When Elizabeth stopped returning my phone calls I was crushed. Despite the fact that we were both in our forties, I felt like I was thirteen and she was one of the popular girls. As far as I could tell, Elizabeth had always been popular, in an easy way. She wasn’t the bitchy girl with the shiny hair and the roll-on lip gloss; she was the one who was good at gymnastics, whose family could afford horseback riding and camp. She enjoyed the kind of effortless popularity of those who don’t ever seem to think much about it, who just take for granted the world has a place for them in it.
I hadn’t known Elizabeth at thirteen. We met in our twenties. But for a while, I’d felt certain of her; I’d thought of her as family. For two decades we’d kept in touch: quickie midweek chats and long, everything-under-the-sun heart-to-hearts. There’d been afternoons in cafés dissecting art and life, rehearsals in dusty studios and shows in tiny, magical spaces tucked into corners of the city. There’d been drinks afterward in bars frequented and staffed by actors, directors, and playwrights. There’d been boyfriends—three for her, roughly eight and a half for me. Then she’d married Andrew and had Liv and bought a house with a little backyard in a neighborhood of expensive strollers, craft beer, and upcycled furniture stores. She had new mom friends and faculty meetings. It became a struggle, during our infrequent hangouts for tea or soup at her kitchen table, not to think of her as someone I used to know.
In seventh grade, Gillian Dempsey pulled me aside at recess and told me people would like me if I didn’t say weird things or act like a weirdo. She said she’d let me know when I did, so I could stop. My gratitude for Gillian’s benevolence was shot through with a feeling I didn’t recognize at the time as anger over what felt like an unfair choice: I could win acceptance by burying parts of myself or I could resign myself to being alone. I felt shame, too. I couldn’t fathom what it was about me that wasn’t OK, that meant I didn’t belong. I talked about the wrong things, I guessed. I smuggled books everywhere I went, I didn’t wear eyeliner or Calvin Kleins. I stood on the edges of conversations about boys and TV shows and tried to laugh in the right spots, braced all the time for the backhanded compliment or the private joke I wouldn’t get. Some—perhaps most—of my happiest times were spent in solitary tranquility. There was so much to keep tabs on in the company of others, so many moving parts. It wore me out. I wasn’t adept at social niceties, prone to nonsequiturs and bluntness. Feeling alone feels less raw when you actually are alone than when you’re with other people. I swapped the more jarring for the less.
That same year, Monica Hazlett scrawled “Keep in touch!” in the margin next to her photo in our yearbook, beside which she’d penned the word “Gross!” with an arrow pointing to her face. Girls who had deigned to speak to me only when they wanted to copy my homework wrote in my yearbook that spring: “Keep in touch!” with their phone number below or in some cases, like Monica, “U R 2 Cute 2 B 4gotten!” I was bewildered. Had we been friends all along, unbeknownst to me? Why did they want to keep in touch?
I’m not one of those people with dozens of friends from every chapter of their life. I wish I were; it’s so romantic—the story of moving away from home but going back again, reckoning with your past, reconnecting time and again with the people you knew, the person you were. I picture pool or darts in a little bar, a late night talk by your old high school or on the sloped roof of your childhood home, Big Chill-style reunions with people you used to sleep and get high with when all of you were young and idealistic.
Sometimes I imagine myself in the family photos of people I used to know. I picture families lingering over albums in the faraway future, someone leaning over someone else’s shoulder, pointing at me, asking, Who was that? They hold the photo closer and squint. It’s a touch blurry. I’m perched on a couch with a plate of lasagna or Christmas cookies. Or standing in row two of a group shot, next to an uncle or next-door-neighbor. The first person replies, “I think she was someone’s girlfriend. Or did she lifeguard that summer at the pool?”
Throughout college and for a decade or so after, I’d been a member of various ad hoc tribes. We’d worked on shows and in restaurants together and had coalesced into roving bands that hung out at diners and bars that had since ceded their blocks to Starbucks, vintage boutiques, and foodie taco joints. It was a recurring motif in the ‘90s: families of friends, bound by choice instead of blood. Friends was on TV and Rent was on Broadway and Sex and the City was on HBO. I hungered, in those days, as fiercely as I had in seventh grade for a sense of belonging, to be an indispensable member of a pack. But most of my alliances felt transitory. There were people I liked, people I clicked with, people I slept with or wanted to. But I never felt like I belonged. I was in and out of relationships, in and out of friendships. When I met Elizabeth, I felt an instant kinship. I resolved to make her family.
