We met when I was 16 and she was 17. We called each other bou, wife, love, babe, baby, sexy, (and somewhat inexplicably) George. We weren’t dating, but we might as well have been. I’ve been thinking about her more than usual lately, ever since I found myself obsessed with Showtime’s new show, Yellowjackets, like much of the gay internet. It was specifically the best-friendship between sparkling popular girl Jackie, and her quieter sidekick Shauna that got me. My Jackie, she disappeared midway through our twenties and in some ways I feel like I have been chasing her ghost ever since. Even though we weren’t lovers, whatever we felt for each other was a lot like being in love. If we were on TV, a fandom would have shipped us and scored a video montage to Lucy Dacus or girl in red. We traded more I love yous between us than I’ve exchanged with anyone else, past or present. I am 30 now, and my Jackie went missing when I was 25. I can’t tell you her name, so I’ll call her J.
Female friendship is fertile terrain for literature and film. The internet is littered with women eulogising their intense friendships, and meaning-making out of endings with poetry and metaphors like half-lives, myth-making and haunting to describe the feelings that linger long after you have run out of the right words to say to your friend. I get it.
Personally I would have liked us to be Abbi and Ilana from Broad City but less stoned and more ambitious. Or Maya and Anna from PEN15 because they’re writers, except we met in college and were both deeply mentally ill jk but no srsly. We could have been these pairs, maybe for a while we even were. But mostly, I see us in Shauna and Jackie from Yellowjackets, because Jackie is gone and Shauna is haunted by her irreversible failure at being a friend. Same.
For the most part, our friendship lived on the internet because IRL we lived on opposite sides of the world most of the year. J was studying English literature in sweaty, humid Calcutta where it was summer most of the year. I was studying molecular biology in a small university town in Canada, where it seemed to always be winter. We’d had a whirlwind courtship period of falling in friend-love in July when we were briefly in the same English program. Then, for myriad wrongheaded reasons, I transferred out to pursue a Bachelor’s of Science, and we were suddenly long-distance. Between 2009 to 2015, our friendship lived so completely online — across time zones over 600 emails and Gchats, Facebook posts and messages, Skype calls, blog posts on Blogspot.com (RIP) with allusions to each other — that it seems unreal that the internet has been scrubbed clean of her presence. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. She did it herself.
It’s been a confounding mystery to those of us who knew her: In this age of social media overexposure, how can someone have so completely disappeared? I have been writing this essay in my mind for years. Until I watched Yellowjackets and saw Shauna haunted by Jackie, I did not have the right form for what I wanted to say. Now I think I know.
In Yellowjackets, Jackie and Shauna are high-school best friends and members of a soccer-team that has made it to nationals. Jackie, the team-captain, seems to be the archetype of a popular girl, while Shauna is more of a wallflower, journaling in the car as she waits for Jackie to be done hooking up so they can drive to school. When their plane heading to nationals crashes in the Ontario wilderness, Jackie slaps Shauna awake, and pulls her out of the burning wreckage. Eventually, Jackie discovers that Shauna has been sleeping with her boyfriend Jeff and is pregnant. This betrayal, combined with the waning importance of her popularity and a descent into Lord of the Flies-esque behaviour by the rest of the team leads her to lose all faith in life, love, and friendship. Her nihilism ultimately escalates to a fight with Shauna which leads Jackie to sleep outside, in self-exile. An overnight snowstorm leads to the climax of season 1: Shauna digs Jackie’s blue body out of the snow after she freezes to death.
My Jackie disappeared when I was 25 and she was 26. Last I heard, she was in the hills in the Northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. And then suddenly she was nowhere. I didn’t dig her out, because I don’t know if she’s still alive.
Let me tell you about her. She was a writer. J was extraordinarily, ruthlessly intelligent with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture. She came first in class, did theatre, and was incredibly insecure. She was tall and dark-skinned, with big black eyes, and a button nose that belied her sharp tongue. She wore glasses and, later, wore her curly hair short.
