Every era of my life so far has been marked, in some way, by the girlfriend I was always hanging out with at the time. I wouldn’t have called them a best friend — mostly because I’m strangely traditional and protective over the idea of there only being one true BFF, like we’re married or something — but they were huge parts of my life. There were eras of “the work girlfriend,” where every other night was a wired, gossipy after-office outing. There were eras of cool girls in middle and high school who briefly let me into their inner circle, who offered me cigarettes or halter tops I wouldn’t be allowed to wear at home. There were eras of girls I latched onto in a new place, where I got to create my own version of the city under the heavy influences of their own favorite places. With each big time in my life, there was always a girl to go with it. A female partner-in-crime who made sense of everything.
And seeing them again after their era is over, when we’ve moved apart or simply grown into different people, always feels like getting to live — if only for one night of bar-hopping — like I’m that person again. We spend hours catching up on all the people we knew together, the places we used to go, and the things we allowed ourselves to do that we would never consider today. These girlfriends are an ambassador of a place I used to live, both physically and spiritually, and it often feels like they carry a huge part of myself with them. I like to think they feel the same about me.
But sometimes, things don’t go so well. We separate for a real reason, and we don’t meet back up a year or so later to breathlessly catch up on everything we’ve missed. For lack of a better term, we break up. And though I would love to pretend that these breakups were the intrusion of a villainous boyfriend, or totally unavoidable circumstances — or even the other girl’s fault entirely — they are my fault, at least in part. When I analyze every girlfriend I have fallen out with (and it’s not many, but enough to draw a pattern or two), I’ve behaved selfishly. I’ve dumped too much of my personal bullshit on them, demanded too much of their time, or neglected their needs. I’ve even betrayed trust. Sometimes they acted poorly, too, but I can always find fault in some of the things I’ve done. I can say that I treated them like I didn’t love them, like I didn’t value their presence as a friend and partner-in-crime.
In short, I treated them like you treat a significant other before you break up.
And we never talk about friend breakups, because we don’t think of them in the same way. We don’t analyze the loss in our lives the same way, and we certainly don’t expect to be able to go to other friends crying, mourning the loss of a relationship you valued so much. But losing a girlfriend has often left me as devastated (if not more so) as losing a romantic relationship. It eats away at me, and runs my self-esteem into the ground. Because it doesn’t feel like a release or a moment of closure the way you do feel the end of a romantic relationship (even if it’s painful), it only feels like evidence of my own shortcomings, of my failures, of the fact that I couldn’t make it work with a girl I loved.
It’s probably silly, but every time I love a girlfriend truly, I imagine the two of us old, laughing and making dirty jokes and drinking gin cocktails in the retirement home. I imagine us being the broads at the end of a long, thrilling life of friendship and love who are happy to just watch people walk by and gossip. And maybe play some cards. But I imagine a future with them, the way I do with my boyfriend, the way I do with my family, the way I do with anyone I love. I picture a version of myself who is older, wiser, but still surrounded by the people she really loves.
Breaking up with a girlfriend — hurting her, or having her hurt you, to the point of separation — means accepting that the retirement home vision will probably not happen. And just like in any breakup, you have to wish them the best, hope that they will find their happiness with someone better suited to them. You have to hope that they will find a partner-in-crime who doesn’t take them for granted, or get caught up on petty things. You have to move on, and let them move on, even if their friendship defined an entire era of your life. Even if they feel like an ambassador from a place you used to live, but can’t visit anymore. Even if you’re not ready to let them go.