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Laura Lippman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,147 words)
I am firmly in the camp that believes we need new interests and new goals as we age. At 60, I have taken up tennis and am dutifully working my way through Duolingo’s basic Italian lessons. Recently, a friend and I decided to pursue Stephen Sondheim completist status, attending productions of every musical for which he has written music and/or lyrics. Alas, our crowded calendars keep us from being as nimble as we need to be. Passion in the Philippines would have been amazing, but we couldn’t even make it to The Frogs in suburban Detroit. Clearly, we’re going to be at this for a while.
But this past spring, we managed to bag a New York production of Merrily We Roll Along, a Sondheim work that has been vexing dramaturges since its original 1981 Broadway run of only 16 performances. Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it moves backward in time, centering on a three-way friendship that has fractured beyond repair. Mary, who always had a thing for Frank, has become a bitter alcoholic. Frank has ignored the work he does best, composing, in order to become a mogul, at which he is mediocre. Frank and Charley no longer speak at all. Because the story moves from their crabby old age (40-something!) to their more hopeful 20s, we see the fallout before we hear the bomb. The suspense is not fueled by whether Frank and Charley will patch things up, but the origin of the feud. Who did what to whom?
That reveal comes quickly, one advantage of a backwards-moving story. The fifth or sixth song, depending on the production you see — people are forever tinkering with Merrily — is a bravura rant. Charley breaks down on a live television show while discussing his writing partnership with Frank. Which comes first, Charley is asked, the words or the music. The contract, he replies, then launches into “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” a laundry list of his friend’s shortcomings.
The song builds, his rage builds. But just as Charley appears on the verge of one of those musical theater transitions that was mocked in Spamalot’s “The Song that Goes Like This,” he stops himself and begins to speak-sing softly. He misses Frank. He wants him back.
His argument is contradictory. He compares friendship to a garden that has to be tended, then, shades of Elizabeth Bishop, says “Friendship’s something you don’t really lose.” The tempo begins to build. He’s out of control and he knows it. Very sneaky how it happens . . . Oh my god, I think it’s happened. Stop me quick before I sink. He ends with a few vicious, well-chosen words about Frank’s obsession with money. The friendship is irrevocably broken. It’s unclear what can’t be forgiven — the stinging words or the public airing of the grievance.
Absent this kind of betrayal or falling-out, most friendships don’t end so definitively. These no-ending endings can be hard to process. Our culture long ago made peace with the fragility of matrimony, but we still have high expectations for friendships. If you really care about someone, you should be able to pick up where you left off, no matter how long it’s been. Friendship’s something you don’t really lose, right?
Hold my beer, Charley. It’s Frank’s turn to sing.
My Charley did not opt for a flame-out on live television, or even a private delineation of my failings as a friend. My Charley disappeared so quietly that when I finally realized she was gone, I was thrust into an endless hindsight loop. I became a forensic IT analyst, gathering clues from email, social media and annual holiday cards, or the lack thereof.
In my defense, it’s difficult to realize that one has been ghosted when the ghoster disdains all forms of social media. My Charley had long ago made it clear that we would never find her in those vapid precincts, no, no, no. I admired her for this stance because no one admires people not on social media more than people like myself, who are on social media just a little bit too much. No FOMO for the holdouts. Their brains, untouched by social media’s jangly rhythms and assaults, can focus. I would love to be like, say, my friend Andre Dubus III, who uses a flip phone and is vividly, insistently present in the world. I start the day by checking email; Andre reads a poem.
But — but, but, but, but, but, but — despite all the damage they’ve wrought, despite Cambridge Analytica and Fake News and the indifference to the rape/death threats made against women and people of color, Facebook and Twitter have their merits. They’ve kept me sane. As the old mother of a young child with a hard-working husband whose job forces him to be away from home pretty regularly, I see social media as my lifeline and party line, a way of plugging into like-minded communities. On Twitter, I talk about books, television, and politics. On Facebook, I tend toward the Real Housewives and kale. I’m old enough to remember when socially obtuse people pulled out the Kodak Carousel after a dinner party and made you endure slides of their vacation. Now I volunteer for that experience, sitting at my computer and “hearting” my way through Facebook photos. Babies, graduates, prom-goers, sunsets, gardens. The novel was once mocked as dangerous, lightweight entertainment for women. Maybe social media is getting the same bum rap.
In October, 2018, two friends on the other side of the country lost their teenage daughter to cancer. Because of Facebook, I could follow Evie from diagnosis to treatment, observe my friend’s career from hope to despair to hope to devastation. When the time came that there was nothing but bad news, I was grateful that they had a forum where they could share the updates efficiently. I was more grateful still that they continued to write about Evie after her death, sharing photos and memories of her. Real life is anxious for the bereft to move on, to heal. Social media, for all its flibberty-gibberty attention span, doesn’t put an expiration date on grief.
