The Friend I’ve Been Fighting With for 20 Years

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Fonzie, meet Fonzie. Photo: Everett Collection

This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.

Veronica and I should've dated exclusively for a while before moving in together. We should've had some long talks about our deepest darkest fears and desires before we got so serious about each other. We should've gone to couples therapy sometime during our third or fourth year together. We should've admitted that we were each seeing other people. And we definitely should've had a commitment ceremony after nearly a decade together. 

If Veronica and I had known that our friendship would somehow survive 20 years of squabbles over guys, shifting social circles, turbulent career shifts, two marriages, three kids, one separation, the death of two parents, three moves to new apartments, several moves to different cities and back, and the writing of over 5,000 emails (some breezy, some confessional, some contentious), then we might've proceeded with more caution from the first day we met. 

"Oh, hey. Are you Heather?" she said. The "Oh hey" was delivered with popular-girl dismissiveness, but the "Are you Heather?" had a buoyant lift to it, an attempt to color-correct her superiority complex. She wore that bluish-red lipstick everyone wore in the early '90s, Chanel Vamp, or M.A.C Rebel, and had porcelain-doll features: small nose, dark saucer-y anime eyes, and dark eyebrows carefully sculpted into a skeptical shape. "Come in and meet everybody!" she chirped, then turned on her heel and stomped down the long hallway in her black, chunky-heeled lace-ups.

The other roommates were much less interesting and intimidating than Veronica. She was the imperious ruler of this clan. She spoke three languages and was prone to spouting her personal take on post-structuralism, but she also made fun of herself at every turn. She knew how to do things, but she'd sell herself down the river for a laugh. She was my kind of woman. 

The room for rent was gigantic and looked out on a garden. There were little pots of violets on the window ledge and an overweight black cat and a skinny orange cat meandering from room to room. Veronica interrupted her spiel about the apartment to imitate the black cat calling the orange cat a "wilty little fucker." 

I saw my life taking on an exciting new shape among these mean-spirited cats and wise-cracking women, with their creative pursuits and their artsy weirdo boyfriends and their giant books and giant ashtrays. These people were intellectuals, or pseudo-intellectuals at least. Who cared which, exactly? Not me. I'd been living with a guy who waxed nostalgic over his frat-boy past around the clock. These women were much cooler than me, which was refreshing. I wondered if Veronica would reject me. She probably would. I probably deserved to be rejected. 

My boyfriend certainly thought so. A few weeks later, after he helped me move in, he informed me, sitting in his still-idling Nissan Sentra, that we would never (ever ever) be getting back together. I cried until my nose ran and then said good-bye bravely and went inside and sat in the middle of my giant room and cried all over again. Veronica knocked on the door.

"My boyfriend dumped me," I explained.

"He's lame," she answered. "You can tell that he has no soul just by looking at him."

***

This is how true love begins: The two lovers see that they have enemies in common. They see how the world drags them under in the same ways. They recognize in each other the same thirsty spirit, howling in the desert. Upon further investigation, our families matched in crucial ways. We each had a larger-than-life, womanizing father and a complicated, intelligent mother, the pair of them locked in a death match for years before divorcing. Our childhoods were a series of joyful and melancholy leaps from one crisis to the next. Everyone laughed a lot and yelled a lot and no one talked things out calmly. Everyone saw the world in black and white and leapt to conclusions, with spirit, with conviction. 

We could talk for three hours at a time without noticing that time was passing. But we weren't vulnerable and honest with each other the way we might've been with a romantic partner. We didn't lay around in bed naked, laying our souls bare in a post-coital fog. We recognized ourselves in each other, but that recognition kicked up no small amount of judgment and self-hatred. Looking in the mirror isn't always comforting. Sometimes it's the last thing you want to do. 

Each year of our friendship seemed to have different seasons. We'd be madly in love in the spring, meeting for breakfast, lingering on the phone all afternoon, meeting for dinner and drinks, wandering from party to party. All summer, we'd confess, consult, collaborate, sharing the details of a bad visit home or a bad day at work, our thoughts and emotions echoing and reverberating like dueling string instruments in an allegro battle of wills. Each fall, my harmony suddenly clashed with her melody line; everything felt personal, every casual remark felt insulting. In spite of our long history and our abiding love, we felt badly judged, half seen, barely understood. By the time winter arrived, we'd talk less and less frequently. Then there'd be a big blowout and all of those accumulated slights would come pouring out recklessly, without apology.

We broke up over and over again, only to swoop in when a baby shower or a big breakup or the death of a parent necessitated showing up and admitting that we were still close friends in spite of ourselves. But even as all of our other friendships matured and evolved, ours stayed suspended in the sap of our early 20s. Our alliance was half-marriage, half-contentious sibling rivalry. Maybe we were trying to right some wrong from the past. Our conversations sometimes felt like elaborate attempts to administer vigorous noogies to each other, to rub each other's noses into the carpet repeatedly. It felt compulsive. It felt embarrassing. We were each waiting for a Come to Jesus moment that never came.

***

If Veronica and I had had the foresight to discuss the terms of our relationship early on, I might have found a way to say something like, "I have a feeling we're in for a wild ride, the two of us, seeing as how we're both opinionated and stubborn, not to mention unpredictable, oversensitive, maybe a little bit holier than thou and not always so willing to admit when we're wrong." I could've said, "This is crazy. This is like Fonzie meeting Fonzie. This is like putting two Jack Russells in the same kennel. This is like mixing ammonia and bleach together, to see if it'll make the floor even cleaner. This is where Wonder Woman meets Cat Woman, then they slowly, sweetly attempt to rearrange each other's faces. We're both going down, no matter what. But let's stick it out, okay? Because I have a feeling you're worth it."

I thought about that recently, when I was on the phone with Veronica and she was talking in circles and getting on my nerves. Instead of speaking up and risking a fight, I wanted to hang up and complain about her to my husband.

But then I thought about what a therapist would say if we were a married couple, how she'd tell us to use "I" statements to express our feelings.

"This conversation is making me feel bad," I told her. "It's not your fault. I know that. But sometimes I feel like I'm talking to someone who doesn't care who I am, she just wants to hear herself talk. And honestly, when I talk about my own stuff, I feel like you're impatient and you don't see me clearly." 

“Well," Veronica said, "I feel that way, too. I feel like you don't see how much I've changed over the years. I feel like I'm still 25 years old in your eyes." 

I wanted to hang up. I hated feeling so upset over nothing. It bothered me that she could still get under my skin after 20 years, just by telling the truth about how she felt. What was wrong with me? I was such a wilty little fucker. 

I took a deep breath and stayed on the phone. "I feel like you think everything bad between us is my fault."

"Me, too," she said. 

So that's how we finally had our first couples therapy session, after two decades together. We talked about our deepest darkest fears and desires. It was a little bit like a commitment ceremony. We admitted that we both — still! — want to give each other a noogie sometimes. We love each other but we feel like we have to be incredibly cautious with each other's feelings. Things can get heavy and upsetting in seconds. We are sisters and rivals and spouses and exes and allies and foes — a two-headed beast. 

Even so, we're not giving up on each other. We agreed on that, at least. We're going to try to be honest, and maybe we can slowly clear the air. Because we are still opinionated and stubborn and unpredictable and oversensitive and holier than thou and not always so willing to admit when we're wrong. But I think we're worth it.