[Draft in process]
I have a childhood friend. He was my best friend from when I was 7 until I was 41 or so. He was the best man in my wedding. I would have been his best man if he didn’t have a biological brother.
I’m 53 now. And we are still… friendly. But for the last 11 or 12 years, our friendship has been attenuated. I’ve mentioned him in passing a couple of times previously.
When I was 40, or maybe 41, he hurt me. Badly.
He had hurt me a lot in our teen years. And in our 20s. Never intentionally; always, obliviously.
But by the time we were 30ish, that phase of our friendship had come to an end, I thought. And, I should say: this guy was, genuinely, (like) a brother to me. We literally grew up in the same house. His parents were surrogate parents to me; mine, to him. We were together through each of our parents’ divorces. All of our milestones, we celebrated together.
When he hurt me, badly, in our early 40s, I told him our friendship would survive.
I was wrong.
I fully intended to forgive him for his betrayal. The details of his betrayal aren’t important. Or interesting. Suffice it to say, he revealed to me something literally every other of his close friends had learned years before, and I should have so learned: that when confronted by a choice between advancing his interests and protecting mine, he would bloodlessly choose his own.
When I learned of his betrayal – an overt, undeniable betrayal – I said to him, via text, or maybe email, “Let’s have a drink. I won’t hit you. And it won’t be our last drink.”
Those two predictions were correct. I didn’t hit him. It wasn’t our last drink.
But it was the first drink of this phase of our hollowed-out friendship – something I didn’t anticipate at the time. I thought he would do the manifestly, obviously, correct thing – that he would apologize. That he would pick up the tab. That he would be – as circumstances called for – abject.
He couldn’t. He didn’t. And he wasn’t.
It’s more than a decade later. About two months ago, at a gathering at the home of two mutual friends,(both of whom he previously had betrayed), he told me of a dream he recently had had: he and I were stuck together in some sort of wrestling singlet. He was wriggling to get our legs free; I was no help. Limp. Lifeless. Dead weight.
His dream was straightforward: for ten years or more, he has tried, earnestly, in his way, to resuscitate our friendship. He’s done this without reference to his betrayal, to the moment of the break. Rather, he’s invited me to drink after drink, dinner after dinner. We’ve drunk together. We’ve eaten together. And we’ve tried. Or rather, he has tried.
I, for the most part, have sat back and watched. I don’t trust him. He’s done nothing over the years to convince me that, should I make myself vulnerable to him again, he won’t betray me at the drop of a dime.
He’s apologized, repeatedly, after a fashion. Mostly, by saying, “I’m sorry.” Or, “I take responsibility for my actions.” Or, “I wish it hadn’t happened,” or more actively, “I wish I hadn’t betrayed you.” Or, repeatedly, by asking for forgiveness.
At no point has he asked me how his actions affected me. At no point has he asked what he might do to make me feel safer. At no point has he in any way communicated an appreciation for my experience of his betrayal, for my subjectivity.
When we had drinks that night recently, discussing his dream, discussing his fruitless attempts to revive our friendship, he asked what he could do, how we could restore our friendship. I told him I felt he had never suitably apologized. He told me he had apologized a dozen times. I told him he had said he was sorry, but that he never, ever, had engaged with the harm he had caused me, that his apologies felt empty in the absence of an appreciation of my experience, of my pain, of my loss.
He told me that he’s limited, that empathy isn’t his strong suit. He expressed genuine bafflement as to my enduring pain. Bafflement, not curiosity.
The evening ended awkwardly, with me laying out my grievances – first and foremost, a complete lack of appreciation of, or curiosity about, my subjective experience of his betrayal; second, a failure to apologize meaningfully; and third, a conspicuous courting of me – and exclusion of me – that seemed calculated to play to external audiences, rather than to me. And with him stubbornly insisting that he had apologized, that I was being unreasonable.
Some weeks passed. And then, two e-mails, in the space of just a few hours: one, an “apology,” the other, an invitation to participate in a group from which he had excluded me for years – a book group convened by him, including several of our mutual friends. I had felt painfully excluded from this group, and genuinely appreciate having been invited to join, even as I question his motives.
“I wish I had not hurt you,” he wrote. “I wish I had been able to make amends, over the years. I’ve been journaling and imagining the the impact of my actions on you and the pain you felt. I am so sorry. I have been sitting with it and wish I could undo it. I want you in my life and I am hopeful that you will forgive me. I want to repair the harm and rebuild the closeness we once had. I love you and miss you.”
My annotation of this note isn’t kind. It isn’t generous. It’s wounded. Aggrieved. Petulant.
I’m not particularly interested in his wishes, in his journaling, in his imagination. There’s no reason he needs to imagine the impact of his actions on me, the pain I felt. He could, simply, ask: surely what he might learn would be more useful than his imagination.