My relationship with my own family was strained. I’d grown up in a household of secrets and abuse. It was Darwinian, survival of the fittest, every girl for herself. I guess family doesn’t mean what it used to, my mother liked to say if I challenged the dysfunctional state of affairs. Nothing’s more important than family. If that was true, I wanted a different one. I kept my head down and plowed through book after book, looking for clues on how to get by in a chaotic and scary world. I loved the impossibly devoted sisters of Little Women, though I fancied myself more of a Peter Pan, a loner who could singlehandedly clobber a boatload of pirates. I was upset by The Velveteen Rabbit, the story in which a stuffed rabbit becomes real through the love of the boy who owns him. Love broke you, I saw; love tore seams and rubbed you raw till the insides of you were pressing to get out. I loved the book because it was sad with beautiful pictures—the rabbit winds up on the rubbish pile because it gets infected with scarlet fever—but the notion that you only become real by being loved struck me as grossly unfair. There was every chance, in that case, that I wasn’t truly real and never would be.
I’d known Elizabeth for nearly twenty years when things started to go south—the unreturned phone calls, the plans cancelled last minute. And she wasn’t the only friend I felt drifting away. My old roommate had fallen in love and moved to Australia. Other friends were building tribes of their own with life partners and spouses, Jack Russells and toddlers. They were throwing holiday parties that started closer to dusk than midnight and buying subscriptions for boxes of seasonal organic vegetables from local farms. Everyone’s just so busy, people said. They all put it like that; not just Elizabeth. Everyone’s just so busy. It’s crazy. With work and the kids, and the fireplace we’re putting in. With Sheila’s mom and classes and trying to sell our place. With traveling and everyone’s been sick. When things calm down, we have to get together.
I was sick of it. I was sick of everyone saying it. I said it myself. I had work and writing and the house was a mess. I sat at home and didn’t do the dishes. It was mysterious to me how lost I felt, how utterly alone.
Maybe it was karmic payback. I’d dropped the ball on my share of friendships. In third grade, a girl named Bonnie, the daughter of a colleague of my father’s who lived in a different city, had asked to be pen pals. I liked the idea; it sounded exotic. I liked that my name and address printed on an envelope meant that of all the houses in the United States, all the houses in the world, the letter would come to mine. I liked to write my city and state, then USA, Planet Earth, the Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. I liked the marvelous way envelopes were sealed with spit, their folded triangles, the magical canceled stamp. But the content of Bonnie’s letters left me unmoved—maybe because we just didn’t know each other that well. We hadn’t any history. I have one still in my possession, a Christmas card that reads:
I miss you a lot! Please send me a picture of you! How have you been? I have been fine. My cat got hit by a car and lived for a half of an hour after that! Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Did you get my last letter? On your next letter, tell me if you got the Christmas card letter. (that is this letter.) I have to go bye bye.
Love, Bonnie your pen pal
P.S. If you lost my address it is:
863 Claremont Ave.
Burlington, Mass. 01803
I sincerely intended to write back, but I don’t think I ever did, and though I guess I didn’t hang on to it, I remember getting a goodbye letter from Bonnie saying she didn’t understand why I didn’t want to be her pen pal. Looking back I wonder if I was the subject of conversation at Hines’ family dinners, if Bonnie’s dad thought his colleague had a heartless daughter. And that was just the first time I fell short. There were plenty of failures that came later. Over the years I’d collected an alphabet of obsolete friendships—from Adrienne, who drifted away upon falling for a man who baked pies and recited Neruda on her fire escape, to eccentric Tasha, of the voluminous scarves and feverish poems, with whom things began to unravel after a road trip gone awry.
I started scrolling though the Facebook pages of people with whom I hadn’t had real-life contact for years. I couldn’t find Bonnie, but I thought I may have found her Pinterest board where she’d pinned a series of coffee tables. The only person from junior high I could find on Facebook was Julian Khoury, on whom I’d had a hopeless crush. Back then, when I’d found out where he lived, I’d taken up jogging so I could casually jog by his house in hopes of striking up a conversation if he happened to be just hanging out in his front yard. His father drove a DeLorean. On Facebook he was at an Indian restaurant with his kids, dressed as Voldemort for Halloween, playing little shows in a band like he was back then. I didn’t send a friend request.
Elizabeth wasn’t on Facebook. She’s pretty crunchy—easily distressed by things like high heels and reality TV. She was in touch with her friends from high school the old-fashioned way, with phone calls and letters—and emails, I suppose. I’d met some of them over the years. They were well-scrubbed, well-off ladies who did yoga and took ski vacations. I started looking up my own high school friends, scouring their pages for hints of the Latin-verb-conjugating, wine-cooler-drinking, Springsteen-and-Prince-loving girls in plaid skirts they’d been in that era of our lives. One had a Facebook wall full of pictures of kids and grandparents along with a couple of Channing Tatum with whom she apparently shares a birthday.
