The Friend Who Got Away
“I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life.”
My best friend sobs on the other end of the phone. Over two weeks back from her honeymoon, and this is our first check-in, our longest conversational drought in years. Well, until now. I look back from midlife and wonder if I left her too long, unmoored and adrift in a marital tempest she never anticipated.
We met the first day of evangelical school kindergarten, both wearing shapeless 1970s polyester dresses with too many frills. Among the first things we learned? How to grow up to be the sort of God-fearing woman a good Christian man might marry. We graduated together, attended the same college, took many of the same classes, so alike we could not find the line where one started and the other began. Our caps and gowns were black, our hair was big, and our dreams were identical.
Throughout our lives, we always helped each other figure out what to do. We could be career women who made good Christian husbands happy. Of course, we fell in love at the same time. My husband snores in the other room. It is two in the morning, and I am wedged in our rental’s guest room closet, whispering my outrage to avoid waking him. I have only been married a few months, long enough to know my new mate gets grumpy when his sleep is interrupted.
“But this was your honeymoon,” I murmur. “How could it already be ruined?” Voice bucking with emotion, she relives the trip, picture postcards of sun-drenched beaches and volcano hikes, epic kisses and glorious sunsets. A lovesick husband who indulged her every whim. “That sounds amazing,” I whisper. “But you’re not telling me everything.”
“Because if I tell anyone, that means it really happened.” “What?” My voice rises. I hear my husband sigh and drag my volume to a notch above silence. “Tell me. Please.” She gulps a shaky breath. “We were at the gate to board our return flight.” Her voice is flat and disembodied, like she forces words through another person’s mouth. “And. . . and I told him how excited I was to interview for a work promotion with this tan. I held up my arm, and my wedding ring caught the light, and he grabbed my wrist and hissed, ‘I told you not to apply for that job.’ And I laughed and said, ‘You didn’t mean it,’ and tried to pull my arm away because he was hurting me.”
She stops. “He was rough with you?” I practically shout. “I wish it had stopped there,” she mutters. “He just . . . his face turned into this monster mask, all red and nostrils flaring. He shouted obscenities I can’t bring myself to repeat and left me at the gate, taking all our money and telling me to get myself home.”
She was penniless, slack-jawed, and sobbing. Briefly, she considered calling her father collect to arrange a ride from the airport, but she froze. Her father could never know. He would show her new husband a thing or two about respect. If he manhandled and cursed her in public, how would her husband make her pay for an indiscretion once they were alone?
She boarded the flight, still dazed by the whiplash of his temper. As she listened to the announcements and buckled her seat belt, he stalked onto the plane less than a minute before the crew sealed the door. “All the way home, he punished me in cruel ways. He called me names, sneered at my attempts to mollify him, and mocked the book I tried to read to escape. And now, he expects me to act lovey-dovey like nothing happened.” Her voice rises. “AND I’LL NEVER FORGET IT. I’m still terrified of doing or saying something to set him off. Less than a month married, and I don’t know what to do.”
It is the first time I don’t know what to tell her. We end the call by promising each other a safe space, a place to always be believed, a haven to cry and vent, wail and pray. Because she doesn’t know my story. I have been keeping things from her, too. I have already heard the word bitch more times in my three-month union than in my other twenty-two years of life, but I tell myself his behavior is my fault.
We were taught that Christian wives find ways to make their husbands happy. Maybe we can help each other be that kind of wife. We have never been closer or more connected. Our friendship will be one people hold up and say, “This is a friendship you should strive for.” As the months pass, we share escalating scenes of verbal and emotional abuse. Reckless driving and red lights run while cowering in the passenger seat. Being pushed from a moving car at midnight. Going to the bank the day after payday to find one cent in a joint account. Explosive screams and shoves into furniture and walls.
We fantasize about leaving them, but we don’t know how. Besides, what will people think? The world we came from instilled a conviction that decent women do not leave. We will be damaged goods people talk about behind their hands. No other good Christian man will ever marry us.
I only understand that my marriage is life or death when a gun distills it to one steel-shrouded point. I divorce my husband. She stays with hers. Our friendship is burdened with the weight of our split decisions. Eventually, it breaks.
I always thought my divorce sowed the seed that ended our friendship, but I was wrong. Our friendship ended with me wedged in a closet, the first time she told me her husband abused her. I should have ended the call and gotten in the car. I could have been at her house in less than five hours. Maybe the element of surprise would have been enough to force her onto the other path. It might have given us both the strength to leave at the same time. We could have rejected our evangelical upbringing, traveled the world, and met our soulmates together. We could still be best friends.
With the benefit of age and life experience, I understand how I failed her. I was supposed to tell her to leave, but I didn’t know how. The consequences of my failure fully manifested by the time we hit forty. Losing her decades-long friendship is one of my greatest regrets. She stopped speaking to me more than a decade ago. I still miss her; I’ll always love her; and I can’t fix our relationship. Her silence is my punishment.
Andra Watkins is the author of four books. Her memoir Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace hit the NYT bestseller list in October 2015. Her well-reviewed Nowhere trilogy targets the fiction lover. She gives rousting keynote speeches and has yet to meet a destination she doesn’t like. You can find her at her website, Instagram, and Twitter.