When I was a junior in college, I spent a heady semester in London, complete with an older foppish cad of a boyfriend. It was an obviously temporary affair, my first. But the boyfriend, whom I’ll call Luke, broke it off before I even left London. I was blue but not surprised. Then, during my last days before returning home to New York, Luke called. He was in Manhattan. I came home.
I remember some excellent evenings—playing pool in the East Village, drinking Pimm’s on someone’s rooftop—but by the time of my 21st birthday, a month after I’d returned to New York, we were fighting often. It was clear we weren’t going to last, but still, I couldn’t let go. Even though we were hardly well-suited, I was still a little crazy about him, all of which I explained to four of my closest girlfriends from college, all of whom I hadn’t seen in a year while I was abroad. We had gathered at my parents’ house on Long Island for my birthday weekend, and we dished about our lives. Though the relationship was certainly shaky, I was excited for them to meet Luke, who’d be joining us the next night. The only major change I noticed in any of them was that my friend whom I’ll call Justine, previously apolitical, had become an enthusiastic feminist. She inserted the word “sisterhood” into most conversations and wore a “Take Back the Night” T-shirt. (I was a year ahead of Justine, and I had already taken back the night in our college town of Ann Arbor, and while too overwhelmed by crowds to be much of an activist, I was all for it.) This was 1993; she wore that T-shirt well.
On Saturday evening, we dressed up, admired one another, and took the train to Manhattan. We met up with an assortment of people—my parents, more friends, and Luke—at a snazzy restaurant my parents had chosen. We drank plenty of champagne, and my family, friends, and Luke made witty, touching toasts. After my parents and brother went home, the rest of us continued to a nightclub with an excellent DJ; everyone was dancing. When my friend Dan said goodnight, I teased him for leaving too early, and he said something I’ve recalled many times since: “Never stay too late—one of my rules. Bad shit starts happening.” He shrugged. “It’s inevitable.”
Soon after Dan’s departure, as if on cue, I noticed that Luke and Justine were dancing awfully close together. No, I thought, I must be mistaken. But there they were, on the dance floor next to me, all over each other—at my 21st birthday! I remember wondering why neither of them noticed that I was standing right there, followed by the sad and obvious answer that they were not noticing me because they were consumed by one another.
I also remember thinking, She’s a really good dancer.
I’d first met Justine in Wyoming two years earlier, on a summer geology program. Both of us were trying to complete all of our math and science credits against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons. We roomed together in a tin hut, the cement floor of which hosted various rodents; it had cracked open during an earthquake and had never been repaired. We lived without electricity or a bathroom; we studied (much harder than either of us had bargained for) by flashlight and slept very little. We were both arty, earnest, East Coast Jewish girls who were terrible at math. I loved everything about her and took for granted that this was a friend for life.
One by one, as Luke and Justine’s hips pressed together and did not come apart, each of my friends stopped dancing and came over to me, weighing in on the increasingly awkward situation. Still, Luke didn’t break away; nor did Justine. His lips were at her neck. Her hands were on his ass. I don’t remember what followed, exactly, but she did come home with us to Long Island, and that was one long and silent train ride. She left the house a few hours later before anyone was awake.
Luke left several groveling messages that day, and I ignored them all.
Justine called the following night. She didn’t mention what happened. “What about sisterhood?” I finally yelled. “Is that only when the guy in question isn’t charming and your friend’s boyfriend?”
The worst part, I explained, was how this was all such a cliché—obviously. So humiliating.
She apologized, but it was hollow. I couldn’t figure out why she sounded so meek. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said. I’m sure both of us knew she would do no such thing. I still have no idea if she saw Luke again. Justine and I only shared one close mutual friend, and that friend had no news for me. She only said that Justine was more insecure than I’d realized. Oh please, was what I probably said. Oh. Please.
That fall I lived on a tree-lined street with the best front porches in Ann Arbor. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Justine since that awful phone conversation. I knew she was living not far from my house and often wondered when I’d see her, walking by. On Yom Kippur, I was getting ready to go to synagogue when there was a knock at the door. Jehovah’s Witnesses often came around, and I was set to explain to the proselytizer that it was the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, that even for a Jew like me, who went to synagogue once a year, this was the worst day to come knocking. But when I opened the door, there was no one spreading the word.
Justine stood there. The sky was oyster-colored, her dress dark green. The wind kicked up fallen leaves. “Hi,” she said.
“Listen, I’ve thought a lot about that night.”
“It’s OK,” I said, not because I meant it, exactly, but because at this point, what did it matter?
“No, really,” she said, and I could see that she was struggling.
“OK,” I relented. “I’m listening.”
“It’s Yom Kippur,” she said. “We’re supposed to look at ourselves and atone for our sins.”
“I know,” I smiled, wryly. Though I had observed the holiday my entire life and knew plenty of Jews who did, too, I had never heard of anyone repenting in this way.
“I’m atoning,” she said. “There are a million ways to fend off a tipsy guy. Especially if that guy is your friend’s boyfriend.”
“He was a tenuous boyfriend,” I acknowledged.
“I know he was,” she said. “But that’s what I should have done.” She looked up at the sky, as if she wanted it to rain. “I think I liked the attention,” she finally said.
I nodded along with her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
We might have hugged, but that’s not part of my recollection. I only remember the pre-stormy weather, her serious, beautiful face. “Good yontif,” she said, and I watched her walk off, down the middle of my quiet street.
When we saw each other after that, we always talked warmly but briefly—she was considering law school, dating a writer—and when we said goodbye, each and every time, I was always struck with how she’d actually atoned. I was also struck by how I really and truly had forgiven her. I thought of her fondly, respectfully. And yet we were no longer friends.
As for Luke, the day after my 21st birthday party, he started an apology campaign complete with lavish flowers and self-flagellating letters. He was the one person who had begun as temporary and was the person whom I thought I was least likely to stay in contact with. And he’s been my friend for nearly 20 years.
Somewhere along the way, I did manage to become an adult. And though adulthood didn’t happen at 21, it very well might have started then, when I began to see how, though even the most heartfelt atonement can’t always bind what’s broken, it’s certainly worth a shot.
I recently Googled Justine. She’s a lawyer specializing in women’s rights. I found an article about an event honoring her work. She was wearing a suit in the accompanying photograph, with the same beautiful face, the same serious expression. And maybe because she was my friend for a time—my friend who made a late-night mistake, my friend who’d struggled and finally apologized, my friend who, according to the World Wide Web, followed through on those nascent feminist ideas she’d begun to explore the summer our friendship ended—when I viewed the evidence of her successful life, I was filled with warmth and recognition. And some kind of foolish pride.