Goodbye for Keeps
by JOSIANE CURTIS
The night I met Brittney, I left the bar and updated my facebook status from my phone on the walk home, a two-beer buzz tingling in my fingertips as I typed. “This just got interesting.”
A mutual friend introduced Brittney and I intentionally, knowing there was a chaos we could give each other that she herself did not possess. Within months, it was impossible for either of us to show up alone to a friend’s house, a bar, or even Whole Foods, where we spent the bulk of our paychecks searching for hangover remedies on Sunday mornings, without being asked about our other half.
We had each lost a close friend to an unexpected and far-too-early cause of death the year before moving to Portland. We came from families broken in one way or another. We’d left ex-boyfriends in California and though we mentioned it like we missed them, as if we’d left something good behind, we both knew that the relationships had been over long before we left the state. We could sense these similarities in our pasts before ever talking about them, the way the pound puppies at a dog park seem drawn to each other over the full-breeds, their histories somehow recognizable in each other’s pheromones, or maybe in their eyes.
Our friendship wasn’t just circumstantial. Our personalities are opposite in many ways, which made us well-suited to be friends. Brittney is a social butterfly with a penchant for dramatics; I am drawn to adventure but soft-spoken and sometimes too even-keeled, in need of someone like her to coax me out of my shell.
A few months into our friendship, I was arriving to a baby shower and Brittney’s name showed up on my phone. When I answered, I was greeted by the non-response of someone trying to steady their breath before speaking. I could tell she was trying to stop crying, but she couldn’t; the second she opened her mouth there was a floodgate of breath into the receiver. She gasped for air, barely getting a few words out at a time before collapsing into heavy sobs. Unable to decipher what had happened on the phone, I ditched the baby shower and showed up at her house 20 minutes later with her Whole Foods favorites: coconut water and mushroom barley soup and a cranberry tuna wrap. In the beginning, I was happy to abandon preexisting plans for her, flattered to be her chosen source of comfort. I felt important.
I could sometimes pinpoint the triggers of Brittney’s anxiety attacks, and sometimes they would catch us both off guard. Her first attack, that afternoon, had been sparked by a pocket dial from her ex-boyfriend, whose muffled footsteps and background voices somehow sounded like two people having sex. Certain environments were surefire causes, certain hours of the early morning. At parties, we would often sneak away to the bathroom or a vacant bedroom, where I would talk her down. Sometimes we would lie flat on the floor and count cracks in the ceiling until it passed.
On the other hand, when I closed off, occasionally withdrawing into my apartment for a week with no explanation, she’d show up at my house with burned CDs and bags packed for both of us for an overnight escape from the city. Our first Valentine’s Day together, on the anniversary of my friend Alex’s passing, she drove me to Astoria and we hopped from one beach to another, making our way up the coast until I found one that felt right. We stripped down to our underwear and ran the few hundred yards from the car, across snow-speckled sand, to where low tide had drawn out the water. Our Portland winter bodies were pale and tense and taut as we dove under the frigid waves, wordlessly, soundlessly, too cold to do more than gasp.
After, an SUV approached over the sand as we made our way back to Brittney’s car. A laughing woman rolled down her window.
“I saw you two from across the beach and said to myself, ‘those girls either lost a bet, or they’re drunk.’ I came over to see which it is.”
“Neither!” I struggled to exhale, exhilarated, my skin on fire, and relieved that what I had thought was a lifeguard coming to scold us was this woman instead. “We just…”
“—had to,” Brittney finished for me.
I’m not dramatic enough to say that our friendship saved each other, nor callous enough to say that it simply served a purpose, but like many friendships, especially in this purgatory between youth and young adulthood, ours fell somewhere in between. We balanced each other.
Our friendship was as much a relationship with Portland as it was with each other. We explored the city in a way only possible for two people mutually experiencing a place for the first time. Whereas a born and raised Portlander, or our friend who had lived here five years before us, might guide you through their own highlight reel of the city, together we tripped and tumbled our way through our first Oregon everything.
We frequented dance clubs and then dive bars, famous breakfast restaurants and then diners, fumbling until we found the places we fit. There was the day we ate pot brownies, managed to go on a brewery tour and join in a flash mob, but then got so overwhelmed inside of Whole Foods that we had to call a taxi to take us the six blocks home. There was the night we parked in front of a party and hid in the backseat of Brittney’s car to drink champagne before going inside, but she made me laugh so hard I had to open the door to avoid choking, setting off the car alarm and blowing our cover to the confused group of party-goers on the front porch.
There were weeks we’d get healthy, trade champagne for green juice, wander the city’s farmers markets and make home cooked vegan meals. There was the night we made fresh spring rolls and I accidentally ate half a caterpillar, learning then why you would ever need to wash organic lettuce. (There was Brittney’s uninhibited laughter this night, and many others.) There was a book club, a work party, a road trip to California, a wedding. There were holidays, birthdays, bike rides, and breakups. There was the night I turned on Alex’s music and cried on the couch while she cried in the kitchen, making dinner. There were the things I won’t talk about here. Think of all the memories you have with your best friend – there are all of those things too.
As with any significant relationship, there are too many memories; I don’t know if I’m making too much of them or not enough.
