The letter arrived in a padded envelope. An inch of bubble wrapping protecting what may be life-altering news. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though I had some ideas, some inklings of what ‘weird’ news might prompt me to ‘take space’ from my best friend of over a year. Inside was a single envelope, thick with paper and something else. It was addressed simply to me, Lily, in thin straight letters.
The envelope itself is creme colored and thick, the expensive kind I suppose. The paper inside was the same. Creamy pages of paper numbered one through five and a necklace. A thin gold chain with a bumble bee pendant. It’s simple and beautiful, a reminder of how we met and a symbol of our friendship.
I knew before I knew. I knew before I read the first line. I knew months ago when she compared me to her most recent ex. She doesn’t value family, she won’t even talk to her parents. I’ve just realized that family is so important to me, like when I talk with you we bond so much over our families. Again and again the comparisons come up, but I nod along as a supportive best friend does. I push aside the things I think are implied.
More recently she’s telling me about a trip to Glacier where she had a great talk with an old friend about girls. She tells me she loves having guy friends because they understand what dating women is like. In the same breath, she reminds me about our trip to Glacier the year before. She tells me how much it meant to her that we could share an experience in her favorite place. We sat by the fire, watched deer graze around our camp site, made fun of ourselves for forgetting the bear spray every single time we left camp or packed our bags and went hiking, we met at a cafe for coffee and pastries before going our separate ways, her to Helena and me to Missoula, unsure when we’d see each other in person again. It was at the very same cafe where, one year later, she’d look down and see a bumble bee pendant while thinking of me.
This is a love letter.
I can’t read the rest as tears flood my eyes. She warned me this was coming. I just sent you something in the mail. It’s weird and you might want some space after receiving it. I thought about giving it to you when we parted in Seattle this spring, but it seems so far away. Now I wonder if we’ll meet in Seattle at all.
This isn’t the first time someone I considered a friend has confessed their love for me. A guy friend, Chris, in high school told me he’d liked me ever since we met, and couldn’t we just try dating? I told him my antidepressants make it so that I don’t feel anything, and I apologized.
Again in college, a guy in my friend group who I knew had feelings for me, but pretended I didn’t for the sake of the group, knocked on my door one night and said Lily, I like you. Of course you do, we’re friends! I like you too. You know that’s not what I mean. And I did. I apologized and explained that I’m not looking to date anyone at the moment.
Time and time again male coworkers and classmates have asked me for my phone number, asked me out on dates, told me they like me. Every time I deflect, I lie and avoid them. It’s always the beginning of the end for our friendship.
I’m human. I inherently seek connection with others, I crave connection, I desire love and affection just like everybody else. And yet, when diving deeper and exploring a relationship with someone becomes a possibility, my anxiety chases me far into the night. I am never seen or heard from again.
When I left Montana late last summer my best friend and I both cried over voice messages. Even though we hadn’t lived in the same place for the majority of our friendship we at least lived within driving distance. She never would have called me if she had a flat tire or a bad day at work; I never would have asked to crash on her couch. I never would have asked if we could raise my kittens together in Helena instead of moving home to California because my current roommate had a cat allergy. I thought about it, don’t misunderstand me. I imagined the two of us sitting cross-legged in her parents basement with Maple, Chester, Francine, Arthur-Paul and her cat Roswell. I imagined smoking a joint in the back of her parents property, which she described as going on and on for miles with plenty of trees and walking trails. I imagined her showing me around her hometown, the local breweries and coffee shops she’d described to me over months of correspondence. In all these places where I usually imagined her alone, walking with a beanie and loose t-shirt, her green overalls, her pink cheeks and brilliant blue eyes, now I imagined us together. My baggy jeans, my too-thin-for-Montana-winters sweaters, my black high tops, my oversized red winter coat passed down from my grandma. We’d stroll together down the walking mall on cobble stone pathways when the sky was covered in gray clouds or when the sun was out and the sky stretched far over the mountain tops. Then I called my mom, packed my car and U-hauled back home. One thousand miles in the wrong direction, far away from the life I’d built in Missoula, even farther away from the life I’d been dreaming about in North Carolina.
