If I could go back to one moment in time, I would go back to the summer of 1984. One moment changed the trajectory of my life. I have grieved so often for what I lost due to that decision.
When I was sixteen, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, my dad asked me to go for a ride with him one evening. I climbed on one of my colts and we rode through one of the neighboring ranches. We stopped on the top of a butte to rest the horses and he told me that he was offered a job – a transfer to Belgrade.
It meant leaving my friends and moving 300 miles away.
“If that’s what we need to do, then I guess that’s what we need to do.” I tried to be practical.
“No, you should have some say in your life. Do you want to go or stay?”
“Well, I don’t want to leave, but what’s the option?”
“I don’t know.”
We kicked around the idea of Mom and I staying in Miles City until I graduated. Or me staying there alone. Or staying with someone. But in the end, my folks didn’t want to leave me. And my dad didn’t want to leave his job.
So, I left behind a lifetime and moved to the Gallatin Valley.
I have thought a lot about how my life might have been different had I been more selfish and insisted on staying in my hometown. I know the emotional trauma I suffered from that upheaval would never have happened. I’m sure other things in my life would have affected me, but not to the degree that that had on me.
I left my friends. My school. My life. I know that sounds melodramatic – the emotional rantings of a teenaged girl. But at the time, I didn’t realize how untethered I would become. I was vested in my friends and my school. I had a solid life in Miles City. I had goals and expectations. I had a place and a role.
When we moved, that shifted. I suddenly was just a student in a sea of other faces. I wasn’t anybody special or talented. I didn’t have any people in my corner at school. I didn’t have people to lean on or confide in. My mom was consumed in her own situation: she didn’t seem to have the time or energy to help me deal with the loss of my ‘everything’. That was when I started internalizing my hurt and just got through as best I could.
Mostly, I didn’t have my best friend, M. We had become almost inseparable by the time I left. She was like a sister; she spent more nights at our house each week than she did at her own. I didn’t realize how my leaving would also affect her. And our friendship. I thought our relationship would weather anything. I was wrong.
At the time, I didn’t realize she was dealing with an abusive stepdad. I didn’t realize that she was coming apart emotionally. I didn’t know any of that until several years after we were out of high school. And only then did I find out her true feelings about my leaving.
She was angry and hurt that I left. She said and did a few things to ‘get back’ at me because she felt I abandoned her that summer. She felt lost. Like I didn’t care about her. Like I escaped and left her behind.
I was hurt that she didn’t seem to care how alone I was. How miserable I felt. And how much I needed her to still be on my side. She didn’t understand that I didn’t have the power to stay or the power to fix her situation. Now, of course, I see that my home and my parents were her safety zone. The place, with the people, where she could just be a teenager.
When our friendship imploded, I was broken-hearted. I confided some things in her that she then shared with my mom. I lost faith, not only in her, but in people in general. I cut myself off emotionally to anyone else. I didn’t forge any lasting friendships with anyone at my new school. I didn’t pursue any good romantic partners. I kept choosing guys that were wrong for me: slackers, too old, too immature. But at the time, I wasn’t aware of that.
Had I stayed in Mile City, I would have graduated at the top of my class with my childhood friends. I would have pursued something useful in college. I probably would have been part of the high school paper staff. And maybe gone to journalism school or do something else with writing.
I would have possibly gone to a horse school in either Texas, Colorado, or Wyoming. I wanted to do that, but my dad inadvertently talked me out of pursuing that dream. So, I stayed at home, again, and got a degree in sports medicine, which I have never used.
I would have avoided my ex-husband and not been tormented with emotional abuse for twenty plus years. I would have waited for the right person and not settled for someone who was coarse and loud and obnoxious. Because I know M would have told me that I was being stupid for giving him the time of day.
Mostly, I would have held fast to my best friend. She and I would have helped each other through the toughest challenges we faced together. That, more than anything, is what I grieve the most.
After I left, she started hanging out with the party crowd. She started drinking. Doing indiscriminate sex. I think she started doing some drugs. She got hepatitis. I’m not suggesting that I would have somehow prevented all of that from happening. She might have been on that path anyhow. But I do believe, had I stayed, she would have felt she had another option. I heard rumors from other friends, about how wild she got and how careless she was with herself.
Knowing what I do now, I think she was screaming out for help in the only way she knew. Once she was out of high school, she married a classmate right away, and they moved to Germany, where he was stationed. The marriage didn’t last long. And she was on to someone else. She tended to follow in her mother’s pattern of jumping from man to man, from bed to bed.
