Mourning The Friend Who Sued Me

We sat in the car in the dark waiting for a white van to appear. It was nine o’clock. Two women on the top of Mulholland Drive – that fabled highway leading to canyons where great music began. Mulholland is a simple, two-lane road bordered by dry California brush. Expensive homes sit behind walls and gates. When I was in high school we would park up there, ostensibly, to look out at the lights in the Valley below. 

Now partners, we were parked waiting for the first shipment of our newly created kids’ clothes. Who knew there were so many white vans? We lost count. Time went by. Already tired, slap-happy, we wondered if this was how Calvin Klein had started. Laughing at ourselves – the Laurel and Hardy of the children’s wear business.

When the van finally appeared and followed us back to the house and garage that served as our base, the contractor told us he’d been hijacked, the goods stolen. He’d heroically chased them down and retrieved the clothes. 

So, that was how it started. With a crime spree.  

We had been friends first. Not talk-on-the-phone-everyday friends, but our families mingled, our children grew up, if not together, in proximity. When we first met, G owned a retail business. I would occasionally stop by. And there was a brief period when I worked for her a couple of days a week.

It was fun. She was fun. Attractive, irreverent, loud, not given to suffering fools, G dealt with her ritzy customers in the posh Beverly Hills neighborhood with a mixture of high humor, respect, and the not infrequent use the of the word fuck. “That looks fucking awful, take it off.”

She never, that I know of, lied to a customer. This was Beverly Hills in the 1980s. Filled with service businesses: shoe repair, tailors, drug stores, and small coffee shops. It was just on the edge of becoming a town of designer labels and over-priced restaurants. It would never be the same. Not in a good way.

At the time, I had been a runner of sorts, and another friend had made herself a pair of satin running shorts, which I loved and thought they’d be great for kids. So, though not a particularly good home sewer, I managed to make a kid’s pair, detailed with a ribbon, side stripes, and a coordinating tee shirt. I made several sets and came up with a name. I designed a label and brought them to G’s shop to see if she might want to sell them. She did.

And that began our foray into the children’s apparel business. Together, we designed a line with absolutely no idea of the market or the season. It didn’t matter – the clothes were adorable. We did groups centered around fabrics we liked: satin bomber jackets, shorts, terry cloth-lined satin robes — all in gorgeous jewel colors — and flannel lined rip-stop nylon flight suits with multiple zippered pockets. The clothes were unique.

Because G continued to maintain her retail business, I ran all over the city tracking down contract sewers and lining up freelance pattern makers and cutters. I loved it, going into factories and gaining insight from people with talents I didn’t possess. We learned fast and we made it happen. Plus, we laughed all the time. It seemed everything was possible.

We had designed detailed, well-made garments, and they were not inexpensive. Calculating our costs imprecisely, we were more than a little cavalier, eye-balling the finished product and making an educated guess at what a retail customer might pay. It was haphazard, but our “method” made up for our lack of knowledge and whatever we’d overlooked. 

We worked hard and grew the business. Not huge, but on the map. G eventually closed her retail business and we rented space in downtown L.A. Then we moved a few times to bigger quarters. We hired someone to help ship. We hired sales reps in New York, Chicago, Florida, Texas, Atlanta, and, of course, Los Angeles.

We traveled to New York for the trade shows with crowds eager to place orders. We had a ball. We made friends. We walked a lot. And talked, and talked and talked. We were exhausted, and it wasn’t long before we went from the excitement of taking our first orders to how the hell are we going to produce all this shit? Somehow, we did. 

We made mistakes. But we always found a solution. To me, every day was a puzzle that needed to be solved. And we had adventures. We often stayed at the old Wyndham Hotel in New York on 58th Street, across the street from the Plaza and around the corner from Bergdorf-Goodman. It became our practice to drop our bags and hurry to check out the Bergdorf windows, then walk down to Lexington and have dinner at Gino’s, where zebras danced along the walls.

The Wyndham Hotel had been home, at least for a while, to a number of old time actors and performers. G’s husband had once been married to Carol Burnett, and it was an interesting moment when the elevator opened one morning to face her. And there was the evening on our way to see Bobby Short at the Carlyle, when we ran into him in the hotel lobby and shared a cab to his show. Later, on my own, I met Sid Caesar at breakfast downstairs, and we took a walk around the block together. It was a grand place. 

Seven years went by and we hit a financial bump in the road. The amazing women bankers, who a friend of mine had introduced us to and who had given us an extraordinary line of credit, were calling in the loan. The banker cried. It wasn’t her decision but some man above her. It’s always some man. G freaked. Perhaps it was because she was eleven years older than me, but she seemed upset out of proportion to the problem. She wanted out. I thought we could find a way to go on. She didn’t.

We began to dissolve the business, paying off our bills for a clean end. It was sad. But it would get worse when she sued me for money she knew I didn’t have. We’d always been compensated equally. Now that we were ending it, all I wanted was what I had come in with: the company name. To this day, I don’t know why she sued me. But she lost. I had the better lawyer. She had a friend who was a lawyer.

Still, it was worse than a divorce. It got ugly. When she told me she thought she could have done it all on her own, my answer was simple: “But you didn’t.” My disappointment was profound. To realize she really didn’t care in the same way I did. People will disappoint you. We all know this, but it’s a hard lesson. Every time. Anyway, it ended in the fall of 1987 as the stock market crashed. Seemed appropriate. 

I skipped that season and found someone to back me. More than once. Money people who made it possible for me to kill myself for another five or six years until I finally, reluctantly, gave up and went to work running the kid’s division for a much bigger manufacturer. I’d learned a lot. About business. And about friendship.  

We didn’t speak to each other until four years later when I found out, months after the fact, that her husband (he’d been my friend, too, and had worked in the business for a short time) had died. I called her. And we rekindled our friendship over lunches and breakfasts with our dogs. It was never quite the same, of course, but it was okay. Not long ago, she started to tell me that her only regret – in life, I suppose – was how we broke up our business. Well, yeah, you fucking sued me. I didn’t say it. Instead, I stopped her. “Don’t go on,” I said. “There’s a reason it’s called the past.” 

Then G got sick and went through several years of localized radiation treatment. Fortunately, she wasn’t in pain. She felt fine and looked good. I’d had my own harrowing illness years before, and I suggested she get a second opinion. But she was satisfied and so it went on. Subsiding and recurring. Until suddenly, instead of meeting for lunch as we’d planned on a Friday afternoon, she told me she was going to die. She did. Not even two weeks later. Quickly and quietly surrounded by her family. I was lucky I got to see her just days before.

During the prior year, my husband had also been ill, and G had been the one constant friend forever inquiring and always in touch. I like to think it was her way of finally apologizing to me. Though none was needed. The past, after all. I miss her all the time. 

We all lose friends in different ways. Some simply disappear without a trace, and we’re left to wonder if they were ever really friends at all. I’m sure I’ve failed in my own way. But if we’re lucky, we get the chance to apologize, to learn, and to grow. And if not, we go on.


Have you ever had a falling out with a dear friend? Share with us in the comments.

About Janet Clare

Janet Clare has had short fiction and essays published online at Literary Hub, Assignment, Manifest Station, Red Fez, First Stop Fiction, among others, and anthologized in New World Writing, Elm Leaves Journal, The Truth of Memoir, and Spent. Her first novel was published in 2018 out of Australia. She lives in Los Angeles.

Twitter: @janetclare1

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