I remember with nauseating clarity when my high school boyfriend paused an episode of Black Mirror, turned to me, and said, “I think we should break up or go on a break for the summer.” What I said in response has been erased in my memory by the brutal shock of the blow and the paradoxical feeling that I should have seen it coming. I felt the same way when my best friend at Midd told me she had decided to transfer.
It was the last minutes of a Thursday or the first minutes of a Friday too close to finals for anyone’s comfort, and one of the first days Middlebury felt like home to me. The air just beyond Axinn’s doors was surprisingly warm, and as I processed the pleasantness of this, my friend filled a momentary lapse in our conversation with the news of her decision. My other friends, who hadn’t known she’d been considering transferring, must have expressed their shock. But I was too preoccupied by the strain of attempting to keep my face neutral and my voice even to process their reactions.
Those efforts were likely wasted; my face is useless at disguising my feelings. Her transfer was a possibility I’d known about since October, but when she told us her decision I realized I never believed she wouldn’t stay. That night, once we left Axinn and reached the entrance to our dorm, I could tell she wanted me to hang back with our other friend so we could talk, but I claimed exhaustion, feeling righteously annoyed by the inconsiderate hour she chose to break her news.
Back in my dorm, I listened to music in the single use bathroom (my roommate had long since fallen asleep), sent a long volley of texts to my mom, and eventually tried to get some sleep myself. The last two weeks of my semester were consumed by trying to spend as much time with her as possible and my anticipatory grief over a Middlebury without her.
When a relationship or a situationship (as we Middlebury students are so familiar with) ends, it can be devastating, but there is certain comfort to be found in breakup rituals. I find it easy to talk about breakups, to come up with pejorative nicknames for my exes (what can I say, I’m a writer) and to receive the ready sympathy of my friends. There are inadequate rituals and language to describe the loss of a friend.
When I returned home, I was also processing the end of a situationship which I talked about at length to friends from home. I talked less about my friend’s infinitely more devastating transfer. If I did, it often felt awkward, like my friends avoided the topic, not due to a lack of empathy but because they didn’t know what to say.
I’ve been fortunate to have many deep relationships with friends that bring me great solace and joy; however, my relationship with her was unlike any friendship before, just by virtue of her being a college friend. Before leaving for college, one of my cousins told me that because you leave your family behind at college your friends become your family and essential support system.
My friend lived two floors above my room. I knocked on her door to borrow peanut butter, solicit opinions on dresses, cry and everything in between. She was my family and her absence from campus is still a loss that stings keenly.
I mourn the future we could have had together. She’s still a close friend of mine, but we live on opposite coasts, and she likely won’t be in my life in the same capacity, neither in college nor after it, than if she had stayed at Middlebury. Campus feels lonelier without her and I expect it to remain that way for some time. I’ve been reassured that I will eventually find other friends who fill the void she left, but I’ll never find another her, just like she will never find another me.
Our culture is one that tends to valorize romantic relationships sometimes (unfortunately in my case) at the expense of friendships. This holds especially true for me, as both a college student and a woman. The unparalleled and continued grief over my friend’s transfer taught me at this point in my life I value and need friendships far more than romance — a lesson I think most people learn far before 14th grade, but one I’m grateful to have learned.
In All About Love, bell hooks writes we are taught love will foremost come from our romantic relationships, but she argues it is our friendships which ground us and teach us how to love. At this stage in my life, and quite possibly for the rest of my life, I have found my deepest and most fulfilling relationships to be with my friends; however, in conversation, conflicts and breakups can feel secondary to the consuming, less devastating, “juicier” boy drama.
In some senses, it’s reductive to compare friendships to romantic relationships, diminishing the value of both by creating such a binary; however, I seek not to diminish the value of romance but to elevate the importance and weight with which we discuss friendships.
I don’t talk about my friend’s transfer much, mostly to avoid getting too emotional, and because it's an ache that has yet to dissipate, boring in its perseverance. It’s an ache that swells at odd moments (by the McCullough printer where I printed her return labels because she could never figure out Papercut, the back entrance of Hep, etc.) or just when I’m especially lonely.
A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a guy and I started to cry. Some girls enveloped and comforted me assuming I was just another girl crying over a boy, a ritual of sisterhood. The assumption wasn’t completely incorrect, a guy I’d once hooked up with had prompted some tears, but it was another guy’s question that had precipitated my tears: if I missed my friend.
Sarah Miller is an opinion editor.