The Art of Ghosting
When you bump into someone from your past, who is the last person you’d want to see? If you had asked me a month ago, I wouldn’t have known the answer. But recently, I learned the hard way that the answer to this question was Brian, an ex-friend of my husband who had ghosted us four years prior.
I ran into him, almost literally, while speed walking towards the Dupont Circle Metro station. At first, I didn’t recognize him. Brian was smartly dressed with a distinguished beard and confident smile. He was talking with a trendy-looking woman, giving her the kind of flirtatious smile that gay men often give their female friends. I must have looked ridiculous: hunched over, wide eyed and sweating through my shirt. I had put on weight since our last interaction. Brian gave me a casual look, no nod of recognition, and simply turned back to his conversation. We had held each other’s gaze for only a few seconds, but it was enough time for me to feel embarrassed and panicked, so I kept walking towards the Metro, telling myself not to turn around.
I didn’t understand the term ghosting – the act of severing ties with someone by ignoring all communication – until about a year ago, even after it had happened to me. I understood the concept: many of us were active participants in our high school years, when hormonal teenagers are at their most passive aggressive. Back then, it was never enough to let a friend know your anger, you wanted to make sure they felt it. And due to the physical space of high school, no one ever fully disappeared and so nothing was ever permanent.
I now find myself in my mid-thirties. This is a strange time when my need for close friendships is greater than ever but the demands of adult life make them harder to maintain. We are lucky to connect with people a few times a month. And yet, I cling to those old fabled moments when a group of us would chug coffee in all-night diners, smoking cigarettes, and talking about anything. Together, we’d discuss our artistic projects, analyze video game plots and song lyrics, tell our best sex stories… these were the safe spaces where we could afford to be a little embarrassing and know it would be forgiven.
But my gay friends have an additional importance: we can be even more honest with each other.
Despite the increase in acceptance, the queer community is still an isolated one and partly concealed thanks to the anonymity of the internet. To various degrees, we remain disconnected from the mainstream. Childhood bullying and disapproving parents taught us the value of discretion. We learn quickly that not everyone should have access to our private lives. We learn to be secretive to our classmates, our coworkers, and even our healthcare providers. Too many of us were disowned by our families. An older friend of mine once explained that gay bars are always open on Christmas because there were so many of us who had no place else to go. So, we learn early to see out others, to find our people. We may look for sex or partners, but many times companionship. We want confidants, those who share the gritty details. Our communities become insulated with same people cycling in and out. So, in a way, queer friends and ex-lovers stick around. We become each other’s families.
Brian was one of those elite friendships that had lasted for a decade and his loss was especially disturbing. Not just because of our history, but because of the manner of how it had happened: abrupt, cold and ultimately cruel, the very antithesis of the person we knew.
I’ll be honest. I used to have fantasies of running into Brian again. It seems like a ridiculous thing for a man in his thirties to do, but I couldn’t help it. Being ghosted had made me an emotional wreck – I had no idea if I should feel guilty or betrayed. At first, I imagined us running into each other at a restaurant and he would sheepishly ask to join me. He’d apologize and our friendship went back to normal. Over time, the fantasies became angrier. I wanted him to feel uncomfortable in my presence, to leave the party early because I had walked in, to have him beg me for forgiveness so I could reject him. I had played these scenarios out in my head enough that I knew exactly what to do should the opportunity ever arise. And when it did finally happen, I was surprised at how unprepared I was for it.
My friendship with Brian stems from my husband, Gordon. They had been part of the same social circle in New England and when Gordon relocated to D.C., Brian was one of the few who stayed in touch. It was always important to me that Gordon maintain some of his own previous connections, that he have friends outside of our relationship. But I found myself instantly drawn to Brian. He was a quieter personality than I was used to, but was personable and a very attentive listener. He read books; he traveled; he was interesting. He knew how to be funny without being cruel. Over the years, he became a regular fixture in Gordon’s and my life together. He visited us in D.C., he got along with our friends, joined us on vacations, and attended our wedding. When he announced he was moving down as well, we were overjoyed and ready to offer assistance.
