Some friendships are like flowers in the desert; the relationship can lie dormant for years only to bloom riotously with the slightest drop of kindness. I spent a decade ignoring a dear friend, but she was there for me when my marriage unraveled.
Claire mesmerized me with her hippie-chic attire and ironic smile when we first met at summer camp. We shyly bonded over a love of unpopular '70s rock and a mutual inability to fit in with our peers.
During a canoe trip that summer, I heard a shriek from across the river. Claire, an avid arachnophobe, had drifted under a willow branch where a cluster of spiders had hatched. Once the branch draped over her, she could only shake as baby spiders rained down. I steered my canoe close by and began to sing "Free Bird" to her until she could sing along and paddle to open air. It proved the only time I would come to her rescue.
In high school, we shared a fumbling long-distance romance that soon petered out, but left a comforting mark on us both. Our relationship had evolved into something closer to the bond shared by a brother and a sister, always present, even when in the background.
But as we grew into adulthood, I abandoned every effort to keep up the friendship as I wrestled with my turbulent romantic life. And Claire never was one to ask for help. She only hinted at the prolonged depression and scarring love affairs of her 20s after she had survived them. Her mother died and I didn't even send a card.
When she finally found a safe harbor in matrimony and began to send news of her children, I scoffed about her life to my wife. She looked comfortable in suburbia, while I had chosen to live austerely in the Maine woods.
I threw myself into my marriage in the woods and allowed every connection to the outside world to twinkle out like the stars when a storm approaches. When the storm finally broke and my marriage faltered, my world had been reduced to pine trees, snow, and a 3-year-old who needed me.
That first winter of turbulence, it was more comforting to shiver in the car and work late into the night than go home and talk to my wife. Our conversations were beginning to take on a Kafkaesque quality; it was as if we were speaking two distinct languages about what was going wrong.
Late one night, my teeth chattered as I tried to work with the intermittent Internet signal in the library parking lot. I shook my head to wake up, mindful of a deadline and the ebbing power of the laptop battery.
I blinked at my e-mail account, trying to remember who I was supposed to write and for what. An editor? Yes, but why? I tried to move the mouse to a list to jog my memory.
The mouse refused to budge from the middle of the screen. I took a deep breath in and forgot to breathe out. I knew if I let the aging computer alone, it would soon right itself. Instead, I jabbed as many command keys as possible while letting loose with a string of pent-up invectives. To appease me, the computer helplessly offered an endless cascade of blank Web screens behind the frozen cursor.
When the e-mail at last unfroze, a small instant-message dialogue box had opened at the corner of the screen. The cursor blinked patiently and the computer wondered if I wanted to talk to Claire. We hadn't traded e-mails for more than two years.
"Claire?" I wrote.
She responded in moments. "Yes? Are you OK?"
"I've been better."
The words cascaded onto the screen. For the first time I admitted to someone else that my marriage was dying. I told her everything.
A thousand miles away, she waited patiently for the story to unfold. Then, with a few keystrokes, she told me that I didn't deserve what was happening, that I would survive, and that I was loved. And just like that, I no longer felt I was shouldering the weight alone.
In the months that have followed, Claire has been a gentle listener, a bulldog in my corner, and a self-help drill sergeant. We have not been in the same room for more than a decade, but over the bandwidth she has made all the difference. Having a friend who will listen to my story has given me the courage to enter couples therapy, which helped improve communication with my ex, even if it could not save the marriage. Having a friend to lean on has given me the inner strength to wind down the marriage with as much grace as I can muster. This has given my ex and me the space to create a healthy coparenting model to support my daughter going forward.
And through it all, Claire has deflected any attempts I have made to apologize for abandoning her. I didn't leave her alone, she says. In her heart, I never left.