Best Enemies Excerpt by Jane Heller
Two weeks before I was to be married in front of a hundred and fifty guests on the lawn of a precious little country inn in Connecticut, I caught my fiance in bed with another woman. To add insult to injury, the woman was my best friend. To add further insult to injury, she was the one on top when I walked in on them midcoitus. She was crying out, “Take me home, Hondo!” even though my fiance’s name was the far less studly-sounding Stuart, and she was riding him as if he were a horse, even though he is hung like a very small dog.
They were both horrified when they discovered me standing in the doorway of the bedroom Stuart and I had shared — they must have assumed it would take longer for the dentist to tame the inflammation I’d developed in my lower left gum, a condition brought about by the stress of the wedding, according to Dr. Ronald Glick, D.D.S. Stuart tried to say something to me but could only stammer, being the gutless wonder that he is, and I tried to say something to him but could only lisp, thanks to Dr. Glick’s liberal use of novocaine. My best friend, on the other hand, though clearly upset (she was the one who burst out crying, while I was too catatonic to shed even a single tear), was able to speak for the two of them. She climbed off of Stuart, covered herself modestly with the bed-sheet (never mind that I had seen her naked in countless department store dressing rooms over the years), and went on and on about how much they both cared about me and respected me and thought I was special, but that, in the end, they couldn’t deny that they had fallen in love. “I swear we never meant to hurt you, Amy,” she added between sobs. “These things happen.”
Well, she was right, as it turns out; these things do happen. Statistics show that when a man strays, the person he most often strays with is the best friend of the person he strays from. I don’t know why this is, other than that men are lazy. Why should they go out of their way to hunt for someone to cheat with when their beloved’s gal pal is right there in plain sight? The more puzzling question is: Why does the gal pal go for it? Are women really so desperate to find a guy that they can’t just say no in sticky situations? Can’t summon up some good old-fashioned willpower? Can’t tell him, “Look, big boy, I’m lonely and I’m horny and, if you must know, I’m a little envious that my best friend has a man and I don’t, but I take the friendship seriously, so get lost? Is that really asking too much?
“Stuart was planning to talk to you tonight,” she continued as I leaned against the wall so I wouldn’t fall down. “He was going to tell you that he was having doubts, that he couldn’t marry you knowing he had feelings for me, that he had to call off the wedding. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You weren’t supposed to walk in and find us together. Oh, please, please try to understand, Amy. I know you must be dying inside-how could you not be?-but hopefully, after some time and distance, you’ll come to accept the situation and forgive us.”
I looked at Stuart, who had forgotten to cover himself with the sheet and whose privates had shriveled to giblets. I hated him for his treachery; hated him because he was jilting me at the altar, give or take a few days; hated him because he was forcing me to rethink every minute we’d ever spent together. But in time, I did forgive him-well, not forgive him, exactly, but I did stop fantasizing about his death. I realized that he had done me a favor by dumping me; that I’d never really loved him, either.
It was my best friend I couldn’t forgive, she who became the object of my enmity. How could she have done it? How could this seemingly decent, although self-absorbed, human being have done this dirty rotten thing to me?
As I staggered out of the bedroom that day, my mind ran a little black- and-white montage of the highlights of our friendship, sort of a quickie golden oldies reel. There we were as ten-year-olds, comparing the haircuts our mothers made us get for summer camp. There we were as thirteen- year-olds, discussing braces and pimples and whether tongue-kissing a boy was great or gross. There we were as sixteen-year-olds, comforting each other over our mutual failure to pass our driving test the first time around. There we were as eighteen-year-olds, graduating from high school and promising to stay friends, even though our colleges were three thousand miles apart.
We did stay friends through our twenties, although not with the same intensity. As we moved into adulthood, we got jobs, made new friends, and discovered we didn’t have as much in common as we did when we were kids, but we continued to get together on a regular basis because, no matter what, we shared a history. You can’t just write off the person who taught you how to inhale cigarette smoke up your nose, after all.
And so, while there were other women I saw more often, it was she whom I’d considered my best friend, she whom I’d asked to be my maid of honor at my wedding, she whom I’d trusted above all others. It was she whose betrayal sent me careening into therapy, which I paid for by selling my diamond engagement ring.
For three years, I spent Tuesdays at noon on the cracked leather sofa of Marianne Ettlinger, a Manhattan psychologist who is not of the old school, where the shrink just sits there and nods, but of the new school, where the shrink tells you so much about her own problems that you’re tempted to remind her it’s your dime. Her chattiness aside, Marianne is wise and smart and extremely compassionate. She helped me conquer my demons. She helped me let go of my feelings of rage. She helped me understand that there had always lurked a pattern in my relationship with my best friend, a pattern of my giving and her taking, but that I couldn’t get on with my life unless I abandoned my obsession with exacting revenge. I pledged that I would do just that-stop obsessing about paying my best friend back-even after I’d heard from various high school classmates that she and Stuart had gotten married and moved into an enormous Tudor in Mamaroneck … on the water . . . with a guest house . . . and a pool and cabana. Talk about hard to stomach. Part of me still wanted her to suffer, not prosper, but Marianne and I worked on that. “Focus on you, Amy, on what you want out of life, not on how your life compares to hers,” she said during a break in her anecdote about her ongoing rivalry with her sister. “It doesn’t matter how she and Stuart are faring. What matters is how you’re faring and whether you feel centered.” Marianne was big on the notion of feeling centered. When I left her office after our final session, I did feel centered-but only temporarily.