Looking back, I realize that transition was hard on Brian and we could have been more attentive. I was working full-time while in grad school and Gordon’s job had him traveling often. There was never enough hours in the day for anything. We already had a wide network of friends that tugged at us from different directions. At first, Brian only had us. We usually included him in large group settings to help increase his network. Even though Brian lived just down the street, we rarely saw each other one-on-one.
Eventually, Brian found a boyfriend to occupy his time. They were an odd pair. In contrast to Brian’s reserved polite nature, Sid was assertive and loud-mouthed with a delicious wit that was just on the right side of snarky. With the growing demands of adult life, we saw each other less and less. I was consumed by my grad school thesis. Gordon’s job took unexpected turns, which added to our anxiety since we had just purchased a house. Between Sid and Brian’s family obligations, they were away more than they were home. Eventually, they announced their engagement and preparations took up even more of their free time.
Several months before the wedding, Brian was hospitalized. And while it didn’t sound life threatening, Gordon and I had recently learned not to take anything for granted. We were already making weekly hospital visits to two other friends, one dying of cancer, the other of a heart condition. We were ready to add a third. Sid, however, advised us not to come. Brian’s family was there and hovering, leaving poor Brian feeling suffocated and embarrassed. We were told to wait until things had settled down. Eventually, our other two friends died (both times with us bedside) and Brian had been released without us even knowing it. And while we couldn’t be everywhere at once, there was an underlying tone that we had failed in our duties and that damage had been done.
We took Brian on a bachelor’s weekend with an intimate group of friends, including old favorites from up north. We avoided all discussions of death and illness. Brian seemed healthy, though easily perturbed, if not agitated. Then the wedding happened, coincidentally on Gordon’s and my anniversary, and we quietly toasted from our table, crammed at the far back of the reception room.
Later that summer, Brian and Sid joined our group for a gay boy’s beach week. This was a long-standing tradition in which we crammed ten people in an overpriced house with only two bathrooms. We’d divide our time between the beach and boardwalk, convening later at some restaurant or bar before settling in for drinks around the hot tub each night. We had all arrived giddy and drunk off of the idea of vacation, hugging each other as if we had won a prize. So we were unprepared for how quickly things soured. Sid was very controlling and irrational over group management. Friction between him and our other friends quickly escalated from side-eyes to raised voices. I took long walks at night to escape the tension, only to return to the house where Sid was playing Risk with the boys, joking around as if nothing had happened. So, I figured there was no need to mediate what grown men could handle on their own. Brian, who had seemed so happy at first, was suddenly withdrawn until he disappeared from all communal activities mid-week. He barely left his bedroom and avoided us on the beach. Our last morning, I had rushed out to hug him goodbye, to which he tensed up and screamed, “No, no, no!” with the intensity of a child on the verge of a tantrum. I was so jarred by it, I numbly patted his shoulder while he flinched and I backed away.
I did not know it at the time, but that was our last interaction.
When we talk about ghosting, we talk about the complete disappearance of a person from your life. In reality, they remain as an apparition that hovers over you long after. Brian was in our photo albums, our recipe book, buried in old email threads. He was permanently attached to some of our most vivid memories. In the small circuit of gay bars, we’d recognize other guests from his wedding, giving each other side eyed glances and wondering what the other was thinking. Other mutual acquaintances would ask us about Brian and Sid. Did we hear they had bought a house? I always smiled, acting as if we all had simply fallen out of touch. “You should call them,” I was told more times than not. I felt so phony that I quit going out altogether.
The truth was I had called. I had sent all sorts of communication. Shortly after the beach week, I had crafted a short but sincere email inviting him out for coffee. By the second week, I had figured he’d overlooked it and sent another. I sent him a Facebook message asking if he was alright, an evite to a party, a text message for Thanksgiving. I never got a response.
