You Can (Not) Depend on Me (For a Change)

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Life in the Third Degree.

“Well, will you look at that?” The youth choir director chuckled one Sunday night at six o’clock when he saw me in the doorway of the church music room and then said the same words he said every Sunday night at six o’clock when he saw me in the doorway of the church music room. “It’s Old Reliable.”

Working Through Grief

I was 14 at the time, and I never missed a practice, even though I was usually the only one there other than the two teenaged children of the choir director. For the past year, I had been “Old Reliable”—never absent, always loyal, and always ready to work.

But things changed. A new minister brought a new regime to the church, a slightly hipper one with regular get-togethers of the church youth, and suddenly more kids were showing up for choir practice. In addition to “Old Reliable,” we now had over 30 new voices in the youth choir. Life was good for the choir director! He planned a musical extravaganza to the Lord and found a musical with 32 parts—almost enough for everyone in the choir to have a speaking or singing part. Guess who didn’t get one? Not his children. They both had a part. So did all the newcomers. But I was reliable and wouldn’t quit the choir if I didn’t have a part, so I didn’t get one. It was his way of ensuring that he had no drop-outs.

But things changed again. After the musical, the attendance plummeted from 30 down to a dozen, and within another month or so, I trudged in on Sunday nights to hear the choir director with his basset-hound eyes say, “It’s Old Reliable.” I was still there because my parents made me be there, but inwardly, I withdrew. I never cared to sing in church after that.

It’s the first time I remember being nicknamed for my reliability, though I’m sure it wasn’t the first time anyone had noticed they could count on me to be there, whether they were there for me or not. Not the last time, either.

I’m determined to find a way of not being “Old Reliable.” Frankly, I’m tired of it, and I’m still struggling to overcome how much other people expect me to be there when they want me to be there. I remember far too many people I liked who weren’t there for me when I needed them or who had “other things” to do that didn’t include me. It’s become the best way for me to lose friends because instead of speaking out on the support I deserve, I’m more likely to withdraw…and that’s the biggest struggle.

The last time I spoke to Portia was over 12 years ago. No, actually it wasn’t her but her boyfriend who called and asked if I’d attend her farewell party before she moved a three-days’ drive away. I didn’t attend her going-away shin-dig—I was in the hospital in premature labor and when I wrote her afterwards to explain, she never answered—but even then, it had been months since I’d talked to her. We’d been the best of friends for at least three years, until our internships were over and we found permanent jobs as contract negotiators for the Department of Defense. At that point, we’d agreed that we rarely saw each other, due to our work ethic, so we made arrangements to meet at a little cafe for pasta primavera every Tuesday. I adored Portia and loved her spark of life, and I missed not getting to spend time with her anymore. Whenever she needed anything, I dropped what I was doing and rearranged my schedule to meet her, usually to talk about how much she hated her job and wanted to leave Florida. She had the same job as I did, but she seemed to have a rougher time getting out of the office, so I was the more accommodating of the two of us…as was the case with many of my friends from those days.

“Hey,” she said on the phone to me, ten minutes before we were to leave for our scheduled lunch, “I can’t make it this week. Gonna have to work through lunch today so I can leave early with my boyfriend.”

The next week, she needed to get her oil changed in her car instead of “doing lunch” with me. The Tuesday after that, it was something else. Some chore. Some errand. Something more important than our friendship.

On the fourth week, we went to lunch and spent most of it talking about how to beef up her resume. My supervisor had asked me to work through lunch that day on a special project, but I begged off and worked late that night on it instead. I saw Portia so little, and I always made myself available for the sake of the relationship.

The fifth week, it was my birthday, and Portia cancelled at the last minute yet again. The sixth week, I heard nothing, so I called and she’d forgotten that she was taking a mutual friend of ours to lunch for her birthday.

I never called back after that. I withdrew. Instead of ending the friendship on the spot, I just simply let it fade away.

One such relationship I’ve kept, but that’s because it’s with my mother. For years, I’ve been there for her—no matter what—to listen to her when she needed to vent…and yet when I desperately needed to talk to her about problems in my marriage and how I was afraid it couldn’t be saved, she cut me off, shut me down, and found somewhere else she needed to be. I withdrew and didn’t have a lot to say to her for a good six months or more. Our hours-long phone conversations dwindled to somewhere between six and seven minutes a week. It hurt deeply that she took his side over mine, even with her knowing in excruciatingly painful detail what he’d done. We’d always been closer than any mother-daughter team I’d ever heard of. The one thing that kept me from severing our relationship and never seeing her again was that I felt my ex would “win,” especially since he always made a big farce of courting my parents’ opinion of him. His abuse had cost me so much, and I was going to let his shenanigans ruin my relationship with my mother, too? In time, she did come around, but only when she was certain my old-fashioned dad wouldn’t exile me for getting divorced. Maybe that’s why I went the extra very uncomfortable mile to tell my elderly parents every sordid detail, more than they could ever want to know or imagine is out there. My mom still vents to me when it suits her, and sometimes listens when I talk about my own pain. Why? Because she can talk to me openly, still, even when I couldn’t talk to her.

And yet, I’m still “Old Reliable.” Even with my kids. They may whine about not getting to spend enough time with me because they now have to split their weekends with their dad and me, but the first time I spend a whole week looking forward to taking them to thrift shops, antique stores, out to the beach shops at Seaside and Grayton Beach, and to a little store with lots of rocks and crystals, and they ditch me for their friends. Typical of teens, I’m told, but still…I had plans with them. I rearranged my weekend for these plans, and then got stood up at the last minute. I’m always there for them, so they knew I’d still love them anyways.

It stung, though. I did withdraw. I felt the chill of being alone. But I didn’t stop my plans. I went to the thrift stores and antique stores and especially to the specialty stores and brought home heavy chunks of rose quartz and pink kunzite. I’m sure the girls would have loved it if I’d postponed my plans and gone later with them, but it won’t be much longer and they’ll be gone and I’ll be sitting here without the benefit of making and living my own plans and cultivating relationships with other adults, especially with men. So I took them out for something else the next day but let them miss the antiquing and rock-hunting trip they wanted. Maybe they’ll understand to take advantage of the offer when it’s there and not assume I’m always going to be “Old Reliable” when they want to stick me on a shelf until they have time for me.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t slept with anyone yet since my re-singledom. It would be so easy to skip the friendship-building and go straight to bed. But for what? Easy gratification? And then what? A sudden lack of conversation, a loss of momentum in getting to know how each other thinks and feels, and a routine 4-a.m. phone call from a drunken lover in search of good “Old Reliable” sex? Nothing more transcendental than that? What a shame to reduce a promising relationship to nothing more than fuck-buddies.

So instead of being “Old Reliable,” I’ll make my plans and stick to them, regardless of whether anyone else comes along. No more rearranging my schedule or my life for someone who doesn’t rearrange for me. No more making someone else a priority if they can’t make me a priority in their own lives.

And no more withdrawing. I’m going to be a lot less reliable in the future, but whoever is here with me at the moment and in the moment can enjoy the ride.