The first girl I fell in love with had broken toenails and hazel eyes the size of silver dollars. Ivy was a ballerina who grew up on a street named after a flower. We met as freshmen in college; our firefly bellies lit up with freedom and a sense of belonging to the world and each other. I’d wait for her outside of Bobst library where she had a work study binding the spines of ancient books too fragile to sit on a shelf without restitching their covers back together, even on the rainy days when wind swept my umbrella into a black crown above my head. With us, I assumed permanence because it wasn’t romantic love. We could find that in others and always have us.
We walked arm in arm through Washington Square Park in our flannel shirts and overalls — Ivy in her go-to Converse low-tops, me in rounded black matte Doc Martens — like we were the only people traveling east to west or north to south. There were milkshakes at the diner on West 4th, and linen napkin dinner dates at Italian restaurants followed by late-night cappuccinos at Le Figaro Café — the fall wind pressing us close together the way printed words do in between soft covers. At night, we wrapped my yellow blanket around us like a fortress and fell asleep over an extra-long fitted sheet that hugged her single bed.
I can trust this person to hold my heart, I thought to myself. It was the first time I used the phrase chosen family because the first girl’s love for me was unambiguous. We sewed ourselves together like her brittle books, our past and present stories now intertwined.
At age twelve I lost my mother, a deeply wounded woman afflicted by addiction and mental illness who disappeared a few years after my father was awarded sole physical custody. She didn’t die; she moved to Florida. My father was happily remarried but his wives, one with an “x” before her title, despised each other. I was told that the secret ingredient in making our new family happy and whole was to convince my mother that I didn’t want to see her anymore. I hated her for locking me in cars and closets, for telling me that Snoopy was having heart surgery instead of attending my fourth birthday party.
There were so many reasons for me to break up with my mother, except that she was my mom.
I loved her, wounds and all. Her bruises were my bruises.
Ivy and I unlocked and swapped childhood diaries, baring every secret we shared with no one until then. I learned that her misshapen feet were from years of spinning in satin pointe shoes. She was bullied in high school for being artsy and aspired to become a screenwriter. I told her about my distant father, my not-dead mother and complicated stepmother.
I was forever losing my keys, an after effect of never feeling at home when at home. Understanding my fear of being locked out, she cut out pieces of cardboard, taped them into a triangular shape and fastened it to my wall. Mouse’s House. My fingers traced over my nickname she had written on it with a permanent marker. I can trust this person to hold my heart, I thought to myself. It was the first time I used the phrase chosen family because the first girl’s love for me was unambiguous. We sewed ourselves together like her brittle books, our past and present stories now intertwined.
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Once over Sunday morning lox and bialys, my grandmother told me that my mother filled my baby bottles with fermented grape juice. When I asked her why my mom would do that, she said it was so I didn’t cry or expect to be held. I was too young to understand the severity of her neglect, but I remember feeling unwanted as I locked grandma’s bathroom door and hugged my knees into my chest as fat tears fell off my cheeks onto her carpeted toilet seat.
Later, I developed an unfounded fear that my stepmother was planning on killing me by poisoning my food. Every night at suppertime, I waited for my father and stepsister to eat first before I raised a fork to my mouth, staring at her thin wrists and blood red fingernails resting on the parquet table. She had black pupils and no middle name. Her hands were deceivingly strong. I couldn’t trust her because she loved me only sometimes. Sometimes she loved me not, depending on the way the wind swept her dandelion wishes away. She told me that she saw more of her in me than she did in her daughter. She didn’t tell me that because of this she needed to love me less. I carried around the weight of her flickering love, light as a feather, stiff as a board.
The first lie I told Ivy was that I was awarded a partial scholarship to pay for my tuition. I was embarrassed that my father filled out the zeros and scrawled SJG on a single check so that I didn’t have to work in between my English Comp and Art History classes. I did have a job, but only for spending money. I wouldn’t lie to her again until spring semester, April to be exact, but I still remember my first time and how I inhaled too much air, hoping to suck the words back into my lungs. The first time I did it because I didn’t want to be different or inaccessible. That happened to me too. Same.
It didn’t hurt anyone, but my breathing was erratic from the permanent mark I made on our once-perfect record.
As our group of friends expanded and we learned how to take up space on the city sidewalks, in came the boys with their enigmatic movements and language. I spent hours trying to fit their impossible-to-solve pieces together. One theatre major — a natural-born leading Leo — was the ringleader of our ragtag clique of glams, goths, actors, and artists. Ivy cracked her teeth on the sidewalk looking up at him, the triple threat born in the same state, year, and month as us. Two became three, but its triangular formation had too many incongruous edges. Our overlapping limbs and shared histories challenged the safe circle we had created. I had fallen for him also, but I didn’t tell Ivy because he was not something we could share or be the same about.
When the campus emptied out for Easter break, the actor and I stayed in New York just long enough for him to sing me Prince’s When You Were Mine. We began seeing each other; I kept it inside. The omission involved lying to Ivy, but I reasoned that it was better to be kind than honest. What once felt so grounded and easy was like balancing a teacup on my head while walking through Times Square traffic. I became distant, locking my journal pages and swallowing the key.
There was no undoing what had been done, only the inevitable unraveling of us.
Ivy left handwritten letters in my mailbox promising that she wouldn’t be angry to know the truth, apologizing for maybe something that she had done wrong signed with question marks, xs, and os. Not knowing wasn’t better; the lies and letters were causing us both misery. I spat it out; told her that I never meant to hurt her. It was the last thing I ever wanted to do, and amazingly, I did I spectacular job doing just that. She forgave me for a few days then rightfully set me on fire. Our shared diaries and brittle spines were lost in the fire. I was left with one friend — my not-so-secret boyfriend. She forgave him, but not me. Typical, the double standard, I thought, finding supporters printed on the pages I had earmarked in my Intro to Women’s Studies textbooks.
