Essays - Winter 2007

Fired

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Can a friendship really end for no good reason?

By Emily Bernard

December 1, 2006


 

On a Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Beverly and I planned a trip to Long Island, just us girls, to celebrate my upcoming marriage. By that evening, Beverly and I were no longer friends. But I didn’t know that yet. At 7:00 p.m. I was sure there had been some mistake, some misunderstanding, some bizarre but absolutely explainable crossing of wires—she hadn’t gotten my messages, she had fallen into bed with some new boy, she had been kidnapped. I would continue to turn various scenarios over in my head for the next several months until finally I had to accept the truth—I had been fired.

Fired described anything or anyone Beverly could no longer tolerate. Other friends of mine use the word tired to describe what they find tedious. To be fired is much worse. Something “tired” is wearisome but tolerable if the occasion calls for it. Something “fired” is beneath contempt. In Beverly’s lexicon there was only one thing worse than being fired, and that was being so fired.

Perhaps her cold, bureaucratic language should have warned me that Beverly would charge through our friendship with the take-no-prisoners attitude of a corporate downsizer. Even in the dismal state of the current corporate climate, euphemisms are employed to indicate the end of a career. Workers are laid off, let go, granted extended vacations. Only Donald Trump and other actors bark “You’re fired!” at their employees. When Beverly fired me, it was not as if I came to work and the locks had been changed or someone else was sitting at my desk. It was as if I came to work and work wasn’t there anymore.

Seven years later, I still mourn the loss of this friendship. I may never discover what happened to turn Beverly away from me, but I have learned something else: mourning the loss of a friendship elicits little sympathy from others. In our culture, it seems, friendships are generally considered to be incidental—garnishes on the plate of important relationships, like those between family members and spouses. There are no institutions, no common rituals to support either the initiation or termination of bonds between friends. Because I take my friendships as seriously as I do my marriage, I put together an anthology of writings about friendships, specifically interracial ones. At this point, it might be helpful for me to say that Beverly is white and I am black. This fact has nothing to do with why Beverly and I are no longer friends, even though I often pretend that it does. “You know how hard it is,” I sigh when people ask me why Beverly and I are not friends anymore. I do this to spare myself and others the shameful truth, which is that Beverly dumped me. This is a fact more meaningful than our racial difference could ever be.

For a friendship that ended so recklessly, it had begun very carefully. Beverly (not her real name) was a student in the first class I ever taught—a section of a lecture course on 19th-century American literature. The first day of class, Beverly slumped down in her seat and stared past me. I took in the creamy red hair, the dull blue eyes, the turquoise sandals, and emerald toenails. She had a round, chubby face and long, muscular calves. Angry guitar chords floated around her as she walked in; Liz Phair, it turned out. Her mind was on other things besides 19th-century American literature. I would later learn what they were: her looks, which mostly displeased her; her family, always in some state of chaos; her future; a man who didn’t want her, but should have; her friendships, shifting seismically as she approached her last year of college. I recognized this girl; she was someone I had been.

Looking at her slumped in her seat like that, I pegged Beverly as apathetic, and I was partly right. Still, what she accomplished without sweat was miles beyond what anyone else her age was capable of—at least anyone I knew. Her writing was stylish, enlivening, fearless. I was intimidated; she was benevolent. Beverly appeared to be amused by my attempts to behave like a grownup, but she generously helped me uphold the ruse.

At the end of the semester, I saw Beverly at a bar where graduate students hung out. She was the youngest, smartest, most interesting person at the table. Right next to her, I would later learn, sat the man who didn’t want her, but should have. Beverly looked at me and said, “Should we start being friends now, or should I take your class first?” I had just found out that I would be teaching my very own seminar the following semester. That these words constituted the first personal exchange between Beverly and me did not feel strange.
“Take my class,” I said. “We have the rest of our lives to be friends.”

She took the class. We were faithful to the boundaries prescribed by our respective roles until the day I handed in her final grade (an A). The next day, or very soon after that, we began a routine of hours-long phone calls, copious e-mails, and ponderous discussions during extensive walks. This routine continued for six years. Beverly could imitate anyone. She so accurately mimicked the voices and verbal tics of others that when I met the people in her stories, I had to keep my jaw from literally hitting the floor. Nothing could make Beverly laugh harder than to have someone say to her, “My jaw literally hit the floor.” She loved language, and she delighted in the linguistic foibles of everyday speech. She constantly crafted and revised her own idiom. “This weather is beyond fired,” she said as we looked out of her apartment window during a snowstorm. I nodded, giddy to be with her, eager for whatever she would say next.

I moved to Brooklyn, but Beverly and I still talked all the time. We watched the first season of Big Brother and at least one Real World marathon together on the phone. Early on, when I was dating someone I really liked, he and I set Beverly up with a friend of his, and that established a precedent. We played central roles in each other’s romantic life, and she counseled me through numerous romantic disappointments. Years later, when I introduced her to the man who would become my husband, she made the pivotal observation, “I’ve never seen you be so much yourself with someone.” When my husband met her, he used words like “exquisite” and “charming.” He could see the rare jewel that she was, and that made me fall in love with him a little bit more.

