Illustration by Cynthia Merhej.

Illustration by Cynthia Merhej.

I made my first friend when I was four years old. I’d just started attending preschool, and I was shy and timid. I hated approaching people first, which made it a little difficult to make friends. I had a lonely first few weeks there until I crossed paths with her. It was a long time ago, but even now I remember being drawn to her: She was sunny and blond, loud and outspoken and adventurous, everything I was not. Her name was Julianne.*

I don’t remember precisely how we became friends (it might have had something to do with bonding over favorite crayons during coloring time), and I don’t really know why she, popular and gregarious as she was, decided to be friends with a total shrinking violet like me. But, regardless of the why or the how, I quickly came to call her my best friend, the person who might as well have been my sister. Our moms became great friends, too, which meant we could spend tons of time together since it was fun for our parents. Eventually, we exchanged the ironclad symbol of forever friendship—glittery matching cord bracelets—and I was over the moon when we began attending the same elementary school a couple of years later.

We hung out at recess three times a day, skipping rope and playing pretend, and slept over at each other’s houses every weekend we could. We leaped off porches into inflatable backyard pools in the summer, and traipsed through snowdrifts to gigantic hills for sledding in the winter. We shared closets, messed around with makeup in her full-length mirror, and slid down the banisters at her house when nobody was watching. We were always different—she a daring risk-taker and I a cautious worrywart—but we were steady friends all the way through fourth grade all the same. At nine years old, we’d been friends for more than half our lives, and I thought we’d stay friends forever.

When Julianne’s dad got a new job in Nova Scotia, it shook me. Outwardly, I was happy for her—her family, and even Jules herself, seemed excited about the move—but internally I was devastated that my oldest friend would be moving literally across the entire country. I tamped those feelings down, and told myself that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe we could keep it together with emails! Ridiculously high long-distance phone charges couldn’t sever our bond, could they? A sisterhood as deeply rooted as ours couldn’t be defeated by distance alone. We’d continue to feel as close, be as involved with each other’s lives, and have that same intrinsic understanding of each other as always. I simply couldn’t picture life without her—she’d been there from the start.

I had school the day Julianne left for her new home. I stood in the middle of the field during recess that day and stared up at the sky as she zoomed 3,000 miles away. I felt heavy, but hopeful. Even as she flew farther and farther from me, I convinced myself that things would stay the same, just with a few additional miles. And for a while, we were together like always: We wrote each other emails via our moms since neither of us could type, and I got semi-regular updates about her life, her new school, her new neighborhood. I was in the loop the same I way I would have been had she been right beside me.

Slowly, distance changed the dynamic of our relationship. Time zone differences meant she got ready for bed while I was eating dinner, and gradually, naturally, new friends and new adventures gently started pushing us apart. Every time I received some news about all the cool sights and sounds she was encountering in her new home, I felt a twinge of jealousy quickly followed by guilt—I knew I should be happy that my friend was settling in so quickly and easily, even if I wasn’t there to experience it with her. I wanted to feel wholeheartedly elated for her, but I wasn’t. Her new life was full of block parties, barbecues, and beaches that made mine seem lackluster. It seemed that while I was pining for my BFF, she was blazing ahead onto new adventures. New places and the people she met there began absorbing more of her time, and her emails became shorter and less frequent.

After a year or so, I learned more about her life from Facebook updates and conversations between our moms (who maintained their close friendship) than I did from Jules herself. In daily life she hardly ever crossed my mind, although there were still hints of her. I’d occasionally compare my new buddies with Jules, asking myself what she would do if she were still by my side, or what she would say in conversations I was having—an unintentional response to having spent my formative years in her company. This reflex also nurtured my ongoing relationship with a treasured, idealized version of Jules that existed in my head, while my contact with the real Jules continued to fade. We still wished each other happy birthday, but the super-close friendship we’d had—when it seemed like we were always on the same page, as if I could figure out exactly what she was thinking at any given moment—had pretty much dissolved. Occasionally I would entertain the idea of seeing her again; if we ever reconnected, surely the spark would reignite and we’d be insta-besties like we were when we were kids! But I hadn’t seen or heard from her directly in so long that I dismissed it as an actual possibility.

Then things were scrambled again, just like they’d been back in fourth grade, and Julianne’s family, who had moved around regularly since leaving for Nova Scotia, was returning to my hometown—and this time, it looked like they’d be staying for good. My mom was elated (one of her best friends was returning!) but I felt uncertain. For all my fantasies of how happy I’d be to see Jules again, I hadn’t actually considered really getting to re-know her. It was bizarre to think that she might be coming back into my life, that she was a real, flesh-and-blood person I might be able to interact with. Our separation had turned the reality of her into a hazy memory, the afterimage of my nostalgic first best friendship, and I wasn’t so sure I really wanted to see her again for fear of shattering that perfect picture. I was a little relieved when my mom mentioned offhandedly that since Julianne was attending university in Ontario she wouldn’t be coming back with her family, and she didn’t know if or when she’d be visiting. I could hang onto the dream that we’d click at first sight a little longer.