J grew up with a mother who loathed her and made sure she knew it, as often as possible. Her father’s bipolar disorder was a secret so shameful to middle-class Bangalis that the family propagated the rumour that it was a drinking-problem that made his hands shake in the classroom. Both of them were school-teachers. She grew up feeling unloved, inadequate, and ugly. She believed anger was better than sadness and so she nursed her rage that spilled over onto the people she wanted to love, even when we met as freshmen in college.
I had grown up mad, queer, and vaguely nonbinary in an unhappy Bangali household where none of this was allowed. I had no language for OCD or abuse then, but I knew that whatever I was, it was wrong, that it was a synonym for obaddhyo (disobedient), and so I would be punished for it violently. At the same time, I nursed a certainty that this was unfair, a quiet rage that curdled into detachment and a hollow depression.
When J and I met each other, we found ourselves beloved. We were lonely, and then we weren’t. It was as simple as that. We weren’t the first person either of us had loved, or even loved well, but we were the first person we had tried to love unconditionally. What could be more romantic than that?
In Yellowjackets, Jackie and Shauna’s friendship is bookended by the same dialogue repeated to each other. The first time, they are at a raucous gathering with other teenagers. There is a crackling bonfire; Jackie has just used her influence to bring the team together after a fight, the girls have been going around saying nice and true things about each other. She tells Shauna, “You’re the only one who’s always been there for me. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You know that, right?”
The second time, Jackie is hallucinating, freezing to death in the snow just outside the cabin where the rest of the girls are sleeping. All she has to do is go inside, and she’ll live. Instead, she dies a brutal, meaningless death, literally the outsider to the group. Just before dying, she dreams Shauna has come outside to make up and bring her inside. The cabin is warm, the fire crackles, and someone puts a blanket over her, guides her gently to a chair in front of a fireplace. Shauna hands her a mug of steaming hot chocolate, and says, “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You know that, right?” It’s so eerily perfect. It’s when you know something’s wrong. As if on cue, the rest of the team, standing in front of her like a nightmare choir, chime in unison ‘We love you Jackie’. They have wooden smiles on their faces. It’s tremendously frightening. Of course it’s not real — it’s the correct ending, so it’s the one that doesn’t happen.
For J and I, being each other’s best friend we had ever had, and knowing that, was a feeling that was essential to our friendship. Knowing and being known by someone as a virtue in itself, being able to expect and demand priority from someone — we had never had that before.
Were you in love with her? one of my now closest friends asks. No, I don’t think so, I say.
But when I first put a foot out of the closet in undergrad, it was J that I called and told, I think I’m a lesbian and I’m in love with you. When I returned to Calcutta for summers, she was at the airport beside my mum holding a placard with postcolonial humour: Canadian Refugees Welcome Here. Jackie and Shauna trade a heart charm-necklace back and forth; J and I had matching infinity rings (I lost mine). She told her much older partner I would always be more important. She wrote me a poem comparing me to the half-melted part of summer ice cream and the yummy heart part of her every sweet dream. After we fell out, she kissed me, drunk and desperate, and I wanted nothing more than to get away from her.
We had a very queer friendship. Or alternatively, we had the most typical friendship you’d imagine for two women on the cusp of adulthood. It was everything until it wasn’t.
My favourite Nicole Sealey poem goes, ‘Though we’re not so self-/important as to think everything/ has led to this, everything has led to this./ There’s a name for the animal/love makes of us—named, I think, / like rain, for the sound it makes.’
We didn’t have proximity, so we overdid the repetition, exchanging a million i love yous and blank emails with subject lines like Call me bitch or Read at once!!!! We stayed up past bedtime so we could coexist for a bit in our own time suspended across the Atlantic. It felt worthwhile to have survived childhood, suicidality and isolation, because it had led us to each other. Our first attempts at autonomy, deciding the kind of people we would be, the way we would feel about ourselves began with each other. The biggest gift a fierce love like we had for each other gives us is the knowledge that we can be loved as the unspectacular people we are. The animal, that love made of us, was soft and relieved.
We fell out over something stupid. She disappeared after my first major break-up. I wasn’t there when her grandfather died. She avoided my calls. I was confused, then I was determined to reach her, then I was hurt and angry and bewildered, then I went cold.
