Seven Year Itch
You’ve known Nell for years. You met working at a fast food joint off the highway, you seventeen years old, her twenty-two. She was short and mousy and radiated something fun. She was a part-time call center worker, newly engaged, trying to scrounge up extra wedding money even though she told you proudly that her parents planned on paying for it. They paid for everything, it turned out: her cell phone, her health insurance, her gasoline. Nell used to drop you off at home after work so that you could stay late and help close down at the end of each night. You bonded over a love of RENT and the fact that both your first concerts were Boyz II Men. You each had sisters on opposite ends of the age spectrum: you two younger, she two older. She bought you wine coolers and cigarettes and never asked for the money back. The first time you got truly drunk was in her parents’ basement, off of Blue Curaçao and Malibu rum; the second time was two years later in the same place, when your high school crush live-streamed his suicide.
Back then, you thought it strange that nobody ever told you how losing a friend is like going through a bad breakup. It was a lesson you should have internalized by the end of your crush’s funeral, but somehow, you didn’t. Instead, you learned how to attach yourself barnacle-like to those around you.
Your relationship with Nell wasn’t a healthy one. You never talked about your disagreements. You grew to share television shows and burger dates and an expensive coffee habit instead of deep conversations and the things that bothered you about the other. When she was fired from the fast food joint for a string of no-call no-shows, you followed her to the call center so you could continue working together. When Nell quit to earn her license as a nursing assistant, you quit to go focus on your studies in marine biology.
That was the first time cracks began to show. Nell never told you directly, but instead went to one of your sisters (who passed it along instantly), to privately whisper her jealousy. You would earn more than she made. You would land a better job than she ever could. You would single-handedly craft the life she wanted handed to her: moderately lavish, comfortable, stress-free. You could feasibly support children, if you wanted—which you didn’t, but Nell: Nell wanted seven kids and the luxury of playing stay-at-home mom, like it was still 1958, like she was prime Stepford realty.
In turn, you made Residents’ Rights flashcards, and stretched out half a dozen times across Nell’s mattress so she could practice Making an Occupied Bed, and listened to Nell verbalize the twenty-six skills a nursing aide is tested on a hundred-thousand times, so that Nell could find her own type of success alongside you. Her mother paid you for your help in a new wardrobe from Layne Bryant. School consumed you, both your classes and hers, until your workload ate up so much of your time that you had to cut back on helping Nell. Forced to do her own work, Nell dropped out altogether.
You graduated. You bought a car. You got a decent job. You met Anthony.
Nell found a place behind the front desk of a spa, and totaled her marmalade orange Chevrolet Cobalt, and separated from her fiancé. Half-stupid with emotion, Nell told you through hiccupping sobs that he thought she was too immature, that she’d never grow up. You couldn’t find the words to respond.
Losing a friend is like going through a bad breakup, the lesson went. You remember it with vicious clarity when you catch Nell in the back corner of a smoky bar snaking her tongue tonsil-deep into Anthony’s mouth and letting him wedge his hand between her plump thighs. You remember it with profound lucidity the moment Nell’s unblinking eyes find you over Anthony’s shoulder, wide with panic, with uncertainty, with no trace of guilt.
You try your hand at friendship again, because maybe you were irrational the first time. Maybe it was your Sickness, you justify to yourself. Surely that was it.
You were diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder by your college psychologist at the age of twenty. You held this close to you, like a secret, didn’t tell your parents, didn’t tell Nell, didn’t tell the coworker who confessed their own diagnosis of leukemia to you with a look in his eyes of please tell me your life is falling apart too. Because, somehow, your Sickness was something special, something that was implicitly a part of you. You had to protect it, had to keep it close to the chest, had to treasure it and nurture it, because nobody else could possibly understand the way it warped you from the inside out. It was yours.
Your Sickness began to serve as an excuse after a while. It was the reason you must have suffocated Anthony with need. It was the reason you panicked whenever he left to spend time with friends, because each time the door closed behind him might be the last. It was the reason you made threats that meant nothing, not really, because they were all about control and had nothing to do with follow-through: If you go out again tonight, I’m gonna drink myself stupid. If you don’t call off work in the morning, I’ll hurt myself.
You never did, not really. You’d get tipsy and call him until he turned his phone off, or scratch at your arm until it turned a disgusting mottled pink, or play possum when Anthony finally came home so that he had to violently shake your shoulder to stir you from your pretend-unconsciousness. You wanted him to feel guilty. You wanted him to feel like a monster for hurting you, for being human, for having his own needs that didn’t center exclusively on you. You wanted, strangely, for him to hate you as much as you sometimes—irrationally—hated yourself.