Something amazing happened. We continued our friendship, we facetimed and shared our lives together. Just as I had moved out on my own in Missoula, she moved back in with her parents. When I moved back to my mother’s house with four cats in tow, she found her own apartment closer to town. We talked about our jobs in the service industry and all the new people we were meeting. We planned a trip for her to visit me. I’ve never been to San Diego before, she hints. Come. Stay with me. We go downtown and see my favorite cover band perform in my favorite local bar— a bar I’d been too afraid to enter till then despite hearing so many positive reviews. We went to the local tide pools and found a sea slug. Kiss it for seven years of good luck, I tempt her. I took a picture of her puckered lips against the slug’s slimy skin and now I stare at it all the time.
I’ve had crushes on women before. In middle school I remembering thinking it didn’t matter at all whether I fell in love with a man or a woman someday. Who cares? Love is love. My friend Michelle tells me she made a Burn Book of all the girls in our grade, including me, but she never tells me what she wrote. I search in her closet one day while she’s in the restroom, praying I find it because I have to know: Does Michelle think I’m a lesbian?
There was Courtney, the sexy cheerleader of my adolescent dreams. She had freckles and highlights and a lip piercing. She spoke openly about dating and having sex with girls. Her eyes sparkled with fearlessness, she was daring and edgy and so much herself. I couldn’t help but admire her. She quit our cheer team after becoming pregnant just before competition season.
There was Rachel from the library. I was drawn in by her immediately. She had short blonde hair and dressed in all black. She was older than me, an orphan. She was majoring in Mathematics and loved her astronomy class. Her laugh was deep and throaty, like she was holding it back. Once, she lent me an Algebra II for Dummies workbook. She’s the one who told me about Larry’s Beach Club, my favorite bar in Oceanside.
There was Josie, my best friend, my enemy, my soul sister, my savior. We only met because she dated my brother and took me under her wing. I was only one year her junior, but so inexperienced in comparison. She taught me about friendship and boys. We fall apart, we come together, we’re best friends, we’re strangers. When we’re on, she’s my everything. When we’re off, I forget what I ever liked about her in the first place. I’ve never been attracted to her in that way, but I’ve often imagined us living together, cooking dinner for each other, watching movies and smoking weed in our living room. We’d decorate our house with artwork and plants with too many leaves, we’d do yoga and run at the beach. Is that gay?
Am I gay?
I’ve never held onto female friends for long. A few years at school, then gone and discarded once we no are no longer forced company. All my close female friends now are gay women. When we hangout we go roller skating, we have dinner, we watch the sunset, we share books, we crochet, we go on long walks by the ocean and share secrets. We talk about living together. Josie begs me to share a house with her in Santa Barbara. Nikki wonders if I’d ever live with her in Chicago. Isla offers me her basement. Catherine hints that we could live together in Corvallis once she starts school there this fall.
I’ve often thought that maybe one day we’ll live in the same place and grow old together, and I don’t think about that with all my friends.
I think about the men in my family. I have three brothers and an estranged father. Their qualities: cheaters, liars, people who use their physical size and strength to intimidate women, to intimidate me, lazy, racist, homophobic, patriarchal, angry, aggressive, hurtful, mean.
I think about my mother. She grew up without a father. She had only a sister, now passed. Her first husband, my father, abused her. He abused us. Her second husband is kind, but pathetic. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t clean, he doesn’t take care of my mother the way she deserves. She married again so she wouldn’t live a life alone, the life she sees her own mother living. But now my mother is nearly sixty and she’s responsible for four children, two of which still live at home despite being in our twenties, two of which only call when they need something from her; she’s the sole caretaker for her mother just as she was the primary caretaker for her sister who died a slow cancerous death; she’s the only caretaker for her husband who in addition to routine unemployment, now also has cancer. She married him for support, for company, for a chance at love, but she isn’t happy. She walks around the house like a zombie checking off things on her to-do list: paint the house, build a garden, refinish the kitchen cabinets, help Drew with his homework, hangout with Carl, finish reports for work. She has few friends, none of which she sees often, she has no hobbies outside the family and repairing the house. She’s just as lonely now as she was when she was married to my father. She admits to me that she’s never enjoyed sex, she was relieved that cancer made sex impossible in her current marriage, she knows her husband is a leech, she feels trapped in her own home.
