Dear Captain A,
I’ve been friends with my friend, B, since 2004. We had a short but really important lovership in 2006, had a hard breakup, but then rebuilt our friendship. For the past five years, he’s been someone I’ve considered family and my best friend. We referred to each other as ‘non sexual life partners”, threw giant Thankstaking and Xmas parties for our queer chosen families. We are both estranged from our families of origin due to abuse and have been super committed to being really solid people in each other’s lives. He has been the person I always picked up the phone for, the person I pick up from the airport, and the person who I’ve prioritized being there for. Over the years, we’ve done a huge amount of mental health and physical health support for each other that’s been a work in progress, but that has felt really good in terms of us both being able to offer a lot to each other and also have boundaries. He is the executor of my will and my medical power of attorney person. And we’ve also cooked and eaten lots of food, traveled, laughed our asses off, gone to movies, thrown parties and film nights for our friends, nerded out over hiphop and poetry, talked for hours, gotten each other jobs, gone dancing and to the ocean, and been super involved in each other’s lives. I thought we were going to be in each other’s lives forever. Our breakup and the way we came back from it built this huge amount of trust and solidness in how we’ve handled conflict. He is a wonderful person.
We’re also both writers. This year, my second book came out. There’s a poem cycle in it about our lovership and breakup. B. had heard a lot of those poems and we’d talked about them coming out, and what I got from him was that he was supportive, and that if he had feelings come up, we’d talk about it. He didn’t ask to read all of them, to veto them or the like, before the book came out. After the launch reading (which he attended), I checked in with B, and he said that he was indeed having some feelings come up. We agreed to meet up and talk about it. (This was last November.)
When we met up, he said that he felt extremely hurt by one poem in particular in the book. The poem he named really surprised me. To me, it’s a poem I wrote that skewers myself- that is pretty much me talking about the stage of a breakup where one is missing the person a lot and listening to an Ani Di Franco album on repeat. He is barely in the poem, and I don’t say anything negative about him in the poem. When I’ve read it, it’s come across as a funny poem where I am naming and laughing myself at the stage of a breakup when one is a mess. The one negative thing in it is where I talk about hating on the ex’s new partner, and then check myself and talk about how femme competiton is wrong, how the new partner is also someone vulnerable and deserving of respect.
However, when we met to talk about it, he was saying things like “You still hate me that much?” I was really confused, and told him- and that it seemed true that he was interpreting the poem really really differently than I had meant it (or, to be honest, how people I have read the poem to have interpreted it) but that I understood that writing can hit people a lot of different ways and I wanted to hear what he was feeling in it. He said that the poem seemed very mean spirited against him. I felt really confused, again, as there are almost no references to him in the poem or identifying markers. I asked him what I could do to make it better. He asked me if I could take it out of the second edition. I told him I didn’t know how I felt about that, but I’d think about it. Around this point, I got pretty freaked out and self hating on myself for a bit, mostly because I was freaking out that this conflict felt really different than ones we’d had before and because I couldn’t believe that I had somehow hurt the person I cared about so much.
We spent the holidays together like we usually do, but he asked for a month of space after it. He then extended that to three months. I checked in with him then, saying that I respected his need for space but I was wondering if we could have a container around the time we took apart- that in my history with conflict, often the more time folks take, the more each person can build up a narrative around the conflict that makes it harder to resolve the conflict, and I also was worried that all of a sudden it’d be a year since we talked. I suggested that we go to a mediator, a counselor or his spiritual leader for support and counseling to try and move through the conflict. He said no to both the container and counseling, that he needed an unlimited amount of time to feel his feelings. The separation was hard for me, but I focused on praying, sending him love, and doing what I could on my own in terms of thinking, talking to my counselor and journalling to try and sort through the situation.
Yesterday, I received an email from him saying that he is ending our friendship, that he will not go to counseling/mediation because he doesn’t think it will do any good, and that if I write or try to contact him in any way he will not reply.
I am really blown away that he is choosing this – to unilaterally end an 8 year friendship, six of which have been very close and committed- post one conversation nine months ago and eight months of space. To be honest, I’m also pretty angry with him. I know I can’t make him do anything, but I am really upset that he is choosing to walk away when one conversation nine months ago is all the attempt to deal with this conflict that we have. In some ways, I am also not surprised. I’ve seen him do similar things- unilaterally and permanently cut lovers and friends off, for good – before. He is close to almost none of his former lovers. But it still feels devastating.
Part of me feels that all I can ethically do is accept that he has chosen to end our friendship, perhaps write him a letter stating my love and care for him (and my confusion over what the fuck has happened) and send it to him with no expectations that he will reply. Part of me feels like I have been way too nice and I want to tell him, no, this is not fucking okay with me, we have a commitment and we have to talk! I’m not sure what the right move is.
