We’d spoken here and there, but in the past few months I’d felt an emotional and spiritual distance in our friendship that was foreign to me. I was balancing two jobs, my writing and still navigating the newness of being married. It was all rather mentally draining, even depressing at times. She was in a new relationship, also juggling two jobs, and had experienced a recent medical scare.
I called her a few times – once from the airport in Mexico returning from vacation Friday morning and again this Saturday morning. I was worried about her with the medical complications and her mother’s recent surgery. I knew that she could be prone to anxiety.
When my calls went unanswered, I followed up with a text. I asked her how she was doing and for her parent’s address so that I could send the card and tea I had purchased for her mom.
Naomi’s counter to my text started subtle. She remarked that her energy had been pretty low due to a rollercoaster of emotions but luckily, she’d had a great unit of support.
Something inside of me started to cower, the way a dog’s ears drop if it’s nervous… a great unit of support? Why did I feel like she was letting me know I was not a part of that support unit?
The text messages went on and escalated from subtle to a head-on collision of direct. What I read burned through my heart the way El Diablo would destroy steel pipes when mixed with cold water. The way El Diablo would burn through flesh.
Her texts began: “Nia – when I came over to your house, I felt very taken aback how the conversation went and frankly didn’t feel good after I left. I felt honestly ambushed. Our friendship was already in such a fragile place, that the interaction made me further uncomfortable and hurt.”
I sat and analyzed the text messages like an NBA coach watching the opposing team’s games, trying to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong – when and how we missed each other – how it got to this point of contention.
My stomach was a knotted calamity and the tears were falling down my face onto my phone’s screen faster than I cared to wipe them away. I sank deep into my couch, hoping this wasn’t really happening.
There was no question about it – I was the problem.
I told her I heard what she was saying, that I understood and appreciated her honesty. I tried to explain my intentions and was honest that I didn’t know what to say to fix this situation. I could hear my conscience on autopilot, like a broken record that I couldn’t turn off. You are a terrible friend…
The exchange of texts continued. She brings up dates and times – exact moments where I failed her as a friend, going back longer than I even sensed a distance in our friendship. This was my first time hearing any of it.
How could I have been so stupid? I felt like a woman who thought she was happily married, only to discover that her husband had been having an affair for as long as they’d been together. How could I have missed all this?
I tried to explain my words, my actions…my lack of action. I try to stand firm to some of the truths in the conversation that I really believe while still being mindful of word choice and sentence structure.
Texts can be so easily misinterpreted and I didn’t want to hurt her again.
I suggested that we meet in person and talk face to face. She told me she wasn’t ready and that she needed time. She said she would get back to me when she was ready to talk.
That was almost nine months ago. I haven’t heard from her since.
After eight years of friendships, she was the first person I dared to call a best friend again. I was frightened to use the title.
I had foregone unspeakable heartbreak at the hands of platonic companions I called “best friends.” I had experienced more anxiety and loneliness than any romantic breakup had ever awakened inside of me. I was terrified of the power I gave someone with that title, but she earned it. She cared for my family as much as she cared for me. She sat with the fam on Christmas morning and ate yuca, mangu and los tres golpes. She was loyal to a fault. I had come to trust her.
We met in undergrad and formed a friendship over deep conversations about race, love, music and spirituality. It didn’t matter that we came from different religious backgrounds, we respected each other’s views and found common ground from where we could continue to observe and reflect on the world around us.
Some of my fondest memories come from one of us reaching out to the other with an SOS signal for girl time and us walking to the bench behind the murky lake by our dorm room. We would just sit there in silence and take deep breaths until whoever called for girl time was ready to talk.
We saw each other through major career decisions, some pretty bad break ups and even family tragedy.
She called me once when her brother was missing and all the paramedics found was his totalled car by the side of the road. My entire family didn’t stop praying until she called me a few hours later that he was found in a hospital in the county over. I called her when my aunt passed away without warning and left behind four kids – two that were too young to fend for themselves.
We used to spend hours debating gentrification, white privilege, whether or not closure really exists in break ups and who deserved the title of top five in hip-hop. We recommended readings to each other and edited each other’s work.
