Amy Spalding's New Book 'We Used To Be Friends' Takes An Unexpected Look At Friend Breakups — Start Reading Now
The 2018 young adult novel The Summer of Jordi Perez was a love letter to Los Angeles, to burgers, to first love, and most of all, to friendship. So it's no surprise that author Amy Spalding is focusing on some of the same themes in her new book, We Used To Be Friends, out in January 2020. Bustle has an exclusive excerpt from the book below.
We Used To Be Friends has a unique structure that will definitely appeal to fans of The Last Five Years: The story is told in dual timelines, wherein half the chapters are told moving forward and half are told moving backward. Both timelines focus on the dissolution of a friendship between main character James (yes, a girl with a boy name) and Kat. Their lives are changing in unexpected ways, and they're both transforming into the people they'll be for the rest of their lives. But how can they deal with growing pains without losing each other in the process?
In the excerpt below, James looks back on the friendship she lost and copes with the type of heartbreak that often doesn't get sung about, written about, or talked about. "There are breakup tunes and lovesick ballads and celebrating-that-he-was-gone anthems," she says. "It was easy to believe that romance was the only heartache out there."
Chapter One: August after Senior Year
By the time you realize that you’re thirsty, it’s too late. You’re already dehydrated. Therefore it stands to reason that if you feel the end coming, you’re already there.
I’ve had four heartbreaks. The first was Tony Aldana, who kissed me at our sixth grade dance, and then laughed about it the next day in the cafeteria. Back in grade school I’d gotten teased — not exactly constantly but enough — for being a girl with a boy’s name, and this dragged into middle school for awhile. I might have been worthy of kissing during a semi-dark sixth grade dance, but still seen as too much of a weirdo for Tony to be okay with it in the bright sunlight of lunch.
The story behind my name is so boring that now it’s funny to me that it, briefly, marked me as weird: Mom and Dad expected a boy, and the boy was to be named James McCall the Third. When I showed up a girl, Dad apparently cried about his family legacy until Mom — in an epidural haze — agreed.
The story behind my name is so boring that now it’s funny to me that it, briefly, marked me as weird...
Bryce Bradley was my first real boyfriend, if eighth grade boyfriends count. We went on long walks around our neighborhood after school every night while discussing the day’s events. Dad thought he "seemed like a fine young man." (Mom merely said, “way to go, James” in a knowing tone I’d never heard from her before.) Then suddenly Bryce didn’t have time for the walks, and our texting looked lopsided in my direction. He didn’t tell me; I had to walk into homeroom and hear Lilah Boyer telling Jessamyn Williams that Bryce had taken her on a real date the night before, and she was pretty sure it was the real thing. In retrospect she was probably quoting something she’d heard in a TV show, but at the time, between that and her sleek pixie haircut, Lilah was improbably chic and mature. No wonder Bryce was over me.
Then there was Javier, who showed up the summer before sophomore year. He was staying with his aunt and uncle — our next door neighbors — and we somehow managed to hit every boy-and-girl-next-door cliché that existed. There were flashlights and signs and climbing up trees to second story windows. We kissed in my bed, under my covers, which felt dangerous and sexy and important, even though our clothes stayed on. I dreamed of scenarios that kept him in L.A., but none of them mattered, because two weeks into August he had to go home, back to Texas. I can’t explain why I knew it was over. Phones and social media exist. But when he hugged me goodbye, I knew that it was for forever. I hardly ever cry, but I cried every day of that third week of August.
I told myself I’d never let anyone get that close again, because the risk was too big. I fell for Logan anyway, which didn’t even matter. I hadn’t been looking in the right direction to know where the real danger was coming from.
I told myself I’d never let anyone get that close again, because the risk was too big.
After all, the boys added up — Tony, Bryce, Javier, and I guess Logan too — didn’t come close to this. There are breakup tunes and lovesick ballads and celebrating-that-he-was-gone anthems. It was easy to believe that romance was the only heartache out there.
Dad keeps all the yard equipment in neat rows in the garage, so I know where the shovel is. Now that I’m helping to build homes on a regular basis, I even know how to use it properly.
I remember being fourteen, which felt grown-up at the time, starting high school. I’d dedicated a page in my journal to a list of ideal time capsule contents, while Kat made her choices more impulsively. We laughed later about a future historian finding the box and trying to make sense of this point in history by one very well-organized teen and one who took a much more scattershot approach.
“This printout of Justin Bieber’s Instagram must mean something extremely significant,” Kat would say in the voice of a stuffy old man, and before long we’d be in tears from laughter.
Luke is probably still mad at Kat for burying the newest-at-the-time Game of Thrones book, but our younger selves were convinced that it would be historically relevant.
We laughed later about a future historian finding the box and trying to make sense of this point in history by one very well-organized teen and one who took a much more scattershot approach.
