Warning: Long post! Feel free to skim!
The other day, Kristi from Finding Ninee posted about some friendships she'd had, and lost, over the years. Her post was inspired by the newest Her Stories Project anthology, My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends. It is a book of true stories by women, about painful break-ups, not with their boyfriends, girlfriends, partners or spouses, but with their best female friends. When I read about it on Kristi's blog, I went directly to Amazon and bought a copy for my Kindle. Because several years ago, I ended a 10-year-long friendship. It really did feel a lot like a breakup. It wasn't like, "Okay, that person is out of my life." She's still a person I think about every day. She left a hole in my life. The thing is, I am not sure sure that is so bad.
I met Clara when I was 19. At the time, I had been mostly homeless for two years. I had become close friends with a 26-year-old guy named Shawn. I had known him when I was younger, and had been surprised to encounter him in a homeless shelter when I was 18. I thought of him as an older brother. Although I knew he was a heavy drinker and had had drug problems in the past, he was always kind to me, as well as to Jonny, another friend of ours who was my age. Jonny and I were the youngest people at the homeless shelter, and we both had the habit of latching onto older people to help us survive. For some reason, we had both picked Shawn, or he had picked us. When I had gotten worn down by homeless life (I had seen several of my friends develop more severe problems with drugs and alcohol, blow off chances at getting jobs and homes, and have trouble with the law; Jonny was in jail for stealing a car) Shawn had helped me get into an independent living program for homeless girls under age 21. He was staying in the city, but he would often take the train to come visit me on the weekends.
One time Shawn was supposed to come visit me, but he hadn't shown up. I didn't really have a way to contact him, so I waited on pins and needles. Over a week I called all of the area hospitals and the local jails. As of late, he'd been drinking more than ever. I would walk through town and see people I knew, who would approach me to tell me of my brother's latest escapade. He had broken a window, he had stolen a cell phone, he had threatened to shoot someone with a nonexistent gun. He was not allowed here, he was not allowed there, he owed this person a hundred bucks. When Shawn went missing, you assumed the worse.
But finally he resurfaced. He'd been staying with a girl he'd met. She had a toddler son. He wanted me to meet them because he was crazy about them. It turned out the girl was the same age as me, It was hard for me to get used to the idea of that, especially because in many ways she seemed a lot older than me... maybe because I seemed a lot younger than 19. Her little boy was adorable. Soon I was attached to both of them. I was spending weekends at their apartment, I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. By the following spring, I was living with them.
I had three people I lived, under the same roof. To me it felt like a family. But it wasn't ideal. Shawn drank and drank, he and Clara argued constantly, he did stupid stuff. Clara would kick him out. I'd try to go with him. Clara would urge me to stay. He'd come back after a few days, and things would be peaceful... for a moment. I found a full time job at a child care center, and then I'd come home and take care of the baby while Shawn and Clara fought.
One thing I could not stand was fighting. My parents had fought constantly when I was a child, and I had learned to be hypervigilant about sensing the moods of the people around me and trying to keep things smooth. When Clara and Shawn fought, I would often retreat to a quiet spot in the room and withdraw. If one of them yelled at me for something, I would completely wither. I did not (and I still have trouble with this) understand the concept of someone loving you but being angry with you. If I made someone angry, it was like I had burned their house down. If someone snapped at me, it was like they had stabbed me in the heart. I rarely argued back. If I sensed conflict, I would grab my backpack and leave the apartment, to wander the streets for a few hours or days.
Although I'd moved in because of Shawn, he was the one who didn't want me living there. He didn't like how close Clara and I had become or how dependent the baby was on me. I think maybe he didn't want a witness in the apartment. I found out that Shawn was getting violent with Clara. I didn't believe it... how could I believe that about my beloved "big brother"... until I saw it for myself. We developed what was probably somewhat of a trauma bond as we just tried to survive day to day.