Why would I ever want a man?
I think about the men of my past. My high school sweetheart, Gavin, who only spoke to me over facebook messenger for one summer. I picked him because I was desperately lonely. My friends were absent, as they were nearly every summer. My mom was busy dating her current husband.
My first boyfriend, Blake, was homeless and still in love with his ex girlfriend when we met. He tried getting back together with her on Valentine’s Day 2017, just two days before I let him have sex with me. It was my first time. I cried. Looking back, I think he only dated me because he felt bad. He cheated on me constantly, lied to me, ignored me. But I didn’t have any friends and my mother was busy nursing her dying sister.
There was Lucas, who I dated briefly because I knew he loved me and I needed to feel like someone cared about me. Everything fell apart when he asked me to be his girlfriend. I just didn’t reciprocate his feelings.
After years of celibacy I met Collin at a Halloween party. I was dressed up as a cat, he was wearing a sombrero. I’d just moved home a few months prior and already the excitement I’d felt was waning. What if… I let myself believe, what if I met this guy and we dated for a while, maybe we could travel together or at least fall in love. My mom is just as absent now as she’s ever been. I’ve never felt so estranged from my family. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, I sneak away from my family to the sanctuary of Collin’s arms. He cooks mediocre dinners and if I ask enough times we go out on a date. He doesn’t ask me questions about my life, my family, my friends. I could have been any pussy to him. He was nobody to me. A placeholder, a distraction, a cheap hobby outside my house.
Josie calls me sometimes when her relationships with boyfriends are shaky. Lily please I really need somebody. What she means is that I’m her go-to boyfriend replacement. I’ll let her be codependent and I’ll give her all the attention she craves without asking for anything back, except space, because eventually I’m sick of myself for all the places I’ve let her meld into me, for all the times I’ve sacrificed my needs and boundaries to make her happy.
When Catherine visited me in my hometown, we ran into an old coworker of mine at a restaurant. He greeted me enthusiastically, mentioned another of our coworkers, one of the men who has asked me for my phone number in the past. At the restaurant, he looks at Catherine and asks if I brought her back with me from Montana. As a souvenir? I think. No, she’s just visiting. I’m equally embarrassed and flattered at the sentiment. On Monday, the third coworker asks me on a date. I lie and say I’m not dating at the moment.
Catherine is my best friend. She’s beautiful. She’s kind, sturdy and grounded even when the earth beneath her feet shakes, she’s mystical and insightful, she’s proactive and independent, she’s smart and giggly, she’s thoughtful, and she builds a great campfire. Meeting her as improved my life. She’s taught me about indulgence, luxury, investing in one’s passions, following one’s intuition, leading with one’s heart. I feel more like myself just knowing her.
I have this image in my head of Catherine. She’s on the shore of California Falls, my favorite stop on a backpacking trip I did in Yosemite the summer before we met. She’s crouched down behind a toddler, a boy. They’re wearing matching bucket hats, hers is yellow and his is green. She’s helping him dip his toes in the water because his ankles are too fat and shaky to stand on just one leg. She’s smiling at me like I’m taking her picture. And I am.
Before our camping trip to Glacier I remember thinking, what if…. We were sharing a tent because I don’t own any camping gear. Catherine did everything, all I had to do was show up. I thought, what if we kissed. Afterward, when we said goodbye at that cafe, I remember feeling disappointed, like we’d left too soon.
Catherine says that she is in love with me. She doesn’t have any expectations, she just wants me to know.
