By David E. McGlynn
When you move to a new town from out of state, you do what you must to make friends. You strike up conversations with strangers in the park and in supermarket aisles. You ask people you hardly know over for dinner. You accept invitations you would have once declined, to book clubs, parent-toddler support groups and church luncheons. The alternative is isolation, and Wisconsin winters, my wife and I learned quickly, are isolating enough.
We’d followed a job across the country, leaving behind our families and friends, the mountains and ocean, and my wife’s job in the emergency room of a large urban hospital, all so I could teach at a small college in a small city a hundred miles north of Milwaukee. Our son was two years old, our second baby on the way and we didn’t know a soul.
During our first few months, we grilled brats with our neighbors and went apple picking with the other professors who had small children. We welcomed our second child, another boy, and my wife landed a job as a social worker in a nearby hospital. We met people slowly, sporadically, but it wasn’t until our sons were five and three—the year they started school—that we finally found ourselves surrounded by friends.
My wife began volunteering at the school and was soon taken up by a group of women whose children were in our sons’ classes. The women were, like my wife, in their early thirties, educated and athletic. She was invited out for dinner and to their houses, to movies and yoga classes and drinks. Conversations begun outside of school continued at night on the phone, and over email and Facebook and text. The women were funny and sometimes brash, but kind. When a crisis arose at the hospital, they offered to pick up our sons. They were loyal to one other and, it seemed, to us. For the first time since we’d arrived, we had a village to rely on.
I had more in common with the men, husbands of my wife’s friends, than I expected. A few had grown up in town, but many had come from other places, as we had, pursuing careers as lawyers, engineers, teachers and counselors. One of the men invited me to race sailboats on Lake Winnebago with him and a friend. I went, and after the race, we drove to a tavern and talked about how we came to live in this place. We sailed and talked like this all summer.
In July, my wife and I hosted a party to celebrate the release of my second book. A dozen friends reclined in lawn chairs in our backyard, clinking margaritas and dancing in the starlight on a night so warm and filled with laughter that I could practically taste the joy. After the party ended, my wife and I raised one last glass, just the two of us. Our sons, now seven and five, were upstairs in bed; after six years in town, we had accomplished what had once seemed impossible. We’d found a community.
A month later, and with a single email, it all ended.
It happened at a party near the end of August, summer tilting toward autumn. The women were gathered at a friend’s house after running a 5K when a message came to my wife’s phone. She was surprised to discover she’d been added to a Facebook conversation full of gossip about her. Why, one woman asked, was she suddenly a part of everything? Why was she invited to so many parties? My wife, who had been friends with the women for almost three years, was stunned. It just didn’t make sense.
She took her phone into the bathroom and read through the messages again in private, more slowly this time. She tried calling me, but I didn’t answer. So she washed her face and went back to the party. She decided to confront the woman about it, telling her the messages must have come to her by mistake.
“I’m sorry if I did something to make you upset,” she said.
“How were you magically added to the conversation?” the woman wanted to know. “And why were you gone for so long?”
“I was in the bathroom,” my wife said. “I didn’t feel well.”
The next morning, the email arrived. The only way my wife could have been added to the conversation, the friend wrote, was if she’d stolen her phone and hacked into her messages.
A glitch, a bug, a typing mistake in the dark—none of these were accepted as possible. It was an outlandish accusation, almost laughable, except that the email concluded with the statement: “Our friendship is over. Our family’s friendship is over.”
We stood in the kitchen passing the phone back and forth, trying to make sense of it.
“I’ve never had anyone say something like this to me,” my wife said
“You’d better call her,” I said. She tried, but the call went straight to voicemail. “Go knock on her door,” I said. “Maybe if you show up in person, you can talk this out.”
The woman’s husband answered and said she wasn’t home, even though both cars were in the garage. My wife drove to another friend’s house to ask for her advice. That woman’s husband said she couldn’t come to the door. My wife sat in her car and tried calling her other friends, but none of them answered. Finally, she called home. “No one will talk to me,” she said, sobbing. “I don’t understand any of this.”