In the weirdest chain of events, Jonny, who had gotten out of jail, came to visit us, and he and Clara ended up... well, I guess these days they would call it "hooking up." When Shawn found out, he went ballistic.
Over the next year, the friendship among the four of us was bizarre. Clara got evicted from the apartment. Clara and I both got apartments in a near by complex. Clara ping-ponged back and forth in relationships between Jonny and Shawn. Whenever one of them was involved with Clara, the other one would stay at my apartment. I felt slighted by every single one of them. Shawn and Jonny were my brothers, and Clara was my best friend. But to them, their romantic-slash-sexual relationship was far more important than a friendship with me. I was only there to help hold them together when things went wrong. During times when neither Jonny nor Shawn were around, Clara and I were as thick as thieves. We spent all of our spare time together, with me helping to take care of her son, whom I referred to as my nephew. But whenever one of the guys came around, I was brushed to the side.
Eventually Jonny and Clara got married. For me, the years when Jonny and Clara were married were not too bad at all. I had lost my apartment by then, and I spent most of my weekends with them, as well as living with them for a while when I found myself between homes. Like Shawn, Jonny didn't always want me around disrupting his little family... especially because he, too, drank too much, used drugs, and sometimes got violent with Clara. My presence screwed up the picture-perfect image he tried to portray to the outside world. But Jonny was the same age as me. I had looked up to Shawn, and I even looked up to Clara, but I considered Jonny my equal. If he yelled at me, I didn't melt away... I just yelled back. We could be scrapping one minute, and then be friends again the next. I would holler at him to stop hitting Clara, and to stop drinking. He would shout at me to mind my own business. We would slump on the couch and drink Dr. Pepper together and talk like buddies. We understood some things that Clara never would, like how it felt to sleep outside, and why that could sometimes be fun (we both loved camping... Clara, not so much) and the benefits of buying groceries at Wal-Mart or Aldis (Clara thought these stores would give us roaches and food poisoning) and how to survive just about anything.
On the other hand, I felt like Clara understood me like nobody else on Earth. I guess she sort of somewhat didn't. She didn't really believe that I had ADHD or Aspergers... she accused me of just "acting that way" to get attention. But even if that was what she thought, she accepted me wholly. Together, we could find humor in anything... from the trials of raising children (she now had an infant girl as well) to Jonny's drunken antics, to the traumatic memories from our past. So many times we would both be laughing so hard, tears would run down our faces. When I was facing hard times, going through anxiety or depression or just freaking out about something, Clara was the only one who could help me to calm down.
Usually we were hanging out as a "family." At least one of the children were always with us, and sometimes Jonny. So we didn't often get to do the ordinary things that women do with their friends, like go out for dinner or see movies or, I don't know, whatever girls do. When we went shopping, it was for kids' clothes and household products. When we ate out, it was McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheese. When we saw movies, they were Pixar.
Sometimes we had a ton of fun together. One time, we rented a hotel room near the local Six Flags part, and spent two days straight riding roller coasters. We often went to church together on Sunday mornings. It was annoying to watch Clara and Jonny talk to all of their church friends about their perfect little family, omitting the part where Jonny smoked rock and punched Clara, but at least we were doing things together! I even spent holidays with them. Most Christmas Eves I would spend part of the night at Jonny's parents house with him, then go back home with Jonny and Clara to do traditional Christmas Eve stuff with the kids, stay up late and help them wrap presents and stuff, wake up early in the morning for a present-opening session with the kids, and then go to my parents' house to have Christmas there. Thanksgivings and Easters, even Mother's Day, I often spent with Clara's family.
With both Clara and Jonny, they seemed to like me better when they were fighting. Clara would spend more time hanging out and having fun with me when she was fighting with Jonny. And when Clara was at work, Jonny would come to me to complain about Clara. I walked the fine line of trying to be both of their friend, trying to empathize with both of them without driving them further apart.
