Facebook tells me that today is “Friends Day,” whatever that means. I don’t think I truly comprehend the concept of friends, having had generally unfavorable or undefined experiences of friendship for most of my life. Of course, Facebook’s idea of “friends” is the list of people you’ve accepted into your personal virtual world, as though allowing that digital connection indicates some greater bond. Judging by how many people out there have 5,000 friends, I’m guessing it doesn’t.
The problem for me has always been trying to define friendships in the real world. Too many times I have believed a connection to be stronger than it was, valued a friend more than they valued me, given more of myself to the relationship than I got in return. So many of them were people I proclaimed as my “best friend” and believed we would be lifelong sisters only to have them ghost me or throw me over for one reason or another. Over time, I had to assume that there was something in me, in how I acted/looked/spoke (smelled?) that caused so many people to toss me aside, yet no one has yet given me any clear explanation of why or how I might have done something differently to change the outcome.
My first friends were, of course, fellow kids in my neighborhood. Two in particular I considered great friends and spent an inordinate amount of time with independently, yet always managed to feel like a third wheel when we were all together. They were “cooler” than I was, had the best clothes, seemed to be liked by everyone, etc., the standard “cool kids” trope that every teen movie exploits. I was the nerdy, buck-toothed, four-eyed girl with the knockoff clothes and outdated hand-me-downs from my older cousin. I was included in parties and such, but in my insecurity I often wondered if this was because I was wanted or because our rural neighborhood was too small to exclude me without being obvious. Even then I found myself having a better, less angsty time when I hung out with the boys, playing kickball or cops and robbers or wiffle ball.
When I started elementary school and my world opened up a bit more. I had a group of friends (classmates mostly) I would team up with on the playground to chase the boys—literally chase, as in run after them across the ball field. One girl I considered my best friend; she lived across town, but we would get together often for sleepovers and movies and did projects together, like a spiral-bound notebook we started writing stories and poems and doodling pictures in. Then we graduated to middle school, and suddenly she didn’t know me anymore.
I had a couple of “besties” in middle school. As became par for the course for me throughout my life, my friends each belonged to different social groups. One was a popular, cool, pretty girl. The other was a fellow nerd whose family invited me on long trips to their vacation home out of state. Although they and my other friends—the neighborhood girls, classmates, acquaintances—would come to my birthday and pool parties and tolerate each other, in school and more “public” social situations I usually had to drift between one and the other. As sixth grade turned into seventh, I somehow found myself the target of some coordinated class effort to make me a social pariah in school, the person left sitting alone at lunch at the middle of the table while everyone else congregated at either end and hurled insults in my direction. I couldn’t sit with my nerdy friend, who was assigned to another table, and my popular friend ghosted me for a while that year, so I could only endure it. Then, in eighth grade I found my home when I joined the band. Smart kids, cool kids, outcasts, whatever, we were all bonded by our music.
In high school, I had “best friends” among the band geeks, among the nerds, and even among the “popular” groups (although I still feared they were just tolerating me), and again I was the one who had to balance among them. I tolerated (and yes, even joined in, to my shame) when the cooler group made fun of the nerds. I was an accepted but somewhat oddball member of the nerds because I was liberal-minded, worked at a local pharmacy rather than the mall, and—heaven forbid!—wanted to go to college for music rather than law or medicine or something equally “prestigious.” I had the most fun in band, where I was part of the competitive jazz ensemble and thus had a higher standing in the larger group by default and closer bonds with the smaller group because we had to practice together more often, traveled together to competitions, and often partied together as well.
One friend I made in my freshman year and bonded with, who was also in band, ghosted me in about the middle of sophomore year, but we reconnected a while later, after she came out. This was the 1990s, long before being gay was accepted as normal, and she’d pulled away because she’d feared I wouldn’t be able to handle it. In truth, back then I probably wouldn’t have, but having time to learn of it and about it, I came to accept and support her. Our friendship resumed and has continued to this day. She is my oldest true friend, really, the only person who has actively and consistently been in my life since high school, even though we drifted apart at times, especially during college. Others have come and gone, and even a few have been there through everything since—my first husband, for example, was my high school sweetheart, and we remain good friends today—but she’s the only one who stayed without legal requirement.
Still, I longed for that one friend who would see me like a sister, like the girlfriends in the movies, someone who knew and loved everything about me and wanted me in her life as much as I wanted her in mine. I have actual sisters, but they’re much younger than I am and we have not been close since they were very young. I have a brother, too, closer in age, but we aren’t close either, although that may be more a matter of distance than affection, as we live on opposite sides of the country. The friends I’ve had, whether still around or long gone, have never fully fit the role of sister in my life, even if we were at one time inseparable. In college I attended a local university and lived at home, so I never did the on-campus thing. I was engaged, so I didn’t date anyone. I worked after my classes, so I never had time to join groups or pledge a sorority or write for the school paper. I made one friend who disappeared from my life without explanation very shortly before graduation; I never knew why, but as I was taking photos at graduation I caught sight of her in my lens, looking back at me with a horrible, nasty look; we’d never had any kind of falling out that I was aware of, so I was confused and hurt by it. Another friend was someone I worked with who also went to the same college, and we were incredibly close for a while; she was maid of honor in my first wedding. She even moved to Virginia after college shortly after I did and lived in the next apartment complex over from me, so we saw each other often until our kids were born and I moved to Florida.