I was one of the only friends she turned to when she considered reaching back out to an old flame that broke her heart because she was so desperately in search of a closure neither one of us was sure existed. Still, I encouraged her to go with her heart and reach out.
They ended up reconnecting. It was his birthday we were celebrating that night in July. I suspect they will probably get married.
Sometimes I wish she would have given me the same opportunity for closure that she gave him.
Hours after the exchange of text messages, my partner came home to find that there was no consoling me. I was crying a miniature home flood. There was snot on the sleeves of my navy blue Columbia pullover because I didn’t have the energy to get up and grab tissues.
All my energy was in my mourning because I’d lost another friend. And even though it was nine months ago, I knew – I just knew that it would never be the same again. She had held in too much for far too long. She had reached her breaking point and I was barely aware that the thread had been fraying.
One of the many realities that I struggle to understand is why men don’t go through these friendship break ups – at least none of the men that I know. My partner has never had any conflict with a friend that he couldn’t just set on the table and squash.
And those friends that are no longer friends weren’t a drawn out process of reviewing all the ways they hurt each other.
I’ve heard that women are just more complex than men which means our relationships are intricate and complicated. Or that women hold each other to such a high standard in friendships that it’s unattainable. Perhaps we have a hard time forgiving one another because of how unforgiving the world is in its presumptions and judgements of us.
I’ve theorized that it hurts more because we make ourselves much more vulnerable to one another. We bare our souls and our secret wounds and lie raw next to these women we call our soulmates. So when they hurt us, it breaks us in ways that require years of time and therapy to heal.
I’m still trying to figure out the hows and the whys while mending the gaping hole in my heart.
If you lose a friend because you’re honest, it wasn’t a good friend to begin with “ – Author Unknown
I wish it was that simple. I was honest about how I felt, but I’ve reflected on the possibility that maybe she wasn’t ready for my truth. Maybe my timing was bad. I mean, bad sense of timing is a character flaw I’ve inherited from my mother. It is possible.
Or maybe I said it the wrong way. Maybe I used the wrong combination of words. Maybe I should’ve written a letter and waited until she was in a better place. Maybe I was insensitive about her emotional state given all she had on her plate.
If I took this proverb to be true, it would mean that Naomi was a bad friend. And she wasn’t. She was a great friend. She was kind, thoughtful and loving. She was the kind of friend most people wish they had.
It’s really amazing when two strangers become the best of friends, but it’s really said when the best of friends become two strangers. – Author Unknown
I’m still hurting at the loss of a friend, because even if she ever takes the time to contact me again, it won’t be the same. It can’t be.
And this is not the first time I’ve lost a friend, although I do believe it’s been my most painful because I didn’t see it coming. Usually there are signs, conversations or actions that everyone can see as a rumbling beneath the surface. Some kind of ominous lightning before the sheets of rain and roaring thunder.
If these signs were present, I did not see them until it was too late.
“Write what haunts you. What keeps you up at night. What you are unable to get out of your mind. Sometimes they are the hardest things to write, but those are often the things that are worth investigating by you specifically. . .” – Edwidge Danticat
Naomi haunts me. She shows up in my dreams and taunts me with her illusions of closure. I read articles and stumble across memes that I want to send her, but I don’t.
Every once in a blue, with glossy eyes, I will ask a mutual friend if she is still alive and well. I removed her from my social media because it hurt me too much to watch her continue living as if I never existed. I thought maybe out of sight and out of mind would make the hurt go away. It has alleviated some, but it is not gone.
Some friends have encouraged me to reach back out to Naomi and share what I am feeling. To tell her how she hurt me by spending years not telling me the ways that I hurt her. By never giving me the opportunity to be a better friend. By making herself a martyr without me ever having asked her to be one.
I can’t. I’m not ready. Beneath the sadness, there is still anger.
And if closure really does exist, I doubt it can be forged through resentment. Who knows? Maybe that’s what she hasn’t reached out too.
This essay took a long time to write because the wound is still not healed. The wound is glazed over with the kind of blood red and black scabbing that pierces if you rub against something rough and starts to bleed again. My friends can hear the wound in the way my voice cracks whenever I talk about her.
I’m still hurting. I’m still processing the loss of a friend.