Landscape Over Loneliness

  I used to pride myself as the lone wolf. I possessed a romantic image of myself: full-thighed figure cast aglow in a full moon, deep in the wilderness and entirely alone and naturally, looking pretty damn cool. After high school, at the highly mature age of 18, I desperately wanted to move far, far away from my small lakeside town. I wanted to be in a place where I didn’t have any pre-existing relationships and escape the trappings of what I felt was the fate of a Boyne City graduate: attend Central Michigan University in terrible Mount Pleasant and then return to Boyne and work at the IMI factory and coach high school softball. I thought I was the only one capable in my graduating class of 98 to break that mold and attend a private college outside of the Great Lakes borders. My heart yearned for Missoula’s University of Montana, a top choice for me due to its prestigious English program and location in the mountains. My parents were not interested in having their only daughter head so far west into the mountains, knowing that I’d probably spend my days skiing and not in the classroom. In the summer before my final year in high school, I worked with a woman named Lisa who was about to graduate from a small school in Indiana named DePauw University. I had little concept of Indiana and its lack of skiing opportunities but listening to Lisa’s tales of DePauw’s academic richness, its incredible English program and talented professors, and the sheer fact that is was a good eight hour drive from my hometown, it quickly became my first preference. Lisa did warn me that the school had a strong and lively Greek population, that it was smack dab in cornfields in the poor and drab town of Greencastle, and that my experience growing up in northern Michigan surrounded by lakes and hills might be a difficult and stark geographical change. I didn’t care, especially after researching DePauw’s reputation in college reports as a difficult school, the Harvard of the Midwest, and I knew, that no matter what, no matter the student loans I’d need to cover the extremely high tuition, I’d attend the university. So without really considering what my friends were doing post-Rambler (our high school mascot: a wheel with a wing?!?) life, assuming that most of them weren’t doing cool and savvy things like me, like going to a private school, I left for the great state of Indiana.

When I left in August of 2000, my mother was grieving the springtime loss of her sister, and my much older boyfriend, The Drifter, was feverishly worried that he’d be promptly dumped when I first hit campus. He cried at my doorstep the morning I left with my grandmother and my mother in my old 1992 Buick Century station wagon with all my belongings stuffed in the back. As we drove, painfully slow, eight hours south, I sat in the back seat and imagined my very first class in East College, a massive stone church that I’d seen in the admissions catalog.

I may have been a bit skeptical when meeting my fellow Tiger classmates when they boasted that either their best friends or worse, boyfriends also attended the school. Leave it to my good friends Greg and Lindsey, whom I met on my first day of college to not only be that high school couple that entered college together but also got married a few years ago. It was those kinds of people that I wanted to avoid like the plague, but in reality, I loved Greg and Lindsey, together and separate. In my cynical and harsh mind, I couldn’t fathom that someone, a peer of mine, would actually want a relationship to follow through childhood, onto college, and then into real, adult life. It just seemed so juvenile. I shrugged off all of my attachments to family and friends in one fell swoop.

Truthfully, the lone wolf really wants to be a part of the pack. It is necessary for survival. So for all my huffing and puffing about being so different and alone at DePauw, guess what I did.  I did what most of my other classmates did the winter of our freshman year. I became Greek. I, of all people, joined a sorority — albeit on my own terms. For rush, most girls polish their Tiffany charm bracelets and dig out their best black shoes; I shaved my head. Somehow, I did get caught up in its intoxicating charm. All the dog and pony shows from each house did its magical, surreal trick. My very dearest and first collegiate  friend, Mandy, guided me through the rush process. We both ended up pledging Alpha Phi, a house known for its mix of girls. The house boasted athletes, English majors, a few drama queens and honestly, fairly normal girls. Girls like me with more hair. For a girl who wasn’t really adept at forming lasting and true relationships with women, in one evening — Bid Night — I was instantly thrust into a “sisterhood” just because a few upperclassmen thought I was cool and unique during a few brief meetings, which I would later come to learn were highly strategic and precise. The first week after I accepted Alpha Phi as my house, there were parties with different fraternities every night. I instantly had a house mother, and I was paired with a girl who’d become one my greatest friends. Instant mothers, instant sisters? Yep, it is as crazy as it sounds.

In college while I wrote furiously about sex in my English workshops, I was a part of a tribe. A clan. I had a pack. I was no longer alone. It felt pretty good, actually. This time I’m not referring to the confines of Alpha Phi. While I mismanaged my boyfriends, left The Drifter behind in northern Michigan, I managed to find friendship with four women. All but one of us were “sisters ” at Alpha Phi. We all came from an Irish Catholic upbringings and we were all athletic, pretty damn smart, very driven, and always ready for a party. Our school population was around 2500 and we were well known, even immortalized in the school newspaper for our antics. Since I’d like someday — someday soon, to actually have a job, I will refrain from detailing the particulars of our activities but rest assured we didn’t land ourselves in the police blotter. Thanks to one of the girls, we were always able to get ourselves out of trouble with the law (this is the same girl who always talks with the U.N. Trust me, this woman will become President of these United States. And it really isn’t such a bad thing.) .