You drowned Nell in your unpredictability just the same. You couldn’t accept the idea of anyone else being Nell’s friend, because she belonged to you. The overlap in the Venn diagram of your free time and hers should have been devoted entirely to you. When Nell’s sister took her to Myrtle Beach for her twenty-seventh birthday, you cried until you couldn’t breathe for three and a half days, and impulsively blocked Nell from social media. When you realized that, a year later, your On this Day in Facebook History would catalog One Year of Friendship instead of Six Years, you drowned yourself in merlot.
Maybe it was only natural that Nell and Anthony had fallen into one another: because you’d pythoned your way around both of them, constricted the vitality out of each relationship, until it felt inevitable that they’d bond over how much they resented you. That had to be it.
So you try again. Despite your Sickness, you promise yourself to behave in a healthy way this time, to maintain some sort of distance, to keep your fingers from tightening around the trachea of your friendship. You’re aware of it, after all, in ways you weren’t before. You recognize yourself lashing out without cause, or clinging desperately to the idea of entire weekends spent together. You won’t let things crumble again.
Except they do, and when Nell, climbing the ladder of twenty-nine years old, finds herself in the early stages of dating some new boy from the spa—Ted or Bill or Hank, you don’t even care what his name is—you find yourself immediately planning ways to sabotage it. When you look at Nell, all you see is the wide-eyed expression of shock she wore when she was caught kissing Anthony, the no-remorse of her actions still acutely threatening. It only seems fair. As the saying goes: an eye for an eye, a boy for a boy.
You wait for her coworker—Ted or Bill or Hank—to leave the spa and slip into the employee parking lot, his focus honed on his phone screen. You’re all leg and chest and made-up eyes, and you know just enough about him from Nell’s fawning to grab his attention with a clever one-liner. In the morning, Ted or Bill or Hank arrives at work with the shape of your lips dark along his clavicle, visible just barely over the collar of his work uniform. Nell is crushed. And while you try to play the consoling, good friend, it backfires. He’s not that great of a kisser, I bet, you say, and He probably doesn’t do his laundry routinely, like there’s a whole basket and a half piled up in his room, and He likes BABYMETAL way too much, it’s kinda creepy. Nell’s face is drawn in suspicion when she asks how you know that, and you can feel a gurgling need to cling tight and never ever let go rising inside your stomach.
Three strikes, you’re out; or, third time’s the charm. You’re not sure which ideology you buy into, but Nell makes it very clear where she stands. She stops coming out for weekly burger nights. She betrays whatever unspoken vow you shared not to watch Scandal without the other present, and instead takes to pouring her opinions and speculations out online like she’s bragging about her own betrayal. She celebrates her birthday without you, taking some girl from high school on a celebratory vacation to the Florida Keys with her—probably to spite you, but you can’t be sure.
You pack her sewing machine up, and her comforter, and three pillowcases and a French press and a pair of her woolen winter socks and season four of Sons of Anarchy, and you take all her things to her house while she’s out of town. It’s impulsive, in an unfriending-on-Facebook kind of way, but your Sickness demands action. You call her parents to let them know you’re stopping by, just in case they’re home. Mercifully, they aren’t. You take your house key off her lanyard, but you keep hers, just in case you need it. For what, you aren’t certain. She probably won’t notice yours is missing anyway.
You drift through the empty house like the ghost of the friend you feel you’ve become, tracing the hundreds of thousands of footprints you left behind in invisible ink. You go up to her room, where you leave her things piled up at the foot of her bed, then to her sister’s room, then to the spare. It’s no longer a bedroom, but an office now. You don’t recognize the color of the walls. You dig your fingers behind the ears of her dog and kiss his muzzle and croon You’re such a good boy, until the mutt’s tongue laps the side of your wrist. That, at least, is familiar.
You should have pulled your shirts from her closet, you realize then, or collected your copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin, or pocketed the pair of third row Marina and the Diamonds tickets you bought her for her birthday. But then: what would your excuse be to break back in? At your knee, Nell’s dog ruts his head against you, seeking attention. You’re more alike than you think, you and the dog. You want to reach down again, to dig your fingers back into the hollow behind his ear. Instead, you turn toward the door, aware of something churning deep inside you, wet, froggy, ready to leap.