And, yeah, sure, social media is full of bots and trolls who will, say, dox you and investigate your Jewish origins and call you a pervert for teaching your 6-year-old the word “vagina.” Social media is a hellscape. Social media is a place where people fake being successful when they are falling-apart messes. Social media, best I can tell, is exactly like life.
As noted, my Charley isn’t on social media, but her husband is. Back when I thought Charley and I were still friends, I used his page to glean what was going on with her. Then, about four years ago, I stumbled on the fact that the husband and I were no longer Facebook friends. At first I assumed it was a technical glitch; perhaps he had started a new account and was rebuilding his contacts. Do you know [x]? To see what he shares with friends, send him a friend request. But, no, all our mutual friends were still linked to him. I alone had been jettisoned.
Only — when? Why? I racked my brain for an offense. I searched my email for my last communication with her. (Cordial, a quick reply to her request for information, but also a passing reference to an actual letter I had written for her birthday.) My conscience was, is, clear-ish.
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There are mutual friends who might have information, but it seems unfair to involve them. To discuss the rift would be to create sides. There are no sides here. She’s done with me and that’s a legitimate choice. I made one indirect appeal, an open-hearted gesture intended to demonstrate how much I respected and valued her. It went unacknowledged.
But I’m a mystery writer and this mystery tugs at me: Why do friendships end? Why did this friendship end? How do any friendships survive a lifespan? Do any friendships last a lifetime? Do I have any real friends? How bad a friend am I?
Pretty bad, actually. We’ll get to that.
“Do you know,” I asked my trainer, “that there’s a theory about how many friends one can really have? It was developed by an anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who did a Ted talk on the topic.”
“Five close ones, right?”
“I think that’s right. And then you can have a community of up to 150. How many do you have? Close friends?”
“Does that include your wife?”
“No, I put her in a different category.”
“Same,” I said of my husband. “Close friends, I think I have four. There are basically four people who know everything about me. Then six to ten others who know a lot.”
“But how many would help you bury a body?”
“Oh, then it’s only three. Nancy simply could not help me commit a crime.”
We fell silent as I did mountain climbers. My trainer, Todd, has been part of my life for almost 15 years. I am his mother’s age. When we first started working together, he was a 20-something bro; now he’s married, with two young children. He knows everything about me. Everything. He was at my surprise 50th birthday party. I was at his wedding. Our relationship is contained within twice-weekly hour-long sessions; it is rare for us to see or speak to each other outside that window, although we text about the schedule, share recipes and, yes, follow each other on social media.
He is kind, capable and unflappable. He hunts deer with a bow and arrow, feasting on the venison throughout the winter. He has a garden and goats and chickens and a generator and if the shit ever goes down, when the zombie apocalypse is upon us, I am driving straight to Todd’s house with my husband and child.
I think he might be one of my best friends.
He would definitely help me bury a body. Although he would probably make me do most of the digging because it would be a good upper body workout.
As a friend, I frequently break the first rule of fiction: I’m all tell, no show. I’m not going to remember your kid’s birthday, or even yours, despite Facebook’s helpful nudges. When you’re in a crisis, I won’t know the right questions to ask. I blame my Southern parents for placing so many topics in the forbidden zone. I grew up being told it was rude to discuss age, income, health, feelings. I often think that’s why I became a reporter.
I have a list in my head of all the friends I let down. It’s not long, but it’s longer than I’d like, and it’s probably longer than I know. Most of those friends have forgiven me, but I never lose sight of my failures. It’s like a stain on a busily-patterned rug; once you know where to look, your eye goes there every time. I know where to look. I am aware of my misdeeds. Every friend who has ever called me out on being a bad friend had me dead to rights.
But this does not apply to Charley, who enumerated my flaws only when I demanded that she do so. More than a decade ago, she retreated, seemingly done with me. I pursued, asking what I had done wrong. She ticked off my sins: Self-centered, shallow, superficial, materialistic. I was taken aback and a little defensive, but I could see her side of things, so I apologized. And it wasn’t a mealy-mouthed if-you-feel-offended-then-I’m-sorry apology. It was full-throated and sincere, a mea culpa that was all mea. Later, I found out she had gone through a huge crisis at about the time of our break and I thought that explained everything.
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I went through an awful time during the 18-month period in which I managed to get ghosted without noticing. Most of my friends know little about it. (My trainer has all the details.) My friend of longest duration — Nancy, who really would have a hard time helping me bury a body — was told almost nothing. Inevitably, she’s one of the friends I let down, too, more than 20 years ago, but she forgave me. The longer you know me, the greater the odds of me failing you. Nancy has come to understand that my worst predilection as a friend is — oh, irony of ironies — disappearing with no explanation when I’m unhappy.
