How to Break Even
by Kristen Millares Young
I lost my best friend a few years ago.
It was unexpected.
I know what you’re thinking.
No, she didn’t die, but our friendship did.
I thought we would become old in each other’s company.
We used to talk about it.
Things I know about my ex-best friend:
- She has a wonderful, loud and witchy laugh.
- She writes beautiful sentences.
- She is obsessed with her hair.
- She becomes expert through many attempts.
- She showed me how to be an artist.
When I first told her my biggest secret, she was angry.
Not at the ways I had been hurt, though she sympathized.
Six years, she said. Kristen, we’ve been friends for six years.
I don’t tell anyone, I said. I never have.
(I am not going to reveal it here.)
She looked at me, hard, on a dark porch by the Pacific.
Maybe you can hear the waves. Can you hear our silence?
You have a vault inside of you, she said.
The official dissolution of our friendship would require four more years.
I’ve convinced myself it had nothing to do with the scene above.
I am still not sure why.
What I do know: I take up a lot of space, and she likes to dominate the rooms she occupies.
We lived in different cities.
That helped for a while.
We pretended things were fine.
We saw each other for professional reasons.
Once you’ve been true confidantes, acquaintanceship strains the heart.
The particulars are not important.
I don’t need to convince you that she treated me badly toward the end.
(Though part of me wants to do just that.)
What is important is that, after, we could not agree on what happened.
I felt I had been wronged.
No amount of her logical repositioning could shake that feeling.
Once we could no longer agree on a shared narrative, there was no point to our friendship.
I told myself I’d rather walk away than ruin her idea of herself.
I’m not sure that’s true.
Self-deception is hard to track down.
Things I do not know about my ex best friend:
- When, exactly, she started resenting the space I took up in her life.
- How I made her feel.
- How long she went without saying something.
- What she was thinking when we were together.
A year before, I knew our friendship would fail. I spoke this truth out loud to my husband.
I bring forth hard insights in speech so my psyche will not bury them.
I was in the middle of a #MeToo moment.
A man, my former academic mentor, tried to rape my work.
I had written my very first essay for his class.
At the time, this same friend warned me.
He wants students to bare their souls, she said, but his workshop is not safe.
I had worked in a newsroom for five years, confronting corporations and government corruption.
What was one more white man?
I had seen plenty.
Naïveté takes many guises.
Age has since stolen my arrogance.
Eight years after I was his student, my professor emailed me to
ask for demand permission to use part of the essay I submitted to get credit for his class. He wanted my writing for his memoir.
The catch: he wrote that I probably wouldn’t want the excerpt to be attributed to me.
How could that be?
They were my words.
I am proud of my work, even when others don’t see its value.
In the years between his workshop and that email, I tried and failed to get my debut novel published.
I had been saving that grad school essay, you see, saving it for publication at the same time of my debut, when its concerns about revealing the self while transgressing fictional boundaries would make sense.
When I read his version of my words in his manuscript, I felt violated.
There is no other word for it.
Within my original essay, each sentence in question was parceled out over ten pages in which I interrogated my relationship to my own work as a writer of fiction.
The draft essay I submitted to his workshop was my first foray into the first person.
Trained within the “objective” third person of journalism, I had written nearly 700 stories read by hundreds of thousands of people. Court cases and federal investigations hinged on my reporting.
I took risks in my draft. Only nine writers would read it.
Our professor copied, pasted and combined sections of my essay into his memoir, where it formed the postscript in a degrading letter to his wife.
(They have since divorced.)
More to the point, he manipulated the meaning of my ideas by revising them into the second person, among other distortions.
This professor would later become my thesis committee chair against my stated wishes.
He wanted it to appear as though my thoughts were aimed at him.
“I’ve been told” became “You wrote.” “The reader behind me” became “you behind me.”
And so on.
Please note that my omniscience did not protect me.
