Before Covid-19 made Zoom get-togethers de rigueur, I met one of my best friends in an online writers’ workshop. I’d cautioned my teenage daughter to be wary of online friendships when she’d first shown an interest in Facebook, but I had to backtrack on my warnings when “Samantha” came into my life.
Despite our 10-year age gap and a geographic divide that spanned the continental United States, Samantha and I clicked right away as we shared our writing, swapped page critiques and championed each other’s work.
Before long, we dove into deep, personal territory, exchanging confidences and commiserations along with dinner recipes and designer finds from Home Goods.
Over the course of more than seven years, we cheered each other on through writing successes and family milestones like graduations and weddings. We bolstered each other through parental deaths, household moves and surgeries, shared celebrations and heartbreaks, vicarious travel and, well, life.
How many times did one of us tell the other how much we wished we could meet for coffee or a glass of wine? I always believed a meetup would happen eventually, but there were professional responsibilities, family crises and 2,500 miles between us. I was grateful for technology like iPhones, Messenger and Google Hangouts, which provided us with a virtual kitchen table. At some point, with our countless hours on the phone and constant stream of texts, I forgot Samantha and I had never actually been in the same room together.
One day, while chatting in our usual manner over text, Samantha wrote the seemingly unexceptional sentence: “Don’t ask me how I am.” I took her statement as the kind of throwaway line we’ve all used at times, accompanied by a sigh, an eye roll, or maybe a facepalm emoji: “Don’t ask.”
But we were both struggling with our mental health, so a few days later, I did ask. I was concerned when she didn’t respond to my text. Because of my own experience with depressive episodes, I knew what it felt like to be in the dark, to isolate. I also knew that I personally benefited from a kind word from a friend, so I reached out to Samantha with a good, old-fashioned phone call. She didn’t pick up. I left a voicemail, and finally, she texted me back. The response was scathing. She made it clear — this time in no uncertain terms — that my texts and calls were unwelcome and that she needed her space.
Dejected, I apologized, gave Samantha the space she asked for, and chastised myself for failing the assignment. How did I misunderstand what she wanted? Why didn’t I take her at her word? Maybe I deserve to be dismissed so harshly.
Still, I trusted I would hear from Samantha when she was in a better place. I had no reason to believe otherwise because there’d never been any hint of trouble between us.
I suppressed my desire to reach out to Samantha, save for a birthday card I snail-mailed about a month after our last contact. I didn’t text to inquire as to her well-being and I resisted sharing the things that had been the fabric of our friendship, from the mundane — a ludicrous conversation overheard at the nail salon or my latest home decorating project — to more serious matters, like parenting challenges and reproductive rights. I had to remind myself that we were incommunicado, the same way I had to remember, after my mother died, that I could no longer send her a postcard from vacation.
But Samantha’s absence from my life felt surreal. As weeks and then months went by with no contact, I began to question whether I had misjudged the nature of our friendship. Sometimes, I even wondered if anything about it had been real. After all, Samantha and I had never met in person.
After three months of silence, I glanced at Samantha’s Facebook page and found that she’d “unfriended” me. That gut punch was reinforced when Twitter informed me I’d been “blocked.” Technology, which had once solidified and supported our connection, now made it crystal clear the lines of communication were closed. Samantha had shut the virtual door.
“Sure, not all relationships are long-lasting. … But no analytics or predictive text prepared me for the demise of my friendship.”
Surely this was a terrible misunderstanding, and I was determined to clear it up. Was it a mistake to have taken Samantha at her word? Should I have ignored her request to be left alone? Or was she still angry with me for checking on her in the first place? Or was my excommunication about something else altogether? I longed for clarity so that if I had hurt or wronged Samantha in any way, I could make amends and we could clear the air. I thought we owed that to each other.
For the first time in months, I sent Samantha a text:
Do you have a minute to chat?
When she didn’t respond, I tried again the next day and got a response:
Now is not a good time, but truthfully I don’t think there will ever be a good time. I wish you nothing but love and happiness.
Love and happiness? Was that supposed to soften the blow? Samantha was dismissing me like we were strangers.
My therapist assured me it was natural that my heart and mind revisited that sixth-grade spring when my girlfriends at parochial school turned against me overnight. They stopped speaking to me, refused to sit with me on the school bus, sent me mean-spirited notes.
There were no accusations of a heinous, or even minor, transgression on my part, no explanation of what exactly had changed so suddenly. One day I was part of the group, invited to sleepovers and to sit at the lunch table; the next day I was out — same as with Samantha.
Despite the sting, I didn’t swear off friendship forever, although I did take a monthslong social media break and I’m now über-cautious about socializing online with folks I haven’t met in person.
I’m fortunate to have deep, meaningful friendships — some lasting longer than 25 years and others, while shorter, are significant and nurturing. Each connection has its own unique history, rhythm and language. But my friends— like my siblings, husband and children — are neither interchangeable nor replaceable. The broken bond with Samantha left a void nobody else could fill.
Sure, not all relationships are long-lasting. Friendships run their course or fade away — situational bonds based on temporary proximity, convenience or affinity often don’t go the distance.
But no analytics or predictive text prepared me for the demise of my friendship. In trying to make sense of it, I return time and again to the notion of virtual reality. In the beginning, technology connected me with Samantha and was the catalyst that immersed us in each other’s lives. In the end, that same technology revealed an entirely different experience – a new reality of becoming unfriended, blocked and dismissed by text.
Eventually, I dropped off a silver necklace Samantha had given me for a birthday present at the thrift shop, along with some clothes and household items. As I drove home on our rural, winding road, sadness overshadowed the relief I’d expected. Without warning, our friendship had reached a dead end.
Who will find that piece of jewelry in my local thrift shop? I imagine the new owner putting it on at home in front of the mirror, where it will catch a glint of light. Or maybe she’ll wrap it up in pretty, flowered paper, a birthday gift for someone she cares for.
Forgoing technology for a moment, she’ll write a sweet note, old-school, on nice stationery — wishing her friend “nothing but love and happiness.” And hopefully, she’ll mean it.
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