They say friends are those rare people who ask how you are and then wait to hear the answer; I have a different kind of friend.From the internet.
“You look amazing?” my friend, Edith, said to me as we tried outfits for a night out. “What’s your secret?” she continued. She was referring to my now concave stomach that once hung over my crotch.
“Stress.” I said and laughed bitterly. She joined in the laughter, not knowing I was not joking. In the last few months, weight had been falling off my body even though my eating habits hadn’t changed. My skin looked and felt weird and lighter than usual even though I had stopped bleaching. Sometimes I experienced severe pains all over my body and/or experienced unexplained dizziness. However, because I was light skinned and skinny and therefore ideal according to societal expectations, everyone admired me and inquired relentlessly as to my secret.
Deep down I knew whatever was happening to me, was not natural and it scared the hell out of me. But I was not about to argue with anyone – let them think what they want. So, all inquisitions were replied with a smile and one-word sentences. It didn’t help that a voice in my head, constantly reminded me of my mother’s dying words – “not everyone who calls themselves a friend is a friend – choose them wisely!”
The truth was I’d been undergoing tests because my doctor suspected something was happening in and to my body. I didn’t want to tell anyone (not yet anyway) – and worry them needlessly – and because I didn’t know what I would tell anyone anyway. For the time being I decided to say nothing until I had to make arrangements for that all-important pearly gates grand entrance.
Most importantly I couldn’t tell Edith because a few years ago when my mother died and I became depressed and suicidal, she dropped me like a hot potato, “…well, you didn’t tell me early enough for me to help you!” she’d wailed. According to her, I told her when it was too late for her to be of any help and that was not acceptable as per the (her) sacred code of friendship. She was angry at me for months. Truth be said, she’d been exceptionally helpful, kind and there for me during my mother’s illness: my mistake was not telling her on time that my mother had died from the illness.
I met Edith in high school – we were brought together by fate. We were both only children of single mothers who’d been ostracised by the church; we were both academically bright and that was how we ended up in a prestigious catholic school for girls in Kenya; we were both strong-willed and stood our grounds even when the church wouldn’t grant us holy communion and confirmation because we were ‘children of unwed mothers’: we threatened to take our brightness and walk out into the nearest school, in hindsight we probably should have. We bonded over shared stories of fighting off monsters who masqueraded as mother’s boyfriends for easy access.
However, after school our lives took different directions – while hers was high achiever man-eater with a body to die for career woman, I was the mediocre fat girl with a hot friend. However, despite various other obstacles, our friendship remained steadfast.
Our friendship remained strong over the years and within that time Edith met the man of her dreams, moved in with him, got engaged, planned a wedding but then it all went to hell and she had to come and live with me. I indulged her with whatever she needed to get over this man – drank copious amounts of alcohol, watched reruns of her favourite shows, spent whole weekends in bed, ordered Chinese takeaways, listened as she talked crap about that loser, let her cry on my shoulder…. literally I wiped off drool. I reassured her constantly even when she said, “you can’t understand how I feel because let’s face it, you’ve never been in a long term serious relationship or in love…… sob ….sob…. sob!” Despite that and many hurtful comments, I was determined to get her through it.
Six months later she was her usual self, albeit with a slightly bruised ego and reputation. We ritualised our renewed friendship by going on a singles cruise around Europe, and life went back to normal, almost.
A few months after the trip, my problems started. I was constantly exhausted, hungry all the time and short-tempered. I’d lost weight and my skin looked like rice paper. Sometimes I got headaches and back pains. I was depressed more than usual. My periods stopped, but since I wasn’t sexually active, I knew I wasn’t pregnant – so I enjoyed the period-free months. I googled everything I experienced – the results were so grim I decided to stop.
I considered seeing a private doctor but, in the end, decided to wait on the NHS for when they were ready. The upside to this whole thing was that I enjoyed being size 10 for the first time since I was ten years old. In my damn mind I thought if I died at least I’d get a normal sized coffin.
While I put all my energy into finding out what was wrong with me, Edith swiftly moved on. She met a new man and told me I had to help her keep him on his toes. Unlike her last relationship, she wanted (no, needed) the new man to know she had a life independent of him, she had friends independent of his, and it was my responsibility to make that happen. She had given herself completely to her last relationship such that when it ended, she almost died, “that will never happen again!” she exclaimed once she was done explaining my duties and responsibilities in her new relationship. I agreed fully.
