The Cutting Game

Most people are not, generally speaking, comfortable discussing their ex-lovers in mixed company, but ask about an ex-best-friend and suddenly everyone’s eager to talk. An EBF is different from a friend who drifted away, or a once-best friend. She is a former bosom buddy who, through some specific conflict or a series of slowly escalating mini-conflicts, no longer wants to see you or speak to you, ever again.

I have one EBF. The technical reason for the breakup was that I had started dating a guy she had once, briefly, loved, but she and I had been growing apart for years. She’d wait a week to return my calls, and I’d wait two to return hers. Then I’d call and apologize, and she’d say, “It wasn’t like I was calling you.” After I told her about my new romance, we had a few strained get-togethers, and then over the phone, she said she didn’t want to see me again. “But we were best friends!” I cried.

“Not really,” she said. “I never considered you mine.”

Even today, I’m still dissecting where things went wrong. Although I understand on some level that I was unhappy, too, on another I am burned by the rejection. Perhaps the reason friend breakups are so painful is because, unlike romances, friendships rarely begin with an understanding that they might end. “It’s just more painful,” says Jane, an ad exec in her thirties, “when the only reason someone doesn’t want to see you is because they don’t like hanging out with you—not because they hate your parents or they’re busy at work.”

Jane’s EBF is named Leigh, and when she tells me the story, her voice shakes with emotion. Jane met Leigh soon after she moved to the city. They spoke every day for a year, lived a block apart, and hung out all the time. Then one night, they had a flare-up over whether Jane was invited to a certain party, and Leigh dropped her.

“It made me second-guess myself for a while as a person and a friend, even though I know I was a chump for hanging out with her,” says Jane. When they see each other at the gym, Leigh acts nonchalant, but Jane gets nervous. “It is similar to having an ex-boyfriend in the sense that I never want to bump into her, and when I do, I get this bad feeling. My heart beats fast, and I try everything possible not to look in her direction.”

Though there are men with EBFs, too, more often they choose a slow drift over a blowout. Many women break up over man issues, but others do it after years of misunderstandings and quiet resentments, a by-product of poor communication. “Girls are pretty bad at saying ‘You really pissed me off,’ ” says Jane. “You’re too afraid to change the dynamic between you.”

Since my breakup, I have gotten bits and pieces of news about my EBF from friends. When I learned she had gotten married, I felt joy for her and sadness that I was among the last to know. I have watched our mutual friends, inevitable casualties of war, drop me.

Right toward the end, when things were getting so strained it was clear an explosion was coming, I ran into her on Crosby Street. As I approached, she recognized me and then scowled. “Did you just scowl at me?” I said, shocked.

She laughed and tossed her head. I could have walked away or had it out, but instead I felt the need to make small talk, to prolong some semblance of normality. I hated the awkwardness more than I hated how she treated me.

I’d been reading an article about a famous writer who had fired her agent for being slow to sell the film rights to her book. I held up the paper and said, “Can you believe this? The woman gets her a huge book contract and makes her an international success, and this is what she gets in return.”

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “I kind of understand where she’s coming from. I mean, if a relationship isn’t satisfying, why pretend to be happy?”

The Cutting Game