On the eve of my thirtieth birthday it became clear my best friend wanted little to do with me. She had been a rock through my twenties and now, on the dawn of a new decade, was a ghost.
I don’t date much and was unfamiliar with the experience of ghosting when it entered popular lexicon in the early aughts. Of course, I also had no way of knowing that the feeling of unexpectedly being forgotten by someone you love is a pain unimaginable until it occurs.
We met in a fiction class at Northwestern. For me, the enchantment was immediate. Z. was sparkling, effervescent; her writing soulful and impressive. She pinned vintage pieces of ivory lace to the bottoms of brightly-colored t-shirts. One of her bedroom walls, in a Victorian she shared with a group of girls she referred to as boring behind their backs, was painted with a hand drawn tree. She had a lovely boyfriend and managed to snag an enviable job despite graduating into a recession. She oozed adventure and expectation, was charismatic and witty, both intellectual and accessible.
Our first meal together was at a Thai restaurant near the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my freshman year roommate. When I passed by it on the way home from class, it was hard to ignore how busy they always were: a huge space, every table filled with first-dates, young families, large groups of friends. On walks home late at night, it became something of a familiar shock to see them empty and closed. Now, I was inside, sitting with her and a third girl from our class, slurping pad thai and laughing too loud.
This was the year I admitted to myself I wanted to be a writer. Z. was a year above me in the creative writing program, and studied a different genre, but with a few classes in common we had plenty to talk about. After the night of our dinner, I discovered there were more similarities— we loved department gossip, cruelly giggling over rumors of a married professor in love with a student. We both had seemingly idyllic childhoods, hers spent running through the North Carolina woods, mine barefoot in California. It felt empowering sitting across the table from her. Perhaps I, too, could be both charming and brilliant, host small parties, wear silver eye liner, and be taken seriously. I was still seeing a therapist every week and, in between, imagining the life I wanted to lead. From my, admittedly limited, perspective, it seemed as though she was actually living it.
Though sudden disappearances, and the psychological scars they leave behind, have existed for all of human history, calling it ghosting is a wholly 21st century invention. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the only other modern use of ghost as a verb is a sort of shorthand for ghost-writing. Today’s version of ghosting has yet to be list and the word’s page comes with a disclaimer that the entry has not yet been fully updated.
I can’t track down an etymology for the term, or a timeline of how its contemporary status as a verb was created, but my gut tells me, like much in this century, it has something to do with the internet. While its meaning is metaphorically tied to the idea of a lonely spirit drifting the earth, the word’s most potent sorrow comes from a departure less explainable or decisive than physical death. After all, it is the experience of missing, not of being missed, that ghosting conjures. The longing it evokes is of a specific type: the beloved is gone, without a trace or explanation—like waking up with an open wound you don’t know how to treat since you don’t know where it came from.
In Sally Rooney’s novels, famous for their depictions of white millennial ennui and economic frustration, characters frequently take breaks from their relationships, ignoring, even ghosting, each other. Marianne and Connell, whose relationship is at the center of the cult favorite Normal People, float in and out of each other’s lives like seasons. In her first book, Conversations With Friends, Bobbi and Frances persevere through profound closeness and erratic bouts of estrangement as they navigate their college years.
Despite the platonic nature of our friendship, when I first read Conversations just this past year, I was immediately reminded me of my relationship with Z. Like with Bobbi and Frances, our bond was intoxicating and intense, fueled by both genuine affection and a desperate quest for validation. Unlike with them, it wasn’t the exhilaration of lust, longing, or sex that motivated this search, but simply the euphoria of seeing versions of ourselves, fleetingly, in the other.
Of course, as with Bobbi and Frances, this fervor was fueled by both admiration and occasional resentment. Frances is obsessed with Bobbi’s effortless beauty, wealth, and the devastating ease with which she verbally destroys anyone who disagrees with her leftist politics. Bobbi is, in turn, possessive of Frances, ever hungry for her admiring gaze. From the beginning, I was jealous of Z.’s looks and how happy she always seemed. I don’t know what she was jealous of toward me, though occasionally blushes of cruelty emerged when I had small successes related to writing, or took advantage my discount at the clothing store where I worked full time after college. She also frequently talked about my hair.