For two years, for the two of us, together was a given. One of us would send the other party details or a link to a show or event, and the other would simply make a plan, buy a ticket, no questions asked. In May, Brittney sent me information about Sasquatch, a four-day music festival in the Washington Gorge, and on Memorial Day Weekend we found ourselves there. That first year at Sasquatch, we were hummingbirds, bumblebees, happy, energetic animals running from one adventure to another. Everywhere we went, my hand extended blindly behind me to where it would find hers, automatically, effortlessly, as if by muscle memory. We made our way to the front of every stage, twisting and weaving through crowds like a strand of DNA. I tried hallucinogens for the first time and found my safe place, the safest place, in her.
The last evening of the festival, Rodrigo y Gabriela were performing on the main stage, when it started to rain. The weather had been gorgeous all weekend, but in the blink of an eye it started to absolutely pour, as if the sky had been holding off an anxiety attack all weekend, and it had finally gotten the best of her. For a moment, Brittney and I tried to cover our heads with the one sweatshirt we had between us, until, realizing the futility of this, we dropped the sweatshirt and our bags, kicked off our shoes, and danced on our tiptoes around the hillside, twirling imaginary skirts to the upbeat flamenco guitar. After about 15 minutes, the rain stopped and the sun came out from the clouds long enough to paint the sky neon before settling against the west wall of the Gorge. We perched on an abandoned backpack, arms linked, teeth chattering, willing our clothes to dry before the sun dropped below the cliffs completely.
“There is nowhere—I mean that, there’s literally not one place I’d rather be right now. And no one I’d rather be with.”
I don’t remember whether she said it or I did, which has become a common problem in many of my memories of us. It felt like the first moment I’d been still in months.
There is a special bond, an intimacy that emerges only on the heaviest nights and through the harshest of hangovers. Shared vulnerability is necessary for deep friendship, and when you’re guarded, as I am, that vulnerability won’t always volunteer itself. But you can find it in an anxiety attack at four a.m., or waiting for a pregnancy test to develop in a Safeway bathroom, or on the inside of a trash can at a music festival where you throw up while your other half holds your hair out of your face and tells leering strangers to mind their own business.
Ours was a platonic intimacy I thought was reserved for sisters and the friends of my youth; one I never expected to forge anew after college. What I expected even less was that our friendship would fade, quietly, without fault or fight or falling out. Richard Siken writes, “Sometimes you get so close to someone you end up on the other side of them.” I have this image of in my head of two ghosts, moving toward each other in an attempt to embrace, but they end up falling through each other and walking away, bewildered, in opposite directions.
“If it wasn’t for you, I would have left Portland a long time ago,” Brittney confessed to me one afternoon, two years into our time together.
I didn’t see it at the time, but Brittney’s confession marks the beginning of the end of our relationship. Though it would be over a year until she moved back to Los Angeles, at that moment, I realized that she would one day leave Portland. Maybe I would pull away to prepare myself for her eventual departure. Maybe I would crumble under the pressure of feeling that depended upon. I wanted to be valuable but not that valuable, important but not explicitly necessary; the Goldilocks of codependency.
We never purposefully stopped hanging out; we just stopped purposefully hanging out. We were us until we weren’t. I moved out of our neighborhood. We bonded with new friends and started dating new men. I went to a new gym and started waking up with the sun instead of going to sleep by it. We still ran into each other at group outings and, when we did, we picked up our friendship wherever we had last seen it. But we were not the same after that day, and our relationship dissolved little by little throughout Brittney’s last year in Portland. In that final year, we didn’t take an overnight drive, didn’t spend a Sunday alone together on Brittney’s couch. Not once.
When Brittney announced her upcoming departure from Portland, I took the news almost emotionlessly. I knew my day-to-day life wouldn’t change. But in the weeks leading up to her departure, I felt my stomach drop when I drove past her house or any of our old haunts. I felt a strange sort of sick even catching a particularly pretty view of Mt. Hood. The feeling was familiar, one I’d felt in the weeks before moving away from Calistoga, Santa Cruz, Costa Rica. I consider it a kind of pre-nostalgia for a place you know you’ll be leaving. I wasn’t leaving Portland, but in the weeks before Brittney did, it felt that way.
The morning of her last day, we stood in her disheveled apartment and made small talk about how much packing she had left to do. I remembered the first time I’d been there, Halloween weekend three years before. While trying to finish my costume, I broke a Sharpie and made a giant stain across the seat of her couch. Brittney was unconcerned with the stain, but I spent the next hour, mortified, scrubbing at it frantically. I got the couch mostly clean, but I could still always find its outline when I looked for it. Her couch cushions were propped up against the wall and the stain caught my eye, faint, faded, but still there.
We had left imprints like this one all over each other and all over this city, almost unnoticeable, invisible unless you’re looking.
Our friends all made a point to say “see you later.” “This isn’t goodbye for keeps,” they said. I made a point to say goodbye, knowing that, although I’ll see Brittney again, I will never again see the person she was in this place and time. I was saying goodbye, for keeps, not only to her, but to the person I was with her, to the people we were together, and mostly, to the places Portland was with the two of us in it.
Josiane Curtis is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Portland.
Photographs by Joe Curtin.