A friendship break-up is a radical loss. Why don’t we talk about it more?

In early November 2019 I was boarding a plane in Paris on my way home from a memoir workshop I teach. I felt relieved to have finished work and ready to go home. Suddenly, ahead of me on the air bridge, I saw a woman with an easily identifiable mane of dark hair – my ex-friend Gina who had dumped me nearly two years earlier. Since then we had not spoken at all.

What was she doing in Paris again? A rush of memories of our friendship flooded my mind: glasses of red wine in Le Petit Fer, a concert in the Tuileries, walking up the rue Muller behind Montmartre. And back in Sydney, there were dinners at each other’s places, meetings in cafes, the dozens of times we had worked together on a play she was writing.

Then, without warning, the brutal pruning – leaving me, the sappy branch, on the ground.

What would I do when I passed her seat on the plane? Would I nod tersely and keep going? Would I stop briefly and drawl, “Well, this is awkward,” like a cool woman in a film?

The woman ahead turned to check her trolley suitcase – it wasn’t Gina after all. Of course it wasn’t.

As soon as I was seated on the plane, I started taking notes, always my first reaction to confusion. Gina and I had been close friends for 15 years, then there had been a period of a few months when she cancelled dates or didn’t answer texts, and finally, a text instructing me not to contact her. A sharp, quick cut. What had I done wrong? And why did a mistaken sighting two years later trigger a storehouse of memories of delight and then hurt and bewilderment? By the time I arrived back in Sydney I knew I had a book to write.

Two things struck me as I started work. One was how little had been written about friendship breakups, compared to the outpouring in films, plays, songs, poems and novels about romantic breakups. The other was the illusory nature of memory in relation to friendship, how unreliable it was.

We owe memory – Mnemosyne, the mother of all the muses – our sense of self. Without it there can be no sense of identity, no consciousness of being, no books, no poetry, no friendship. But memory is fundamentally a storyteller. According to what it considers “salient”, it collects sensory impressions – the smell of coffee, a mane of hair, the feel of a china cup – and edits them together into a story: I am having coffee with a new friend. The friend could have been noticing another entire set of impressions, and go away with a different story. Much has circled through my mind about the ending of the friendship about which Gina is oblivious, and about which, no doubt, she has an entirely different and equally valid story.

And this is all without considering plain forgetfulness. In the middle of our years of friendship, I said something at a dinner table, which, unbeknown to me, hurt Gina. Months later she brought it up and I had forgotten the scene entirely. To me, it hadn’t happened because it wasn’t in my memory; to her it still caused pain and was evidence of my lack of sensitivity. Curiously, once she started describing in detail the location of the memory, I also started to remember – apparently all memories are geographically pinned. Every time we take a memory out and air it, we unconsciously add or subtract a little from it. My memory of the friendship has been constantly edited over the time of writing, so that I cannot tell how much relation it bears to verifiable truth.

A friendship ending is a radical loss, but it is not dissected in the same way as the end of a marriage or affair. It feels shameful; it is certainly not something to talk about with other friends. I’ve been found unworthy by one friend – why would I advertise the fact to another? Somewhere in all the neural pathways of memory, or perhaps further back in the DNA of our survival, there is the dark sliver of fear of being cast out of the tribe. I must not talk about the rupture in case it spreads.

My truth is that in all my circling, I still haven’t arrived at why I was pruned. It still could have been an unwitting hurt I inflicted, something I don’t remember. I became burdensome, clearly, but I still don’t know why. It is embarrassing to express the pain of being considered a burden. It sounds pathetic, like an elderly spinster great-aunt tottering by in the lounge-room, bumping into the coffee table with her walking frame, apologising, trying not to get in anyone’s way.

It’s not the sort of pain anyone writes a poem or song about; there’s no drama or passion, just humiliation. In four years the pain has faded, or rather, seems like an artefact stored behind glass in a museum cabinet, all its ability to hurt gone, but I do still feel bewilderment at times. It feels like it’s time to claim the hurt and confusion of friendships ending – time to write and sing and talk about it.

Writing True Friends felt like venturing into taboo territory; dangerous to write and dangerous to publish. But the unexpected reward has been rediscovering the intense joys of friendships throughout my life. Some of my friendships may have been glasswork, but others have been the solidest thing I know.

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