Perhaps our friendship would have been more stable had either of us ever confronted our shared envy. Doing so, I suspect, would have required being more aware of the patriarchal systems that expect and push women into constant competitions with their female friends, that force us to seek validation in the mirror and in each other, not in our own minds and accomplishments. I often wonder, if we had, if we would have had the ability to casually walk back into each other’s lives like Bobbi and Frances do— at least through the span of the novel.
A year and a half after our fiction class ended, Z. and I reconnected at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She was wearing a gauzy silk poncho decorated with embroidered flowers and glimmering bright beads.
“I bought it on eBay,” she whispered in my ear, as if savoring a secret. I didn’t understand why others couldn’t know, but to be the recipient of this frivolous knowledge made me feel chosen. She wrapped an arm tightly around me and laughed, handing me a drink.
Within a few weeks we were attached at the hip. We had both graduated by then and weren’t living too far from one another in Chicago. I was lonely and furious with my roommate for hiding her new boyfriend from me. Z. was more fun than her, anyway, so I lost myself in her world.
I’ve never been the type who is very good at cataloguing my days, partially because I do not excel at filling them. It’s often hard for me to remember what I’ve eaten each morning or what the weather was like earlier in the week.
Emotion is where I’ve always excelled. When my father calls and I cannot answer, the guilt nags at me for the rest of the week, defining my days. I couldn’t tell you half of the sights my sister and I saw when we back-packed through Europe over a decade ago, but the feeling of walking through downtown Zurich— the way time seemed suspended, the profound sense of isolation standing in front of a bright white H & M on a street crowded with voices speaking in German and French— that I’ll never forget. I’m the type, after all, who would be just as happy, and perhaps feel nature just as intensely, sitting and staring at a tree as I would hiking the mountain behind it.
The stuff of life—movement, events, joy— that was where Z. always succeeded and I always failed. In those early years, her curiosity and enthusiasm were contagious, even for me. We went dancing in Wicker Park, drank smuggled wine on blankets next to Lake Michigan. We sprinted to the bus to go to parties, linked arms and laughed at everyone in the room once we got there. We snuck into AWP to hear Marilynne Robinson’s Literature and Evil panel and wondered, silently, if we would ever really be writers.
I would have been young even if she wasn’t in my life. But I’m not sure I would have felt it. I know I wouldn’t have laughed as much or met as many interesting people.
It’s true there were red flags— I remember early in our reconnection, when we were just starting to talk every day, getting a lurking sense that she would someday deeply hurt me. She would mention past failed friendships or disappear for a spell without saying a word, and I would worry I had done, or someday would do, something wrong. We were in a writing group together and I couldn’t help but notice she wasn’t very good at accepting constructive criticism, once telling me I had no right to suggest what she should do to end her story. I remember looking up to see frustration splashed across her face, and wondering why she had even bothered asking us to read it. She even unceremoniously cut a mutual friend, J., out of her life, not entirely dissimilar from what would later happen to me.
Right before I left Chicago for good, I went for a secret dinner with J. and couldn’t come up with a believable answer when asked, one last time, why I thought Z. started ignoring her.
“Sometimes she’s just too sensitive,” I repeated over dim-sum and iced tea. It was embarrassing to even try and excuse her behavior, and, in that moment, I wished I had figured out a way to smooth out whatever friction Z. thought existed between them.
“I just don’t understand what I did wrong?” J. lamented. She looked ashamed for even asking.
We left the restaurant and shame struck me too as I worried Z. would see us walking down Sheridan Avenue and realize I had lied to her about having to work that night. What if, in a betrayal-fueled rage, she abandoned me too?
