Kath and I met when we lived in the same freshman dorm in college. The sign on the door of her room said "Kathy," though her given name was Katharine and she was also called Katie. I called her Kath. We became friends quickly, as you do when you're a college freshman and want to look like you're not alone. But unlike a lot of freshman friendships, this one lasted.
We saw each other through years and years: boyfriends, two marriages, a divorce, another marriage, three children between us. At Christmas, we sent marzipan pigs to her children, a Danish tradition. On Thanksgiving, she and I talked on the phone while we cooked, a tradition of our own.
We didn't really mark milestones in our friendship, although sometimes we noticed how many years we'd been friends and marveled at it. That was about it.
This year, though, a big anniversary approaches, something significant—15 years—but we won't mark it together. And it isn't a marker of the continuation of a long friendship, but of its end.
Friendships end, of course. Some are "lighter" than others, born of shared place or circumstance; of a human's flat-out need for company and connection. Circumstances change, though. Children start school, people move ... you know the drill. It isn't heartbreaking. It just is.
That, however, wasn't the case for me and Kath. Other than college, we didn't live in the same city or state. I was in New York and she was in Vermont, about five hours away. Not opposite parts of the world, but not the same neighborhood either.
My family sometimes vacationed in Vermont when I was growing up and it's always been a place that's important to me. When Kath told me about a friend of hers who was looking for someone to house sit for two weeks at the end of July, we signed on. My little girl would have a chance to spend time in a place I knew and loved. Kath and I would have time to spend together. That first summer was followed by another and another; six, all told.
We started to build a life there, my husband and daughter and I—a life of our own. Our daughter made friends and so did we. I wasn't able to entertain a lot in the little NYC apartment where we lived the rest of the year, but the house in Vermont had a big kitchen and a porch with a table and chairs. I like to cook. I had people over. People we met through my daughter's art camp, through the stable where she rode, at the pond where we swam.
We created a two-week-a-year life in a place that was "Kath's place." A life that included her, of course, but that also had parts of its own. Was it that?
The marzipan pigs got there late one year, though we overnight shipped them. Kath was furious. Was it that?
Once, when my daughter was 3 or 4, Kath bought tickets for our girls and us to see a little traveling circus. The plan was for my daughter and hers, who was 10, to sit together and for me to stand with Kath at the back because she had an injury that made sitting painful. But my daughter was afraid of the clowns and wanted to sit on my lap. Her daughter sat behind us. Kath stood alone at the back. Was it that?
What causes one friendship to end while others continue? We're willing to work on romantic relationships, to expect bumps in those roads, but it isn't the same with a friend. Romantic relationships come with an escape clause, even when contracts have been signed and troths plighted. They come with a warning: for better or worse. When they end, however painful the endings, the reasons are usually clear. But even now, 15 years later, I can't say what happened with me and Kath.
I remember one of the last times we were together. Kath had us to dinner on the first night of our annual visit to Vermont every summer, another tradition. The table looked the same as it always did, set with jelly jar glasses and flowers from her garden, but Kath wasn't the same. She wouldn't look at me when I spoke. She spat answers when she couldn't avoid it. She talked over me.
She never told me why, but by then, it was beyond "why." It was too painful. She just didn't want to be my friend.
Except then, months later, her husband called. He was making her a surprise birthday party and he was calling to invite us.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "That she wants me there?"
"Yes," he said. "Of course." He sounded surprised. Of course she wants you there. You're her best friend.
So, we went. I thought she must have reconsidered. She must have realized what our friendship had meant to her and didn't want to lose it. Why else would we have been invited?
I don't know the answer to that. Maybe her husband didn't know she hated me. Maybe she never told him. Maybe she did and he hadn't believed her, or thought it would pass, or wasn't paying attention or didn't remember. Who knows?
As it turned out, the biggest surprise for her about that surprise party was that I was there. It was the last time I saw Kath. The last time we spoke.
The 15 year anniversary approaches. It will come and go. So will another Christmas with no marzipan pigs. So will another Thanksgiving. I mark times in the year in a way I didn't when we were still friends. We were friends and there was no need for markers. Because I thought we'd always be.