Julianne ended up visiting last Christmas, a few months after her family moved. Our moms were super excited in the days leading up to her arrival. They’d planned a lunch at Cactus Club, saying it would be fun to have all four of us together like old times, and invited one of our mutual preschool friends and her mom along, too, in the spirit of the reunion. In the giddy anticipation all around me I felt guilty that I wasn’t exactly feeling the same vibes. But right up until the moment I laid eyes on Jules, I held out hope that our inside jokes, our mutual favorite activities and books and movies, our pseudo-mind reading abilities, our effortless banter—everything would be the way I remembered it, frozen in a decade-old mental time capsule.

I pushed open the glass door of the Cactus Club and, as I walked to the booth where my mom said we’d be sitting, I finally saw Jules, now over six feet tall and towering over my five-foot-three frame, but just as exuberant, blond, and blue-eyed as ever. She reached out her arms to hug me, and I obliged awkwardly (partially because of the height difference and because of my general dislike of hugs). I slid into the booth beside her, figuring that it’d be easier to speak if I didn’t have to stare directly at her the whole time. But despite my cautionary measures, something was off. Our conversation didn’t flow, it was stiff and forced, at least on my part.

“So, what’ve you been up to?” she smiled, sipping her passion fruit bellini and tapping away at a text with one manicured thumb.

“Ummm…well…you know, university’s been…uh, you know…busy…and…uh, and, and stuff.” I scrunched into my hoodie as far as I could, inching my beanie lower down my forehead.

“Cool, yeah, I’m doing a geography major. ’Cause, like, why not, right?” she giggled. She was so glamorous and confident and sure of herself. I wanted nothing more than to run away.

I’d never been very good at striking up small talk on the spot, and the added internal pressure to reconnect with my childhood soul sister, heightened by our mothers’ unstated but rather heavily implied hopes that their daughters would continue to be great friends like they were, wasn’t helping at all. I recalled us being so in sync before she moved away—we’d been huge fans of The PowerPuff Girls, and always agreed on how to spend time outside school. But now the TV shows we enjoyed, what we liked to do in our free time, our attitudes toward school were polar opposites. She loved The Vampire Diaries, while I preferred Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She revelled in going out, and proposed that we drink vodka and hit up a nightclub while she was in town. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that nothing made me more uncomfortable than a crowded dance floor combined with the pressure to get drunk. She was into the fun and parties that school offered, while I felt like a square when I admitted how many hours I spent studying. It seemed like no matter what we talked about, we just weren’t clicking the way I’d expected. In fact, the longer we spoke, the more I wanted to squirm away and escape. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be! my brain screamed. This can’t be Jules! She resembled my bestie of yore, but everything else about her was entirely unfamiliar.

By the end of the lunch, I’d had to face the reality that the stranger sitting across from me definitely wasn’t the best friend I’d built up in my mental narrative. We couldn’t connect like we used to, and there wasn’t much I could do to change that; I couldn’t just turn back the clock and transform her into the person I remembered from my past. Our new disconnect wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was the irreversible effect of time and circumstance. We’d diverged from one another and formed separate lives, and, in our case, the literal and figurative distance that had split us from one another for so long couldn’t be overcome by a simple 45-minute reunion.

On the drive home from the restaurant, I admitted to my mom that I wasn’t feeling the kinship I had hoped for with Jules. I told her I was ashamed that I’d held onto this far-fetched dream, and while it broke my heart a little, that there was a very real chance that the changes that we’d undergone during the time we’d spent apart would prove insurmountable, at least at the moment. It embarrassed me to confess that my rose-coloured glasses had made me think that everything might have just stayed the same between us. My mom told me that it natural to feel the way I did; even though I hadn’t seen Julianne for a long time, she clearly still meant a lot to me, and it was normal to feel sad after letting someone important go. Her advice didn’t reverse my feelings, but at least I knew I wasn’t being completely irrational, which made coping with the thought of releasing my expectations of Jules so much easier.

Jules and I may not be the partners in crime we once were, but I’ll always be able to think back to when the stranger across from me at that Cactus Club lunch was my soul sister, my best friend, my whole wide world. She taught me how to speak up when I was a shy preschooler, and how not to let fear stop me from taking on challenges. She dived right into new opportunities even as a young child, and through her actions encouraged me to do the same, even when I hesitated. Her boldness brought out mine, and I see that now when it comes time for me to give a presentation, read a speech, or raise my hand in a lecture hall of hundreds of students. At that last meeting, she gave me my biggest lesson yet: on cherishing the past while learning to accept the present, without expectations. ♦

*Names have been changed.