And there’s no judgment on my part. I didn’t live her life or survive what she did. From what I understand about sexual abuse survivors, her behavior is almost textbook. What I feel bad about is that I wasn’t aware of what was going on. And I will admit, I was pretty naïve in terms of the world. I didn’t date much. I didn’t flirt. I was the stereotypical ‘good girl’. But I think she needed that in her life. She needed the rules and limits that my parents placed on me, so that she could bounce up against those when she felt out of control. When she stayed with us, my parents were her excuse to say no if she got into a situation that was maybe too much for her.
And I needed her just as much, for the opposite reasons. I loved spending time with her, because she gave me the freedom to be silly and funny and daring. I experienced a side of myself and a side of life that wasn’t available to me while I was being that good girl. Nothing salacious. We didn’t drink or do drugs. But we cut loose. We drove around and sang at the tops of our lungs. We went out on a motorcycle. We went skinny dipping. Things that were still pretty innocuous, but for me, things that were bumping up against my boundaries. I felt free and confident with her.
I guess it boils down to: we brought out the best parts of each other. And together, we were almost invincible. It got to the point with our friends and classmates that if they saw one of us, they expected to see us both. I have never had that kind of friendship with another person. And more than a romantic relationship with a man, I crave that kind of friendship again with M.
Unfortunately, it took a medical challenge for us to put the past in the past. We are finally restoring the vibes and the easy relationship we had when we were teenagers. When my dad was flown to Denver following a massive stroke, M stepped right back into my life. She offered love and support. And that meant so much to me. I let go of all the hurt and resentment I had felt through the years. Maybe I just finally grew up enough to see that we were both at fault for the disintegration of our friendship.
We are planning a trip somewhere this fall. Don’t know where yet; it will depend a lot on what happens with the whole covid crap. We never did get that cross-country graduation trip that we had talked about during high school. Might have to do that at some point too.
I mourn for my interrupted life. It died, just as much as a person can. I became a different person, one I didn’t recognize or like.
I don’t blame my folks. They did what they thought was best at the time. And that’s all we can do. But if I could go back and change it I would. I know it wouldn’t have been ideal to be on my own at sixteen. But when I look at what I ultimately had to do, I was on my own. I lived with my grandparents for the last two years of high school, only going home on weekends. How would that have been different than my staying in Miles City?
One thing that made M really mad was that my mom wouldn’t consider letting me stay with her, with either of her parents. Mom had a pretty good idea, I think, that something was going on at those houses. But she didn’t know exactly what. She just didn’t want me part of that. She didn’t like the way M’s mom parented. She treated her daughter like a wing man for her and allowed her to do things that were beyond what a teenaged girl is mature enough to handle. And her dad was an enigma. We didn’t know him well, but Marnie’s brother lived with the dad. He was an alcoholic and drug addict, who had a severe anger issue. Still is, and he has spent most of his adult life in prison for drug-related crimes. So, I can’t blame my mom for saying no.
But I have to wonder who else might have allowed me to stay. Or at least checked in with me had I stayed on my own. I was mature enough at that time to be on my own. I could have gotten a small apartment, or we could have found someone for me to stay with. Ranch families did that every year when one of their kids had to start school in town. Something. Anything would have been better than the hell I went through.
And it didn’t stop when I graduated. The effects of that move have stayed with me throughout my life. I lost confidence in myself. I lost the drive I had to succeed. And I settled for a lot of things: the wrong man. The wrong major. The wrong plan for my life.
The entire trajectory of my life would have been so different had I stay where I had friends, support, and a good foundation to succeed.
It’s possible that M and I still would have gone different directions and ended up cutting our ties. But there is a part of me that thinks we would have weathered things. Maybe gone a couple of years between visits. But not twenty. I went back to the ten year reunion and she didn’t make it. I did see her a couple years after that, when we were traveling through Colorado. But we were each married to emotionally abusive men at the time, and we weren’t able to spend any time alone together. We both attended the twenty-year reunion, but she was hip-to-hip with her latest man, and again, we had no time together. Then it was fourteen years before we saw each other again. There have been a few instant messages and the yearly birthday greetings. But I want more.
We planned to go on a Caribbean trip for our fiftieth birthdays. But I had a cancer scare and simply couldn’t afford to go. I should have gone regardless. Which is why I’m so adamant about us going somewhere this fall together.
So, if I could go back, I would go back to that summer evening and beg my folks to let me stay put. And as it turned out, two years later, the company my dad worked for gave him the option of transferring out of state or taking severance pay. This after he had worked for them for thirty years. So, in the end, that move devastated not only my life but that of my parents as well. We just weren’t aware of that at the time.
I think maybe my folks would have chosen differently too, had they known what the ultimate outcome would be. If only we had the ability to look into the future and see which direction to take . . .