A few days ago, I listened to this podcast episode from Invisibilia, “A Friendly Ghost Story.” The story centers on a mystery between two friends. James is best friends with his college roommate, Tim. They graduate, share the same house, but then one day Tim just moves out and breaks off all contact. Over the years, James keeps texting and emailing Tim to ask what went wrong between them. Tim never replies. It’s not until decades later that James finally finds out why.
Afterwards, I’m sitting on the bus to work and thinking about a good friend from years ago, 2015 to 2016. We met at a wine-and-paint party organized by a mutual friend and felt a kinship right away. I was 25, she was 32. I was in grad school and she was engaged. She had moved to DC by herself, while her fiancé had stayed behind in Thailand.
We had so much in common, so much to talk about. We went to a different arts and culture event every week — concerts at the Kennedy Center, book talks with feminist authors, a Shakespeare exhibit, a primary night party for Bernie supporters.
At one point, she decided to break off her engagement. She downloaded Tinder on her phone. And then she met a great guy.
It wasn’t a slow fade out. Almost immediately, I felt like I didn’t fit into her life anymore. It seemed she didn’t have time or interest in hanging out anymore. The things we used to do together, she now did with her partner.
I still remember the last time we talked in person. She was trying to hire someone to work with her, and shared the job description with me, asking if I could help spread the word. We had lunch, and I shared that actually, I myself was interested in the job. “Should I apply?” I asked, and she shook her head. “No,” was all she said.
My cheeks burned with humiliation. We never spoke again, in person or over text. Soon, I learned from Facebook that she had gotten married at a beautiful estate in England. Of course I hadn’t been invited to the wedding. She and her husband now have two children.
Five years later, it still hurts a little to remember the abrupt ending to this friendship. For years, I felt resentment over what I perceived as being treated as a “stop-gap friend” — someone whose company was useful only until someone better came along. It was as though she had to clear out her closet space to make room for her new partner, and I wasn’t important enough to make the cut.
But recently, I also read the Cup of Jo blog post “Have You Ever Had a Friendship Breakup?.” Scrolling through the 600+ comments was at once a validating and illuminating experience. So many people were just like me, still wounded by the experience of being discarded by someone we had considered a dear friend. And many people shared their sides of the story, why they had to ghost their friends the way they did. Emotional immaturity. Discomfort with ‘real talk.’ Not wanting to invest any more energy into friendships with toxic people. Lack of commonalities as people change and grow.
In other words, it’s completely normal, and it’s human nature.
I must admit I was saddened again recently when my French teacher ended our classes. We had been speaking weekly since last May, fresh into the pandemic, and I had come to seen her almost as a friend. But when I sent a request for our next lesson, she declined it. A few hours later, she sent a brief message, explaining that she had decided to stop teaching and that I should find a new teacher.
Logically, I had always known this day would come. Teaching French was only her side hustle; she was first and foremost an artist. But it was still the death of something trusted, something familiar. Just like that, we would never talk again, never have classes. I’ll miss her, and I’m not looking forward to trawling italki for another French teacher.
In life there are often no satisfactory goodbyes, no endings wrapped in bows. We are friends on this day, and the next day we are not. Like ships passing in the ocean, we enjoy the journey while it lasts.