I feel sad. I feel like I’m losing a friend because no matter what happens in our friendship, now I can’t speak freely. I’ll always wonder if I’m giving her the wrong impression when I say one thing or another. I feel, and this is true no matter who confesses their undying affection for me, slightly offended that someone I consider my friend would think of me sexually. I feel vulnerable, like someone is going to attack me. It isn’t fair of me to hold this kind of thought against someone. Shouldn’t I be flattered that someone who knows everything about me, who I’ve cried to, who knows my deepest secrets and wrongdoings, who has heard me complain about everything under the sun and then some, someone who has seen into my sad soul would still dare to love me?
There have been times I thought I should tell you.
Her words make me wonder how long she’s had these feelings. I wonder what has been real and what hasn’t been real, because it’s one thing to advise your best friend, but it’s another thing to advise someone who you want to love you. I wonder if she left her jacket at my house the way desperate women leave their purses at the house of a one-night stand because they’re hoping for a repeat performance. I wonder if she bought that pink cowboy hat necklace because I made a comment about wanting to fall in love with a cowboy in Montana, I wonder if I shouldn’t have jokingly called her my cowboy. I wonder if she’s been planting seeds in my head like a gardener prepping her soil for the spring. I wonder if she sends me books about lesbian romance because she’s hoping, just maybe, that I’d fall in love with her on my own.
As I’ve awaited the arrival of this letter by snail mail, some curious things have happened. I watched a bad rom-com starring Ashton Kutcher and Reese Witherspoon about two long-distance friends who have harbored feelings for each other for twenty years and end up together. I googled my own astrological sign and saw that Pisces and Taurus are often soul mates. I remembered that last October, just before she came to visit me, I had pulled the King of Cups in a tarot reading for myself only to have her tell me repeated stories about pulling the King of Cups as a representation of her future lover.
Lover. Fuck. Lovers come and go, but friends are forever. Am I wrong for being upset that my friendship isn’t enough? That I can give parts of myself to people I love only to have them ask for more? Josie begs me to sit with her in a melting pot so our entire beings can morph into one singular organism in which she will control our movement and I will smile, happy just to be there. At home I cook and clean up after everyone, it’s too much for one person in a house of six adults. Nothing I do is enough. My feelings and concerns aren’t heard, my influence ignored. I might as well be invisible. In my friendships I feel seen. Somebody wants to know my thoughts on a book or a movie, somebody thinks I’m funny and that I have interesting things to say. Catherine is my best friend and I’ve shared my unfiltered thoughts with her for over a year. I’ve told her about having been sexually assaulted in high school, I told her about ‘getting married’ to a female friend in middle school, I’ve told her about my insecurities regarding sex and all the family drama I’ve been dodging since forever. But all of this isn’t enough; now she wants me to be in love with her too.
I can’t imagine myself in love. I’ve never felt those feelings before, not even with my ex boyfriend (we hated each other). Maybe if I dated women I’d feel differently, but I don’t want to be gay.
I can hear the laughter in my ear. My brother says lesbians belong in one of two places: on PornHub and in Hell. The rest of my family laughs. I can’t attend Pride Parades or drag shows, I can’t wear pink rainbows or advertise my sexuality with snapbacks and short nails on social media. My feelings are my business. I can’t have the word ‘queer’ embroidered on my forehead. I can’t stand all the labels. I am not queer. I am not a lesbian. I am not gay. Why isn’t me just being myself enough?
How can I respond to this letter when I understand exactly what she’s describing and simultaneously deny these qualities about myself? I can’t date her, I don’t want to be someone’s girlfriend. I won’t move to Corvallis to be with her. I have my own life, my own plans and I will not sacrifice my happiness for anyone else. I’m sorry. I won’t be fifty or sixty or seventy years old cleaning up someone else’s dishes or folding someone else’s underwear. I won’t let myself die slowly because there isn’t enough room in my life for myself. I’ll start over. I’ll call a hotel, pack up my car and put Maple in her carrier. We have a long drive ahead of us, cross country to North Carolina.