P.S. from grad student on the last page of her essay:
You wrote that my work is best when most revealed, by which you meant, I think, that my work is best when I state explicitly what I’m trying to do. Your appraisal, at the time, lodged an image in my mind that I’ve been unable to wipe clean: myself, bent over the bed, legs splayed, and you behind me, nose to my cunt to check its smell. What bothered me most about this image was my own anxious face, tipped back over my shoulder to check your expression for disgust (I should have been watching your hands). Stating explicitly what I’m trying to do is easy for me; it’s the milieu of the unsubtle, the indiscreet, by which I mean the journalist, the pornographer. I’m beginning to suspect that the most interesting passages of this collage are personal: the smell of my cunt put to words. This maddens me. It makes me glum. I cannot seem to close my legs.
I know. Dangerous, right? But powerful.
Second person is so immediate.
(I’ll give him that and nothing else.)
I cut that thread from my final essay, which became the critical thesis I was required to submit to earn my degree.
Though the thief is well known, I have not told my story to the media.
I refuse for my byline to be associated with his name.
I have spent seventeen years building a body of work.
I will not allow his desecration to squat on my SEO.
Yes I am all business.
Freelancers must get tough or fall prey.
The narrative summary does not capture the truth of my feeling.
He asked me if he could use my work, and I said no.
If I went public, the jury would not be deliberating his character, but mine.
I’ve been a woman long enough to know that for a fact.
I fear what my peers are thinking. (Should have known better. Should have never written those words. Deserved whatever he did.)
I decline to put myself on a trial measured by column inches.
I probably won’t publish this essay, but I feel the need to finish it.
The meaning of my story depends on the particulars.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer, at first.
In his very first response to my refusal, he cancelled my moderation of his upcoming launch of a different book at a local art museum.
He had invited me to steward the Q&A a few weeks before he asked to use my writing.
When I first received the invitation – an honor, though unpaid – I told my father.
You know, Dad, I said, there’s going to be an ask. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s coming.
That man does nothing for free.
After I said no, the professor became hostile.
He kept asking if I was sure.
He forwarded emails he had sent to me hours before.
He demanded I delete his manuscript from my laptop.
In case you’re wondering if I have proof, his bullying and harassment transpired via email.
I replied that his book, and our exchange, would be preserved in perpetuity in my digital correspondence.
I, a Latinx writer with a Pulitzer in my bio, could not get my complex novel into print.
I therefore had no reason to release an essay about the thinking behind my debut.
He, a white professor who scavenges from unsuspecting students, dove like a gull for scraps of my unpublished draft.
It is everything that is wrong with academia. And publishing.
He would have beat me to readership of my own writing.
I alerted his agent to the situation.
I wanted assurance that his twisted version of my words was not in the final manuscript.
My invocation of a third-party observer prompted his apology, to which I never responded.
Which gives me the smallest measure of satisfaction.
Right at the beginning of what was, of course, a privileged crisis, putting nothing at stake but my mind, reputation and career, my best friend turned off her phone.
She knew I needed to talk to her.
In the middle of writing a book, she didn’t want to be relied upon.
She needed to occupy the center of her own mind.
I can understand that.
In an email, she gave the best advice I could have received, which was to say no to him.
Which I did.
And then it was over.
More or less.
I am not a victim in these circumstances.
I have agency.
I had asked a lot from her, in some ways.
She was the repository for my greatest secret, the one I will not share with you.
That’s not an easy thing to carry.
I know it has been hard for me.
Sometimes, during dinners with other literary people, I would start to unlock the vault.
I take up space, like I told you.
The year before, at a dinner with her and some editors, I spoke of my undergraduate thesis research adviser, whom Harvard allowed to retire once the Chronicle of Higher Education daylighted complaints dating to the 80s and sustained by the EEOC.
He harassed women with a relentless focus, though he had stayed on the level with me.
I had been so proud to be affiliated with him, the foremost scholar about Cuba, land of my people.
He was the best, and that’s why I studied under him.
The language of academia undermines emergent scholars.
During this conversation, I took center stage for long swaths of time.
We took turns as women do.
