Trauma Brought Us Together When We Were 16, 18, 21, 25. I Don’t Know What Brings Us Together Now.

I want to feel the kind of closeness I felt to C without having to suffer the way we suffered to find each other. But that kind of closeness can never again exist because the danger has changed.

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Trauma Brought Us Together When We Were 16, 18, 21, 25. I Don’t Know What Brings Us Together Now.
Illustration by Rebecca Fassola

After a week of mutual antagonisms, we fought it out in the bathroom on the second floor. We were fighting over a boy whose name need not be remembered. We were fighting over erasure, I guess, over the visceral haunting of scarcity, over the idea that neither of us would be good enough if the other lived. Both scrappy, but one decidedly faster and a bit more practiced than the other, we went round for round with our friends holding each other back and reminding anyone who dared enter that anything but a fair fight was strictly forbidden. In fury and haste, we shoved each other up against the bathroom walls, one slamming the other into the mirror, both of us aiming punches toward any soft spot on the body we could find. After a few bloody lips (and a near concussion), a dean who wasn’t afraid to enter the girl’s room finally came in to break us up. I don’t remember much about the aftermath; we were in detention together and didn’t speak. But a few weeks later I found myself in her living room, sharing food with her twin brother as 50 Cent blasted down the hallway over the sound of the husband next door attempting to bang down the wall. I don’t know how it became this way, but in almost no time since the scrappy hour we spent trying to tear each other’s hairs straight out of the follicle, we became best friends. Violence has its poetics. 

I don’t know what drew her to me but I know what drew me to her. Even if you end up hating their guts, when someone beats your ass fair and square you come away with some sizable respect. She won our fight, hands down, though she’d say I put up a fair one. I think she respected that, despite her notoriety, I wasn’t afraid. I think she also respected that I gave her a black eye. 

We spoke the language of loyalty. A friend who would fight alongside you came easy, but a friend who would fight for you was harder to find. C would fight for me. If there were snickers on the bus (for no good reason, it was 2005 and I was super duper fly) she would ask: “Is there a problem? Because if so, we have time…” In the lunchroom, when a rumor began that girls C beefed with over the summer planned on jumping her, I jumped over the table to throw the first hit–they needed to know she wasn’t alone and we wasn’t no punk ass bitch. And on weekends when my mother freed me of my eldest sister duties, it was her block I would rush to, my hair laid and name belt visible, to sit in the sweltering city heat to drink and laugh and wait. We waited for chaos because it was inevitable. We waited for chaos because it waited for us. 

And we were not gentle with each other. If she was in a mood, we fought. If I had something to say, I said it. Our fights were about simple things: Why you actin’ different because [so-and-so] around? We would fight and make up like sisters but no fight was ever like that first fight. Because we became each other’s necessity. Our bond was genuine and we were at peace with the fact that there would be no peace when we were together. We were hoodrats, straight out the cut. We smoked bogeys and blunts and stole full-fare Metrocards from the library so we could ride the buses, back and forth, all day wasting time, waiting. 

We weren’t always selfless with each other, but we were in the ways that mattered. Because when the chips were up, when the danger came calling and we were stuck between our kind of love and the worst kind of hate, I never questioned that she would have my back. That was the only confirmation I needed.

We never left the borough. We sweat the other’s sweat. We were each other’s business. Our loyalties were marked by our proximity to danger and our bond formed by a shared experience of trauma: She had bruised my scalp, I had blackened her eye, and the pretty girls from Highbridge hated us both. But we let the other be who they needed to be, in each moment, without compromise, as long as we followed that rule. Any other infraction could be forgiven, as long as you don’t start actin’ brand new on me.

All my friends are bougie now. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel pain or that we don’t injure each other, but it’s a pink injury as opposed to a red one and I am perhaps too casual in using such gendered, racialized language. My friends are elite now. They are famous artists, writers, visual artists, and chefs. We’re running from a different type of danger and I’ve yet to be able to name it. Maybe we’re in danger of ourselves? In danger of becoming versions that our childhood selves would side-eye. In danger of being ungrateful or forgetting who we wanted to be when we were young and desperate for affirmation. I’ll speak for myself: I feel in danger of unbecoming, of making choices that betray my conscience, of becoming a person C would never have spoken to and would never have bothered to punch in the face. 