In classic girl code, the girls I had become close with let elevator doors close in my face, eeking out a sorry and a shoulder shrug as they narrowly escaped being trapped with me in small, silent space. Some confronted me, feeling emboldened by their allegiance to female friendship and distinct lines that women do not cross. I had broken the golden rule and was now an outcast — an untrustworthy, unforgivable bitch. I looped my brown suede backpack around my shoulders and threw the heaviness of making a mistake with me to school.
The actor reassured me that I hadn’t done anything wrong; it — we — just happened. I hadn’t broken them up; they had never dated. This was true, but I had betrayed her trust and broke her heart. Was I deserving of anyone’s sympathy? Maybe not. Those girls were good friends, just not to me. I completed my freshman year with as many friends as I had the day I was handed my student ID.
There is no support or safety net to break one’s fall when friendships fade or split apart. There's not an acceptable period of isolation to watch feel-good movies as days bleed into night and begin again — filling the sink with dirty dishes, not returning phone calls or texts, disengaging from the world not to unplug or recharge, but because everything hurts on the inside.
I went home for the summer and worked as an administrative assistant for a copper trading company, dressing up in pencil skirts and heels while bursting telexes and typing correspondence on letterhead to Bogota, Lima, and Tokyo. During my lunch hour, I pulled out a map of New York State that I had borrowed from my father’s office and wrote out directions from Connecticut to Violet Lane. Driving up Interstate 87 North was daunting not only because I was arriving unannounced, but because of how the landscape took hold of me and made me feel so small. The road before me was vast and wide — the turns signaling freedom and possibility — but as the distance between each exit expanded, I was reminded of how far we had grown apart.
I turned right off the Saugerties exit and saw Ivy strolling on a tree-lined road a few miles away from her house. She reluctantly got in the car with me, a person who was worse than a stranger, already knowing that I was dangerous. That night, she made up a bed for me as we talked in parentheses about our sophomore year. We should have been buzzing, but every word was measured and could quickly be erased. Our dorm had a lottery system for upperclassmen, and we had lucked out with our first choice, a large room with hardwood floors, a tiny adjacent kitchenette and a walk-in closet on the twelfth floor overlooking Washington Square Park, our campus green.
Something that we were once so excited about felt uneasy and gray. I asked her to forgive me; I thought that I had been protecting her heart. She lifted a cluster of baby fine hairs from my forehead like she used to and said okay. Her eyes seemed to be searching for the friend I used to be, and at that moment, I knew that I had lost her forever.
What she agreed to was exactly what she said – live with me, the fact of me.
In early September, we unpacked our suitcases in silence. As leaves began to spiral from trees and blanket the sidewalks in apple red and bright orange, she asked me to move out. There was no discussion; we both knew it was the only thing to do. I dumped my belongings — this time into an oversized rolling bin that I pushed one block east and ten blocks north to a small dorm room with industrial carpeting and a roommate from Florida who hated the sun and wore capes instead of coats.
I never knew who took the place of me, but less than eight weeks later, the actor broke up with me and started dating a girl with clear eyes and black ringlets from his scene study class. My identity was so wrapped up in other people; I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing anymore. I continued to hang around his room playing spades and fading into the white walls with his actor friends and new girlfriend — hating her, hating myself. I got through the year, applied to a summer writing program in upstate New York and didn’t return my junior year. I needed distance that didn’t engulf me. Even if Ivy never did, I had to find a way to forgive myself.
Who consoled me through this grieving period? There were several for the end of my relationship with the actor, but none for the loss of Ivy. Friends are the first in line to help us heal a broken heart under the stipulation that it was broken in a romantic relationship, but sometimes losing a friend has more gravity than a lover. There is no getting back out there or hoping that someone better will come along. There is no support or safety net to break one’s fall when friendships fade or split apart. There's not an acceptable period of isolation to watch feel-good movies as days bleed into night and begin again — filling the sink with dirty dishes, not returning phone calls or texts, disengaging from the world not to unplug or recharge, but because everything hurts on the inside.
The suffering is a private affair, turning picture frames around to stare at the wall, filling up on empty calories or neglecting food altogether. If the fault fell squarely on one half of the pair, there’s little consolation. No one says Don’t be so hard on yourself. We all make mistakes. It will be okay.
In losing friendships, we mourn alone.
Leaving a landscape dotted with our landmarks was my intro class in self-care. In Saratoga Springs, I became friends with a group of co-ed students who made space for me in their circle. We whispered about crushes and wishes while blueberry ice cream dripped off sugar cones onto our fraying jean shorts. On Wednesday nights, there was bingo with senior citizens who arranged good luck charms and animal figurines around their board at the church on Main Street. Other evenings, we toasted to our uncertain but hopeful futures with red Silo cups at parties in pastel gingerbread houses.
I didn’t imagine that these friendships were immutable. We were growing into adulthood; our connections would either flow with or diverge from that current. I was learning how to fill the empty spaces from my childhood with moments that had a beginning and an end. I began to value the present tense and hold myself.
I never shared the loss of Ivy with my new friends and knew that while I may be nostalgic or still wonder what if for some time, I was moving on. There would never be another Ivy because she was the first girl. And while there was no one to help me process the loss of that friendship, I believed that I would find that kind of unspeakable connection again in another human being. It is our nature to love again, and nurture to forgive ourselves.