No News Was Bad News

When friends drift apart, sometimes they get swept away

I got a letter in the mail two days ago. It had a handwritten address and a return address that I didn’t recognize, and just by looking at it, I knew it meant trouble. Who writes actual letters anymore?

Sure enough, it was from an old friend I’ll call “Jean”—someone Doug and I were close to when we were younger. We used to sit around and drink wine and talk about politics and literature and stuff like that with Jean and her husband, Jim, in their backyard city garden or in ours. We had kids at the same time, and moved to different suburbs at the same time, and visited each other there in our “real” houses, with decks and barbecue grills and lawns, until Jean and Jim moved to another state. We only saw them once after that, but we kept exchanging Christmas cards—you know how that goes—and talking about how we’d have to get together someday real soon. We got an invite to a party when Jean and Jim’s eldest graduated from high school, but we didn’t go. Then we all stopped sending Christmas cards, and that was that.

Jean started her letter by explaining that she and Jim were getting a divorce. He’d never been the same after he lost his job a few years back; he’d tried a couple different things to make money, but nothing worked out. He’d put all their savings—and they were the only people we knew who actually had savings; they’d made big bucks in real estate—into a Ponzi scheme; they’d gone bankrupt and lost their home to foreclosure. Jim had ruined not just his credit rating and Jean’s, but their son’s, too. Jean moved out late last year, found a place to rent and was fixing it up, hoping to get her credit back in order and maybe buy it someday. The son was done college and was living with her, trying to salvage his credit and earn enough to move out; the daughter was still in college. “Thank God,” Jean wrote, “for financial aid.” She wrote about the online porn sites Jim visited obsessively, and the Facebook affair he was having. She wrote that she has been embarrassed, ashamed, confused and angry. There was more, but you get the drift.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Jean since I got her letter. It seems so crazy. Even when we fell out of touch with each other, I didn’t worry about her. I had confidence that the life she and Jim were leading was running along on tracks parallel to my husband’s and mine—uphill a lot, sure, and with some hard turns, but moving on, moving ahead in the usual way. They’d been our neighbors; they were salt-of-the-earth people, from the Midwest, for God’s sake. Jim wasn’t the type of guy who’d buy into Ponzi schemes and get obsessed with online porn and gut the financial future of his wife and kids. He was just like Doug. Jean was just like me.

I think that’s what’s so unsettling about finding out where they are now, and what Jean has been through. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. And maybe that’s why it does happen—because we all think it couldn’t, not to us. Nohow. No way.

“I should have paid more attention,” Jean wrote. It’s hard to tell what she meant—more attention to their sex life? Facebook? Their financial state? I do know that Doug and I have been a little kinder, a little gentler to each other, since the letter came.