Time went on. Jonny's violence grew more frequent, and more severe. Clara's son was now old enough to understand what was going on. One time, as Jonny threatened her with a knife, her son screamed and begged me to call the cops. I did it. When a terrified 6-year-old begs you to call the cops on his father, you know things are bad. Holding a howling infant in one arm, and trying to coral the 6-year-old in the safety of the bedroom, I called 9-1-1 and breathlessly told them our address.
And when I told Clara what I had done (Jonny had stormed out by this time, leaving her in a sobbing heap on the floor with her son trying to comfort her) she screamed at me that I had ruined her family. "You don't understand! Your parents are still married! Your father never went to jail!" she snapped. To her, a father who was in your house trying to kill your mother was better than no father in your house at all.
But that is not when our friendship ended. Clara forgave me. Even Jonny forgave me. And life proceeded as usual.
Clara had kicked Jonny out of the house many times, but they'd always gotten back together. Eventually, shortly after that incident, they broke up again, and this time Clara swore it was for good. She allowed him to stay at the house for days at a time in order to visit the children, because he didn't have a place of his own to bring them to. During these days, Jonny spent a lot of time vying for Clara's affection. I thought for sure they'd get back together.
But then, in yet another twist of events, Clara got pregnant. By another guy.
At first, Clara was going to have an abortion. I took the day off of work and showed up at her house early one morning in order to take her. I had mixed feelings about this... I hated the idea of abortions... but I knew it was Clara's choice alone. When I got to her house, Clara was having second thoughts. It was one of those decisions that effects every aspect of your life. Choose one, and the rest of your life will be completely different from if you had chosen the other. Clara wasn't sure she could raise a third child, especially now as a single parent. But she wasn't ready to shut the door on the possibility of who or what that child would be. She hemmed and hawed. She would be all alone. It would not be fair to her other kids. But the father of this child didn't have any other children, and this may have been his only chance. (He was older than us.) And what if she had aborted her oldest child, as people back then had urged her to do? She couldn't imagine life without him. What would life with this new one be like?
I told her that I would love any child she had, and that I would do whatever I could to help out, as I always had. "But you are the only one who can decide. Nobody else can tell you what to do," I said. In the end, she decided not to go through with the abortion.
Looking back, this was probably the beginning of the end. NOT specifically because of the baby. That baby would become the sunshine of my life. But because of the baby's father.
Steve was the kind of guy who attracted attention wherever he went. When he was a good mood, he had a ton of charisma. When I first met him, I thought he was amazing. He was, outwardly, kind to Clara's other children, as well as to the baby. He was, outwardly, kind to me.
It is very hard to explain Steve. I am still not sure what kind of person he was. He was like salt and pepper and sugar and vinegar all mixed into the same bottle. He was the kind of person who would offer to do you a favor, smile warmly and tell you it was no problem, and then behind your back complain endlessly about how he had to waste his time doing this stupid thing for you that you should be able to do for yourself. And then, when he saw you, he'd be smiling again.
Clara and Steve had arranged a complicated babysitting situation for the baby and Clara's second-youngest child, with the two of them going to one place on certain days, another places on other days, and two separate places on still other days. I was going to school full time and I was having difficulty with my part-time job. Steve told Clara that, if I watched the children during the three days a week that I wasn't in classes, he would pay me $300 a week. When Clara rationalized that they could pay for a day care center if they were paying that much, he said, "But Angel is family. Angel is quality goods." When Clara told me that, I decided I'd be the best nanny ever and keep the children stimulated and happy and learning at all times. And even though, by the time I started watching them, the amount of money had been downgraded to $200 a week, I put my heart and soul into caring for the children. The second-youngest was no longer in preschool, because they couldn't afford that in addition to child care costs. I was studying to be a teacher, and I had worked in child care centers before. I used my skills to create fun "lesson plans" for her. (The baby was still too young to do much of anything but ride around with me in a B'journ.) I did research to find free activities all over the community. I joined Meetup and signed us up for play groups. The walls became covered from the art projects we created. The kitchen was often messy from our science projects, which sometimes went awry. The kids' clothes were often dirty by the end of the day. I felt that this meant I was doing a good job. When Clara and Steve began to complain that the house was too messy when they got home, I dedicated the last two hours of each day to cleaning the entire house... not only cleaning up after our projects, but doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, vacuuming, etc.
