Apr 1, 2021

The year I traveled and lived abroad, I got a serious throat infection every time I underwent a dramatic climate change—in Canada, then Spain, then England. In Spain I realized I was coming down with tonsillitis one day when I swallowed and felt a twinge in the exact location I knew my left tonsil to be. Rosi, the senora of the residencia, took me to the doctor in a cab. When he asked me if I had a fever and I said not that I knew of, he smiled at me with indulgent condescension, he was so sure I’d misdiagnosed myself. After he examined my throat, however, he looked both startled and sheepish to discover I DID have a spot of pus on my tonsil.

After the school year ended, Dale and I hitchhiked to England to meet up with Britte, the three of us planning to travel around Europe together. In the wee hours of the morning in a hostel on the outskirts of Stratford-on-Avon, I realized I was coming down with yet another throat infection—and by dawn I was running a high fever. I asked the director if I could spend the day in bed, but she said no, they closed down during the day. So Britte and Dale left me off in the lobby of a hotel and went to look around the town. By the time they came back for me I was so racked with fever I started “convulsing” when I tried to walk across the street—my teeth grinding and muscles seizing. They installed me in a room in a cheaper hotel and went out sightseeing for the day. I was so out of it that it didn’t occur to me to ask to see a doctor; all I wanted was to curl up in a ball, instinctively, like a sick animal in its lair. Britte and Dale brought me food in the evening, then went back to the hostel, leaving me alone and untended during the night.

In the morning when they came by, Britte said she’d gotten the name of a clinic to take me to. I thought my fever had broken because I no longer felt hot but told her I felt so weak I wasn’t sure I could get up. When she acted annoyed, I forced myself—but as I tried to walk down the stairs, I was gripped by a sudden panic and realized I was about to pass out; I had to put my head between my legs until my head cleared. At the clinic they told Britte my temperature was 103 degrees and scolded her for getting me out of bed to bring me to a place where they couldn’t treat me, saying I had to see a private doctor. (If my fever was 103 when I didn’t even feel hot, what had it been the day before? I wondered.) I remember going to the doctor alone later that day and asking him to please give me a SHOT.

For the next few days, Britte and Dale left me to convalesce by myself, bringing me food occasionally. Remembering how Britte had taken care of me the previous summer, I felt so abandoned that, still running a temperature, I bought a loaf of nut bread at a little grocery and went and sat by the river in the rain, where I sobbed without restraint. But I was so ashamed of my “infirmity” and worried about being a burden that I didn’t complain. One evening I said I felt well enough to go out for an hour or two, but Britte told me she and Dale had standing-room-only tickets to a play and insisted it would be too arduous for me. The next day I said I thought I could manage an afternoon outing, but she told me they’d planned something for the whole day.

Britte had acted cold towards me from the moment Dale and I met her at the airport—not the reception I was expecting. I wondered then if she was angry at me because I’d fallen off writing letters home in the previous couple of months—as my time in Spain drew to a close, I’d wanted to make the most of every moment. My affection for her was as deep as ever, but I’d figured we’d be together soon and have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company in the future, sharing the apartment she’d recently rented in a brown-shingle duplex near the high school. Or could she be jealous of my relationship with Pete? I wondered.

Whatever the case, it seemed clear to me throughout my illness (which lasted only four days, thanks to the antibiotics) that Britte was captivated by Dale, that she was busy “courting” her, and I was an encumbrance. In Athens Dale met a man she went off sightseeing with, leaving Britte and me behind. Over coffee in an outdoor restaurant, I told Britte what I’d been feeling—that she no longer cared for me, that she seemed completely preoccupied with Dale. I waited for a response, but she didn’t have anything to say.

In subsequent weeks, I couldn’t forget how completely I’d allowed myself to trust her the previous summer. I’d been so sure of our friendship then I hadn’t doubted that we’d be together at one or the other’s deathbed. Actually, I was so stunned by this reversal that I couldn’t entirely take it in. And once again, despite my wonderful, liberating year in Spain, I began to sink inexorably into depression.

Though Britte wouldn’t share her feelings with me—she never had until that morning at Jim’s in New York—I tried to trust that things would get better between us. Ten months had passed, I’d changed—I thought maybe it was just a matter of catching up, making adjustments. What her reasons were I won’t try to guess, but we became roommates as we’d planned. Maybe our relationship had gathered so much momentum over the previous four years that neither of us was able to abruptly change course.

I remember strolling on campus one day and feeling numbed by the impersonality of it all—the fact that everyone was walking around in their own world, that people didn’t meet each other’s eye, smile, acknowledge each other, that there was no human contact or connection.

I dreaded going back to school again and decided to postpone it. I borrowed Will Durant’s History of Civilization from my uncle Rob, instead, and started reading, but as my depression deepened, the excitement I’d felt about learning in Spain subsided, until one day I closed the book and never opened it again.

Looking back on it, I know my depression had to do with the staggering losses I was experiencing: the loss of a place I’d loved and felt deeply attached to, of the people there—my Spanish and American friends—of a way of life that had allowed me to bloom, and, most of all, of the feeling that I was loved and cherished by Britte that had been the foundation for it all.

I called the student hospital, hoping to resume therapy with Dr. Camarer, but was told he no longer worked there. When I mentioned this to Britte, she exclaimed, “You didn’t know? He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge!”—which left me dumfounded. I remembered how I’d intended to write him in Spain—to thank him for his help and tell him how happy I was. I even found myself wondering if that would have made a difference…if I could have saved his life.

For the first couple of months back in Berkeley, I had trouble functioning, so I was relieved when I found my energy returning and was able to do more. But my improvement didn’t improve my relationship with Britte. One day she yelled at me that she’d given me everything and sometimes she didn’t think I was worth it. It was all I could do to hang in there, trying to hold on to the faith that this was merely a difficult passage and we’d come through it. Then one day she exploded, smashing a glass table top with her fist and screaming that she felt like killing someone. I was so frightened by her behavior that I moved out—and took refuge briefly in my mother’s house, since I didn’t know where else to go.

Britte’s outburst marked the end of our friendship; she went into therapy briefly with a colleague of my mother’s, and on the few occasions I talked to her after this, she was hostile and distant. At the end of the school year a few months later, she went to France, where she would live for a number of years. So it was a very long time before I learned what the demise of our friendship was really all about. Though Britte could imagine that she’d given me “everything,” she continued to deny me the one and only thing that would have made all the difference: the truth.