I did hear from Sid, who offered no insight into the situation, but still encouraged me to keep sending notes while Brian sorted out his feelings. I reluctantly agreed to meet Sid for dinner one evening after work. I still have no idea what his intentions were as he chatted in his usual gossipy fashion. But when I asked how Brian was doing, he perked up as if he had waited all night for me to do so. Sid became defensive, acted as if I was purposefully digging for information, as if by mentioning Brian’s name I had somehow broken a rule. At one point, he even muttered under his breath, “Brian would be dead if it weren’t for me.” I left feeling bruised and humiliated, vowing never to put myself in that situation ever again.
The grieving process is a long one. Gordon and I had two other friends recently dead and buried. They deserve just as much attention. For one of them, Greg, we were part of the cleanup crew. This was a common practice during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when friends would sanitize the deceased’s apartment before the family arrived. For Greg, we removed the soiled mattress, uncovered the hidden stashes of porn and sex toys, closed down the internet accounts. We removed anything his conservative sisters shouldn’t find. I thought to myself, we’re lucky if we can acquire one good friend in our lives to do this. And there were five of us there.
Brian was the third friend we lost, except that he was alive and well someplace. Life continued on in its usual manic pace. But every few weeks, some small reminder of Brian would cause time to stop. In these moments, we were overwhelmed with the sense of unfinished business. And with all that brooding silence, I began to remember him differently. Hadn’t there always been a tone of disapproval to him? I could remember his endless sighs, the perturbed facial expressions and dismissive hand gestures, as if he could barely tolerate what was happening around him. He rolled his eyes at video games, he called Dancer from the Dance the whiniest novel he’d ever read, he was easily annoyed by bad jokes and people who laughed to loud at them. He criticized others, sometimes on a deep personal level. I had heard the phrase, “What the hell is wrong with him?” so many times. As for Sid, his snarky comments were remembered as not funny but mean-spirited. He had a habit of cutting you off mid-sentence and telling you how to feel. It had been suggested that Sid convinced Brian to cut himself off from us mid-beach week. It had gotten back to us from one person, who heard it from another, that Sid had told Brian that the fact we didn’t visit him in the hospital so long ago proved we were not the friends they thought we were. Hadn’t Sid told us not to go?
None of this could be 100% true. Memory and perception are the enemies of facts; no one ever learns the full story. When you’re left with that much ambiguity, you start asking questions you didn’t know exist until you’re sure the answer was staring you right in the face for years. And then, I would turn to my husband and ask, “Have you heard from him? Any news?” Gordon’s face would droop solemnly as he said, “no.” And then I realized I was spending more time on a ghost than I was on the one man I was sworn to protect.
The part I haven’t mentioned was that Sid still emailed me once every few months. They were needling little prods to see if I was still paying attention. He wrote once to congratulate me when my first book was published and then to wish me a happy birthday. Once he mentioned he’d be near my work with no invitation to meet up. I didn’t take the bait. My responses were always polite but short enough to show I was not interested. Perhaps this was Sid’s way of keeping the line of communication open, proof that he actually hoped our relationship would repair. If I was not as cruel as Brian, I was worse, because I clearly knew what I was doing.
It took us almost a year to accept the end of this friendship. And then three years passed before I ran into Brian on the street corner. Our eyes locked for a brief moment and we moved on as if we didn’t know each other. For a moment, all the old questions resurfaced and I actually wondered if Brian ever regretted the distance between us. It probably doesn’t matter. He looked happy. And Gordon and I are also happy. Even with all that animosity and left over grudges, we had managed to heal, to continue living a well-meaning life. It feels wrong to assume that Brian had not done the same.
I waited several days without expectation. There were no new messages, no pokes or prods, anything to say, “We saw each other. Wish you had stopped to say hello.” I didn’t send anything either. But I finally did pull up his Facebook page, the last link I had to him. His life had not been disrupted by our chance encounter and there was no need to chase after someone who didn’t want to be found. So, I clicked the “defriend” button and said, “It’s done.”
Jonathan Harper is the author of the short story collection, Daydreamers, which was a Kirkus Indie Book of the Year for 2015. Visit him online at: jonathan-harper.com.