I paid the bill in thanks for their listening.
I wanted to make myself feel better with generosity.
It had been a rough day for reasons I won’t get into now.
I didn’t know, then, what would happen later. What had already happened, in truth.
For graduate school, I also chose a mentor I thought was best.
At least, he was the most prolific and well known of the faculty I could access.
Though his ideas seemed dangerous, I admired that he took on the establishment.
(Not realizing, of course, that he was the establishment.)
He would take from me freely, as he had done to others.
At that dinner, the camaraderie of bookish people — who also believe in literature as a portal for social progress — made me feel safe.
That, and her presence.
She was my best friend, and I asked her, for that half hour, to listen to a story she already knew.
I repeated that very same mistake several years later, once the situation with my grad school thesis chair became known to me.
Each of these men was my main tether to institutions I had worked all my life to access.
Their betrayals were implosions in my reference network.
As my undergraduate and graduate thesis chairs, their names had been on my resumé.
They wrote me rec letters whose presence in my trajectory makes me feel soiled.
I had to create a whole new landscape to fill the craters they left behind.
I build community with story.
It’s what I do for a living.
At yet another dinner, attended by my ex-friend and two other beloveds, I shared my tale of grad school woe.
You could say I was practicing.
A very famous author sat at the table.
After we finished our meals and many drinks, we all hugged.
You are a powerhouse, the famous author declared in lieu of goodbye.
He’d asked me if my grad school adviser and I had ever been intimate, or wished to be.
He is a eunuch to me, I said.
Anyone who learns this story will have that same question.
My answer is no.
They were riveted, my friend would later tell me.
It was a great storytelling moment, she said.
The harshness in her gaze felt like hatred.
She resented me.
She felt smothered by my story.
She did not want to perform the support of listening.
She did not want to be present for those conversations.
Did not want to be tainted by them, perhaps, the way one walks around scuzz on the sidewalk.
Nine years after we first met, my friend and I had a drink after a long day at a writing conference.
Things might have ended better if we had stopped at one.
That was not our way.
It was a big night for me.
I’d been on stage with writers I admire in front of hundreds upon hundreds of people.
As moderator, I had done my job – stepped out of the way so their brilliance could shine.
I didn’t expect my friend to be in the audience, though it would have been nice. But in that busy bar, when she and her partner asked how it went, I told them the truth.
I nailed it, I said.
I should mention that I dislike using the language of violence to describe accomplishment.
It’s a hard habit to break, excising “killed it” and “crushed it” from everyday parlance.
We kept drinking.
Later that night, in her hotel room, she said she didn’t want to have to support me in public.
She seemed to indicate I was asking for it.
Raised within the confines of a religion that shames women for their bodies, she was made uncomfortable by my erotic imagery.
Which, of course, was my writerly intention in that essay, to communicate my immense unease at revealing my personal thoughts, even here, now, with you.
But another thing was happening, too.
After years of public success – a big book deal following a national tour following regional celebrity – she was deep in the rut of production.
Every field must lie fallow to remain fertile.
My bleary star was on the rise at that conference, but she was having a bad day.
A joke she had told on stage fell flat, which made her paranoid throughout the rest of her reading.
The mic didn’t pick up the joke, but she didn’t know that at the time.
She needed to ruin something, and I showed up for a celebratory drink.
The next morning, hungover, I drove back to Seattle to host a birthday party for my son.
Just before it, out of habit, I checked my email and saw she had written to me at three in the morning, concretizing the things I had begged her not to say, since she was stumbling around.
We need to unfuse our lives, she told me.
We had only seen each other twice in the prior year, both times in preparation for the stage.
I need for us to be in a friendship where I don’t always have to support you, she disclosed.
I won’t tell you what I’ve done for her.
I watched her fall out with many women, and I always wondered what was wrong with them.
I will say she made me a better writer.
I’ve not shared the story of our disintegration until now.
These words worked their way out of me like shrapnel.
I’m still grateful that she helped me steady my resolve.