Several weeks went by and we went on many imaginary spa weekends away, wine tasting and girls’ trips but the whole time we were holed up in my flat watching back to back episodes of scandal with our phones on plane mode. It worked for a while because the man was convinced his girlfriend had a full-on life away from him. I battled my anxieties of impending doom quietly, however Edith was too self-involved to notice or question my endless trips to the toilet.
After one such weekend, the man became relentless in showering Edith with attention, gifts, trips, introducing her to his friends and family and she drifted away from me. I no longer served a purpose – eventually we only saw each other briefly once every blue moon. My health deteriorated, and she was not there to witness or ask questions. They were falling in love and I was falling seriously ill. Every so often I’d call, or she’d call, but our conversations lasted less than a minute because they were always doing something. I felt some pangs of jealousy but was relieved because then I wouldn’t have to explain why my make-up was always over the top, or why I stuffed my bra or why I looked sickly.
When they organised a summer party, I went later than everyone else because I couldn’t face people in broad summer daylight.
“You okay?” she’d asked one time when she saw me covered in so much makeup, I looked like that Nigerian bride who broke the internet.
“Yes, I am.” I then asked a question about the boyfriend and/or the party, I got no reply: Edith is the kind of friend who’s very egocentric and sometimes when she hugged or kissed you, she’d be looking elsewhere. If she asked how you were, she never listened to your answer. If you asked about her, she’d give you a detailed account of everything from dreams to how many tampons she used on her last period. Whenever I wanted to avoid talking about me, I’d simply ask her an obscure question about anything in her life, and I’d soon be forgotten. Anyway, at that point in my life, I’d decided to cut everyone out of my life. If I died in my sleep the local council would have to deal with my body. I was just tired and looking forward to sipping sweet wine with mum and Jesus.
My self-directed isolation didn’t go unnoticed and I was grateful for the few friends who tried to contact me, but I couldn’t bring myself to contact anyone. One of my other friends left an open-ended message, ‘I pray you are well…. you know where I am if you need me.’ Edith’s message was insane… ‘girl, you better stay where you are coz when I see you, I’ll despatch you to your maker!! Why the fucking silence?’ Then I never heard from her.
In that time, I was diagnosed with lupus. The doctors assured me it was not fatal and while the are no known cures, symptoms can be controlled. The worst part was that my symptoms would mimic other illnesses making it harder to treat. However, all I heard was … not fatal…. can control symptoms… and I knew I would be ok.
Much later, I emailed Edith, (she’d blocked phone contact) to break the ice and asked her to dinner so I could explain my silence. She didn’t reply for days and when she did, she told me she was getting married and that I could attend if I wanted… and “you don’t have to“, as an afterthought. She said nothing about meeting me.
Another few days passed then she texted, “can we meet in Oxford street? I’m having a dress fitting…… please?” I couldn’t believe it – all I wanted a one to one sit down, not a champagne-sipping affair in some expensive shop talking bridal gowns. I agreed but I was not happy.
We met. She looked great. I didn’t look great – I was on a lot of medication and my skin was blotched. “You looked great!” she said and we both knew it was a lie.
“How’ve you been.” She said as she kissed me on both cheeks.
“I’ve been dying.” I said, with no irony whatsoever.
“What?” But before I could answer. “By the way, you will be my maid of honour, ok? You are still my best friend even though you dumped me.”
Let’s just say, I couldn’t believe my fucking ears. What? Was she deaf or too self-involved to care about anyone but herself? Still, I followed her around the Oxford street shop as she tried on different gowns, and yes, we sipped champagne. In the end I decided it was not worth my mental health to lay it on her; she was also so happy and in love to care about anything else. She never asked me what I wanted to talk about or where the hell I’d been.
I was very angry with her. Angry that she didn’t seek me out. Angry that when I needed her most, she wasn’t there. Angry that when I wanted to talk, she had no time. Angry that she didn’t see the signs. But then again maybe it was my fault because I never opened up to her in the first place. Maybe I assumed too much that if I could tell when she was in turmoil without her saying anything, she should have been able to do the same for me. I assumed that she could see I was not well. But the question remains…. Why? Was it because it was not happening to her? Was it because I thought I was too strong to need someone? Was it pride or arrogance? Is Edith selfish or I am too secretive?