Even now, I want to be open, vulnerable. But I don’t know how to do that without being forced to do so by some traumatic event that initiates mutual dependency.

Safety means something different in this new world, which makes the meaning of friendship something that I haven’t quite been able to understand. For instance, right now I am staring at a text in my phone that I can’t figure out. I am upset with you because I was really looking forward to our time together and you canceled on me for dick.

I don’t understand. It was what I needed. I needed to be touched by someone who was not my friend. I needed that more than I needed to see her. Why was that wrong?

Because I was looking forward to seeing you and we made plans. When you don’t come through it makes me feel like you don’t want to invest in me the way I want to invest in you.

I’m not comprehending something correctly. I feel awful but I’m not sure why. To me, no harm occurred. We didn’t punch each other in the face and I didn’t switch up. I said plainly what I needed and assumed she would understand. This was a permissible selfishness, according to all the TikToks about friendship and self-care. But now, my beautiful friend is crying and I realize I’ve caused a trauma. Look at my heavy hand. Here the girl was, vulnerable and trying to be my friend and I didn’t even know how to be nice to her. 

I’m not sure I want to be close to you. I will try, but this really hurt my feelings. 

This? What was I supposed to do about this kind of injury? I still have not grown used to being responsible for more than another’s body.

More of these incongruencies have materialized as I’ve crossed the bridge from the old me into the new me. Friendships on this side of the border define loyalty differently. I was loyal to the most important principles of friendship—you watch my back and I’ll watch yours. Everything else, to me, was Disney. So when she doesn’t text me back a couple of weeks later, and that aching feeling settles in my chest, I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what it is. 

Childhood shows up everywhere it shouldn’t in my friendships. 

After C and I went our destined ways, I made a new best friend—the second and most significant friendship of my young adulthood. This friendship was more adult but did not feel any more difficult until we had our first and only real falling out after ten years of friendship, and then things were never quite the same. She remains, to this day, one of the best friends I’ve ever had—and probably has no idea I still see her this way. It feels like she moved on from me and moved on from that kind of friendship, that kind of binding relationality, because she had to, because an unfixable error had occurred and it had been mine. My fault in this situation took me a while to understand but I think I am starting to get it now. A close friend had once badly hurt her and I had done nothing. It was not as much betrayal as it was neglect. In all fairness, I was trying to be loyal to too many people and had been loyal to none. This didn’t seem like a trauma to me but an honest mistake. This seemed surmountable. This was not a dynamic I had been trained to understand. We had exchanged no harsh words, and again, no fists. Shouldn’t we have been over it by now?

It’s been five years since it all ended and I am, I think, the only one not over it.  

I realize I’ve missed some adolescent steps. I realize that these are the kinds of injuries that most young girls exchange in high school; the kinds of exchanges that end with decades of resentment; the kinds of resentments that are never forgiven. It’s not just befriending a girl from a rival clique that can end a friendship but so many other missteps that I had never considered. I never had those kinds of conflicts before, and in the shadow of my old life, this was so mild that I didn’t know how to hold it. With a tight fist or with my heart?

Even now, I want to be open, vulnerable. But I don’t know how to do that without being forced to do so by some traumatic event that initiates mutual dependency. I don’t know how to show up unless there’s an emergency. I saw C every day because I needed to; because we kept each other safe. Abandoning her felt life-threatening. But the girls I call friends now can call their parents and have mechanisms in place to prevent them from needing the kind of support C and I gave each other—so what could they possibly need from me? How was I supposed to know a friendship needed more than physical danger to sustain itself? How was I supposed to know that before now?

I say all of this to the diagnostic therapist while I squeeze the plushie in my arms tighter to my body. I feel the wet tears but idk why I’m crying. What am I not getting? Why does making meaningful friendships feel impossible? Why am I so bad at this?

There were some social cues I hadn’t picked up on, she says. Some social cues evaded me because my idea of friendship was born in an unreplicable circumstance that some people simply cannot relate to. 

My therapist says it makes sense that this is the age—31—where all my anxiety about friendship feels so acute. I am exiting my solar return. I have come back to my original body. 

C wasn’t the first real friend I’d ever had or the last. But no friendship that followed was the same. We turned 18. We found different interests. I became “an artist.” I moved away. And once I left The Bronx, all the rules I’d come to learn about how friendship worked were disrupted one by one. 