I’m also, honestly, worried about him. These actions don’t seem in keeping with the person I have been friends with for this long. I’m worried that he might have some mental health stuff coming up. Because we’ve been taking space, the amount I know is limited, but I do know via friends that his chronic health conditions have been getting worse, that he’s been having a lot more pain and physical limitations. He seems to be isolating a lot- to be going out much less (due to pain and lack of energy and the ableism of the world) and to also be seeing friends less. Again, there may be nothing I can do about any of this, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying and wondering what, if anything, I can do.
Finally, I don’t know if this is relevant, but this conflict started about two months after he started a new romantic relationship- one that he said was the most intense one he’d had since we broke up as lovers five years ago. He and his partner seem really happy, and I am genuinely happy for him- she’s awesome. However, there’s this part of me that wonders if there’s some connection to him choosing to detach from me and him being in a more intense relationship than he’s had in a long time – that he couldn’t figure out how to have a nonsexual partnership and a romantic partnership at the same time.
What do you think my best options are? And what the fuck do you think happened? I am kind of flabbergasted.
PS: I have spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics of writing about folks in one’s life. And here’s what I’ve come to. I think everyone has the right to write their own stories. I don’t think people have the right to write someone else’s story without their permission. But I think that we have the right to write our own. I would defend B’s right to write anything about his experience of me, even if I didn’t like it or if it wasn’t flattering.
Dear Captain WTF (aka #333):
I think you’re right about the ethics of writing about other people. Everyone gets to tell their own story.
Whatever happened, I don’t think it was that particular poem.
I think you should NOT contact B. He specifically asked you not to. Whatever the reason, that is a boundary he is setting and that he gets to set. I know you want to find out what you can do, but he told you what you can do: NOTHING. Do nothing. You’ve seen him to do this to other people before, so it’s in him to do this. You just didn’t think he would ever do it to you. Someday he will probably do the same thing to this new person he passionately loves because being the first one out the door is part of who he is. We’ve talked before about how awkward and painful it is to receive the attempt to have the last word – it never endears the sender.
You may never get any explanation. You probably won’t get a satisfying explanation. Relationships are choices and sometimes choices are brutal. He knows where to find you. If he wanted to find you, he would. Any explanation we could come up with would be a made-up story. He loved you too much or too little. In the end, too little.
I’m really sorry I don’t have more comforting things to tell you. I think the things you should do are all about grief – mourning and learning to accept the loss, surrounding yourself with comforting people who won’t bail on you, keep going to counseling, re-assigning your emergency contact & legal issues, putting anything and everything associated with him (including that letter that you will write but not actually send) in a box and burying it in the back of a closet or a storage unit or a literal hole in the ground, and being extremely kind to yourself. With mutual friends, be honest. “We’re not in touch anymore. He ended our friendship unilaterally. It’s very painful for me to think about, and I never got a good reason why.” (You don’t owe this guy good PR and smoothing things over).
Grieve him like he died. For you, maybe he did.
Eventually there will be some poems in that, probably.
So the other day I told the guy I’d been hanging out with for some weeks/months that actually I liked him in a romantic way, and he said well he had figured as much, but he was in love with another woman and wanted to be just friends. Fair enough, I’m a bit sad but well.
But I’m getting so tired of it. I’m 30 years old, all my relationships combined add up to about two years, give or take, the longest having been the first, 13 months. I meet a guy I like, I see some more of him, I like him even more, and in the end he turns me down or it doesn’t work out or whatever. And this again, and again, and again. I’m just getting tired of it, always the same story, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with me, at least not to the point that I’m unlovable or undateable, so I suppose I’m just unlucky. I would like to have a boyfriend at some point, so I suppose I’ll just keep trying. Meet a guy, try to see more of him, see if maybe this is the one? no? Oh well, I’ll see if I meet another one… maybe this is him? No, again not. Etcetera.
Now my question: do you perhaps know a nice poem about this? About getting tired of my own sad repeating story?
Thanks for your attention,
Dear A (#334):
I should probably have kicked this one to DOCTOR Sweet Machine, who just finished a dissertation/book on poetry, but we’re a literary bunch here and many can play this game.
To tide you over, here are some standbys:
Love After Love, by Derek Walcott
Friendship After Love, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator, by Ann Sexton
Now, as to the rest of your letter, sometimes stuff like that just happens: You fall for a friend who doesn’t fall for you. You were brave and smart to speak up about your feelings, and rejection was the risk you took. Sometimes people aren’t ready for your jelly, even if you are awesome like Sonia Sanchez:
watch out fo the full moon of sonia
shinin down on ya.
git yo/self fattened up man
you gon be doing battle with me
ima gonna stake you out
grind you down
leave greasy spots all over yo/soul
till you bone dry. man.
you gon know you done been touched by me
ima gonna tattoo me on you fo ever
leave my creases all inside yo creases
i done warned ya boy
for the full moon of sonia
shinin down on ya
If you’re feeling Miss Sonia, clear your calendar – you’re not getting out of bed except to pee or eat for the next month. But if you’re not feeling Miss Sonia, that poem will have you double-checking that you’ve locked your doors and windows before you go to bed, right?
