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Fact or Friction Illustration by Sara Guindon

Fact or Friction

Cori Howard didn't think anything could come between her and her closest friend—let alone a vaccine.

The day I know it’s over, I'm sitting in a rented house on BC’s Sunshine Coast, looking out at a vast blue sea. In the distance, ferries and sailboats slide along the horizon like toys. I open the patio door to hear the waves lapping just a few feet away. A seal pokes his head out of the water. Seals terrify me when I’m swimming, but from land, I long to be like them—coming up for air and then disappearing again. Living mostly underwater. 

I’m here to retreat, but reality has found me. When I open my computer, I see an email from my closest friend with a letter attached. My friend and I have rarely exchanged letters. We live in the same city and I am, after all, the writer. She is a beautiful, brave and compassionate business owner, but she is not a woman of letters. So we text, usually multiple times a day. Mostly, after fifteen years, we call—sometimes daily, at least a few times a week. 

About a year into the pandemic, she became an ardent anti-vaxxer and our calls and walks became dominated by talk of Covid-19, conspiracies and mandates. I never would have thought those topics could threaten our long, deep and meaningful friendship. 

But this is a story of how a pandemic has made an experience like losing your best friend unfortunately common. How many of us have endured the fracturing of friendships, marriages and family bonds over the increasing divides of pandemic politics? For those of us going through it, the ever-widening gulf can feel impossible to cross, exposing deep fissures in our belief systems. 

And yet, this is also a story that goes beyond pandemic politics. It is a story of loss, grief and the complexities of friendship between women. What happened to my friendship made me wonder: were those fissures always there? If it wasn’t for the pandemic, would something else have come along to expose the cracks? 

For two years, my friend and I spent endless hours on long beach walks debating the facts of the virus and its impact on our lives. Infused with urgency and fervour, her talk of the plague eclipsed all of the more interesting topics: dating, divorce, parenting, our mothers. Always, she ranted. And always, I quietly listened. 

I listened when she told me she was stockpiling Ivermectin to self-treat in case she got sick, when she told me she’d participated in anti-vaccine protests, when she told me she’d faked a vaccine passport and when she told me anti-vaxxers were being segregated like the Jews in World War ll. Being Jewish myself, I was shocked by her cavalier, uneducated and dangerous comparison. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like listening anymore. 

She told me she was spending about four hours per day online reading and researching. She would text me articles from DuckDuckGo and in response, I would send her stories from medical journals. I knew from our years together visiting psychics and healers that she was open and interested in alternative therapies, but she was otherwise—like me—a pretty mainstream mom with kids who’d been routinely vaccinated within the school system when they were younger without any issues. 

She never showed an obvious tendency toward conspiracies or anti-vax philosophies. She leaned right-wing, and she never liked Justin Trudeau, but we didn't often talk about politics. It certainly never divided us. Her sudden pandemic politicization took me, and many of our friends, by surprise. 

Well into the pandemic’s first year, our conversations became increasingly tense and awkward. After one particularly strained exchange, we came to a mutual agreement to save our friendship by explicitly forgoing Covid as a topic. But when I open her letter, it’s clear our friendship is over. She says she doesn’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t share her views. I guess the reality is I can’t feign a true friendship with someone that supports the mandates, she wrote. Full stop, that is where it ends for me.

Her words are dramatic, final, unexpected and extremely hurtful. I never thought she’d turn her back on me, especially not for a difference in political views. I feel like the seal, submerged in dark water, way over my head. Suddenly, my most intimate friend has become a stranger. She writes: I think we just need some time until this cools down. This, I know from my many romantic breakups, is code for: it’s over. We have drifted too far apart. All because of a virus.

My friend and I raised our kids together. When we first met, our youngest kids were just four, and we would stand on the sidelines of the park outside their preschool talking, laughing and shouting at our children to be careful. When they got a bit older, we’d call each other from our cars at different soccer fields across the city in the dead of winter, both of us blowing on our freezing hands, complaining about the trials of competitive sports and how we’d rather be anywhere else. 

Once, instead of going to a school event, we sat outside the gym in her car drinking martinis. We watched our kids win awards, get drunk, struggle with depression, get accepted to university, move away. We supported each other through all of that, and through each of our long and painful divorces. 

One day, she showed up on my doorstep with a ticket to Paris. I’d never had a man treat me so well, and she knew that. She knew everything about me: all my wounds and scars. We arrived in Paris late one night and couldn’t find our Airbnb. We found a bar instead and proceeded to get very drunk on lychee martinis. When we finally crawled up the six flights of stairs to our rented apartment overlooking the Pompidou, we slept in the same bed and woke up with matching headaches. We nursed our hangovers with crepes and endless miles of walking through the Marais. 

For both of us, Paris was a soft landing in an otherwise hard stretch of living. I had just decided to leave my husband of twenty years, and she was on the cusp of leaving hers. I could never have afforded that trip to Europe. But when she showed up at my door, she told me I needed to get out of town, clear my head, get some perspective. She was right, of course. Generous, always thinking of others first, often to the detriment of her own self-care. 

A few years later, I invited her to come to a writing and yoga retreat that I was hosting, offering her a weekend of respite with other women, many of whom were facing similar struggles. Again we shared a bed and despite my protests, she ended up helping me serve food and clean up after every meal. She also participated, and thrived, in the group writing exercises, although I knew it wasn’t her thing. 