The decade after college was taken up with marriage, and my new career, and moving to Virginia, and then motherhood and the move to Florida. The only friends I had or saw for a long time were coworkers, my old high school friend (who sometimes came to visit), and my husband’s friends. In Florida I made some acquaintances among his coworkers, but no strong connections until the year I started walking regularly, when I bonded with the neighbor who walked with me. She and I had a good year of girls’ nights out, and again I thought this would be a friendship to last, but when I found other friends through a shared interest group and began spending time with them, she very abruptly and definitively dropped me from her life. When I asked her why, via Facebook, she would only say she wasn’t talking to me; I never did learn what her issue was. I’d tried to include her in my other group, but she had refused to join in.
The shared-interest group was the largest collection of actual friends I’d had since the high school band, and for several months there were 20 or 30 of us who did things together all the time, overnight parties and going to fan conventions together and such. We gradually split off into smaller groups, where once again I found myself straddling cliques, but one friend in particular became my wingwoman after my marriage ended. She and I drank together, went clubbing together, and more than anything else we traveled together. She was one of those types who claimed to hate drama but was usually at the center of it, but I was so lost in my life then and having so much fun—more than I’d ever had, the kind of fun I’d missed out on in college because I’d been too busy being responsible—that I forgave her every imposition, every long night of drama she pulled down on us. Then, the weekend I moved out of my house and left my son behind, the weekend before I started my first new job in a decade, the week I needed a friend more than I’d ever needed anyone, she sent me a text message in which she said she had to cut people out of her life who were bringing her down, holding her back, something like that. We’d gone out dancing only two nights before. The month before I’d spent 8 hours on the phone with her while babysitting her daughter because she’d gone on a trip with her boyfriend and they’d had a fight, so she was driving back overnight by herself and needed someone to keep her awake. How was I holding her back? And to toss me out via a text message? She told me she’d explain it all—later, in a Facebook message. Not over the phone, not face to face, no, in another digital dismissal. I told her her to fuck off.
When that friendship fell apart, I was dating B. I had made two other close friends in the shared-interest group, and they became my support system as the rest of my life upended. I began to really take stock of my history and the path of failed friendships, and I began to see a pattern. My friendships seemed always to last 2, maybe 3 years before exploding or imploding or disappearing. I dubbed it my “expiration date” and came to believe that whatever it was about me that turned people off, it was a ticking bomb that I’d likely never be able to avoid. Fortunately, B and my new friends—who were well aware of my theory—stuck it out, and we even celebrated the passage of the 3-year mark as though it were some kind of major accomplishment. Sadly, one of those two friends has since disappeared from my life, but the other remains, and she and a former coworker remain in my life today, although they’re in Florida and I’m not, so we’re not much closer now than I am with any of my internet friends. But they’re there.
All of this brings me to my internet friends, some of whom are among my longest friendships, as I mentioned yesterday (I think). The oldest is a friend in Canada I met in a Ricky Martin fan forum. When 9/11 happened, I was in DC working. Our offices phones cut out and our internet was severely limited but instant messaging was working; she messaged me to make sure I was safe and then would send me updates from her Canadian TV news broadcast so I could find out what the hell was happening just a few miles away. Close seconds are the friends I met through my old blogging site, people who knew me before my son was born, whose kids I have watched grow up in photos for two decades now. The shared-interest group I knew in Florida started out as fellow members of an online book group. Even today, the people I share the most of my life with are members of another online book club that has evolved into a kind of mental health support group. They’re good people.
The common thread in all of this is that no matter how long or short my friendships have been, I’ve never achieved that ultimate goal of having someone here, in my life (besides my husband), who knows everything about me and shares everything about her life with me, who I can count on to listen when I need to vent and knows she can come to me for the same, who in this time could even be part of my covid bubble, someone who lives nearby that I could have a drink with safely now and then just to get out of my own head. Someone who, under normal circumstances, I could go shopping with or go to paint nights with, or join a book club with. Starting a new friendship this late in life seems like too much work for too little return, given my past experience. Why would I put myself out there, share my intimate thoughts, give my time and support, just to have it thrown back in my face all over again? This is what has me spending an afternoon typing out my miserable history to strangers who may or may not even have gotten this far, if anyone’s reading it at all, rather than just calling my friend.
I want that person, but at this point I’m too afraid of the risk and too lazy to make the effort anymore. I can barely bring myself to reach out to the friends I have; my life right now is so boring and limited by all this covid mess that I have nothing to talk with them about except how miserable I am. They probably feel the same in their own lives. I love them, and because I love them I don’t want to saddle them with having to listen to me. I’m still that girl who worries her friends are only tolerating her.