The impact of his actions? He made me question the single most important friendship I’ve ever had. He shook the ground beneath my feet. The person I had trusted the most, for the longest, betrayed me. Was trust ever possible with anyone else?
And as for the pain… I didn’t sleep for weeks. Maybe months. I meditated daily, and felt rage, and fear, and then, finally, sadness, course through my body. Day after day. For months. For more than a year. My back seized up, tense, clenched. My chest tightened painfully, and I discovered my solar plexus – a knot of tension and suffocation and pain in the center of my chest.
I cycled through rage and sadness, confusion and pain, fear and hatred.
I lost more than one friendship in the wake of the loss of his friendship – friends who simply were made uncomfortable by the rift between us, friends who couldn’t stand in the space between us. Those friends weren’t, any longer, close with him. They had learned, long before, not to trust him and, in most cases, how to coexist amicably, if at some distance, with him. They were, though, close with me. They aren’t now. He had brought some of us together; now, he drove us apart.
And as for forgiveness: my experience of forgiveness is that it isn’t something one grants; it’s something one feels. I’ve written more than once that forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past will have been different. Well. I’m not there. I still wish the past was different. I’m not ready to forgive him. Nowhere near ready. I’ve long since accepted what happened, what he did. But forgiveness only will come, I feel certain, when I feel safe with him.
I would love to forgive him. Fury weighs heavily on me. And I have a bad back, so that shit hurts. There’s little I would like more than to forgive him. But there’s just no way forgiveness simply will materialize in me in response to his facile formulations. Forgiveness, if it ever comes, will be a meteorological phenomenon, arising after his kindness and genuineness and honesty and curiosity and yes, empathy, erode the ossified structures I’ve produced to defend myself against him.
And all the rest of what he wrote? Well, all I can say is that he is the subject; I am the object. He wants. He is hopeful. There’s not a single question mark in what he writes. The only time I am the subject, it’s in a subordinate clause, controlled by his hopes, his wishes: “I am hopeful that you will forgive me.”
The apology I crave
Here’s what I would have him write, if I had my druthers:
“I know I hurt you. I know that ‘amends’ simply are not possible for the harm I caused. I’ve spent many, many hours journaling and imagining the the impact of my actions on you and the pain you felt. This was wasted time – or if not wasted time, at least, inadequate, insufficient.
I should have just asked you to educate me, as I ask you now: tell me about that impact. Tell me about that pain. If, when, you can. If, when, you are willing. Sit with me and make me know that pain, if, when you can, and are willing.
I am so sorry.
While I wish I could undo my actions, I know I can’t. And given that, I want to work with you to make you know I understand just how destructive my actions were, to make you feel in your bones that I never would, never could, harm you again in the way I did.
I want you in my life, if you’ll have me, and while I don’t dare hope that you will forgive me, if there were anything I could do that would make such forgiveness possible, or even likely, I would move heaven and earth to do it. And if there is, if you know of anything I could do, I hope you will tell me.
There’s little in life I want more than to repair, or at least reduce, the harm I did, and to rebuild the closeness we once had. I understand and accept that our friendship may never again be what it was, may never again be even a shadow of that. I hope I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong. I will work to make myself wrong. And my work doesn’t depend on your cooperation or even participation – though I hope you’ll grant me at least that.
I love you and miss you, and long to have you back in my life.”
That’s the note I would like to receive from him. Instead, I got the one he sent.
It may well be that I’m simply insatiable on this – that had he sent me precisely the words I just wrote, I would want an alternative alternative, that I would find that note insufficient. That might be true. And that’s ok.
Friendship ain’t bean bag. It’s the most important thing in my life, after family. And he destroyed ours. Not with his actions. Our friendship was strong enough to survive even the worst betrayal. No, he destroyed the friendship with the years of indifference to my experience of his actions, to my feelings, that followed.
Consistently, he has behaved as if our friendship is something I withhold from him, unreasonably, unfairly – or at least, sadly – rather than something he destroyed, that he might seek to rebuild.
As if the obligation to restore, rebuild, resume our friendship is mine, and not his.
It’s a not-irrelevant aside that my friend has a younger brother, that I have no siblings. I genuinely grew up believing my friend was my brother. And even, that his brother was a sort of cousin of mine. Not too long after our rupture, my friend and his brother had a rupture. His brother stopped speaking with him. This went on for years. I watched, incredulous, as my friend tolerated not just the loss of his friendship with me, but the loss of his relationship with his brother. Several times I told him this: that somehow, his brother’s and his estrangement hurt me, too, even as it reassured me. It hurt me, because it showed me that he really was prepared to lose those closest to him. It reassured me because – well, because it put me in the same category in which he put his brother. And, I should say, his wife, with whom he also separated – and ultimately divorced – in the same stretch of time. Though he and she remained amicable throughout….
In any event: he’s sent me this missive, and now, I have to figure out how to respond.