Beverly was several years younger than I was, but I looked up to her. Once, as I sat in the passenger seat of her father’s decaying blue Volvo, she passionately expounded on the parallels between the movie Jerry Maguire and the Horatio Alger myth, while deftly weaving in and out of rush-hour Manhattan traffic. “You’re not afraid of anything,” I blurted, feeling very much the child of the sleepy, suburban streets of Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up. Beverly grew up in Manhattan, and her language and confidence seemed like the realization of my teenage fantasies about citizens of New York City. Maybe she became bored and alienated by how often I was awestruck by things about her that she considered utterly mundane.

I was not the first person Beverly fired. Earlier there had been a close friend in college whom Beverly suddenly and violently deemed her nemesis. Then, there was a co-worker who was one day an intimate and the next someone Beverly could no longer tolerate. Her reasons for rejecting her college friend seemed shaky to me, but her treatment of her co-worker I found chilling. Without explanation, Beverly stopped returning her phone calls and never opened a letter the woman sent her right after the phone calls ceased. Beverly was never particularly forgiving, but now she was trying on outright viciousness like a slick new suit. She would grow out of it, I thought.

I believed I was immune to Beverly’s caprice. Like me, she had early on experienced ruptures in her most intimate relationships. Like her, I understood the irresistible, resonating power of silence. I learned about the power of silence where many people do: at home. In my family, feuds always ended in silence. Each and every argument clambered recklessly to a crescendo whose denouement was always the silent treatment. You knew in the fight that you had gone too far, but maybe you had actually gone somewhere even beyond that. You waited out the silence in fear that you would never be spoken to again. The fear was as terrifying as it was thrilling, like a roller coaster ride, only not nearly as safe.

At some point I developed an addiction to these sensations. For this reason, among others, I married a forgiving, even-tempered man who does not hold grudges. Before I met my husband, I nursed a serious crush on Jasper, a handsome postdoc from the Caribbean. We met through a mutual friend at about the same time I met Beverly. Jasper was worldly and vivacious and at times capable of a surprising sweetness. Jasper and our mutual friend, Steve, decided to share an apartment. Several weeks later Jasper kicked Steve out and never spoke a word to him again. He detailed his complaints about Steve, but none of them, I thought, justified such a radical act. Still, I believed Jasper when he looked me in the eye and assured me that he would never treat me that way. I was mistaken.

My experience with Jasper taught me two things. One: even minor relationships can end in ways that are devastating. Two: at the moment when someone makes the promise that he will never, ever betray you—particularly when you can see the carcasses of multiple, rashly aborted relationships right behind him—at that very moment, you should consider yourself betrayed.

Marriage to a compassionate man has encouraged me to rethink much of my own hasty behavior in past friendships. Not long ago I got back in touch with Jack, a white man who was once a close friend. We met in college and decided to attend the same graduate school. We found apartments within walking distance of each other. On most evenings one of us called the other and asked, “What are we doing for dinner tonight?”

I dumped Jack about a year into graduate school when I befriended several women with leftist convictions and feminist politics that I determined to adopt as my own. Jack was a good old boy who had a penchant for offcolor jokes and impolite observations. I did as well, but I did not think these aspects of my personality would appeal to my new friends. So I put them in a grave alongside my friendship with Jack and sealed it.

I continue to be humbled by how easily Jack allows me back into his life after all these years. We have picked up as if my bad behavior never took place. When he expresses regret about how we “fell out of touch,” I am too ashamed to confess that I dumped him deliberately and that I did so because one day I decided that he looked nothing like the person I was trying to become, and I resolved not to forgive him for that.

Beverly and I were friends for six years. In the last months of our friendship, I saw her go through the most remarkable transformation I have ever witnessed. First, she shed so many pounds that even my typically circumspect husband told her that he thought she was too thin. In truth, she was no thinner than any other conventionally attractive young woman out there, and I believed that was exactly what she was going for. She had chucked the weight as well as all the vestiges of eccentricity in her wardrobe. When she looked in the mirror, she used unforgiving words to describe her body and acted annoyed when I told her she was wrong. She began to lead a fabulous big-city life—the kind of life she used to mock, and she seemed to have buried her ironic distance from it. I sensed that she had lost the ability to laugh at herself altogether. She began to fantasize out loud about enhancement cosmetic surgery. It was around this time that she dumped her co-worker. She started dating a man she described as beautiful but dumb. I listened to her stories and pretended to understand whatever was happening. I thought if I just waited out this phase, she would come back to me. She said that the new man was not only dumb but also possibly racist. But he was beautiful. His teeth were perfect.

Beverly and I met at the opening of a friend’s restaurant. I introduced her to two elegant, stately black women I considered role models. Beverly had heard me talk about them often, and I was pleased to have an occasion to introduce her to them. When I did, she pasted two index fingers together and pointed them at the women like a pistol. She said, “Okay, so which is which?”

The openness drained from the faces of the women. I admired them so, and here I was bringing such rudeness, like the rotting carcass of a rat, right to their doorstep. I hated Beverly for a moment, but the moment passed. I knew she was nervous, nothing more. I steered her away, as quickly as I could, and later I apologized to the women, who graciously waved away my words of regret.

