As a kid, I had a close friend, the kind you send BFF messages to on cheap gray school paper when you’re supposed to be listening to the math lesson. We’ll call her Amy since that was her name. Amy and I attended a small elementary school, with only one class per grade, so we were together every year. She was more of a tomboy than I was—good at athletics, never wearing dresses or skirts, her hair styled short like a boy’s might be. We shared a love of scary movies, junk food, and imagination games. She was my only competition when it came to academics. We were the smart kids, constantly measuring ourselves against each other to see which one might be better. If there was any kind of school-related competition that required more brain than brawn, like ‘who can read the most books in one month’ or ‘who can spell the hardest word,’ either Amy or I would take home the title.
Pictures of us back then show two girls with their arms around each other, dressed up in homemade costumes for Halloween. Or the pair of us running into the distance, preparing to roll down some enormous hill. We spent every minute we could together, right up until we didn’t.
The change started when we were eleven and entered middle school, which was filled with older, tougher kids. Amy decided to overhaul her image. She permed her hair and started wearing short skirts and heels. She downplayed how smart she was. I didn’t recognize her anymore, and increasingly, it seemed she no longer recognized me either. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We no longer talked on the phone. Still, I considered her my friend and hoped we might rekindle our relationship. I invited her to my twelfth birthday party. To my wonderment and delight, she said yes.
I felt the old thrill when she agreed to come. It would be like the old days, the two of us making stupid jokes and stuffing ourselves with cake and candy. I’d been wrong to read her chilliness at school as anything personal. She still saw me. She still cared.
The party was a small affair, just a few friends and a cake at my house. The minutes ticked by and Amy didn’t show. Maybe she forgot, I told myself. Maybe she got sick. I would have to call her afterward to make sure she was okay.
Then more than an hour into the party, our doorbell rang. I ran to answer it with hope in my heart, the rest of my party guests hot on my heels. Sure enough, there was Amy on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. She’d brought along a couple of her new friends, popular girls with teased hair and thick makeup. I’m convinced they didn’t even know I was alive until that very moment.
Awkward and stammering, I invited them all in for cake. They didn’t move past the entryway.
“Here’s your present,” Amy said, thrusting a drug store bag at me. “I can’t stay.” She may have even said sorry. I can’t remember. What I do recall with searing clarity is how humiliated and awful I felt in that moment, how stupid I’d been to misjudge our relationship. Amy wasn’t my friend anymore. She hadn’t been for some time. I’d just failed to realize it.
I got the message that day. My mumbled thank-you to her as she and her new crowd departed from my mother’s kitchen were the last words I spoke to Amy, or she to me. True to her new identity, she no longer took classes with the smart kids, not even when we got to high school and there were lots of us—some of whom were even popular and cool.
I wonder about that moment at my party and what Amy’s point-of-view might have been. Had she felt pressured to say yes to my face when she didn’t ever want to come? Had she wanted to come at first but then her new friends convinced it her would be uncool? Did she just feel sorry for me, this person she was leaving behind on her fast-track to middle-school stardom? My guess is that Amy doesn’t have any memory of this party. Maybe she has some alternate moment of truth about our shattered friendship that I’ve completely forgotten because it was not significant to me. Perhaps she glimpsed a ragged stuffed animal in my locker. Maybe she sized up my hopelessly unfashionable clothes. She would have seen that I didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to be the kind of person she was becoming; indeed, I never would.
I think about turning points like this in relationships, and how momentous shifts can sometimes be one-sided. Amy wasn’t trying to be the villain in my story. She just wanted to survive sixth grade. I think about people’s attempts to reinvent themselves and whether that’s entirely possible. Was the Amy I had known and loved still in there somewhere, or did she have to be killed off for Amy to transform? I think about these moments of sudden clarity, how dizzying they can be. How they leave a brand on your memory that feels hot to the touch after decades have passed. I think about how they make for great storytelling, and how we as authors search for these moments to bring our characters to life.
I think about Amy.