When you’re little, adults are always promising you that the next stage in your life is the place where you’re going to make friendships that’ll last a lifetime. ‘You have to go to school, that’s where you’ll make friends’ and ‘You can’t stay inside all summer, so go outside and form relationships’ roll off their tongues as easily as fables of Santa and the Tooth Fairy. ‘You may not like high school, but you’ll make friends I promise,’ will later morph into ‘University is great, you can really be yourself!’ These sentences are flung at you by teachers and parents alike, as if the promise of new friendships and relationships are the cornerstone of any new experience. Over the years I watched closely as the promises whispered to me as a child came true, but in altogether a different way than I expected. Except for a few diamond friendships that I am fortunate enough to treasure, most bonds I formed growing up have become ratty and as such I’ve had to throw them away; only clinging to survival via an occasional like on Facebook. The same adults that told me of the numerous bonds I’d make now tell me that sometimes people drift apart; that sometimes people aren’t meant to remain in your life, and quite often you just grow into very different people. But like most breakups and certain haircuts, you know it’s right but that doesn’t make it any easier.
These days I find myself able to count my close friends easily with one hand. I do this in a very philosophical way, pondering the place where the ghosts of friendships past go, searching for that one moment that started the disconnect in the relationship. There aren’t enough words, and I’m a big fan of words, to describe how sad and weird and confusing it is when I sit and wonder what happened to my once large circle of friends. Ebullient beach parties and once fluid conversation slowly seep into the past as all of us ventured off to become very different people. I check their social media and take in every detail of their lives like I am six again and reading a picture book, scanning the illustrations carefully. Some have kids, some have mortgages. Others are raising a career as if it was their offspring. I watch as one friend has a constant revolving door of casual dinner dates; I glare as another buys her first house and uploads videos of her new dog running around the room that are equal parts adorable and nauseating. Sometimes I want to be them: The people whose career arc excites me, the guy whose ease at life is impressive. The one whose mastery of adulthood has me simultaneously hostile and rapt. I’m not jealous of them in a traditional way – of bank accounts, or babies, or boyfriends – but it’s hard not to covet other people’s style of being. It’s hard not to think, if we were still close friends would I be as successful?
When I’m aware that I’m going to meet new people, at parties or social gatherings and so on, I am always determined to remain to distant, collected. But my first instinct is to share, and I offer up a very personal fact, thought or story ten minutes into my first conversation with them. Immediately I regret my open-book personality and decide that the friendship won’t work as I feel, on some level, they’re better than me. Even in recent years when attempting to forge friendships I still sometimes feel like I am acting in a bad movie; laughing at the right times, getting angry when it was appropriate, offering to give away items of clothing with which I genuinely do not want to part, all the while dishing out stupidly tight hugs like an overcompensating koala. Just working through the motions, waiting, and hoping, that the awkwardness will end and something beautiful will blossom. The anxiety of meeting someone new presents itself in an entirely different form now. It’s no longer a question of will that person like me, but rather a fleeting sense of panic whenever they mention their professional engagements whilst I nonchalantly whine about the tedium of retail life. You can always tell when you meet a person that’s further ahead career wise than you. You’ll find them saying ‘Aww, but you’ve progressed in your role!’ and other subtle patronising nods disguised as apparent endearment. Occasionally though you meet someone with a completely different energy. They have the same giddy excitement and low-key resentment as you; the same creative surge that flows through you is present in them and that seems a solid enough foundation on which to build a friendship. Every time I feel I’m getting closer to someone, that I’m on the cusp of forming a fresh friendship, they’ll post something political, leap on a bandwagon or something happens and suddenly the tie is severed, and I’ll switch from admiration to disdain. So why is it so hard to form new relationships in your twenties and thirties? Surely as adults we’ve got a firmer grasp on our beliefs and morals, pleasures and preferences? On paper making new bonds should be easier as we know the specifics of what do and do not want. Maybe that’s the problem though; life has taught some of us perspective and the dramas and dilemmas that may seem consuming to some barely faze the rest of us.
I keep looking back and thinking ‘Is this it? Is this truly all I’ve managed to mine from the extensive tunnels of potential friendships?’ But then, in the exact same thought, I agree to myself that those friendships that are now husks were always going to be finite. When you’re younger and your body is charging through puberty at lightning speed, the entire friendship forming process is remarkably vain. You very rarely scratch the surface of someone’s personality until a good few years into the friendship. When I was in high school and throughout my late teen years, the length of a friendship was lucky if it managed to crawl past the first year. Those days when you took three sips of a drink, then pretended to be drunk, making a big show out of being unable to walk in a straight line, like a character on Skins. At that time so many ridiculous reasons were invoked in the name of sacrificing a friendship. I’d go to great lengths to avoid someone that I just ‘didn’t like’ anymore. Nights of setting my MSN status to ‘Appear Offline’ just so I could stealthily chat to my chosen few without having to suffer another awkward conversation with a person I no longer considered a friend. I’d make subtle digs at whatever girl I branded overly bitchy and express my teen angst by decorating my screen name with hints of her wrongdoings. In reality, I was the little bitch.
At the time those petty teen arguments seemed eternal, now every conflict I have with friends is resolved by something I didn’t understand in earlier friendships: the discovery that you don’t always have to be standing in the same place to find common ground. Perhaps it’s also because as you grow up you stop impersonating empathy and start practising it. Maybe it’s because those few friends that remain in my life are meant to be there. I guess with friendship I’ve learned that it’s okay to have contrasting opinions and beliefs; it’s alright to challenge each other and call each other out. I’ve also worked out that when a friend is being direct with you (‘That’s way harsh, Tai’) it’s because they care, not because of any malicious intent. Now I know the anatomy of a friendship. I’ve dissected and put them back together in an altogether different way, and even though they hold no resemblance at all to the day they were first formed, they’re stronger than ever. Because real friendships are like a patchwork quilt; made up of lots of different patterns and parts, some you like, some you don’t; worn and frayed at certain edges, but comforting nonetheless. And when you’re in a dark, cold place, you’ll find yourselves wedged together; just two old friends. Conspiratorial, possibly drunk, on a good sofa, keeping each other warm.