At the time, I was watching the kids until when Clara got home, on the three days that I watched the kids. The plan was that I'd then go home, and spend the rest of the day studying and doing homework, since I had classes the other two days. But Steve would often invite me to stay for dinner... and then he'd suggest that I spend the night. And then he'd say, as long as I was spending the night, would I mind watching the children so he and Clara could go out to the bar? I usually said yes, because I wanted to make Steve and Clara happy. I wanted to be needed, to be part of the new little family that they were putting together. With Jonny and Shawn, I had usually felt like part of the group, although I knew they preferred the company of Clara, and she them. With Steve I didn't have that built-in sense of belonging. I had to work for it. So, after a full day of putting all of my energy into caring for the children, I would watch them for a few more hours after dinner, and put them to bed. I would fall asleep without studying, and then get up in the morning and go to class. My grades began to fail.
Sometimes Steve made plans for me to watch the children at night, without even checking with me. I watched the children on Saint Patrick's Day. I loved holidays, and I had made a huge deal of it at home with the kids, with a leprechaun house and a treasure hunt and everything. Steve came home and asked me if I wanted to spend the night, as they all would be having a special Saint Patrick's Day dinner that night, complete with green mashed potatoes and Green River soda. Of course I said yes! So I was surprised, that night, when Clara didn't come home for dinner. Steve prepared the obligatory dinner, and served it to the children and I. He did not eat with us. When I asked him where Clara was, he said she was working late. Then, after dinner, he got his coat on and got ready to leave. "Where are you going?" I asked in confusion. He told me, "I'm going to meet Clara for a few drinks."
I was so hurt, I could hardly think straight. I sat on the couch, trying not to cry, as the kids ran amok in the house.
The next day, when I told Clara I had been surprised that she didn't come home for dinner, she told me Steve had called her from the house and said that I was going to watch the children. He'd suggested she just meet him at the bar directly from work. She had no idea that Steve had never actually asked me to watch the kids, or that he'd implied that we'd all be spending the evening together!
Another time, on Steve's birthday, some of Clara's family members came over to celebrate with us. I had planned to stay for the celebration, but I was going to go home that night and do some much-needed homework. So after our dinner and cake, when Clara's family members got up to leave, I got up to leave too. Clara looked angry, and barely said goodbye to me. She acted cold with me the next time I came to watch the children, as well. When I finally asked her why, she said she was "disheartened" that I had bailed out on watching the children on the evening of Steve's birthday, because the two of them had had plans to go out. Stunned, I told her that I had no idea they wanted me to watch the children.
Things like this happened frequently. Soon, it was just assumed that I would spend the night on the days that I watched the kids, so that Clara and Steve could go out. Night after night, I watched them go out, while I stayed at home, alone except for the little ones. On my birthday, as a special treat, they got another babysitter and let me come out with them for one hour, but then they had to return me back to the house, to my rightful duty of caring for the kids.
I was sad. I was angry. I actually started to complain. "When I first started saying I'd spend the night, it was because I thought we could all hang out," I told Clara. "I don't mind helping out with the kids in the evenings, but I don't want to stay and take care of them all by myself every single time! I might as well just go home at night. But if I went home at night, then you'd stay home and hang out. So why couldn't you stay home and hang out with me sometimes? It is like, every time I'm here, you guys automatically don't be here."
"Well, when am I supposed to date him?" Clara asked. But for a while, they started hanging out at home more often.