We’ve known each other for 45 years, Nancy and I, yet I still want to protect her from my worst self, my self-pitying self. I’m not sure why. In part it’s because I am mathematically eliminated from what she has, a marriage that will soon enter its fifth decade. I was her bridesmaid, barely a month after we graduated college. I thought she was insane. But she has one of Those Marriages, the kind that makes everyone feel vaguely inadequate. My first marriage lasted seven years. I have been with my second husband for 19 years, under the same roof for 17, married for 13. To make it to five wedded decades together, we have to live into our late 90s. Nancy could be on her eighth decade of marriage by then.
“You know I’m always there for you,” Nancy said the last time we managed to get together after a long hiatus. “I want to hear from you when things aren’t going well.” I do know. But, without the lubrication of alcohol or sweat, without the buffer of a computer screen and a DM box, I find it hard to share my troubles. Maybe that results in my life looking shinier, easier than it is. I don’t know. I am achingly aware of my luck — the career of my dreams, no real money worries (although I think every sentient American should worry about being bankrupted by health issues), having a family late in life. The things that go wrong for me are so clearly my fault. I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy, ever.
But the worst thing about me is that, as a friend, I’m a terrible novelist. I can’t stop creating narratives about my friends. These stories are almost always positive and uplifting. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Well, it means I’m closing the book on my friends, seeing their lives, their journeys, as finished. Did I do that to the friend who ghosted me? Yes, I did. I tidied up all the messy strands in her life and put her on the shelf, another mystery solved.
To be clear, this is absolutely a shitty thing to do.
“So what’s my narrative?” asked my oldest friend, Nancy.
“That you were the sane one in your crazy family, that you were so lacking in role models that you had to figure out everything for yourself.”
She conceded this was basically true, but also told me that I must stop writing “happily ever after” at the end of my friends’ stories. People’s stories are never finished, not as long as they’re alive.
They don’t even end with death.
On June 28, 2018, an armed gunman walked into the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital-Gazette and killed five people. I was on the road, driving to my mother’s house — I had been on the highway that passes through Annapolis about the time of the shooting. When I heard the news, I knew there was a good chance my friend Rob Hiaasen was one of the victims.
For the next 90 minutes, I drove as phone calls poured through my dashboard bluetooth connection from all over the country. I had met Rob when we worked at the Baltimore Sun and our former colleagues, all reporters, were doing the only thing they could do in a crisis, report. From a Michigan vacation, one friend looked at Rob’s social media pages. He had not checked in safe, so we decided that Rob wasn’t much for social media. In New York, my husband was using his access to staffers at the New York Times to try to get the casualty list; Rob was one of the unconfirmed victims. Still, it was unconfirmed. The Times wasn’t ready to print it.
My car’s tires were crunching on the seashells of my mother’s driveway when the final call came. Rob was officially dead. I burst into tears and said to the friend who had called with the news: “I knew it. He was just so fucking tall.”
Rob was, I think, six-foot-six. For six years, 1994-2000, we had sat within three feet of each other in the Baltimore Sun features section. When I left the newspaper and was presented with the traditional fake Page One, he contributed a sardonic piece about the awards I had won as a crime novelist. He used the byline “Rob ‘Absolutely No Fucking Relation to Carl’ Hiaasen.” (They were brothers.) Once, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he took my hand and leaned forward as if to kiss it — and bit me on the knuckle. I thought this was hilarious. I was nine days older than he was and bemused by how much milestone ages weighed on him. He was seven months out from his 60th birthday when he died and probably already dreading it.
I say “probably” because when Rob was killed, I don’t think I had seen or spoken to him for almost two years. He was commuting daily to his job, which meant being behind the wheel of his car almost three hours a day. I had a small child. But, no, the burden was on me. I had the easier life, the more flexible schedule. It was my responsibility to reach out to my old friend and say, Stop by for a beer on your way home one night. To organize a lunch or dinner. Social media can take a friendship only so far.
In the wake of Rob’s death, I was asked to write about him for various publications. I didn’t feel good about this. It seemed dishonest, fake. I imagined my other ghost-friend, the still-living one, judging me from afar. Still all about you, isn’t it, Laura? It’s so much easier to eulogize a friend than to be one.
I had finished a novel the day before Rob was murdered. I dedicated it to him and his four colleagues. A year later, the book enjoyed some success and I was interviewed a lot. I was asked about Rob. I didn’t expect this, disingenuous as this might sound. Again, I thought about my living ghost and her inevitable disapproval. She had always seemed annoyed with me when I was featured in the press. Well, that was weird, she had emailed about one profile. That was the entirety of her feedback.