But we knew what would actually be the most important later, and we were right. I sweated over my letter to Kat because not only does writing not come the easiest to me, laying out my feelings is even tougher. So of course, after unearthing our high school time capsule, it’s the first thing I look for. When I pick up the envelope with my name written on it in metallic pink marker, I see how much thicker it is than the envelope I sealed myself, four years ago.
Dearest James, (ha ha ha)
OMG can you believe we are 18? I mean, we are 18 now, when you are reading this letter and I am reading whatever you wrote to me, which is probably like Dear Kat, You are a good friend, Sincerely, James because I know you hate stuff like this. This is why you are the greatest friend ever. You go along with all my ideas even when they annoy you because they matter to me.
I’m trying to picture what we will be like when we graduate. You’ll probably get some special award for being good at sports (or whatever) and I just hope Mom and Dad don’t freak out when I get accepted at a school super far away. (PLEASE LET ME GET ACCEPTED AT A SCHOOL SUPER FAR AWAY.) We’d better both have really good grades AND super cute boyfriends, because both are really important.
I know it is cheesy, but I seriously think you are amazing, James. Also it’s sort of a secret you’re so amazing. Ms. Bedrosian always refers to you as my quiet friend, which is pretty weird, but I’m also like, ha ha, if you only knew, Ms. Bedrosian. You’re like an exclusive thing only the coolest people know about, and the coolest person in this case is me. But you are so funny and good at sports and smart about boys AND school. I know this is all still true now, which is the future for me but the NOW for the you reading this letter. Whoa! Just thinking about it is kind of crazy.
I am so glad that in kindergarten we got paired up for that dorky graduation ceremony and that our moms decided we should hang out. What if I got paired with some random girl and she was my best friend now? Actually I think that is impossible. If I’d gotten paired with anyone else, you and I would have become friends at some point anyway. But everyone loves how cute we were when we were only six wearing those little caps and gowns, and I actually love it too. I love knowing we’ll have new pictures by the time you read this of us walking together at high school freakin’ graduation!! (I sorta hate those old pictures because that was before I figured out PRODUCT and so my hair looks like a frizzball but it’s adorable we’re holding hands like the besties we were destined to be.)
Speaking of that, sorta, thank you for tripping Andrew Mitchell when he called me an electrocution victim after I got that bad haircut. Thank you for shutting down that rumor I went to third freaking base with Caleb Weintraub after his birthday party. Thank you for pretending that Luke doesn’t think you’re cute because it’s super embarrassing. Thank you for being so nice all the time to my parents like THAT is not super embarrassing. (Ugh they’re such dorks sometimes but it doesn’t bother me like maybe it should? Am I destined to be super uncool? OMG since you’re in the future you already know the answer to this. CRAZY!)
Anyway, I guess I am just thanking you for being my friend. It sounds like not a big deal but you are not a little thing to me! And I am really REALLY excited to watch your face as you read this because you’ll be embarrassed and I’ll already have finished your short little note already and I’ll be waiting. Ha!
Love, your best friend forever,
I’m not sure what I expected to get out of doing this, but this couldn’t have been a good idea. It’s like pushing a bruise, though; now that I’m in it I feel the urge to stay here. The dumb mementos and the four-years-yellowed copy of the Burbank Leader and the letters.
Though — the letters, plural? I’m holding the one Kat wrote — more like clutching it as it becomes wrinkled and ruined in my hand. I search for the other envelope, a glimpse of my handwriting in sensible blue ink and no sparkles at all. I wish I could remember the letter more, because that would be a glimpse, too. It’s impossible to remember the last time Kat felt like the kind of friend who would write me this letter, and if I’m being honest, I can’t remember being the friend who would get this letter anyway.
The things I said the last time I saw her weren’t untrue, but I didn’t say them well. Maybe I didn’t say things for so long because that was easier than figuring out how to say them right.
I wish I could remember the letter more, because that would be a glimpse, too. It’s impossible to remember the last time Kat felt like the kind of friend who would write me this letter....
I dig and dig through the box, and when that proves fruitless, I turn it upside-down over my bedroom floor to separate the mess into piles. By now I wish it had stayed beneath the earth. Justin Bieber and Westeros and Kat’s Dr Pepper-flavored Lip Smacker and a tiny scrap of paper where Joel Vega had written cool and approximately 15 other mementos that meant something then.
But there’s nothing for them to mean now, because it doesn’t matter how many times you write BFF. Forever can go away before you even know it.
And I don’t know why the letter is gone, but my stomach clenches at the ridiculous symbolism of it. Whatever I’d written to Kat, four years ago — back before Kat’s mom died, or my mom left — isn’t here. Just like Kat.
I wonder where she is right now. It’s likely she’s been where she’s been since we met: down the street at her home. Her summer won’t have been practically ruined by this, though. Kat is probably feeling just fine. And a few blocks have never felt so far away.
Excerpted from We Used To Be Friends by Amy Spalding, on sale Jan. 7, 2020.