“At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side.”
—Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”
In 1994 I broke up with one of my best friends. It wasn’t my first best-friend breakup, but it was certainly the most dramatic. My diary from that time period (blue with Degas ballerinas) progresses as such: one bad rhyming poem, two heartfelt letters of undying love and support addressed to said friend, one baffling note to self, another poem (with illustration), and one unprintable screed of why don’t you love me. Sandwiched between the poem and the screed are the printed lyrics of “I Will Survive.”
I hadn’t had the same exposure to Gloria Gaynor and her Studio 54 pals as my peers. In fact, when I discovered the song, it was on a bright orange CD released by British dance music superstar Lonnie Gordon. Because Lonnie’s album, “Bad Mood,” didn’t come with printed lyrics, I had to write them down myself, carefully transcribing with the CD player on repeat.
That week, no truer song had ever been written. Lonnie and I wandered through the corridors of grief, visiting the alcoves of anguish and bewilderment and finally emerging through empowering doors of rebirth. We were stronger, better women with the keys to our hearts deep in our pockets where they belonged.
Like most 16 year olds, I didn’t really know much about love. Though I had valid excuses, the only love I had to give at that time was a selfish and grasping kind. I lured my unsuspecting companions into a searing circle of warmth and generosity that scorched and blackened anyone who tried to back away. My friend said, “I need more space.” I heard, “Get the fuck out of my life.”
Rejection—real or inferred—is a shared experience of being human. There are little rejections: our careers involve tiny rejections that barely scratch the surface—your story isn’t what they were looking for, your PowerPoint is trash. There are the ones that hurt less as you get older: friends inevitably drift away and your family goes on vacation without you. There were once rejections that were all consuming: friends and lovers saying point blank that you aren’t what they wanted.
And then there’s a kind of rejection that breaks your soul into very small pieces, the kind that reforms you altogether.
“It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart.”
My friend Ted lives in a small place. It’s a growing place, but a place where it’s still uncomfortable to be different. Ted is his own man. He’s fashionable and smart. He’s urban and witty. He’s gay. While most of my friends came out after brave stretches of soul searching, Ted’s coming out was soul rending.
Ted’s story starts with a soulmate, an older horseman we’ll call Sam. Sam was a good man and he and Ted quietly loved each other for ten years. Neither man was out. Ted and Sam were careful to release each other’s hand at the stop lights. As I mentioned, it is a small place and they didn’t think they could afford the wrong set of eyes on their embraces. They drove horses around the country, basking in the company of each other and the wild, wide pull of the road.
Then Sam injured his back. A small injury turned into a larger injury which turned into painkillers and limping sorrow and depression. Ted tried to help. He could see Sam struggling. He tried to get Sam’s family to help. Sam started talking about dying. Ted was despondent. He begged Sam to try harder.
Sam shot himself while Ted was in town.
When I next saw Ted, he’d lost 20 pounds. “I have something to tell you,” he said. And then he told me that he lost his friend. And he told me that friend was his lover. And we held hands as he told me that he didn’t know what he was doing. Sam’s family refused to acknowledge him. The life they had built together had disappeared. He was denied the horses, the belongings, the control, the participation, even the mementos of the man he loved.
But Ted had moved past the sadness. He was angry. Angry at Sam. Angry for the wasted time, the wasted love, the wasted life. He came out of the closet with a roar. The friends who refused to support him were summarily (and rightfully) dismissed. He swore that he would never hide himself again, no matter who rejected him.
“And you see me, somebody new, I’m not that chained up little person still in love with you.”
There is nothing quite like the elation of emergence, of being scraped and bruised and coming out the other side. It’s a rebirth of sorts, and, like all births, deserves celebration. Unlike the rejection that spawned it, the rebirth isn’t necessarily a given for everyone. But for Ted, for me, for you, we’ve got a song.
Ted has a new partner. And over martinis and pasta, we recently celebrated their new house, their antiques collection, their happiness, the normalcy of their sweet life. The small place now has a gay bar. We went to dance and waved our white sleeves and tonic water under the black lights. We compared shoes. We marveled over the changes we’d seen over the last ten years. Ted survived. Ted thrived. It’s too bad Sam couldn’t have seen it. I bet it would have made him happy.
Back in the small place, we call it getting back on the horse. And while it isn’t always apparent at the time, we ultimately get back up for ourselves. I didn’t know it then, but my ex-best friend didn’t care that I made more friends, that I tried to dress better, or that I launched myself into a thousand social activities. I won a game nobody else was playing. I thought then I was doing it so that she’d see me not missing her, but I ended up simply getting stronger for myself. She was the one who did me a favor. And I never thanked her. And I never told her I was sorry for misinterpreting her in the first place. For the record, I am. But I don’t wish it undone.
I’ve been meaning to write her a letter for the last 15 years, but I’ve never done it. And at this point, instead of apologizing, we should probably all be thanking each other for the rejections we’ve traded over the years. They’ve made us who we are and continue to shape us over and over and over again.
“I will survive. As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give.”
To the girls who didn’t want to be my friend: I get it. Sometimes, it just doesn’t click. You taught me about myself. You taught me about you. You made me want to be you and then not you. You made me want to look strong in front of you. Then I became strong in front of you. Then I learned that I was strong for me and I forgot you. When I think of you now, I have twinges of nostalgia. But it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
To the boys who didn’t love me: Thank you. You taught me that living for you was a wasted effort. You taught me that everyone has their own insular lives. When you showed up on my doorstep holding her hand, you taught me how to be gracious when I wanted to throw the vase of flowers at you.
To the boys who did love me but still left me: I understand. I’m sorry for throwing the vase of flowers at you. It’s so much better for all of us now.
Let’s all sing.