Watch Your Space

By Selah Mitchell

Two months ago, a message from an old friend popped up on Facebook. She had previously sent me a photo of a book I gifted her once upon a time. I must have seen it because Facebook lets the other person know when the message was opened, but I hadn’t written back. Work was very busy, I had a personal project taking up a lot of time and energy, and I had been nursing a sinus infection which had me bed-ridden. The message I received was a passive aggressive demand to know why I hadn’t replied. When I relayed the aforementioned reasons, she then laid out the different ways I should’ve responded. No well wishes in regards to my health, nor any empathy because we all get swept up in life. What she wanted was to rekindle our former friendship and I wasn’t making the effort she thought she deserved out of me.

I never wrote back.

Gender socialization starts young, so for many of us, our first friendships were same-sex. For me, her name was Gabby. My mom was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and in the barracks down the block lived my parents’ friends and their daughter, maybe a year or two older than me. We played with Barbies, sat criss-cross applesauce next to each other and sang “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar” in the church basement. We did cartwheels at the park and the first rule I remember breaking was my mother’s, “Do not leave the park without adult supervision.” At four years old, I tip-toed down the sidewalk and around the corner with Gabby by my side.

As an Army brat, I’ve had more than my fair share of friends, and I’ve experienced many things with them: telling and keeping each others’ secrets, having crushes on the same guy, exalting the other’s accomplishments, the twin sister I never had, and my first “mom friend” because I was always the smallest girl in my grade. Oh, and jealousy. Growing up in Texas, I often found myself the one girls claimed as their own, but they didn’t like who I was friends with. When we moved to South Carolina, I was both friends with everybody, and then friends with nobody, before becoming the social butterfly you couldn’t pin down.

Granted, moving around afforded convenient beginnings and ends to friendships, especially growing up before the age of social media. Life isn’t always that easy, though.

The friendship with my best friend of nine years collapsed because of a trust issue – but really, because of a guy. There were tears and longwinded texts and giving away a ticket to see Fall Out Boy, a ticket meant for her, and then me going to the concert anyway with someone else. It was a lot. I cut off communication with the girl who’d messaged me because I didn’t feel my safety was valued whenever we hung out. There were things going on and people in her life that weren’t healthy and I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t be that person for her. I even had a middle school friend become a high school enemy.

For whatever reason, friendships end. It’s over and you learn to move on. But what do you do when someone decides she wants to come back into your life? More importantly, what if you don’t want her back?

We have a very long way to go to rid the stigmas associated with abuse, but same-sex friendships tend to get away with a level of toxicity we condemn in heterosexual relationships. Some of my favorite movies are about the good, bad, and ugly of female friendships: Heathers, Clueless, The Craft, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mean Girls, and Penelope, to name a few. These bonds we make are supposed to be sources of mutual respect, understanding, support, empathy, growth, care, love…

A nine-year-old girl should not have the arm of slender, bespectacled Victoria blocking her way out of the bathroom, simply because Michelle isn’t liked by the other girls and Selah should rethink their friendship. She shouldn’t feel guilty for getting along with Laurel just because Cheyenne and Amy don’t like her. There is a thing that roots itself in a girl who spends Friday night at Melissa’s house and then has to walk to the other end of the neighborhood alone to spend Saturday night with Catherine. It climbs up her bones, worms into muscles, and stifles her.

That thing is the need to validate others – often at one’s own expense.

I’ve felt co-dependencies with friends that rival my bad relationships with exes – the only difference being the lack of physical intimacy. I’ve had those who put their own mental well-being over mine because that’s how important being friends was to them. I was their source of self-worth, their fountain of eternal validation. At thirteen years old, a group of female classmates shunned me for months, and I cried and begged my mom to let me switch schools until she finally gave in. I’ve stuck around some because, “Well, we’ve been friends this long” and, “She’s not hitting me or calling me mean names, so I don’t have a real reason to leave.”

For years, I tried so hard to be the perfect best friend. Always available day and night, always ready with sage advice. If I was great at anything – and I wasn’t good at much – it was being a good friend. I was your Polly Pocket-sized personal cheerleader with a waterproof shoulder for tears. My energies were constantly being expended, but there was no reciprocity. We weren’t taking turns in our pleated skirts and ponytails. I wasn’t the baton, just the crutch.

And I got really tired of carrying my pom-poms.

I’ll admit, a huge wave of relief washed over me when I removed that old friend from my Facebook. Her reaction was triggering, reminding me of the way my parents used to interact. But it was also a moment for me to remember that any relationship should be a two-way street, but that they’re also similar to plants. My relationship with my best friend is like verbena, which needs to be tended to and often. Much like my friends I’ve known since sixth grade, cacti do well left alone, and sometimes they even sprout flowers. But, the 16-year-old girl who taught me karate and turned into a 30-year-old wife with two kids, is an evergreen.

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