Over time, as I’ve buried memories of my depressed years in Canada as an arts-kid stuck in a science student’s life, I’d also forgotten how our friendship was a blazing, living thing. Recently, I typed her name into the search-bar of my old email account and found over six hundred emails and chats — the ruined body of our friendship that bridged time difference and geography for years. I looked through them for evidence of who we’d been:
J veered wildly between extreme depression and overwhelming excitement about life. One day her boyfriend was pathetic, the next he was her soulmate. I buried myself in an overfull course load and ate my sadness: multiple large greasy anchovy pizzas daily, during finals. J was an immensely talented writer whose career as a novelist was already starting to take off. She got stoned and wrote me late-night emails confessing her terror that she had inherited her father’s bipolar disorder. I trudged through a blizzard to the nondescript animal-lab where I would watch rats respond to Pavlovian cues in a maze and record what they did. We graduated.
In high school, Shauna resents being contorted into something she doesn’t want to be as a byproduct of Jackie’s overarching influence. She doesn’t want to wear the red dress or play soccer or go to Rutgers but Jackie has already decided the colour of their dorm-room.
Like Shauna, no matter how much I shrugged it off, around J’s charisma people could feel forced into roles they didn’t want. She was the sharp pointed knife of intellect, so I had to be the airheaded but unexpectedly smart-scientist friend. At a birthday party we had thrown her, I made an obvious Mean Girls quip to make people laugh (It’s like I have ESPN or something). J reacted as though I was actually that daft. For a time, we were part of a trio until our other best friend grew tired of J’s casual meanness (You have no self-esteem, that’s why you’re always looking at dogs for validation).
I wonder who J would have been at thirty. If she had received the right care and matured into realising that ordinary people deserve kindness and don’t have to be special to prove it. What a relief it has been to grow older and accept that for myself, and by extension for others too.
Instead, J’s mean streak and defensiveness eventually alienated all her friends. By the time she was spiralling through a bipolar-induced breakdown, she had no one. We struggled with serious mental illness through our friendship, but by the time we knew the names to articulate it, we weren’t friends anymore. Over the next few years I’d see snatches of her life play out from a distance. Some of these I knew to be true from our own past discussions: J was working a management position at a faceless corporation and trying to get rich quick; she was doing stand-up. Others I heard second-hand, and sometimes from people who relished these stories like they were juicy gossip: she had thrown a heavy glass ash-tray at her boss and quit the corporation; she had been institutionalised against her will. On Facebook, J posted a long rambling note full of accusations and conspiracies.
One of the last times we tried to repair our friendship, J showed up at my house past midnight and ate cold daal-rice from the fridge. She talked incessantly without meeting my eyes and told me about the fascinating married woman she was sleeping with, how little she needed to sleep these days, and that the future was sparkling. Now, at thirty, I have been involved in disability justice advocacy for some time. I report on the intersection of public health and severe mental illness in India. I’m astounded at my self-absorption then. How did I not see her depressive and manic episodes for what they were?
Older Shauna is haunted by Jackie’s ghost. She sees her at nightclubs and in Jackie’s childhood bedroom when she visits her parents. In an interview, Melanie Lynskey, the actress who portrays her, says that to her the story of Shauna and Jackie’s friendship is a tragedy about never being able to repair that relationship that is all-encompassing. Shauna is stopped in her tracks by grief and chasing the ghost of Jackie because all she’d want to do is go back and be a different person, a better friend. She’s also living a somewhat twisted version of what Jackie’s life could have been: She married Jackie’s boyfriend Jeff, had a child, and lives in a comfortable suburban home.
Seeing our own dynamic strangely mirrored back finally gave me the words for how to think about J. J never met me with the accretions that make me feel like myself: the nose-ring, seven tattoos, more recently, an eyebrow piercing, an undercut. She never knew the nonbinary dyke I am now, writing for a living, on Prozac and Adderall, with a queer disabled community of friends, exploring non-monogamy, writing about lesbian sex intentionally, openly in fiction, writing a book even. Sometimes I feel like I ate J’s life. Like it’s because she vacated the space that I’m living a funhouse version of what hers was.
