I love my friends. I do, I love my friends and they break my heart on a regular basis because I'm watching all of us muddle through and I can't say anything any more, I've lost the sense of whose toes are where and how sensitive they are and so I self-censor everything that comes out of my mouth.
Mandy was my best friend in high school. We dated best friends and were in turn each others' confidants when things got messy. I thought of ways to get around her parents and I covered for her and she did the same for me. We loved musicals and singing and the tech crew and Charles Simic, who is one of the best gifts she ever gave to me, her love of that poet.
But the thing I loved best about Mandy - the very best thing about being her best friend - was that we had an understanding and we used it - we were always, unremittingly, unabashedly honest.
When Paul started treating me like I was his own personal playtoy, Mandy was there to tell it like it is. And when I got defensive and denied it all she shook her head.
"I love you and I'm behind you no matter what you do, but you gotta know he looks like a monkey and he's acting lower than one."
And, you know, looking back at our homecoming pictures, she's right, and my face has the subtly strained, trapped expression I've since seen on clinic patients who get the cards for the domestic violence shelters. But I swore I loved him and he wasn't so bad to me, and for months Mandy stuck with me and held me when I cried and she never ever said I told you so, but she didn't stop telling me that what he was doing was lower than low. And when I finally broke up with him she was right there.
And when she was playing one guy against another, and it was reaching epic proportions of bitchiness, I told her so. And we screamed at each other, and she said she'd do what she wanted to, and I said "I love you and I'm behind you no matter what you do, but you gotta know this isn't going to last forever and what are you going to do when they figure it out?"
It was a promise we made, that being best friends meant that no matter what you'd stick up for the other person, but you'd never shut your mouth and let it go by, that everything you said would be said in love and honesty. It was a promise made in late nights huddled over the register to keep warm, in the corner behind the recliner where you could feel safe and protected as she shared tales of abuse and desolation and I bared parts of my soul scraped clean of the lies I habitually told in high school. It was a promise, and I never once doubted that when Mandy said "I love you and I'm behind you no matter what you do" that she meant anything but "I love you and you're doing something that worries me, and I have to know if you're sure about your choice..."
I wonder when I drifted away from that, when I began to lock my thoughts inside. I wonder when my friendships became intricate dances of words and feelings, a mingling of intimacy and secrecy. I wonder when I first noticed that people were so fragile that I never even suggested a similar bargain. There was no-one I trusted to believe me.
I live, it seems, in a world of delicate interfaces, of the subtle interplay between physician and patient. Lean forward here. Reach out and touch the hand like so, now, to show that you understand. It's a deliberate and choreographed exercise in both verbal and nonverbal communications, and yet.
And yet I wish that I felt as comfortable being honest with my friends as I do with my patients. I can look a patient in the eye and tell them if I'm worried, talk to them about the things that concern me, ask questions and get honest answers. It's a relationship that, while not as strongly, implies that unspoken sentence. "I'm your doctor and I care about your health, and I'll be your doctor...but you gotta know you're killing yourself with those cigarettes." It only seems to emphasize the void in my own life, as I find myself biting my tongue, swallowing my words, watching in helpless agony because I'm afraid to speak. I treasure these fragile and spindling bridges too deeply to risk them; I love too deeply to close my eyes.
I reach out and my tentative touches only reconfirm how tenuous the ties that bind me are. I don't go out with the girls; they don't want to take time away that I could spend with Angel. I have to beg to hear anything; nobody wants to cause me more stress or worry. So very rarely will someone tell me that I'm being a bitch, each time I manage to hear a criticism it's buried deep in bullshit and apology so as not to upset or offend. Everyone leaves cryptic messages and little "I'll be all right"s and I swallow them with the hopes that saying so will make it so, that it's not so bad, that this is the way life really is.
But there are ten thousand things I want to say, and some of them the words have come and formed and dissolved into the winds. And sometimes I get it right, sometimes. And sometimes I look into someone's eyes and there's a flash of that honesty. But most of the time I feel disconnected, and I can't find more than ephemeral bonds. And I think maybe part of that is the hiding and the tiptoe-ing around; the fragility that seems to bind us together more than love and unconditional support. And I don't know which desire is greater: the desire to know that I have the right to speak, or the desire to know that someone won't sugar-coat things.
I love you and I'm behind you no matter what.
My heart is breaking.