The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.
My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.
I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.
One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.
It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.
In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.
I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.
Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”
She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.
My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.
She laughed. I smiled.
Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.
I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.
It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.
My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.
It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.
But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.