Opening up my e-mail one night a few months ago, I saw it: a message from my closest friend from late childhood. She’d found me — no surprise — on Facebook. “Hi Alice! You remember me — I hope!” As if I wouldn’t.
We’d met at Jewish summer camp when we were both nine. Until age 15, we’d been best friends. She lived two suburbs over from me on Long Island, close enough to yak every week on the telephone and visit often. When my mother bought me a red plush winter jacket with fake white fur trim around the hood, she got one too. When I acquired a pen pal from England — a guy — so did she. We did sleepovers, which she always insisted take place at her house, and I always acquiesced. There she’d show me her parents’ wedding album, we’d sing to all her records, eat Carvel, watch “Car 54.” Then we’d be up all night, whispering and giggling at whatever struck our little-girl selves as funny: the voice of a bunk mate, which I compared to a fog horn; the pecan pie that her family’s African-American housekeeper had served for dinner — disgusting, my friend declared; the toothy, lopsided smile of the camp handyman’s wife; the strange behavior of her adult cousin with severe disabilities. Some of the private jokes in our arsenal — cruel, even racist — we carefully hoarded, to be whipped out whenever we felt like cracking up. She was my laugh buddy.
“I love you!” she often reminded me. And, yes, I loved her too. Every summer, she and I returned to camp, and that’s where I would begin to question this professed love. Sports ruled at camp, and the athletic gene had completely passed my family by. I’m built just like my grandmother, short legs and a big tuchus. My friend, shapely, muscular, was the one everybody wanted on their color war team. At camp, she could be friends with anybody she chose; even the older girls coveted her. One of them, a girl who reminded anybody who would listen that she was a cheerleader back home, once threw me a gratuitous insult in front of my friend. Something about my having a “big ass.” The meanness stung me, but worse was the hurtful fact that my friend said nothing in my defense. Truth was, when we were at camp, my friend turned into Mean Girl. She’d sit next to another girl on a bus trip after promising to buddy with me. She’d inform me she “hated” how I wore my hair — it was, like many a Jewish girl’s, dark and thick, pulled back into a ponytail. She’d help herself to my comic books, then pass them on to somebody else.
“We’ve spent many a great summer and winter together and I hope that wherever we may be, we will always be the best-offriends,” she wrote in my autograph book at the end of one longago summer. “Love and luck to one of the greatest (underlined 10 times) girls I know. May we never part, ever.”
The following year, I told her I wasn’t returning to camp. She was indignant. For months she tried to change my mind. Finally she gave up. “All right, Alice, suit yourself. Stay in the hot city,” she said. (For the record: I lived in the verdant suburb of Great Neck). “She’s my best friend, but she hurts me more than anybody in the world,” I wrote in my diary. “I was at her house today, and we were playing basketball with the kids across the street. I fell and scraped my leg. And she called me a klutz! She’s so bratty. I’m never speaking to her again! See if I mean it!” Reading this now, calls forth the scene in her driveway perfectly: she, her hands on her hips, looking at me with palpable disgust as I lay sprawled on the concrete, before turning her back on me.
Our relationship limped along for a few more years. She continued to call, but now when my mother called me to the phone, I refused to take it. Finally, the calls stopped, and I stopped thinking about her. She phoned me one last time, at the end of our senior year in high school, a terrible time for me. I was suffering from severe depression, and I told my friend I was seeing a psychiatrist.
Did she want us to meet? I don’t remember. In any case we had no more contact. Until she found me on the Facebook site for our summer camp alums.
I ignored her message.
A few weeks later, she messaged again, after another alumna had congratulated me on the publication of one of my books. “I’d like to read your book, Alice. What’s it called?” This time, I toyed with the idea of answering her. I’d recently attended my high school reunion, and returned feeling unexpectedly gratified. People I had remembered as the antithesis of kind were now, to my astonishment, effusive and warm. People do grow up. People change. And perhaps this too would be true of my friend. Maybe we could now laugh at the memories of ourselves, and she would acknowledge––and apologize for––being such a mean girl.
I asked myself, do I really want to get into the sandbox with her again? I haven’t heard from my childhood friend again. Has she any idea why I didn’t respond? Did my ignoring her hurt her? I’m ashamed to say this, but I hope so.
I called a grown-up good friend to talk over my uneasiness. Despite my long-ago realization that my childhood friend was also my tormenter, I was, I told Roberta, still tempted to reconnect with her. “But I’m not sure why,” I added.
“Sometimes,” Roberta offered wisely, “you just have to close the door.”
Alice Sparberg Aluexio is a contributing editor at Lilith and the author of The Flatiron: the New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose With It (2010).