Years later, when I unexpectedly burst into tears in the middle of Vroman’s Bookstore, upon discovering Z. hadn’t even mentioned me in her book’s acknowledgements, I thought to myself, this is it, this is what I was always worried she would do. I could live with this hurt, I decided, then. It would be a secret sorrow to carry inside me and who was I, anyway, to think I deserved being thanked?
The last year we lived in the same city was 2016. She had moved to where I live now, Los Angeles, on, what seemed to me, almost a whim. I helped her find an apartment. It was small and across the street from a loud Pentecostal church, but she mostly seemed to love it. We saw each other nearly every day.
I knew, beneath the surface, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. She missed her boyfriend. She wanted to get married. She didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to access anything not immediately connected to our neighborhood’s metro line. I drove her nearly everywhere, and was happy to do so, relieved to once more have her by my side.
That’s what I thought about two and a half years later, when I began to accept that our friendship was, most likely over. I was sitting by myself, in a shoe-box sized vacation rental in the Marais. In a few hours I would be thirty. She hadn’t even texted to say happy birthday, and never would. I felt almost completely alone.
The next day, I took myself to Les Puces and wandered through stalls of treasures, trying to distract myself. I rode the metro to Montmartre and climbed the hill behind the Sacre Coeur. A strange man followed me for half of it, pretending he was looking for a place to take a selfie when confronted. I returned to my rented studio with a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and a chocolate tart from Maison Aleph. I re-watched Gosford Park until I fell asleep and the next day tried to sightsee as if nothing was the matter. It was hard, in quiet moments standing in front of paintings or on long, circuitous walks, to avoid wondering what I had done to suddenly be so unseen. More than anything, I tried not to admit this felt far worse than any romantic loss I had ever experienced.
In her Fresh Air interview, following the release of Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig summarizes her character, Frances’, late twenties struggles as a period of trying to understand when “things end.” Particularly relevant to the film’s emotional arc is Frances’ relationship with her best friend, Sophie. In a poignant moment, early in the interview, Gerwig claims:
But I think a lot of the movie involves like that when is the - like, that you don't know when the last time of something happening is. You just know when it's over. Like, the opening sequence is this, like, glorious day between her and Sophie and this idea of, like, you don't know what the last great day you'll spend with your best friend is. You just know when you've never had that day again.
This was our last great day: it was early April, 2018. Best Friends for the better part of a decade. She had left LA nine months before, but we were still in near-constant communication. I didn’t know this would be the final time we spoke on the phone. I didn’t know that in a few months everything would fall apart. I would return from my trip, resentful and confused. She would never apologize or explain, and, after a few half-hearted attempts at re-kindling communication, would never contact me again. I didn’t know I would spend the next year and a half mourning that my life was no longer being lived in tandem with another and, thus, didn’t seem to matter all that much.
When we talked that day, we discussed mass shootings, the ridiculousness specter of gun violence and its masculine hold on American’s lives. Z. had always been less interested in politics than me, but after the 2016 election our conversations became more interested in an all-encompassing worry that, as Yeats first wrote, and Didion made famous, “the center will not hold.”
I sat in the front seat of my car for over an hour, having picked up her call on the way home from the store. The light was beautiful and bushy tree branches’ shadows fanned over the road like intricate, gold lace. I told her about my planned birthday trip and she enthusiastically agreed to come. I believed her and imagined how wonderful it would be to see her again, in person. I imagined what we would do and it was just this, what was happening now over the phone, but set against the banks of the Seine or wandering the Luxembourg Gardens. We would talk and we would laugh and the world in its chaos and horror would ever briefly, and ever wonderfully, make a small amount of sense.
Sometimes I imagine I’ll get a long email from her, explaining why, when a family reunion stopped her from coming on the trip, she gave up on our friendship. Did I somehow offend her? I can’t help but wonder, even now. Sometimes I imagine visiting New York, where she now lives, and accidentally running into her on the street. In these dreams, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t anger or tears, but seven words I wish I didn’t still sometimes long to say: I have so much to tell you.