Then Steve lost his job. He could no longer pay me to watch the children. I offered to continue watching the kids for free, for a while, so Steve could look for a job. My rationalization was that, in the time it would take me to find another job that worked with my school schedule, Steve might actually get a new job. Besides, I loved the kids. I loved being part of their every day lives. And I still clung to the dumb idea that Clara and the kids, and now Steve, were my family.
A new job for Steve did not materialize. Instead, Steve found a friend of his whose son, the same age as Clara's middle child, needed a babysitter for the summer and for after school. She would pay me $75 a week to watch the little boy, at Clara's and Steve's house. This way I could continue watching the kids, and make a little money.
Now I was watching three and sometimes four children (Clara's oldest didn't need so much direct supervision anymore) full time, for $75 a week. In addition, I sometimes watched Steve's young niece for free. I used much of the $75 from the new little boy's mom on activities for all of the children. Although we mostly went to free places, it took a lot of gas, and since there was often not much food in the house, I often bought them all snacks or lunches as well. I didn't take classes that summer. Because I had to watch the new little boy every day, I couldn't go home at all during the week either. By the end of summer, I was living full time at Clara's house.
Clara began to feel crowded by having me around all the time. She especially hated that I had developed a close friendship with her other family members, including her mother and sisters. She began to make plans with her entire family, and not tell me about it... awkward when I was living at their house and they all collectively left without me to go somewhere. I remember one day I came home to an empty house. I remembered that Clara and Steve had been talking about going to Clara's mom's house for the day, and I had somehow assumed I was going too. I called Clara's cell phone to ask where she was, imagining that she would tell me to meet them over there. But she didn't answer. I called several more times, leaving more and more frantic messages, like the codependent person I was. When she still didn't answer, I tried Steve's phone, then Clara's mother's phone, and then her sisters' phones.
Finally Clara called me back. When I picked up the phone, she snapped, "Why are you blowing up everyone's phones?"
I replied tearfully that I had come home, found the house empty, and was just wondering where everyone was and whether we were going to do anything that day.
"Obviously, since you called my mom and sisters, you know we're over here," said Clara. "And if you were invited, someone would have told you, right?"
My heart sank. "Okay," I said. "I'm sorry."
"You can't expect to be with me all the time. This was just supposed to be a job, and you turned it into so much more. Sometimes I just want to be with my family!"
"Okay," I said again. I hung up. Then I bawled harder than I had in years.
When Clara and Steve and the kids came home, Clara acted like nothing had happened. Later, she sort of apologized. "But you have to understand, Angel, we can't have the same kind of friendship that we had when we were 19. I have a boyfriend and children now."
I understood the general concept, sort of. I didn't have a boyfriend or children, so it was hard for me to understand that, once a person had those things, nobody else was as important. It was hard to think about that, since I didn't have these things, there was nobody in the world who would ever consider me so important. I knew I was too clingy of a friend. I always wanted more. I was so desperate to belong somewhere, if I could have been legally adopted as one of Clara's kids I probably would have. At the same time, though... Clara had also had a boyfriend and children when I met her, and the whole time that we'd been friends. Why was it supposed to be different now?
By fall, my day looked like this. I would get up early, help get Clara's kids ready for the day, intercept the other boy when he got dropped off, take the other boy to school, come home, do activities with the youngest kid (who was now a toddler) until 3, go pick up the new boy and the middle kid (they were in the same grade but went to different schools, which both got out at the same time, so this was a daily stressful challenge to try to be at two places at once. Usually I would try to get there a little early to pick up the boy, and I'd have Clara's daughter wait in front of the school until I got there, picking her up 10 minutes later than I was supposed to. Sometimes it would take longer, depending on when the boy's teacher let him out of class and how much he dawdled in the hallway. The school complained about this to Clara, who complained about it to me. So I tried the opposite... I rushed to pick up Clara's daughter as early as I could, and then scurried to get the boy. But the school complained to his mother, who said to me, "That is not going to fly.") After I had somehow accumulated both of the first graders, we would go to the park for a while... my only chance to sit down and rest my brain for a while. Then I'd take them home. The boy's mother had complained that she didn't have time to do his homework with him after work, and asked that I have him do it there, which meant that I had to get both first graders to sit at the table and do their homework. This required a lot of monitoring, helping, and bribery. During this time I also had to watch the youngest child (I usually gave her a coloring book and told her it was her homework) and clean the entire house, including a mammoth sized pile of dishes. Sometimes I'd have free time in the evenings, until Clara complained that, as a member of the household, I still needed to help out with the children even once she and Steve were home.