What happened to throw me off center was this: On a prematurely warm Saturday afternoon in April, the very weekend after I’d ended my therapy, I ran into my best friend. I hadn’t seen her in nearly four years, not since the day she was straddling Stuart, and I was undone, absolutely caught off guard. For one thing, Marianne and I hadn’t rehearsed what I would do or say if such an occasion arose. For another, my hair was filthy, since I’d just come from a strenuous workout at the gym, I wasn’t wearing makeup, and I was in mid-bite of the bagel and cream cheese I’d picked up at Starbucks, the cream cheese, no doubt, smeared across my front teeth. And so when my best friend approached me, looking incredible (perfect clothes, perfect jewelry, perfect everything), there was good news and bad news about my behavior. The good news was that, thanks to my therapy, I did not feel the urge to slap her across the face or hit her over the head with my backpack or stomp on her five-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choo shoes, nor was I moved to give her the silent treatment or hurl obscenities at her. The bad news was that, although physical and verbal abuse were out of the question, I felt compelled to do something to her. I’m embarrassed about what I did, sure, but it felt right at the time. Well, not “right,” of course, but satisfying, like an itch that got scratched.
“Amy, how are you?” my best friend said in that way people say it when what they mean is: How do you manage to get up in the morning, you poor, pitiful person?
“I’m great,” I said, gulping down the mouthful of bagel and standing up straight. I wasn’t great, but, up to that point, I’d been pretty good. I had a career and people to hang out with and enough money to take vacations in the Caribbean every now and then. There was only one thing missing: I wasn’t in love with anybody, didn’t have a steady, wasn’t involved-a fact I had come to terms with but was suddenly, as I stood there facing down the woman who’d stolen my man, regarding as a spectacular source of shame.
“I’m happy to hear that,” she said. “You know, I thought about calling you a thousand times, but I didn’t have your number, didn’t even know where you lived.” I told her that I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a doorman building on East Seventeenth Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place. I also told her I was the publicity director at Lowry and Trammell, the publishing company that had just released the autobiography of Ozzy Osbourne’s wife.
“You work at Lowry and Trammell?” she repeated. “That’s an amazing coincidence, because-” She stopped herself. Perhaps she was about to brag about having slept with Ozzy Osbourne before deciding to sleep with my fiance instead. “So you’re doing okay, Amy? You really are?”
Well, now she was pissing me off, because it was obvious she still felt sorry for me, still viewed me as this pathetic creature who couldn’t hold on to a prize like Stuart.
“I’m doing more than okay,” I said, trying not to sound defensive, even though I could hear the slight edge in my voice.
“I’m glad. So am I,” she said, and out came the gory details: the waterfront estate, the famous interior designer she’d hired to “do” the house, Stuart’s fabulous job as chief operating officer of his family’s chain of gourmet food markets, her fabulous job as the host of some obscure local radio show in Westchester County, and-this was the worst-their recent decision to “get us pregnant.” I was puking, mentally.
“But enough about me,” she said with a hearty laugh, as if she honestly thought I would laugh, too. “How’s your love life? Are you seeing anyone?”
I couldn’t say no. I just couldn’t. Not only did I not want her to rush back to Stuart with the headline that I was still pining for him but, as I indicated, I felt the need to do something to her, to punch her without punching her, scream at her without screaming at her, hurt her the way she’d hurt me. And so I answered her question by telling her a big fat lie. Marianne would have termed what I did passive-aggressive and ordered me back into therapy for another three years, but, therapy or no therapy, I had to show my best enemy that I was doing just as well as she was, that I had rebounded courageously in the romance department, despite the vicious blow she’d dealt me.
“You bet I’m seeing somebody,” I said with a smile and a jaunty toss of my head. “I’m engaged.” Oh, why not, I figured. I’ll never see her again after today, so the lie can’t come back to haunt me.
“That’s wonderful,” she said in a tone that felt patronizing, even if it wasn’t intended to be. “When’s the wedding?”
“In six months,” I announced. “I’m very excited.”
“Of course you are,” she said. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
“No one you know,” I said, not bothering to mention that he was no one I knew, either.
We made a few more attempts at chitchat-she actually suggested we have lunch sometime, if you can imagine it-but no phone numbers were exchanged, and after an awkward beat or two, we went our separate ways.
It occurs to me that I’ve neglected to tell you the name of my former best friend. It’s Tara. Tara Messer. As I walked away from her that day, I smiled to myself, replaying her look of surprise when I’d told her I was getting married. She’d lied to me and now I’d lied to her, and it felt like justice, the kind women understand. Tit for tit, if you will. But justice implies an ending, and I don’t want to mislead you: The story of my tortured relationship with Tara is just the beginning.