Sometimes I tell this story when people ask, “Who was that girl you used to hang around with? What happened to her?” Depending on my audience, I tell this story as a tale about racial difference, about the unbridgeable gap between black and white.

“You know how it goes,” I say in conclusion. Sometimes I embellish the story, and make Beverly look more or less obnoxious, depending on my mood. But if Beverly hadn’t dumped me, I would never have repeated this story to anyone, certainly not here.

What I have come to believe about interracial friendships is this: when a friendship ends between two people of different races, it is easy to point to race as the reason. It is easy, and it is misleading, as race itself is often misleading. I know that I hold on to the memory of that unfortunate moment because it puzzled and troubled me, but I also hold on to it because it is a convenient fixture on which to hang the pain and anger I feel about the fact that Beverly dumped me. This memory, like most memories, is as meaningful as it is meaningless.

Beverly and I talked honestly about race; it was part of the glue that bonded us. I loved her, in part, because she was not the kind of white person who saw race as the most significant aspect of an interracial friendship. She was also not the kind of white person who looked at black and white people and saw no difference. Beverly loved black cultural style for what was curious, appealing, and, to her, different about it. But she also saw me, too, for who I was, both within and beyond my racial identity.

“Membership has its privileges,” I say when I walk down the street with a friend and exchange a nod or a greeting with a black stranger. Beverly had a black friend at her prep school who said this to her when she once asked the friend why she had nodded hello to a black stranger. I loved that Beverly noticed that her friend had said hello to a stranger who was black, that she recognized it as a custom among the black people she knew and observed, and that she had asked her friend about it. I loved that Beverly noticed the same thing about me and said out loud to me, “Membership has its privileges,” one day when she saw me greet a black stranger. I loved that her comment caught me so much by surprise that I stopped and faced her, and we stood there and laughed unrestrainedly as a traffic light changed, and changed again. Maybe it is strange and possibly sad to reveal how much I treasured in a white person her interest in and ease around black people, but I have found it rare enough in my life to call it significant.

I thought that the ease between us meant that Beverly and I would always be friends. I never considered that it could be otherwise, and even now this realization surprises me. I grew up around adult women who believed that men had ruined their lives. Therefore, in romance, I have always proceeded with suspicion. In friendships, I have taken risks, been vulnerable, asked to know and be known. As a result, it has been in friendship that I have learned the pleasures and dangers of intimacy: the pleasures of loving openly and recklessly; the dangers of having it end before you are ready.

Fired. In our sixth year of friendship, we met at the train station, and walked together down a New York street. She looked radiant, and I told her so. We sat in a restaurant and talked about men. I gave her advice. We planned a trip to Long Island. She gave me keys to her apartment and told me she had not checked them. She would be in town that night, she said, so I should call her cell phone if the keys didn’t work. They didn’t work. I called and called. It was raining, and I left self-pitying messages on her voice mail as I waited on the wet stoop. Eventually, I called another friend who offered me his couch, and I left a final, icy message for Beverly. “Don’t bother calling back,” I said. I turned off my cell phone to punish her. As I went to sleep, I imagined all the cooing, apologetic messages Beverly would leave on my voice mail. I was wrong. The next day, I boarded the train and headed back to Pennsylvania where I was living. I fumed for a few days, and then called Beverly again. She never called back.

Days turned into weeks. I worried. My husband wondered if she was depressed over something else, so I left a message reminding her how much I cared about her. “I’m here for you,” I said. Weeks turned into months. Back then, my husband was my fiancé, and when friends threw us an engagement party, he slipped a note inside Beverly’s invitation asking her to come. She did not respond. Months before, he and Beverly had shopped together for my engagement ring.

I sent her my own note, part accusatory, part humiliated, replete with outraged pride and sorrow, but ambiguous enough, I thought, so that she would see that reconciliation was not only possible, it was what I wanted. She did not respond. I did not send her an invitation to our wedding, not because I did not want her there, but because I believed one more round of silence from her would break my heart for good. But it didn’t matter, really, because my heart was broken anyway.

It has been almost seven years since I last talked to Beverly. During these years I have reassured myself with memories of all the ways Beverly was obviously trying to transform her life. Maybe the demise of our friendship was just unfortunate fallout from the battle she was waging with herself. These days I am nearly satisfied with that explanation. But there were other days, not long ago, when I would get into my car to mourn her in private, where no one could judge me for missing my friend. One night I drove during a rainstorm for hours, crying and pounding on the steering wheel, startled by the depth of my grief and grateful that the rain and darkness shielded my display from other drivers. This is true. But it is also true that, over the years, I have heard from Beverly through other people, and I am still too proud to take up her indirect invitations to get back in touch.

Seven years. Periodically I come across the evidence of our friendship: unreturned books, birthday cards, the set of faulty keys. Then there are the memories that surface without invitation: sure hands on the steering wheel of a decaying blue Volvo; a cloud of guitar chords around a head of creamy red hair; a membership with privileges; two fingers pointed like a pistol.

I miss it all.


Emily Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.


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