I was a very stressed person. In addition, I hadn't signed up for classes for that semester. I just didn't have time for school, being up to my elbows in children!
Then Clara started saying that she was stressed out because I had ruined the children.
Clara's point was that, before I had started watching the kids, the youngest one had been content to just sit quietly in a bouncy seat all evening long. She had been a very low-maintenance baby. But since I'd been around, her personality had exploded, and she'd turned into an extremely energetic, constantly talking, and often whining and demanding, toddler. I had spoiled her by spending too much time with her. The other kids were ruined to. The middle child had gotten a -2 on her spelling test, so I must not be doing a great job helping her with her homework, and the oldest child had been disrespectful lately.
I was crushed. And I was starting to lose my mind.
Whenever Clara got mad at me for something, she'd threaten to kick me out. Then Steve would promise that he wouldn't let that happen. Steve liked to try to be my saviour. But then he'd talk to Clara, behind my back, about wanting me to leave.
Oh yeah, and I almost forgot to mention about the dogs. Clara had a dog. The summer that the baby had been born, she'd gotten her oldest son a second dog, which was meant to be his alone. It was a sort of "sorry we're in kind of a mess" gift. Now she had a boy dog and a girl dog, neither one of whom was altered. And do you know what happened next? Yeah.
Clara and Steve had never liked the boy dog because he barked a lot and wasn't house trained. So they had made Clara's son give the dog to his friend. And if you know how much I love animals, you know I had loved the hell out of that dog. He was a very anxious dog who never adjusted to the chaos of the household, and he'd gotten very attached to me. But he wasn't my dog. So I couldn't do anything when Steve and Clara (and even their kids) spanked him repeatedly for going to the bathroom in the house, and locked him in the backyard or in his cage all day long. He would be in his cage crying and yelping. I would try to stay away from home as much as I could on those days, because I felt like it would be easier for the dog if he didn't have to hear and smell me but not get to be near me. When they gave him away, I cried like my heart was broken. Even knowing the dog would be happier in his new home, where the family would cherish him, I cried because I knew he would miss me, and I would miss him.
The girl dog had puppies. Clara and Steve gave away all but one. They let the oldest boy choose one to keep for himself. He chose a little brownish-yellow puppy with a pink nose. He was going to sleep with the puppy, take care of it, and train it. But being a 12-year-old boy, he did not do many of those things. At night he would bring the puppy to me to sleep with, saying she was moving around too much. This new puppy was a lot like her father, because she barked a lot and peed on the floor a lot. And I was head over heels in love with this tiny pup. I fed her, slept with her, and took care of her. I tried to potty train her, but she still stubbornly went to the bathroom in the house. She also fought with her mother dog. One night when Steve and Clara came home late from the bar, while the kids were already sleeping, Clara screamed at her and kicked the cage until the puppy yelped. Whenever she went to the bathroom in the house, barked too much, or fought with the other dog, Clara and Steve would spank her, scream at her, and lock her in the cage. They threatened to get rid of her. Clara put notices on Facebook asking if anyone wanted the little dog. They made definite plans to take her to the pound. It tortured me. I would hold this little pup... now the happiest thing in my life... and weep. I couldn't lose another one.
One day, Clara and Steve had set a definite day to drop the puppy off at the pound. And the day before that, they went to the pet store and got ANOTHER DOG! It was like rubbing salt in my wounds, getting a new dog, while the dog he was replacing was still here! But at the last minute, Clara gave me the best gift ever. She told me that I could keep the little pink-nosed puppy.
