I met Susanna on my first day of fourth grade in the small Maryland town where my family moved to in late November. We had moved from Southern California where my mom drove me to school every day. Susanna’s family had moved from New Mexico into the house across the street over the summer and there she was — small, freckled and talking a mile a minute, ready to show me where the bus stop was.
I’d often look back and marvel at the synchronicity of it all, the many coincidences that brought us together — how we both moved from the West to the same town in the same year, our fathers no longer flying planes in the Navy and Air Force and simultaneously settling into desk jobs at the same military air base. She had two younger siblings approximately matched in age to my two younger siblings, so of the batch of friendly new neighbors bearing Bundt cakes and block party invitations, it was the family with too many pets (an old cat and a snake, then later a dog, two kittens,guinea pigs and two field mice from the backyard kept and cared for in a re-purposed aquarium) down a dangerously steep driveway my parents chose to watch us.
At nine years old I’d gotten rid of my own Barbies, but making up complicated backstories and relationship drama with Susanna’s made me laugh harder than I ever had in my young life. We talked about the places we’d lived before, echoing memories of sandy dunes and weird trailer parks.
While I was quiet, she was full of movie quotes and jokes on the spot — it didn’t matter that she couldn’t say the letter “r,” everyone loved her. I was jealous, but didn’t mind falling in as a sidekick. And by the time we started high school, we came to rely on each other in a deep friendship that was both tortured by and the remedy for one thing we didn’t have: boyfriends. At our sleepovers we stayed up late detailing our ideal attributes in a romantic partner down to eye color and occupation. As it turned out, “likes me back” was the attribute that made all others unimportant in our clumsy forays into our small-town pool of potential interests. I silently pined over floppy-haired junior varsity lacrosse players and when Susanna confessed to me on her front porch that she’d been secretly texting a boy who’d agonized both of us in our seventh grade Spanish class, I was jealous.
Impulsively, I grabbed the flip phone from her hand and sent him a text reading “I love you.” She screamed; I regretted it immediately. She spent the next three minutes pushing the trash can button in hopes that it would cancel and I composed a text blaming it on her little sister when that inevitably didn’t work.
Susanna forgave my immaturity quickly, dutifully accompanying me to JV football games and third-wheeling on dates. Eight months older than me, she got her license first and we went night driving, blasting Walk the Moon or Paramore. We’d park by the water and she’d listen to me speculate and ramble on and on about an impossible crush or a first kiss. In the months leading up to senior prom, we schemed for months on how to get boys to ask us (where to sit in English class to get someone’s attention weeks in advance, for instance) and ended up going with the same group of friends.
College took us to different states, two time zones away. In my first two years, I struggled to maintain close friendships, but Susanna was a phone call away, and I didn’t mind staying up late if it meant I could talk to someone who knew me before, someone who knew me so completely and wanted good things for me. We saw each other on summer and winter breaks, resuming night drives and rambling, proving the particular magic of female friendships.
Susanna started dating Nate during the spring of our sophomore year. My friendships at school deepened during that time, and I stayed in town for my first internship. Susanna spent six weeks in Europe, then came to visit me. We pushed the two couches together in my apartment living room and slept in a fort of sheets and stories. She texted him almost constantly and I was annoyed, filling the void in my own heart by flirting with guys I didn’t want for more than a little attention.
Susanna and Nate stayed together, and something that started casually turned into something real and intentional and good. They cooked together and encouraged each other to reach their goals, a level of relationship maturity I had rarely seen and certainly never experienced myself.
Still, when she texted me — ever so casually — about how they’d started ring shopping the next spring, I was shaken. At the time, I was lying in the bottom bunk of a hostel in Italy, where I’d been traveling with my brother at the end of an aimless semester abroad. I felt disconnected and strange. I’d spent the past few months without any more purpose than checking destinations off my bucket list and eating as much bread as I could conceivably burn off walking down picturesque cobblestone streets. Susanna was on the other side of the world, pursuing something valuable and good, but something different, something I didn’t have and didn’t see as being possible for me for a very long time.
I was the first person Susanna called when they were officially engaged, around midnight one Saturday in September. I’d gone to bed early, but I couldn’t fall asleep after that, shaken with joy. It wasn’t some scheme we’d pulled off together, but it was this incandescent moment of overlapping bliss at one of our individual successes. I didn’t feel jealous, just happy.
Ten weeks later, I skipped my Thursday classes and got on a plane, where I scrawled my speech in my notebook. The next 48 hours would be full of maid of honor duties, and more than anything, I hoped I could be useful, not a goofy third wheel desperate for the attention of my more advanced best friend.
Fearless in the face of traditional wedding superstitions, Susanna opted for a photoshoot in her dress and veil — Nate included — the day before the wedding. I zipped up her dress, helped her into the passenger seat of her car and tucked the train carefully before slamming the door. We drove around town from errand to errand, pressed for time but laughing as she directed me around her college town.
I hovered on the edge of the orchard photoshoot, ready to fix her veil and carefully wipe away her mascara-stained tears. We got back in the car and scrutinized Nate’s reaction to seeing her in her dress (was this an instance where the word “wowza” was acceptable?) and spent the evening driving around, listening to our favorite songs from high school and laughing about old crushes.
She told me how she felt about getting married, the feeling she had of “this is it”— not a bad feeling, just one of permanence. No more prom date schemes, no more silly flirtationships.
I expected the darkest parts of my heart to fill the rest of me with bitterness at some point that weekend. I tried constantly to shoo away the possibility by being extra dutiful, perfecting the sway of the green satin ribbons lining the aisle and twisting each gold-dusted faux leaf on a decorative vine to perfection, trying to be more helpful and even more encouraging than she had always been for me.
But the old shock of jealousy I’d been waiting for never came. The wedding took place in a venue owned by a family friend, a refurbished old two-story house with a spiral staircase that belonged in a fairytale. In the upstairs room, Susanna’s little sister curled and pinned our hair and we posed for playful fake candids. I found my place next to her at the front of a room framed in white fairy lights. I felt nothing but joy during the ceremony that marked the next phase of my best friend’s life, even as I stood still.
On the plane home, I started writing Susanna a letter (one of our sometimes-kept traditions) trying to put into words how I felt. I didn’t feel jealousy, but I felt the space where it should have been, like the moment of weightlessness as the plane took off — a space too deep to fill with cheap attention, or even with a perfectly twisted faux vine. Being Susanna’s sidekick when she needed it was a wonderful role to have, a good phase of a good life made rich by deep friendship, but it wasn’t my main role anymore. It hadn’t been for a very long time, but the wedding was the event that made me realize the permanence of it all — the “this is it” moment announcing that she was in a place in life that I wasn’t. And that was okay.
I graduate soon, and the future feels especially uncertain now that Susanna’s and my phases are no longer in sync. Each decision has me feeling like I’m standing at the edge of a high dive, filled with the permanence of forever leaving behind a phase of life.
Growing up and realizing the stages of my life that are over is strange. I can’t go back to high school, to field mice and Barbies. But I can dip into the same best-friend magic of our night drives, I can laugh until I cry with new friends and I can act intentionally and bravely in everything I do, leaning on the confidence I gained from the first friend who taught me how to love myself.
And I have not lost that friend. Though we exist in different spheres through a series of consequences less synchronistic than the ones that brought us together, we are held together by phone calls and our shared history, by our old magic and continued encouragement to live our own lives to the fullest. That means there are dives that I have to — that I can — make on my own.