This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.
My longtime friend Bennett is, and has always been, a writer, the kind of writer whose writerly identity is obvious from his first sentence — in fact, child-Bennett started speaking in full sentences, according to many reliable sources. But I’m sure neither of us thought of ourselves as future authors, exactly, when we met in middle school. Instead, we bonded over being weirdos; we were the kids who could spend hours obsessing over an obscure comic book or composing a parody song about someone we disliked.
By the time we were in high school, Bennett was showing clear signs of being the kind of artist whose talent and creativity make it difficult to do the stuff regular people do, like homework. He created a surrealist TV show for our school’s public access channel, made genius mixtapes, and hooked up with hot older guys when he should have been studying. I was more of a grind, eager for ego-boosts in the form of grades and back-pats, with only a slight tendency to torpedo my best efforts by sassing the authority figures whose approval I craved. Still, I racked up As and impressive-sounding extracurriculars. None of it turned out to matter. Despite the Ds on his report card, Bennett was accepted to Sarah Lawrence, where I desperately wanted to go. I was wait-listed. That thin-envelope moment was the first time I was aware of being jealous of Bennett, and of feeling competitive with him.
The next time didn’t come until the early aughts, when we were living together in a big, crappy apartment in Greenpoint. A few months out of college, we were both struggling to find our footing in New York as professionals and as writers and also, though we didn’t realize this yet, as anything that could be construed as adult human beings. We both had the same wildly unrealistic expectation of ourselves: that somehow we would figure out how to make a living and, simultaneously, write books that would establish our identities and careers forever. The great thing about our naïveté, and our friendship, was that we sincerely assumed that we would achieve those goals, and that we would achieve them together, at the same time as each other.
What actually happened was that I got a job and Bennett got a book deal. The job — assistant to the editor-in-chief of a big commercial publishing house — was actually a position that Bennett found out about first and passed on to me. The book deal was to write a series about a glamorous, modern girl detective named Lulu Dark for a YA imprint called Razorbill. The money from his advance (this was 2004) was enough to make it possible for him to avoid getting a job, or at least to think that it was possible. Meanwhile, I had a salary and benefits and a brilliant, supportive boss who cared about mentoring me. I was grateful for none of this, of course. I wanted what Bennett had, which I imagined to be the Dream.
At home, our paths began to cross less frequently. When they did, it was often early in the morning; I would be steeling myself for another day of chipper professionalism by watching the Today show while Bennett was just closing out an all-nighter of writing. I was hell-bent on getting the life equivalent of As but feeling like I was fighting my essential nature in order to do so, which was making me more and more anxious, which made me more and more of a bitch about roommate stuff. For a while, we relied on a blog that we co-wrote called the Universal Review to keep us in touch, but eventually the demands of his book took precedence over our collaboration. I’d been relying on the blog as a creative outlet, but he already had one, which explained why it was so easy for him to take or leave something that felt so important to me.
Consumed with this jealous resentment, I failed to notice that Bennett didn’t seem so ecstatic about his awesome writer’s life. He was blowing deadlines, not getting enough exposure to daylight, distracting himself with romantic misadventures, and running dangerously low on cash. The Dream could be kind of a nightmare.
Finally, about a year in, all of the unspoken tensions coalesced in a blowout fight that temporarily ended our friendship and decisively ended our co-habitation. I can’t even remember why I started screaming at him. Money? The blog, and how he’d unceremoniously abandoned his end of it without telling me he wanted to stop? When I try to remember, it gets conflated with the scene in season one of Girls where Marnie screams at Hannah, “You’re the wound!” It had that exact same emotional tenor, Bennett and I later agreed. Maybe this is a genre of fights that only friends who’ve made the mistake of becoming roommates can have.
I was so sure at the time that I was in the right. And it was true that Bennett had neglected to pay rent for a little while and hadn’t been the best at communicating why he hadn’t been around, or where he’d been, or with whom, and what was going on in his room, what was that smell, exactly, and had that same Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup really been sitting on his desk since the day he moved in? In retrospect, though, I am certain that I was in the wrong about almost all of it. I was so toxically jealous of Bennett that I made it impossible for him to be around me. Instead of being the funny, interesting person he’d befriended at age 11, I had turned into an office drone. I went to bed early so I’d be sharp for 9 a.m. meetings. I stopped going out and started only having “fun” by sitting on the couch in front of the TV like a zombie, smoking joints to numb a brain that otherwise raced with thoughts of what my boss might need me to do. Why would he have wanted to live with someone like that?
So yes, I can’t remember the exact horrible things we said to each other, which is probably for the best. I can remember Bennett falling to his knees, red-faced, possibly crying. The fight finally culminated in Bennett stomping out of the apartment and me — most shamefully of all — calling his parents to collect the money he supposedly owed me. It wasn’t even a lot of money.
We didn’t speak or see each other for what felt like a long time but what was, I think, about four months. When we “got back together,” it was on slightly different terms, but no lasting damage was done — we were still young enough, then, that we could bounce back from saying unspeakable things to each other the same way we could wake up the morning after a night spent guzzling well drinks and cigarettes feeling a little headache-y but otherwise intact. We never exactly talked about the specifics of what happened. The realization that my awful behavior had been borne out of jealousy wasn’t something that dawned on me until relatively recently. And for Bennett, I think, the falling-out had less to do with feeling competitive with me than it did with the realization that nothing was going to go quite the way he or I had fantasized that it might, when we dreamed of our glamorous adult lives. He just got to experience that revelation a little bit earlier than I did.
In the years that followed, we’ve both experienced, as one of our favorite chanteuses puts it in one of her signature numbers, enough “good times and bum times” in our respective writing careers to ensure that we know that nothing worthwhile comes easily, and what seems like success is often just slow-moving failure wrapped in an enticing package. We are both, after a lot of practice, getting to be genuinely good at what we do. While that isn’t something you can measure in easily quantifiable terms, like awards or Goodreads stars, or, um, “dollars,” it’s still valuable. We both get to write books. We get to still know each other, and to see each other’s progress, which is a nice bonus.
Of course I still get jealous of Bennett; his writing has an imaginative quality and a fluid style that I’ll never attain. But that’s his thing. I have my thing, which is different and maybe inferior, but for better or worse, it’s mine, and all I can do in this life is make the best of it. Besides, there are compensatory perks of having a great writer as a longtime close friend; sometimes, they will use their gifts for your benefit. Bennett recently officiated at my wedding and he totally fucking nailed it. Everyone cried at the speech he wrote. No one could have written a better one, not even me.