I moved out shortly thereafter. I took the little puppy back to my parents' house. Amazingly, she very quickly became potty trained, and stopped barking so much.
Meanwhile, I drove each day back to Clara's house to care for all of the children. But I had started to become detached. I was really just doing this because I loved the kids. I had given up on ever finding any sort of peace with Clara or Steve. I would never be more than a babysitter to them. To the children I was an auntie, and even a second mother. But to Clara and Steve, I was nothing. A babysitter. A clingy babysitter who wanted to be a friend and wouldn't take no for an answer.
I had been living with them and watching the kids for several years now. I had stopped going to school. I only had a few more classes to go before I was eligible for student teaching. I decided I had to start moving my life forward. I told Clara and Steve that I was going to be going back to school full time and wouldn't be able to babysit anymore. They were fine with it. They seemed to understand. Besides, I told them, I could still come watch the kids on an as-needed basis. And (I hoped) maybe if I wasn't living there, we could actually hang out and have fun when I did come over.
All was going well. I watched the children until after the first few days of winter vacation. That was to be my last week. But we talked about hopefully seeing each other before Christmas.
My brother, who lived in another state, was going to be coming into town the day before Christmas Eve. My parents planned on our going out to dinner together as soon as we picked him up from the air port. That morning, Steve called and asked if I would come over and watch the kids while he and Clara did some Christmas shopping, and then I could spend the night there too. I explained that I could not spend the night, because my brother was coming, and that we were going out to dinner with him. It was important to my parents that I was there for that. But, I said, I could come over for a few hours. He told me to come over at 3.
Assuming Clara had gotten off of work early so they could go Christmas shopping, I headed to their house. But Clara was at work, and only Steve was home. The kids were running amok. I did some Christmas-themed crafts with the kids, that I had brought over. I waited for Steve to leave. He didn't. I asked him when Clara would be home. He said he didn't know. I reminded him that I had to go to my parents' for dinner. He said he remembered.
It was nearing six when my mom called. They'd gotten my brother from the airport. He was hungry. They wanted to go out to dinner as soon as possible. When would I be coming?
"I don't know. They haven't even gone shopping yet. Clara hasn't even gotten home from work yet," I said. I was talking a little defensively, because I was feeling trapped between Steve's expectations and those of my parents. My mom urged me to come home as soon as I could.
When I hung up, Steve told me, "Just go. If it is important to your mom, just go. I don't want you to get in trouble." He seemed a little irritated. I didn't know what to do. I went. As I drove away, my phone rang again, and Clara's name came up on my caller ID. I didn't answer it. I could almost guarantee Steve had called her to tell her I wasn't going to watch the kids, and she was calling to bitch me out. I had to be done with this.
The day after Christmas, Steve called. Years ago, I had gotten library cards for the two youngest children, plus the other boy I babysat. They were under my name. I'd gotten them so the children could attend story times and other special events at the library. It wasn't enough for an adult to have a card... at that library, each child, even infants, had to have their own. Because of the chaos of our daily lives, each of the children, and I, had some seriously overdue books. The library had sent notices to Steve and Clara's house, addressed "To the parents of" each child. Steve was angry. He told me that I had better pay the library fee, because otherwise the fee would go on his credit. Although I tried to explain that, as far as the library was concerned, I was responsible for the children, because their cards were under my name, He wanted me to go to the library immediately and pay. And the thing was, I didn't have the money just then. Did he not remember I'd been making $75 a week for years? I had spent most of my tiny savings on Christmas gifts.
Clara began to call. I didn't answer. She left scathing messages on my voicemail. I listened to the first one until I heard the sentence, "Obviously our friendship was over." The rest of them, I deleted without listening to.
Things got a little immature at this point.
