I knew that this book was coming; it is published by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, the same women who published HerStories, an anthology about friendship that contains an essay I wrote about the end of a friendship. I got to read this new book early, before its publication date, but until I waded into its “True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends,” I had no idea how badly I needed this book.
My Other Ex let me finally understand that women fall into deep love with one another, a kind of love that deserves as much, if not more, respect than any romance, and yet, the pain of losing that love is rarely even acknowledged. During the very first essay, I found myself thinking, over and over, “It’s not just me!” My heart doesn’t carry the scars of romantic breakups in the same way; I can cooly remember the details of relationships with men I loved deeply. After over five and a half years of marriage, the anger and hurt have cooled. I still flinch away, however, from memories of women who have broken my heart, and deep shame follows me about questionable behavior toward friends who loved me. Did I fail her? Why did she abandon me? Will I ever know? Will I ever stop wondering? The scars sometimes feel as though they will never lose their tenderness.
Smock and Sprenger have grouped the essays by chronology and theme. Youth, from kindergarten to college, precedes adulthood, followed by a separate section for motherhood. Then, they insightfully make space for reconciliation stories, and a “What We Learned” section: the tales that don’t fit neatly into a narrative. I love that the book ends on that note; it feels like a jumping off point for me to wrap myself up in these stories, and my own memories, and think for awhile about what I know about friendship. The universal themes are obvious, if I give myself that time to think, but I feel as though this is the first time I have been asked to really think about those themes that thread their way through every friendship.
First: women love with a unique intensity, and it can be immediate. I’ve been carrying image from an early story: two girls meet at the top of a slide, having climbed up on opposite sides, on the first day of kindergarten, and find themselves at an impasse. Who will slide down, first? That moment, and the rush of love that the author remembers feeling for the beautiful creature on the other side who knew how to offer up the first turn, seems to sum up something that I simply haven’t heard men talk about. My husband keeps in touch with friends from very early in life, but they don’t seem to feel any sense of crisis if they don’t speak outside Fantasy Football season. (I’m not drawing on cliche, here, it’s literal – they speak about sporting events and athletes and rarely get in touch about anything else, unless there is a specific reason.) By contrast, when I reconciled with a friend I had loved deeply in elementary school and felt separated from by the forces of adolescence, she drove for hours to see me. She was thrilled to meet my child and husband. We live on opposite coasts, but it’s hard to imagine either of us visiting the other’s ocean without some attempt at meeting. We recently conspired to send a special gift to a third childhood friend and her newly adopted child, with us, the gifters, on opposite coasts, and the recipients of our care package smack in the middle of the country. I am not prepared to state definitively that men do not feel as intensely about friends, but the male friends that I have loved seem able to pick up our friendships easily, while I always worry in those silent gaps that I will never ever hear from him ever again. I finally feel like that’s not just me. Similarly, I won’t claim that every woman feels intensely about every friendship (that’s not even true of me) – indeed, many of these essays are written by women who were on the less intense side of a friendship.
You may have noticed that I can’t write about My Other Ex without mentioning my own life; I have left those parts in, on purpose. There’s no way to read this book without going over your once and future friendships. Consider yourself warned.
Second: there is no way to know what is happening in the mind of even the closest friend, even if you feel like you are the same person, when you are together. The shift that seems to happen in these essays from youth to adulthood is not age so much as the understanding that there might be something in “Her” that you can’t see or understand. We might forget that that’s possible. We might not realize that it’s there until there’s a gap we can no longer bridge. We might suspect it from the first. But when we are very young, we want to believe that this complete unity is possible; it is not. The acknowledgement that this person is separate and deserves her separateness can save a friendship. I am pretty sure I saves us both a lot of drama this very week by emailing a dear friend from college and saying “hey, I have feelings about stuff that happened, and I don’t know why we haven’t talked in awhile, but I value your friendship. What happened on your side?” That’s not always going to do the trick, but I find that it really helps any relationship when I can say, “I don’t know” and still not *ask* to understand. We can’t know everything about anyone, and we don’t truly want someone else to feel that they know everything about us. This seems to be universal.
There are more universal themes, but I want you to find them yourselves. These are good and true stories, and they feel even more deeply true for knowing that there’s another side we’re not reading. Enjoy them. Let the current of this well-crafted anthology carry you along. And when you wash ashore, at the end of the section that asks what we have learned, go ahead and make some time to contemplate friendship, with women, as a woman, between women. Most importantly, let this be the public grief that you never had. There is a friendship in your past, I’m sure, that ended, and you never told anyone how much it hurt. If not, maybe you know that you hurt someone by ending a friendship, and you never told anyone how you felt about that. These women have done the telling for us. This is the public mourning we never had. My Other Ex asks, “How are you holding up, since it ended?” for all the times that no one ever asked you that question, even when you longed to let it all out. On that note, feel free to comment with your stories. Submit them to The HerStories Project.
And please, buy the book. If not through my affiliate link:
… then through the publishers.