Why are my friendships harder to make now that my life has become an idyllic hum; now that silence is no omen; now that my safety is an expectation?

Early on, there were some similarities between how my friendship with C formed and how the friendships after her formed. For instance, friendship still felt right and made sense to me when we were young poets fighting for spotlights on stages in the Midwest, four of us to a hotel bed with $15 in our bank accounts. We were struggling and hungry and needed our friends to help us fight for opportunities in a competitive literary landscape and root for each other when we couldn’t do it for ourselves. 

Friendship still felt right at 21 when we were in our first serious relationships and needed to save each other from the death spiral of a damaged lover. 

Friendship even felt right at 25 when we were new adults and needed to tend to our new deer legs as we stumbled into personal and professional obstacle after obstacle.

Those friendships were easy for me to navigate. We were exhausted, desperate, and wanted to be great, so great, and greatness was blinding. We were hungry for reassurance, hungry to learn, and needed to learn with and from each other to be great. We loved each other to death. That was the engine that powered our connection. That was what I thought it meant to be young and in love. 

But now we’re in our 30s and here we are. We are, I guess, successful. Some of us are married. One of us alone can afford the entire meal now. We are not having children, not really, so there’s no huge unmaking of life, just a kind of going on, a kind of focused meandering. Life is not as hard as it was at 18 or 21 or 25. We slip away because of the ease.  

My therapist says I got too used to trauma being the bonding material of my friendships. She tells me I missed all the cues that say, “It’s time to change now” or “We’re safe now.” She says that’s, in part, due to the autism, but in part, due to trauma itself. 

I’m pretty lonely. I want to feel the kind of closeness I felt to C without having to suffer the way we suffered in order to find each other. But that kind of closeness can never again exist because the danger has changed. I’m not at risk of getting my ass beat, I’m at risk of losing my integrity. I’m at risk of being exhausted. I’m at risk of being ungrateful. I’m at risk of being overworked and underappreciated. I’m at risk of being alone. These are true mortalities. They do not compare to what I escaped. 

My bougie friends don’t need me to put my body on the line for them. They just want a good time, a good ear, and a consistent text back. I can bring the wine but my phone is on Do Not Disturb and I will show up to dinner 10 minutes late, that is my only consistency. If I’m not fighting for you, I don’t know what else to do. Tears? Here’s a napkin and some encouragement. Sad? Here’s a pep talk. Need a job? I’ll update your resume. Being hunted? I am an animal and I will end the world for you. But at 32, when the waters are calm and the threat is in theory, and everybody’s got the job they want and is still working harder than they need to be, that kind of friend is no one’s friend. That kind of girl needs chaos for validation. That kind of friend is exhausting. 

C and I DM from time to time, maybe once a year. We exchange a set of simple niceties: How are you? Miss you. In the subtext is the implicit reminder: I love you. Thank you for being my friend.

I wouldn’t know what else to say now that my language has changed. I want to ask about her child, about her family, I want to say hi to her mom. But with all this distance, we understand that our friendship only makes sense in memory. We do not cross the line. 

Why are my friendships harder to make now that my life has become an idyllic hum; now that silence is no omen; now that my safety is an expectation?

I am attempting to learn new rules and I am working on growing up. The version of me with the capacity to be a good friend now is not the version of me that existed when C and I were kids. I am killing my romance with the past. I am learning adult friendship etiquette. For instance, if you’re trying to get close to someone, you should probably not cancel on them at the last minute to fulfill a fleeting desire; if you don’t spend time experiencing joy together, that closeness will never come; when you don’t text back or respond to phone calls it makes it really hard for anyone to reach you physically or emotionally. These adult friendships require a different kind of maintenance and commitment, a commitment to kindness and calm.

But some of the old rules I once lived by have transcended time and remain the same:

  1. 1. An enemy of your friend is indeed your enemy. 
  2. 2. We never want to stop fighting for our friends, even when they are strong enough to fight for themselves.

It’s just very boring now. I don’t know how to get comfortable in the kind of sweet boredom that adult friendships form. I don’t know how to get comfortable with the monotony that one should appreciate—lest she be reminded of a time she could not ride the bus without a body double, without a twin. 

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