I had posted pictures of the children on Facebook, from our last week together. Clara and Steve left comments implying that I had "quit without notice." I posted a status saying, if anyone on my friends list didn't actually want to be my friend, they should just defriend me instead of posting things about me. They defriended me immediately. Then Jonny called to let me know that Clara and Steve had posted their own statuses telling everyone that I owed them a lot of money and refused to pay, and that they were no longer friends with me. They were urging our mutual friends to unfriend me. Jonny told me he had defended me, pointing out that I had cared for their children for years for free. Clara had shot back that they had paid me with room and board. (Except for a few months when I'd slept in a spare bedroom, until it had been decided that the oldest child's friend could move in and have that room, I'd slept on couches... and if one of the children felt like sleeping on the couch, I had been demoted to the floor. And I'd signed up for food stamps, and contributed every bit of them to feed the children.)
I blocked Clara and Steve from my Facebook. Many of our mutual friends unfriended me. A few actually double-crossed me by staying friends on Facebook, pretending to be my friend, and then showing my Facebook page to Clara or reporting to her things that I'd posted. (I never posted anything about her or having to do with her again, so it wasn't like I was posting mean things about her and her friends were telling her. It was just random bits of information about my life.)
For a while Jonny begged me to try to be friends with Clara again, for the children's sake. I could still see the kids, he reasoned. I could not walk out of their lives, after all this. He actually organized a few phone calls between the children and me.
But I could not picture ever going back to that house.
I knew a lot of it had been my fault. I had wanted too much, given too much, and accepted too little in return. I had acted like a pathetic, desperate person who only deserved the minimum, and I had been treated as such. I had kept on hoping for a sense of belonging and family that Clara was unwilling to give. I had let myself get worn down to the point of nothing. I was like a dull, broken crayon with the wrapper scraped off. I knew I had to get stronger and learn to be comfortable with myself, without needing someone else so bad. I needed to learn how to be a good friend, without actually crawling inside the person's skin and living their life with them. I needed my own life. I needed to expect friendships that went two ways, where the person would come to my house sometimes, where we would occasionally do things I liked to do, and where one of us was not responsible for cleaning the other's house and caring for their children.
To this day (it has been three years, eight months, and two weeks since I've spoken to any of them) I miss Clara and the kids. I miss the children fiercely. I raised the baby from the time she was an infant, to the time she was almost four. I taught her to love books and to love doing art projects. I taught her the ABC's, numbers, shapes and letters. I spent every minute of my life on that baby, more than I did on the other children, because they were in school a lot of the time. We had a rhythm together. I would take her grocery shopping with me and I would amuse her with playful arguing, bantering back and forth about why she couldn't have candy for lunch or why she thought Elmo was boring now. Strangers commented on how close we seemed. I had special relationships with each one of the kids, including the little boy I watched after school... but I feel like the baby was the one whom I raised the most.
I even miss Jonny. He and I talked on the phone a few times, and we stayed Facebook friends for a while. But he is married and has another baby now, and his wife made him cut off ties from me... from his "past."
And Clara... I miss laughing with her. I miss talking to her for hours on the phone. I miss how dumb little outings, like going shopping at Target, became misadventures that we'd talk about for weeks. I miss how we'd both sit on the couch reading for hours, tuning out the chaos around us. We often traded books. I miss going to movies together (when she was married to Jonny, on the rare occasion he'd watch the children while we went out, something we never did again once Steve was around) and then talking about how they made us feel. But I don't miss always trying to make her happy, worrying that she'd be mad at me, worrying that she'd take something I said the wrong way and give me the silent treatment.
I hope someday I am strong enough to be her friend again. There are so many times when I've wanted to email her or call her... but I am afraid. One part of me is afraid that she will still hate me, and that I will be hurt. But the other part is afraid that she will forgive me completely, and things will go back to exactly the way they were before. I am afraid of becoming that clingy, needy person again. I am afraid of letting myself disappear again. I need to be stronger. Someday...
Clara, if you ever read this somehow, you will always be in my heart!