John Leavitt’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Everyone has that one friend, the one you meet in college before you’re better at choosing friends. The one friend who’s simultaneously fun and exciting and overwhelming and unreliable. Jen is my flaky friend.
We met freshman year in a class about museum history. I wanted to talk to her after class about her comments on the design changes caused by the 1954 American Museum heist. We hit it off right away. When she suggested we should get a drink and keep talking, I admitted I didn’t have a fake ID yet. She opened her bag and confessed her diet soda bottle was full of rum and coke. We settled onto the quad with paper water fountain cups and talked for hours. I thought she was the coolest person ever.
My friends were sweater-bound English majors and STEM lifers, strictly indoor children. Jen was bright and outdoorsy, everyone’s friend. You felt like you could tell her anything. Plus, she was a rock climber! She studied art history! She jogged at midnight! She was on a gymnastics scholarship! Jen wore black McQueen heels while I was still being weaned off Crocs. She started a game called “Bet You I Can’t” where we’d walk around campus and I’d bet she couldn’t scale certain trees or get to second-story ledges in those pumps. Jen never lost a bet and never got caught.
Jen didn’t talk about herself much, just told me that she was from Iowa but her family spent a lot of time overseas. Mostly, she was just a really good listener, always asking questions and wanting to know more about you — where did you grow up? What are your parents like? Did they get each other anniversary gifts? Did they use a top-tier security system or own dogs? Stuff like that. I swear by the end of the semester she knew just about everyone on campus.
Just being near Jen meant you got dragged into her random schemes. She’d go to parties and insist her name was “Natalie from Legal.” You’d call her and a Hungarian guy would pick up. She’d forward her mail to your address and your box would be full of old issues of Sensor Plate News magazine or packages addressed to “La Contessa.” Because we’re about the same height and weight, Jen always roped me into going grappling hook and climbing supply shopping with her to “test the counterweights.” She got “freebies” from her “job” and was happy to share her designer scarves and sunglasses. She was the person to call when you locked yourself out at 3:00 am. Hell, half the time she was already nearby!
Once she wore an eyepatch for a month. Never explained why. Classic Jen.
She was a good friend, but her friendship was always a one-way street. She’d call you on the phone, or send you an email, or slip a letter into your shopping bag without you noticing. Inviting her places was a crapshoot; either she wouldn’t show or she would crawl in through the window hours after everybody else had left. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from her for weeks, and then bam! She’d call me out of the blue to say I’ve got two tickets to the summer opening of the MoMa, do you wanna go? I’d always say yes, partly for the free stuff, and partly to hear her say You’re such a good friend.
But the flakiness didn’t stop when we got the shows. Most of the time Jen would vanish after an hour, leaving me to fill up on free champagne and mini tarts alone. I didn’t think it was rude at first, I thought it was fun. Jen was fun. One time at the Met Opera, she left during the break and I didn’t see her until final curtain, carrying a completely different purse. “I swapped with someone in the bathroom!” she said. It was just one of those Jen things, like her constant hair color changes, her habit of never sitting with her back to the door, her asymmetrical dangling earrings, and her irrational hatred of the Swiss.
The cracks in our relationship started when she went overseas for an art history program. She got completely furious at me when I threw out a postcard she sent me from Paris. I didn’t understand; what’s the big deal about an upside-down stamp, anyway? She didn’t speak to me for days after that, but then she called saying she had a week in Florence with an empty apartment and wanted to fly me out to visit. I nearly dropped the phone! A random trip to Italy? That only happened in movies. I made excuses and cancelled everything, I had to go.
We had a great time. Jen only had to work at night, something about “the prints being damaged by sunlight,” so we had five full days together. She planned everything beforehand: we would make the most of our time here and see every church, reliquary, museum, palace or otherwise historically interesting bank vault in town. She was so devoted to her history work, she could spend hours staring at a castle’s battlements or trying to figure out how the tunnels under the convent fit together. One time I got to meet Jen, her fellow art history students and their adviser for cocktails at the Mayday bar. They were all quite European and chic, with names like Vivienne and Cyril St. John, and they addressed their adviser as “The Signore” all night. They all spoke English, but it was shop talk, and I couldn’t follow a word — all gas-spectrometer this and cabochon that. I was happy to soak up the Florentine vibe while Jen posted a ton of time-stamped pictures of us.
It was flaky, but it was friendship.
But even friendship has limits. The last straw was two weeks ago. We were in Manhattan, window-shopping at Tiffany’s. Jen was in her usual form, commenting on the displays and the history of shatterproof glass and how long of a rope length you’d need to get on the roof. The only unusual thing about it was that she’d recently cut and colored her hair more like mine. I hoped it meant I was rubbing off on her a bit. Then she took a phone call.
“He-e-e-ey buddy,” she said to me as she hung up, her smile not quite reaching her eyes.
“What is it this time?” I asked.
“I’ve got to run out of town for a few days, my grandmother’s cow died. Can you feed my cat? Like right now? Today?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Thanks! You’re a true friend.” She handed me a spare key. “Not like those treacherous Swiss. I’ll text you the address!” Within ten seconds she gave me a hug and was off in a taxi. I took the subway to her place.
Two things became instantly apparent when I got to the apartment. One was the reason why Jen never invited us struggling students over. The place was a massive, glass-enclosed full-floor apartment in a converted Brooklyn warehouse space; I’ve been in smaller gyms. Second, the place was completely empty. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the shelves, no bottles in the dedicated bar island area. Only the deep-pile white rug with the red wine stain suggested it wasn’t set up for a realtor walkthrough.
I found her little black cat sleeping on a copy of Laser Enthusiast Monthly outside the closed door to what I assumed was one of the bedrooms. I was about to open the door when I heard two Russian guys arguing from the other side. I got so mad! The nerve of her not telling me she was planning to move, or that there was already someone there to feed the cat. Forget never inviting me over to her freakin’ palace on Myrtle Ave., I dropped everything to do this!
That was it. I left right away. I’m done doing things for her, I don’t care how many galas she invites me to. There are such things as boundaries, and she’s got to learn that. I didn’t even tell her that she left a drawer full of black turtlenecks behind. Let her neck freeze for all I care.
John Leavitt is a cartoonist, writer, director, and illustrator, His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in: The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, The New York Press, The Common Review, The Journal Of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He has worked with Molly Crabapple to produce posters for The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others.