It sounds like you’ve been trying to the Not Love Perhaps route.
Not Love Perhaps – A.S.J. Tessimond
This is not Love perhaps – Love that lays down
Its life, that many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown -
But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:
Something perhaps especially our own:
A need at times to be together and talk -
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places
And meet more easily nightmare faces:
A need to reach out sometimes hand to hand -
And then find Earth less like an alien land:
A need for alliance to defeat
The whisperers at the corner of the street:
A need for inns on roads, islands in seas, halts for discoveries to be shared,
Maps checked and notes compared:
A need at times of each for each
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.
Since this sounds like it is an oft-repeating cycle for you, I’m going to recommend NOT trying to become close friends with people you’re interested in romantically and hope that the friendship will turn into something else. It sounds like you got really invested in the idea of this thing before you figured out whether it was viable. That sets you up to feel a little entitled because you’ve invested all this time and emotional energy and to be very hurt when it doesn’t work out.
I know, I know, some people burn slow. I see you, steadfast & patient hearts! Still, since the letter writer is complaining that this is not working out, I suggest speaking up sooner rather than later about attraction.
You don’t have to know if you’re going to fall in love with the person to ask them on a date. In fact, it’s better if you don’t know that! You don’t have to control everything 12 moves ahead. You CAN’T actually control anything because it’s all subjective and there are never any guarantees. All you can do is say “Hey, you’re neat. Want to go to ____ thing on _____ day with me?” (Avoid “soon” or “sometime” or other vagueness. Lock it down!)
If the person says “No thanks” say “Ok, had to ask” and don’t bring it up again.* Show them that you respect their “no.” If they change their mind, they know where to find you! A person who is interested in you might refuse your suggestion, but will be be pretty careful to say “But ask me again next week when my schedule clears!” or “Would this day work better for you?” People who like you will usually act like they like you.
There’s no rule that you can’t be friends after something like this happens, but I think there is a pretty good rule that you shouldn’t hang out and become friends hoping that they’ll change their minds. It’s actually pretty healthy when someone you like says “No thanks” to take a big old break from interacting with them and give yourself time to reset your feelings. Sometimes the healthiest thing is to say, “Ok, cool” and when the other person says “Ok, but I’d still like to be friends,” you say “I’ll think about it” (out loud) and “No way, Jose” (in your heart) and move the hell on from the whole thing. Don’t set yourself up to be hanging there, pining for what might have been.
If the person says yes, go out with them. Use the date(s) for their intended purpose: to spend time with someone, get to know them better, and see if you want to consider a closer relationship. You may find out that you work better as friends. You may find out that you really work together and develop feelings for each other. You may develop a painful mismatch. All of these are ok outcomes.
Turns out there are some pretty good poems for people who don’t know what the hell is up:
Sestina – Marilyn Hacker
For a week now our bodies have whispered
together, telling each other secrets
you and I would keep. Their language,
harder and more tender than this, wakes
us suddenly in the half dawn, tangled
dragons on their map. They have a plan.
We are stranded travelers who plan
to ditch our bags and walk. The hill wind whispers
danger and rain. We are going different ways. That tangled
thornbush is where the road forks. The secrets
we told on the station bench to keep awake
were lies. I suspect from your choice of language
that you are not speaking your native language.
You will not know about the city plan
tattooed behind my knee. But the skin wakes
up in humming networks, audibly whispers
over the dead wind. Everybody’s secrets
jam the wires. Syllables get tangled
with bus tickets and matchbooks. You tangled
my hair in your fingers and language
split like a black fig. I suck the secrets
off your skin. This isn’t in the plan,
the subcutaneous transmitter whispers.
Be circumspect. What sort of person wakes
up twice in a wrecked car? And we wake
in wary seconds of each other, tangled
damply together. Your cock whispers
inside my thigh that there is language
without memory. Your fingers plan
wet symphonies in my garrulous secret
places. There is nothing secret
in people crying at weddings and singing at wakes;
and when you pack a duffel bag and plan
on the gratuitous, you will still tangle
purpose and habit, more baggage, more language.
It is not accidental what they whisper.
Our bodies whispered under the sheet. Their secret
language will not elude us when we wake
into the tangled light without a plan.
And if you end up in shitty rejection-town again, Marilyn Hacker is as good a guide as any:
She Bitches About Boys
To live on charm, one must be courteous.
To live on others’ love, one must be lovable.
Some get away with murder being beautiful.
Girls love a sick child or a healthy animal.
A man who’s both itches them like an incubus,
but I, for one, have had a bellyful
of giving reassurances and obvious
advice with scrambled eggs and cereal;
then bad debts, broken dates, and lecherous
onanistic dreams of estival
nights when some high-strung, well-hung, penurious
boy, not knowing what he’d get, could have been more generous.
This has been an episode of Chicken Soup for the English Major’s Soul.