Fifteen years of teaching literature has shown me that humans are by nature illogical and impulsive. Betrayal is mankind’s oldest sin, and the Western canon is a catalogue of intimates transmogrified, suddenly and inexplicably, into enemies. Yet the plots of novels and plays usually arc toward justice, the accused exonerated and the Iagos led away in cuffs. So it wasn’t the accusation that surprised me, but rather how easily it took hold. At first, I thought our friends were giving the situation time to cool and were trying to stay out of the middle. Every afternoon I came home from work expecting to hear that someone had called my wife to reassure her, to say the piling on was unfair, even to ask whether or not the accusation was true. But no call came.
When school again started in September, we and the other families amassed on the playground to take pictures of our children in their new shoes and backpacks. Our friends acted as though they didn’t know us. The same people to whom we’d brought dinner after they’d had surgery, whom my wife had visited in the hospital when their children were sick, now turned and walked away when they saw us approaching.
One day soon after, I saw one of the men I’d sailed with having lunch in a cafe with his kids. After placing my order, I turned around to say hello. His table was empty. He’d hustled his sons out the door so quickly they’d left their jackets behind. I drove the jackets to his house, fantasizing that he’d answer the door with an apology for hurrying out, maybe even express regret for the way things had gone. I’d sat next to him on the boat every Tuesday for fourteen weeks, and at the bar and in my backyard on plenty of other nights. It was hard to believe we weren’t still, on some level, friends.
His wife answered when I rang the bell. She said little more than “Thank you” before retreating back inside and shutting the door in my face. For once, I felt the sting I’d watched my wife endure every day for the last two months, saw the way people she once counted as friends, treated her: as suspect, untrustworthy, someone to avoid.
Thrust back upon ourselves and with no one else to trust, we spent hours talking. At first we talked about what had happened, as though it was a puzzle we needed to solve. Surely something as trivial and as small as a wayward Facebook message couldn’t wreak so much damage on its own. Perhaps if we could construct a chronology of exchanges and events leading up to the accusation, then maybe we could pinpoint the moment our friends began to see us as no longer good. Maybe then we’d understand where we’d gone wrong.
But as the nights went on, the talk began to change. Our conversations grew more potent and private. We talked less about the accusation and instead about what it meant to be good, and whether being good was separable from doing good, and what it meant to forgive. The television sat dark in the corner, our books lay closed on the table, as we hung on each other’s every word. Some nights we talked until midnight and had to will ourselves to stop so we could sleep. We hadn’t talked this way in years, not since we were first together and spent most of our time imagining how our future would look.
Somewhere in the course of building that future—advancing in our jobs, overseeing homework and swim team and guitar lessons, making friends—this kind of talking had gotten lost, or at the very least set aside. Our efforts to establish connections with our townspeople had come at the cost of intimacy with the one person who mattered most. I hadn’t thought to miss it until I got it back. Now I couldn’t get enough. I realized that I—that we—didn’t need the friends we’d lost. We were our own village, smaller but more intense, more sustaining. After months of sad, sleepless nights listening to my wife cry softly in the dark beside me, we began to feel better. My wife jokingly called it “our talking cure.”
A few days after Christmas, we left our sons in the care of my in-laws and drove to Milwaukee. It was our gift to each other: a night on the town, twenty-four hours of uninterrupted conversation. On our way to dinner, we stopped in a tavern and ordered a beer.
The waiter returned with four mugs. “We only ordered two,” I said.
“They come in pairs,” the waiter said. “Order one, you get two.”
Outside, snow was starting to fall. It was still early, and besides the waiter and the two of us, the bar was empty. We lifted all four mugs and clinked them together. First, a toast to our old friends, and then a second toast to what their loss had given us. A new year was upon us, we were alone in the city, and we had everything—and everyone—we needed.
David E. McGlynn is the author of two books, A Door in the Ocean, a memoir, and a story collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, which won the Utah Book Award for fiction. David’s work has appeared or are forthcoming in The Yale Review, The Missouri Review, The Southwest Review, The Huffington Post, Best American Sports Writing, The Morning News and elsewhere. His most recent work appears in the March issue of Men’s Health and the April issue of AskMen.com. Visit him online at http://www.david-mcglynn.com.