The calm after the temper tantrum

Something familiar from childhood that I had forgotten, the soothing reassurances by my parents after a particularly savage parental attack.  Once you were upset by their angry reaction to your needs they could comfort you, prove to you how crazily wrong you were to feel unloved.  

I completely forgot about this practice, a disorienting mindfuck I’d experienced so many times as a child, until I heard the recorded soothing tones of two old friends determined to do everything possible, except listen or compromise, to resolve the raging conflict between us.  They sounded so sympathetic and loving, until I told them they still were not letting me say what I needed them to hear.

I had what became a fatal falling out with old friends, who after a few increasingly stressful days in a rented house, were very upset that I’d said the f-word in anger.   My apology had to be considered, after all, what I had done was so brutal, so upsetting, so much worse than the distance, coldness and passive aggression I’d seen between my old friends, who it turns out are experts at covert warfare. They let me know that I was on notice, after I’d hurled a curse at the love of my life, that I’d be on trial and would now have to pass an ongoing test to see if I still deserved the friendship we’d always shared.

After months of silence, when one of my friends smilingly made a cutting remark (“homo”) to her husband (who winced), I told them I had a few things I needed to put on the table.  Fair is fair, it seemed obvious enough to me.  They’d both immediately had the audiences with me they’d demanded when they needed to speak.  In the first case I had to hear an apology that was later explained to me, more than once, as no admission of wrongdoing, but said only to calm me because, although I’d completely provoked the justified reaction, I was clearly so upset.  The other meeting began with a direct threat “I have walked away from friendships for less than what you did to me.”   

I recognize now that both of these things are characteristic of people who can’t be wrong and who can’t, therefore, honestly accept their role in, or help to resolve, a conflict.  It matters not how otherwise easily the conflict might be resolved, the point is: if there is a conflict, we cannot be in any part responsible for that.

They left hastily, as though in shock (“I was shocked,” my friend later explained), after I mentioned there were things I needed to talk about, after a few months of silence.  I followed up with an email, explaining my purpose, and had the response that they’d be happy to hear what I had to say, once there was less stress in their lives, once the Omicron variant of Covid was under control, once there were no more family emergencies to deal with.  

Three months later I wrote a short peacemaking letter I never heard back about.  After a holiday visit where my old friend avoided eye contact with me (I did get one last laugh out of her, eventually) I told my friend that I used to think of him as a person of integrity, but that I no longer did, and that I now understood that when I speak to him I’m not talking to the boss.

This worked as well as his wife stinging him with a tossed off “homo”.  Within a few days he had dragged his reluctant wife downtown and we were sitting down so that I could say what I needed to say, and they could listen, and we could all finally move on.  It did not go well.  

Whatever I had to say, no matter how mildly I tried to phrase it,  had an instantly inflaming effect.  My old friend did an uncanny impression of a furious, eye rolling, tooth sucking, arm crossing, hissing, head shaking, back turning, cell phone pounding teenager’s tantrum.  I somehow held myself back from responding in kind, though her fucking tantrum, not letting me finish a sentence, was very upsetting.

All this time my phone, with their acknowledgment, was recording, so that I could listen to it back and make sure I’d said everything I needed to say in the clearest possible way.  In hindsight I understand that needing to document the talk shows that I already no longer trusted them to be fair or honest when it came to any role they might have played in our difficult conflict.   

Eventually she told me to turn off the recorder, it was clearly making her feel very defensive.  I tapped it off, put it in my pocket and the conversation eventually took on a calmer, more mutual tone, though nothing I said could actually be acknowledged.  Hours later, when I went to use the phone, I saw that there was an eight hour recording in progress still going on.  The file was 500 MB.

When I realized this I tried to edit the sound file, get rid of the five hours of pocket noise at the end of our conversation.  It proved impossible to do, I’m not sure why.  The few seconds I did hear, my angry friend cutting me off, instantly raised my blood pressure.  The part I wanted to save was two things she said after she finally calmed down.  

Both friends had angrily denied over and over that there had been any pressure or tension in that vacation house until I, for no reason except my irrational orneriness, exploded in anger.   When she was calm after her tantrum my old friend said “there was a lot of tension” and she explained one factor, admitting that she’d been micromanaging everything in an effort to make things perfect for her husband, the sixty-five year-old birthday boy.

As for any tension between them that I might have found alarming, she said, I hadn’t seen anything to write home about.  She then described how when they are really angry at each other they sometimes go days without talking to each other.  I remember her mentioning five days, sometimes a week, though nobody else recalls that number.  I’d like to hear her statement again, just to clarify that I’d heard what I recall hearing.

All this is academic, however.  A friendship, once attacked a few times with an ax, cannot be resumed as though no deadly force had ever come into play.  I have written about this, at every stage of my long agonizing try to save the biting zombie of a once beautiful friendship that I was carrying on my back, in unbearable detail, and it is not my intention to delve any further into the decomposing rot of it all here.  

Trying to free up space on my stuffed, doddering phone the other day, I saw the large sound file and tried again to upload it to my computer so I could delete it from the phone.  This operation proved impossible to do and after several attempts I knew it was a job for Sekhnet, a technological problem solver with infinite patience.  At one point, trying blindly to find the two quotes I mentioned above, I tapped in at around the two hour mark.

“What is it that you think we’re not hearing?”  I heard my once close friend ask me with the soothing tone of a kindergarten teacher speaking to an upset child in the schoolyard.  “I think we know exactly why you were upset, what do you feel we are not hearing?”

My other friend, done with her temper tantrum, came in with the same slow, calm, sympathetic, perfectly reasonable cadence.

For a moment I found myself wondering how I’d missed this conciliatory, loving part of an otherwise frustrating talk.  Had I been so upset I couldn’t hear them?  Sekhnet, at the time, had said as much to me.

This thought lasted only as long as it took for me to reply on the recording, and for them to shut me down again.   The feeling I was left with was long forgotten, but as instantly, elementally familiar as the memory of that time, at eight, that I stepped on a board with a rusty nail sticking up out of it and it went deep into the sole of my foot.

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