She counseled me to say no to him, though I was proud of the beauty of my prose.
Dammit, I had used a blurb from that man in my query letter.
“SUBDUCTION is a compelling, ambitious, and thought-provoking novel. The stakes are high: the characters exploit and betray each other in a desperate attempt to endure their lives. Kristen Millares Young investigates the nature of knowing with bristling intelligence.”
(I deleted that blurb from my materials, though it feels apropos.)
He was my mentor!
I spent tuition credits on the privilege of grading his undergrad papers as his intern, if you can believe it.
Academia is one long extraction.
I wanted to say yes.
I had fought hard to have sophisticated associations.
Now a teacher, I couldn’t be part of something whose lyric apex was work he stole from a student.
The funny thing is, I am not interested in him, nor what he tried to do to me.
Instead of directing my energies at toppling his stature, I became an official mentor for Hugo House, a literary nonprofit where I was in residence for two years, having applied when I was too devastated to do anything close to real writing.
I told the committee that “emerging writers, particularly women, need safe mentors,” but I did not tell them why I knew this to be true.
I enlisted Hugo House to create a Voices of Womxn salon – a literary gathering for us to bolster each other, rising like rhizomes. We are tired of feeding the trees that absorb the sun.
At the same time, I began reviewing books for the Washington Post.
I do what I consider to be the work of culture.
I want to bring more women into the canon.
I am weary of working with men.
I create opportunities for aesthetic and professional kinship among women, despite what I know us to be capable of doing to our closest companions.
I decided that if I ever made reference to this sorry episode, I would show how it cost me.
Not my career, but my friend.
Not because she tried to retain connection to the power he represented.
To her credit, she did not.
I think she told herself a story about why it happened to me.
That perhaps I deserved it by invoking sex in my writing.
I try not to be friends with Catholics.
The patriarchy crawls from their mouths at the most inopportune moments.
Women are taught to police each other so men aren’t held responsible.
I could tell you exactly what happened between me and my friend, but you would not understand.
I’m still not sure that I do.
For a long time, I could not make our stories line up.
We could not create a group of facts we both knew to be true.
Without a shared narrative, is friendship possible?
Months later, the writing conference distributed a picture of me and the other, better known writers on the big stage, where the jumbotron had repeated our laughter for all to see.
It had been a beautiful day.
My friend reached out.
Maybe what we had been feeling was growing pains, she suggested. Sometimes artists have to give each other room to become who they are going to be.
When I found it in myself to reply, I told her she had deeply dishonored the love and friendship I offered for nigh on a decade, but I would always support her and her writing publicly.
The next time we crossed paths in a conference room full of printers we both needed, she looked at me like she hated my guts.
There is no better term for it. She was seething. Livid.
I hadn’t seen that kind of gaze since high school.
More years have passed.
Part of me wants her in my life again. I have a thing for complicated women.
But my family has proven that we repeat our most grievous mistakes just when memory has subsided. I’d rather not be made to feel that way again.
I wonder what kind of woman I have shown myself to be, proud and unyielding, unable to bring a thing to its conclusion except with the force of my silence.
I’ve learned to need less from people. It is far easier to give.
The memory of her laughter, wild and high, darts through these blank spaces.
Stories don’t need to align if they are brought into juxtaposition.
(That much I’ll take from him and nothing more.)
A prize-winning journalist and essayist, Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel Subduction, named a staff pick by the Paris Review and called “whip-smart” by the Washington Post, a “brilliant debut” by the Seattle Times and “utterly unique and important” by Ms. Magazine. Published by Red Hen Press and shortlisted for a VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Subduction won silver Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book awards. Subduction was also a finalist for two International Latino Book Awards and Foreword Indies Book of the Year. Kristen is the editor of Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature, a 2021 finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her essays, book reviews and investigations appear most recently in the Washington Post, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, the Guardian, the Seattle Times, Seattle Met, Psychology Today, Hobart, Crosscut, Moss and Fiction International.
Photo: Diana Polekhina/Unsplash