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On betrayal

My grandfather has long moved on from his Ocean City, NJ seashore house overlooking a lagoon, and the dock we used to swim off of, board his boat to go fishing from, and dump crabs from his crab trap onto and then scream, jumping to higher ground in an effort to protect our bare feet as they scurried in all directions. The house had two sides—one main living space, and a small apartment separated by a wall. When I was six my parents rented the main living space for a week, and we all—my brother, sister and I—packed our bathing suits eagerly for a beach holiday. During that same week, one of my older cousins was occupying the attached apartment with some of her high school friends. They were older, and they were cool. They drank beer and tagged “Run-DMC” on one of the apartment walls. I know because they invited me to hang out with them. I felt like the coolest, most special person on Earth that day.

The next day my cousin asked my parents’ permission to take me out to lunch with her boyfriend. The three of us walked down to a diner near the beach, and I was thrilled. They bought me a cheeseburger and asked me tons of questions. Then, on the way home we stopped on the boardwalk and they bought me a set of jelly bracelets that I put on right away so I could look like Madonna. To me, that was an amazing day.

“So when are you guys leaving?” They asked me over and over again. They wanted specifics—time, day, and any other circumstances I could share. I told them we were leaving the next afternoon, and thought nothing of it.

The next day was a Saturday. My mother was up early, cleaning and packing. She made sure we left the main house spotless for my grandfather, who would be arriving later that weekend. And with that, we said goodbye to my cousin and left.

On Sunday afternoon my grandfather pulled up to his seashore house, opened the door to the main living space, and found it completely trashed, filled with my cousin and her partying friends. He was livid. From that day forward he vowed never to allow any of us kids to use his home unsupervised. A beach week with friends was now entirely off limits.

That was my first experience with betrayal.

Over the course of my life I’ve experienced betrayal in different ways. Some small, some large. But always, I was left with the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as I felt when I learned about what my cousin had done to my grandfather’s shore house. It is the feeling that goes along with realizing that a special day for me was nothing more than an opportunity to pump me for information and align efforts to throw a summer high school party. It is the feeling of being used, and it hurts.

I have a theory that two people who deep down love each other but give up on each other don’t do it because they no longer care. They do it because one of them feels betrayed and the other can’t or won't fix the thing that spurred the betrayal. Sometimes betrayal is just too painful to work through. So we don’t. 

And then, sometimes having the courage to talk openly about the betrayal and our feelings with the other party brings us both closer together. Other times, plenty of space and time is all that’s needed for a friendship to resume after betrayal. I never spoke to my cousin after her betrayal, but at 36 I know now that was because I was too young to understand my feelings and how to successfully work through them. Today I think it would be a different story.

Five years ago I walked into a hole-in-the-wall Army and Navy shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a good friend so she could look for a bag. The owner was a helpful and jovial middle-aged Chinese man. At one point he handed me a bunch of small messenger bags and a handful of trash bags that had been used as filling for one of them so my friend could try the bag on. “Hold these,” he said. I giggled and without question, I did. 

The Chinese man giggled in return and told me that one day I was going to make a lucky man very happy. That I was going to be a wonderful wife. I never could figure out how giggling and holding a bunch of Army messenger bags lead him to that conclusion, but it was touching nonetheless.

About a year later I stopped hearing from my friend. It seemed we’d gone our separate ways. I didn't know exactly what I'd done but it seemed like she’d thrown in the towel. I called a few times and never heard back before moving on with my life.

And then one day another year later, out of nowhere, she called me and our friendship resumed.

Yesterday we walked into that same Army and Navy shop so she could once again look for a bag. And once again the same Chinese man came to our assistance. I stood with my friend as she tried on a few bags. I held her belongings for her, and took a photo of her wearing one of the bags with her smartphone so she could see what she looked like in the absence of a mirror. As we left, the Chinese man stopped us and looked me in the eyes.

“I’m so impressed,” he said. “I’ve been here in this shop for 50 years and I've never seen people come in here like that. I’ve never seen friends like you—you are so patient, so good."

"We have an old Chinese saying,” he continued, “that you are the luckiest person alive when you a have a friend like that because you have a friend for life.”

This time I understood exactly what he meant. And I know that I’m a good, (mostly) unselfish and loyal friend. 

Betrayals come and go, but friendships and relationships that are real will last lifetimes. I will think about that any time I'm feeling betrayed now, no matter the circumstances. Because the thing is, whether it be a friend, family member, coworker or significant other, if the relationship you have with that person is genuine and meaningful you'll always pull through to the other side of betrayal together.