Nicknamed the Dru Cru after the name of our campus apartment, our group of five were incredibly close in ways that I had never experienced with other women. We had our fair share of laughs, practical jokes and alcohol fueled stunts but I felt that in our four years together, these women knew me better than, at times, I had known myself. For me, college was a constant struggle between outgrowing the trappings of youth and staking a vigorous claim on the future. My friends knew that my heart belonged to the wild and that our school possessed no wild-lands for me to take solace in. They knew that I was born to write and even back then, as I do now, I fell prey to denial. They supported my writerly habits and if I’d stop writing or attending a workshop for whatever bullshit depressive reason, they’d actually bring the entire class into my bedroom, reminding me that I was still a writer and that my presence was needed in the workshop.

By my junior year I tired of the politics of the sorority and its repressive, patriarchal rules and regulations. I left, or in Greek-life terms, I “de-activated” which makes it sound like I’m some sort of robot or machine and had I been one of those, I would probably still be sitting on the front porch of the sorority’s white mansion, welcoming a new crop of young girls into the sisterhood, into “the springtime of their youth”. But my close friends still remained mine despite my departure. However it is worthy to note that I did lose some friendships and many “sisters” because I rejected the status quo. For those broken relationships, I am not mournful.

In the spring of 2004 we graduated from the university as a senior in high school I so desperately wanted to attend. At 22, all I could think of was the big open skies of Montana. Unlike most of my peers who took jobs with firms in Chicago or New York or like my friends Claire and Colleen who made their way to Africa for six-months, I took a summer job at a dude ranch on Flathead Lake. My dream of living in Montana was finally taking root although it was my time on the ranch that would prove to be the most volatile and damaging experience of my young adult life. While I couldn’t contain my excitement for a life in the mountains, creating my reality I had read about in Pam Houston’s stories, I was also at a loss for how my relationship with my girlfriends would change. I knew that I wasn’t good, even after my experience at DePauw, at maintaining relationships and I think my tribe knew this too. Promises were made for visits and for me to continue my tradition of a weekly email recaps, highlighting our more lively events of the week.

A few months into my Montana experience, I lost my mind. I got engaged, was infinitely depressed and lost. My friends knew this and also knew that I’d never truly go through with the wedding. They offered their support from Chicago, Africa and the south. I pushed them away, like I did with anything true and good at the time, and reunited with my lone wolf self.

Safe to say that I didn’t get married, didn’t completely lose my mind but did make the commitment to see my friends almost each and every year since graduation. But something was changing with our relationship and I began to feel a distancing tension.  I began to dwell (that’s what writers do, they dwell) on our relationship and if it was truly progressing me as a person or if I was merely fighting off, slowly, the inevitable. I thought I wanted to slip away from the Dru Cru.

Last fall, I emailed a pitiful,sorrowful and selfish email to Claire, Colleen, Allison and Brittany. I called for a break-up. An end to our ten-year relationship. I felt that the time had come for them to fully release me into the mountains where I holed up in the remote northwest corner, always fending off invitations to visit them in Chicago citing the high cost of a plane ticket and my feeble income. I felt that when we did reunite, at a mutual friend’s wedding or because they all chipped in $50 to fly me to Indiana one fall, our reunions were marked by with excessive drinking and the sort of wayward ways that I’d been trying to shake ever since I planted myself in Whitefish. I had my own demons with alcohol but I tried to blame it on my friends’ influence. At the time that I wrote  the scathing email, I believed that my friends only valued me as wild, drunken, and rebellious. I didn’t know quite how to place my relationship within the boundaries of my life and per usual for me, anytime something difficult and uncomfortable presented itself I immediately cut it out of my life like a diseased tree.

I, like always, was struggling to identify myself in the context of a relationship. I wanted my needs met and I needed to vocalize those desires. With my girlfriends, I was making petty excuses for my failure as a friend and instead placed the blame on them. I thought I could merely break ties and move on, shove the memories of my best girlfriends back into the “college years” compartment of my heart and brain and be just OK. Never mind that I had invested ten years of my life –all of the good, bad, ugly and naked with those women. As the lone wolf, I made light of those matters and felt like I could seek out a new pack.

I expected, or initially hoped that my call for friend-divorce would be met with a courteous OK and consent to my ridiculous and selfish wishes. Allison, whose wedding was just two weeks away, and who had more than enough on her plate without a bratty email, responded immediately. She did not, in any way, wish for our friendship to end. She even agreed with some of my claims, understood my issues with the drinking and the boy nonsense, but assured me that friendships do evolve and sometimes do even stagger and slip but it didn’t mean the divorce papers need to be served. Same with Brittany. She acknowledged my issues and even shared some of her sentiments towards our entire group’s MOD. Claire, being Claire, laughed in the way good friends do, knowing that I was throwing a temper tantrum and she knew deep down in her heart that I didn’t want to end our relationship. Colleen was hurt, rightfully so. Her silence was the tipping point. I was about to give it all up. My friends. My friends since I was 18 and bald and usually naked.

In the months since, I’ve tried my best to reunite with my friends, rekindle our relationship through silly emails, late night texts, and many tearful phone calls, apologizing profusely. It is not, in any way, juvenile to maintain a friendship for many years. I was callously wrong.

In the  course of my life, I’ve chosen mountains and rivers over people, especially female friends. It is a landscape of loneliness where I tend to dwell no matter how proudly I howl at the moon. The mountains do provide me with an intimate relationship that is difficult to articulate and incomparable to  human companionship. But just because I’ve fallen in love with the mountains does not mean that I can isolate myself from other humans, especially women, especially those who’ve I know so well for years. My girlfriends know I need the mountains, are sympathetic when I issue large blanket statements about the concerns I have for our relationship, and ultimately and unbelievably, welcome me back into their pack with only slight snarl or yip.

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