My Friend

From the time I moved to San Diego in 1984 until I moved away in 2014 I knew S. She hired me to teach for her in the fall of 1984. We didn’t always get along — in fact, we had a few boss/teacher disagreements that were serious, one that caused me to quit. She let me come back. As friends we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, either, but we were “there for each other” most of the time.

S is a very talented painter, truly masterfully talented, but her art took a backseat to the “luv” relationship she fell into 27 years ago with an unemployed, egoistic, self-important, attention seeking, manipulative, do-gooder named J. At that point, I believe on the rebound from a failed marriage, S “rescued” this guy. He’s one of those people Emerson described in this passage from “Self-Reliance:”

If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’

When J came into S’ life, S’ life slowly became smaller and smaller and he became the “important person” in the relationship. She fought it, but she was afraid to “lose” him. He abused her in many ways, primarily by belittling her and minimizing her effort. Of course, she supported him, and so she (a woman of her time — she’s 1/2 generation ahead of me) explained it as him wanting the recognition all men need.

Ultimately, everything she did related back to the relationship. Her various illnesses were — I half suspected — bids for attention from J. The only “attention” she got as a result was when he could boast that he was her “carer” something he claimed with the knowledge that others would feel compassion for him and think he was a good guy.

He assumed the leadership of many social causes (pro bono). He could be heard on the radio on Sunday mornings at 6 am. When tsunami and attendant disasters hit Japan, he and some of his other old hippy cohorts organized not a relief effort, but a symbolic effort — they went to the beach and bowed toward Japan. When he turned 70, S organized a celebration of J’s life and achievements. No way in hell was I going. I knew too much about him.

When I left San Diego, S and J were some of the last people I saw. When I arrived at their house, J told me S wasn’t ready and I could wait outside. This person could not even invite me to sit down or offer me a glass of water. I went out into the backyard to wait. When S was ready, I was called in and J was a completely different person. S was — as she had been for a while — in a wheelchair (she has a serious auto-immune disease, still in somewhat early stages at that point, ALS I believe), unable to bathe and dress herself. She smelled and her hair was dirty — two things she would not have abided if she’d been able to take care of herself. I could only imagine how she felt. We had dinner and J acted like my best friend. We took pictures and said our good-byes. The next morning I called and suggested maybe it would be nice for J to get a break and maybe an in-home carer a couple of days a week would be good for S. She insisted J liked being her carer and did a good job. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings by suggesting that. Besides, who would pay?(She lives in a paid for house near the beach in San Diego) My guess was he just didn’t want anyone else in the house.

I stopped talking with S when I moved here and had difficult adjustments of my own. I was no longer in a place where I could listen to hour-long phone calls that detailed the truly awful thing J was doing to her. A little distance showed me that I was not a friend; I was a sob-sister, a vehicle of her catharsis. The gravity of S disease, and its progress she was describing on the phone, made J’s treatment of her even more unbearable for me.

I talked to her about it. I told her what she was describing to me was abuse. She didn’t hear me. The moment had passed where she could eject that person from her life. She explained how he cared for her and defended him. Finally I just asked, “Do you love him?” If anyone knows how irrational love can be, it’s me.

“Yes,” she said. “I love him, but you wouldn’t understand.”

That was the last straw. I thought to myself, “You don’t complain FOR TWENTY YEARS to your friend about your lover’s mistreatment of you and then say that..” And I “broke up” with her. It was hard, but I knew from my experiences with my alcoholic brother that you can love someone and be completely unable to help them.

Today I heard from “her” via J who used her email to write to her friends. It’s a sad and incomprehensible message as J takes center stage and his way of giving information is indirect and self-important, but I got it. My friend S is in the last months of her life. I wrote J and said he did not need to keep in contact with me about her as I am 1000 miles away and cannot do anything to help. I then wrote her daughters. If I am to hear about S, I would rather hear from them.

I guess I’m writing this for myself but having been in abusive relationships more than once, I learned that if my friends tolerated it I could pretend it wasn’t happening. I have felt so much regret that I didn’t understand this important point of friendship years and years ago. I wish I had the power to turn back the clock to 1995 or something and, the first time S called me with complaints about J, I wish I’d had the ability to say, “He doesn’t love you. He’s using you. He will hurt you. He will steal your money and your life.” Either she would have heard me, or not. Either way, it would have been better. Maybe.

She was a vibrant, funny, intense, creative, passionate woman — truly a woman of her generation — sharing the confusions of her moment in history absolutely. There is a photo in her house of her and her two little girls, taken by their dad, S first husband. It’s probably 1967. She is wearing a long striped Moroccan gown with a hood. The VW Bus in which they’re traveling is parked behind them. They are in Morocco and the wind is blowing. S is so young, so beautiful. Her little girls — now in their 50s — are tow-headed angels next to her. The color in the photo is faded, the spectrum shifted to blue.


3 thoughts on “My Friend

  1. That is so terribly sad. I see so many women who get into these relationships and can’t seem to get free of them. I was lucky. I got booted out of mine, otherwise maybe I’d be in the same position. It’s just awful that so many bright good women get entangled in awful, abusive relationships and never break free. I am sure you are deeply unhappy about it and there’s little I can say except … there but for the grace of whatever, go I.

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