We had our first friendship-threatening incident a few years ago when I ditched her repeatedly to see a man I’d just met. I carelessly cancelled our plans last minute, believing she’d be fine on her own. But she is a woman who prefers company and does not like changing plans. I should have known. 

When I emerged from my lust bubble a couple of weeks later, I offered numerous apologies until she relented and forgave me. It took a lot of texting until she responded. But I insisted on seeing her in person to talk it out and take responsibility for my hurtful behaviour. It worked. I felt as though we stumbled on and into a deeper level of friendship. 

And yet, here we are again, at another break in our relationship. This time, there is nothing to apologize for, just a difference of opinion. At fifty-two, I am acutely aware of the value of friendship. As my kids head off into their own lives, and I am no longer trapped in the time-thieving chaos of single parenting and work, I have more time to spend with friends. I know that surrounding myself with close female friendships is what will save me in this next chapter of my life. 

And so I throw her an olive branch. I agree to talk about Covid with her, if that’s what she needs. I tell her I love her, that I will do anything to support her and our friendship. I suggest we walk and talk it out. But she callously refuses my offer: I need to feel safe around those that believe the mandates are doing nothing for our society but segregating

I respond that I’m saddened and surprised that this would end our friendship, but I don’t hear back from her. Not that day. Not the next day. Not six months later. Everywhere I am reminded of her absence. There are no funny texts to punctuate my day, no calls from Costco asking if I need anything, no more happy hours at our local bar. I am hurt by the punitive silent treatment, but not surprised. I’ve watched her use that technique on other close friends and her mother over the years. Still, I never thought I would be on the receiving end.

I know I am also not alone in this loss. The pandemic has caused serious rifts in many friendships and family relationships, as emerging studies are just starting to reveal. A survey of one thousand Americans last fall found that one in seven respondents had ended a friendship over vaccine status. Another American study from last May showed that no group was more likely to end a friendship over politics than liberal women. A full 33 percent said they had stopped being friends with someone because of their politics. 

Of course, our breakup wasn’t just about a virus. The end of friendship is always more complicated. Some other questions I now find myself asking: what did I do? What did I not do? What would a supportive friend do moving forward? How can I express my concern for her physical and mental health without offending her? What am I willing to lose? I expected that if I was truthful and loving, open and honest, that would be enough. I was wrong.

I’ve lost many friends over the years. I lost my oldest high school friend in a dramatic business “divorce,” another close work colleague who thought I was financially benefiting from using her work in a book (I wasn’t), and too many friends to the gray dissolve of geographical distance. But losing the one friend I have felt closest to over the years has been heart-wrenching. Even more so when held with the other layers of loss I’ve experienced in the last couple of years: the loss of daily mothering as my children move on to university, the loss of a lover, the collective loss of freedom, normalcy and hope. 

I walked by her house the other day with a close friend. As we approached, my stomach flipped with a strange mixture of dread and longing. My friend asked if I wanted to drop in. Of course I did. But I couldn’t. Walking by the house where I was welcome for so many years, where I would often stop by with soup or a bottle of wine or for family dinners made me feel deeply bereft. All these months later, the pain is as acute as ever. Like a romantic breakup, the sudden transformation from intimate companion to stranger feels jarring and wrong. With her departure from my life, I feel as though I have lost a crucial piece of personal history.

I wonder if my friend feels the same way. I have my doubts. Through mutual friends, I have learned that she has surrounded herself with a growing circle of new friends, a group of like-minded women connected by their anti-vaccine politics. She has replaced those of us whose views didn’t fit into her life. 

I understand her desire to be with women who support her worldview. Truthfully, I wasn’t open to her version of “science” or to her litany of conspiracies. In the months leading up to our breakup, my response to her endless proselytizing was to pretend to agree with her, just to end the conversation. Most of the time, I would change the subject. Both approaches felt disingenuous. And if that isn’t a sign of the end of a friendship, I don’t know what is. 

I often told her—and wanted to believe—that I respected her choice not to get vaccinated. But the truth was I didn’t. All I could think about were the five-year-olds who had no memory of life before masks. Or the thousands waiting for surgeries and treatments now on pause because hospitals were overloaded. I thought about the unvaccinated patients in the hospital exhausting frontline healthcare workers and doctors like my sister, who worked tirelessly in the ER for two years without a single holiday. 

I have never been good at pretending, though I also didn’t believe I was “right.” In the swirl of misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of my long-held truths turned out to be upended. But now I wonder, if she hadn’t ended our friendship, at what point would I have chosen to stand up for my principles?

Lately, I’m spending more time with other friends, for whom I'm deeply grateful. Their concern has led me to question whether there may have been some preexisting foundational cracks exposed by Covid. Was this inevitable without the pandemic? If we were more politically aligned, would we have made it through? To be a close friend, do you have to share the same political values? I have always maintained and whole-heartedly believed that you don’t. What a small and limited world we’d live in. But now, I think I may have been wrong. 

Like my friend who has chosen to surround herself with a group of women who share her beliefs, perhaps I am doing the same, keeping my friends close who share my worldview and my interests. I didn’t have the desire or patience to continue engaging in endless debate, mostly because I didn’t want to lose her friendship. Then I lost it anyway. 

I believed our friendship would last forever, that we would talk through whatever problems arose, that we had each other’s backs and would continue to find ways to deepen our commitment to walking through life together. But as she told me, the last words I’ll probably hear from her for a while: I wish this could be different, but for now, we are where we are. ⁂

Cori Howard is a writer living on the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples. Her work has appeared in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and the Washington Post. She is the editor of Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth about Motherhood.