J introduced me to things I’d come to love later, in my own time: Sade, Doctor Who, macabre literature, speculative fiction, the uncanny, a love of the absurd, self-worth, queerness, gender-fuckery, editing and revising sentences. I don’t know that I would have turned into myself, ever would have left the deeply unhappy, good Indian Science kid version of me behind without having met her.
In the finale, digging Jackie’s dead body out, Shauna screams and screams. She regrets not having gone outside to call her back in. I feel like that scream has been stuck in my own throat for the past half-decade. I don’t even deserve to scream, because I just let her go.
We loved each other at a time we didn’t know love was important enough to let people fuck up and not take it so seriously. What do we do with the regret we feel at not having been able to be better people for those who loved the earlier versions of us?
I find myself dipping into magical thinking.
There were darker whispers about J too, ones that shook those who were still friendly with her and became the final straw in her eventual isolation. About things she had done, people she had harmed terribly. I don’t know what really happened. There is no way to parse the truth. I find myself thinking if we had still been friends, maybe she wouldn’t have been institutionalised. Maybe others wouldn’t have gotten hurt. J isn’t here to tell her story.
The truth is you can love someone long after they fuck up irreversibly. And my wanting things to have been different can’t alter that they weren’t and can’t ever be now. Although we’ve had abolitionists, transformative justice, and disability justice activists fighting for care-networks rooted in community as a concept, our collective imagination is still so far from making this real. Especially in India which doesn’t have the same histories of mutual aid or abolition activism rooted in Black communities subject to over policing.
I’m stuck on the question of what to do when people are unlikeable, unpleasant, and still deserving of care. People love to talk a big game about mental health awareness, but we’re not ready for the ugly realities of when mental illness manifests in ways that can be harmful to others. Who provides care to someone who’s alienated everyone? Who ensures they don’t disappear or die?
In her brilliant and radical book Care Work, disability activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about the complexities and conditionality of receiving collective care:
“I think about the need for care that can be accessed when you’re isolated, disliked, and without social capital — which many disabled people are. I think about how power dynamics and abuse can creep into the most well-meaning care collectives of friends, and of my friends who need twelve to fifteen hours of care a day, which is difficult to impossible for most unpaid friends to provide. I think about the person I was lovers with who was an asshole about thirty percent of that time, who I still send twenty bucks every now and then because they are seriously disabled and can’t work. I do this because they are a queer and trans person of color who grew up working class who’s pissed off a lot of people, and they still don’t deserve to die alone in their own piss. I think about my friend who said, “I never want my ability to go to the bathroom to be dependent on how liked I am.” I think about how relieved I was to discover that the state I live in offered twenty-four hours of emergency respite care to caregivers — someone well paid by the state who could come in and pick up meds, do some home care, and fold laundry — that my partner and I could access if one or both of us had a medical crisis. I think of the disability networks where friends and total strangers on the internet bring each other soup and share meds and send money and how lifesaving that is — and what happens when someone is kicked out of that Facebook group.”
Same. I think about this too. Every time I casually refer to myself as a ‘crazy person’ as an act of reclamation and defiance against an ableist world that would prefer the ‘visibly crazy’ be locked up, or someone else’s problem, I feel J saying the words first. Inside me lives another woman. I am haunted by someone else’s rage and mad desire to stuff all of life in.
In music, the seventh and final mode of the major scale is the Locrian mode. It is the darkest sounding, most minor mode since so many of its notes are flattened. It’s rarely used in music because it never resolves. It sounds unfinished, like someone stopped playing or singing abruptly in the middle of a melody.
Jackie and Shauna’s friendship ended in Locrian mode. Jackie froze to death after a petty fight so they never got to make up or grow apart naturally. My Jackie disappeared so I didn’t get to reach out to her as the version of myself who believes in disability justice. In the end, like Shauna, I am left on a note of irresolution. I am haunted.
Obviously one person cannot mean all things. J is not a metonym for how many people we’ve loved have behaved in terrible ways — casteist, racist, homophobic, ableist. She’s not a metonym for how people are complicated or deserve redemption. Mostly I’m just recording that she existed. My Jackie, she did some bad things. I loved her very much. I hope in the end she wasn’t lonely.
Time Zones Week is a series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.