Still all about you, isn’t it, Laura?
A year after Rob’s death, his friends threw a book party for a collection of his columns that was published posthumously. I had attended a rocky memorial the previous year, one with solipsistic digressions and the airing of dirty laundry. Determined to avoid such well-intentioned sloppiness, I became a bossy bitch, informing the other organizers that we would limit the number of speakers and readers. I didn’t feel I deserved to be among the readers, which included Rob’s best friend, Kevin, and his wife, Maria, but I took one of the slots when asked.
Afterwards, I met a young man who had worked for Rob in Annapolis, before moving onto the Baltimore Sun. “Rob talked about you all the time,” he said. “Do you remember that podcast interview you did for the Sun?” I did, vaguely. “You called him your journalistic soulmate. I told him about it. He was so pleased.”
That cheered me slightly, knowing I had articulated my regard for Rob and word had gotten back to him. Still, I can’t stop thinking about all the lost opportunities for his company when he was alive. I go back through his Facebook page to the days and weeks before June 28, 2018, looking for moments I should have engaged. I want to affix a heart to everything I see, no matter how mundane. So many smiling photos, so many celebrations of the things he loved — his wife, his children, golf, dogs, a particular Irish pub.
Rob is the ghost I deserve, but he’s too generous to haunt me. Then again, maybe we choose our ghosts.
So here I am, belting my own scorched-earth show tune. Careful as I’ve been to obscure my ghost-friend’s identity, she will recognize herself here, should she ever read this. Which seems unlikely, but it turns out she has used her husband’s Facebook account as a peephole on the world in which she prefers not to participate. A mutual friend inadvertently let this information slip. I let it go. I am trying to let it go. I still check her husband’s page from time to time. Do you know [x]? To see what he shares with friends, send him a friend request. Last year, I finally stopped sending them an annual holiday card.
My oldest friend, Nancy, who won’t help me bury a body but would get me a good lawyer, said to me during my most recent visit: “Don’t you get tired of people saying, “This is what happens at your age. People die. And you just have to get used to it. But I don’t want to get used to it.”
Boy, do I. I am tired of hearing those words. I am tired of having reunions at funerals. I am tired of feeling guilty because it’s hard to do right by all the good people I know. There are so many people I love that I haven’t even spoken to in the past year, unless social media exchanges count as speaking. Isn’t that part of getting old, too? Amassing so many friends that you can’t keep up with them? I have my summer camp friends, my college friends, my Waco friends, my San Antonio friends, my Baltimore Sun friends, my neighborhood friends, my mom friends, my author friends, my reader friends, my New York friends, my New Orleans friends, my Facebook friends, my Twitter friends.
I am tired of the literal deaths and the figurative deaths, the growing number of people I have to mourn. Rob’s Facebook account remains not only open, but active, a place to share memories of him. My friends who lost their daughter continue to upload photographs of her, which I find uncommonly generous. It’s almost as if they are comforting me, the writer who never has the right words, the former reporter who never knows what to ask.
It’s all about you, isn’t it, Laura?
To reiterate: I am well aware of everything that’s wrong with Facebook and Twitter. I have seen my friends abused. I understand the misuse of our data, the dangers of cancel culture, the lack of nuance, the echo chambers we create within our online communities. Inspired by my friend Andre Dubus III, I have stripped my smartphone, trying to make it as dumb as possible. When I’m out in the world I have no access to social media or games, and I try not to check email. The other day, I talked to a barista while waiting for my latte. It was lovely.
But at the end of the day, at the literal end of the goddamn day, when I’m often alone in a quiet house where my daughter sleeps, Facebook and Twitter have kept me company. If my personae on those platforms irritate those who know me well — and I’ve received some feedback that this is the case — then #sorrynotsorry. I’ve got a landline, I’ve got a mail box. Feel free to use them any time. Knock on my back door with a bottle of wine and I’ll sit outside with you, talking late into the night.
I’m a shitty friend, no argument there. But there’s still time, I hope, to be a better one.
Postscript: Immediately after finishing this essay, I threw myself into a huge decluttering project at home. On the mantel in the dining room, we keep an assortment of odd things — sticks from the graves of famous bluesmen, a piece of the Berlin wall, a bird nest, shells our daughter has gathered. Some of those items sit on a series of small tiles, gifts from my Charley friend. There are six in all. One is chipped and one is cracked clear in half. I guess the other four represent the friends who would help me bury a body.
I may be a shitty friend, but life is a shitty novelist.
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Laura Lippman is an award-winning crime novelist and New York Times bestseller. She has published more than 20 novels, a novella, a short story anthology and a book for children. This summer, she will publish Lady in the Lake, a crime novel set in 1960s Baltimore.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol