She was the second woman to ever break my heart. Not in a romantic way. The first was my mother when she left—my preferred terminology of her losing her battle to cancer when I was eight.
Nearly twenty years later, my closest friend left. But she didn’t die. She left. Disappeared. I was the one who almost died. Not because she left.
She left when I almost died.
Our friendship had been unraveling for about two years anyway, but it still hurt. I don’t know why it had been falling apart. We never argued or fought. Slight disagreements, like which actor was cuter than the other, but nothing major.
I almost died in a car crash hours after my birthday, and my closest friend, closer to me than even my sister, was not around.
We met and became fast friends freshman year in college. A mutual friend introduced us after she found out we were both Haitian. The small New England business college had few black students, so it was surprise to meet a fellow Haitian. It wasn’t the reason we became friends, but it was a starting point.
Like me she was 5’4”, though you’d think she was taller because she wore unzipped, black leather ankle boots with a slight heel year round. Her hair was always gathered in a messy chignon with lots of hairpins at the nape of her neck, and when she cared to, she wore make up. Most of the time she settled on wearing simple lip gloss applied with a dipping wand. I teased her about always wearing black, as if she were in perpetual mourning, though I was just as guilty of wearing dark-colored clothing all the time.
She was from Cambridge; I, Boston. She excelled in the finance and accounting courses that I struggled in. Liberal Arts courses—the electives—are where I soared, but she faltered. She tutored me and I gladly wrote her papers on books I hadn’t even read.
There’s no such thing as a normal family, but our odd family stories were strangely, eerily similar. Dead mothers, present-absent could-be-considered abusive fathers, less-than-loving guardians (think Disney before the happy ending), half-siblings we knew existed but didn’t have relationships with. We bonded over dysfunction, and feeling like an “Other.”
We liked the same R&B artists, TV shows and movies. It went without saying that we’d go see any movie starring Tom Cruise, her celebrity crush. We were roommates in college, then later shared an apartment with two of my male bookstore co-workers. But before that, there was a brief stint of her staying with me at my aunt’s house.
She became a part of my extended family. She was at every family dinner, holiday, birthday celebration, barbecue. Family members who didn’t know any better thought she was my lover. My love life, then and now, for the most part was non-existent so I wasn’t bringing around any male suitors. Friends of the family assumed she was family. She made the cut to a cousin’s wedding by scoring her own invitation; she was not my plus one.
She claimed to feel like an outsider and uncomfortable. An insult that we chose to ignore.
She developed a crush on one of my male cousins, one who was our age and to whom I was the closest at the time. She didn’t tell me. I saw it. She became more flirtatious. Her body language changed around him. She seemed to be tense and loosen up at the same time. My cousin’s mother, my aunt, noticed it as well.
I waited for her to tell me and when she didn’t, I asked her about it in a teasing way. She copped to it, but admitted it wasn’t a good idea. She said my aunt had told her it wasn’t a good match. She agreed, but still took offense.
My cousin dated a slew of women, whom he sometimes brought around. She met them. She, too, dated. As did I. She had been friends with my boyfriend in college. I fell in real love for the first time with my second boyfriend. Poor thing basically had to take on a package deal. Nothing kinky happened, but she was with us at some of our movie and dinner dates. She even came with me when I spent my first and only Thanksgiving with his family.
She started to take for granted my family’s goodwill towards her. Upon arrival, she’d stand in the doorway and offer a simple “Bon soir,” instead of properly showing respect by kissing our elders on the cheek, like she used to and as is custom. Our shared cultural custom.
My grandmother was horrified and hurt. I saw the look on her face. My grandmother sometimes fussed over her more than she did her children’s children, and she was a pretty fussy woman.
After nights out, she expected, but didn’t seem to appreciate the detour my cousins—not even me, a passenger in another car—offered to her. Years before, after her car had been totaled and I had transferred to a different college, I picked up and dropped her off on campus every weekend.
Phone calls dwindled. Unless she was calling to vent about something, usually work, I didn’t hear from her. I can’t remember if we celebrated her birthday that last January. Probably not, because I didn’t invite her to mine.
That was the year I ended up in ICU in a medically induced coma after the car I was in—the last of four and being driven by a cousin—smashed into the back of the white limo in front of us in the highway lane.
It was the early hours of an April Saturday morning. Though spring, it was still cold. I remember wearing my black pea coat, which the hospital didn’t return to me. The roads were slick from earlier showers. It was my birthday. Well, because it was technically Saturday, it was the day after my birthday. We were heading home from celebrating. We were in multiple cars.
Except her. She wasn’t there. I didn’t invite her.
I’m told she visited me in the hospital during my two-week stay, one of which was spent in ICU. She never visited while I was on bedrest at home for months. A co-worker who was barely a friend did.
In my second or third month of recovery, I still hadn’t returned to work. My cousin, the one she was infatuated with, told me she called and asked him to dinner. Believing she wanted help mending our strained friendship, he accepted.
My cousin noted her fidgetiness, how she gulped not sipped her alcoholic drink and ordered another. She confessed she was in love with him. He said became incensed. I, his cousin and her supposed best friend was still mending from a near-death experience, and her focus was on confessing feelings of love?
He questioned what she hoped to gain. Surely she did not expect to attend family dinners on his arm. Did she think it was a good look to abandon me at my weakest?
Despite the tongue lashing, she showed up to my brother and his girlfriend’s baby shower a short time later. I was surprised to see her. It was awkward.
She approached me. She wanted to talk. I told her it was neither the time nor the place. She walked away.
Ten years later, I still think about her. She was my longest, dearest and closest friend.
A million dollars. Not only a nickname and play on her name, Emilienne, but what I would give to have my friend back.