My college roommate Lucy posted pictures of artful cappuccinos, links to parenting articles, and photos of family travels. I lingered over the latter, trying to magically scry who she had become. I’d stood up in her wedding, and now we hadn’t spoken in years. She’d visited once, when she was in the city for a conference. We sat in a big booth and ate pasta. She had a sleek bob, conservative earrings, business lady blouse. I watched her swirl a crust of bread in olive oil, take a sip of wine. We exchanged pleasantries. She was more mysterious to me than before we’d first spoken. It was the same when I ran into Adrienne at Target one day. I knew from Facebook that she liked Airbnb and had very stylish children. We exchanged awkward pleasantries. She looked sad. Was it because we’d once been close? Or for some other reason having nothing whatever to do with me? Maybe she wasn’t sad at all and it was me projecting my sadness on to her.
My fantasy said if I stayed in touch with all the old friends, I’d have a bowl of Christmas cards in my dining room by New Year’s. There would be shared summer rentals and meaningful conversations with friends who would drop by unannounced when I just happened to be taking a loaf of vegan banana bread out of the oven. Perfect moments of communion and belonging. We’d take a picture of the banana bread and put it on Facebook.
That myth of perfect moments persists, even though I know they don’t exist. I mean, maybe they do, once in a long while, but it’s useless trying to contrive them. There isn’t a recipe.
Elizabeth used to host a long weekend every summer at her family’s farmhouse west of the city on a tributary of the Mississippi. People slept in house and barn and pitched tents by the pond her parents had had put in. There were bonfires, pancake breakfasts, skinny dips. One Saturday night years ago, a group of us lingered around the butcher-block island in the kitchen, drinking red wine and baking chocolate chip cookies. I’d had more than enough wine and definitely too much cookie dough. I was uneasy, worried I’d talk too much, say the wrong thing, be the person everyone wished had stayed home. I felt the familiar urge to flee—I didn’t belong, these weren’t my people, I didn’t have people. But in the next moment I had the wiser thought—more of a feeling, really, and why it struck me then I can’t say—that everything was okay, that an imperfect moment in which someone has had more than enough wine and definitely too much cookie dough, even a moment in which someone feels uneasy, is a fine moment nonetheless and furthermore, that I belonged there, whatever that means, as much as anyone else. I have a photo someone took of us then. We’re laughing. There’s Lindsay, who I didn’t know yet in the way I would, and Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s best friend, who died last year, and Jess, who moved to London, and some other women I’d certainly stop and hug if I saw them in the grocery store.
On Facebook, I found Jane, who’d been my best friend from second through fifth grade. She’d showed up for second grade in a blue and white sailor dress like a girl from one of my books. She had a British accent; her family had lived in England and Kenya, and on weekends her father dressed in white trousers and sweater and played interminable games of cricket in the park. I’d wanted to be Jane’s best friend. Not second or third best or one of her best—her only best.
There was a commercial on TV back then—for what, I don’t recall—in which two boys signed a handwritten contract to be best friends forever and buried it in a coffee can in one of their backyards. The kids grew up in a brisk montage until—in a popular twist of that era—one of them took off a baseball cap and shook out her Susan Dey hair, at which point the two were shown exchanging vows in the coffee can backyard. Besides the wedding part, that’s what I craved with Jane, that kind of commitment. I proposed a contract; she didn’t think it was necessary. I was secretly watchful, during games of Chinese jump rope and truth or dare, on the lookout for signs that she loved anyone else just as much as she loved me.
Jane accepted my friend request. On Facebook, she was hiking in snow. On the beach with her pre-teen daughters. Running a 5K. I clicked through till I arrived at a hazy snapshot of our Brownie troop from third grade. Someone had tagged me as Meg O’Reilly. I commented beneath the grainy photo, “That’s me, second from the right in the bottom row. With the bangs. Not Meg O’Reilly.” When no one responded in twenty-four hours, I deleted the comment, embarrassed. I brooded over my status: Unrecognized Brownie, circa 1978.
After that, I started looking up loneliness itself. That’s how I found out it was worse for you than smoking. I took quizzes online:
- Do I withdraw from others when overwhelmed with life’s stresses?
- Do I expect others to first approach me, but never take the first step myself?
- Does embarrassment inhibit me from initiating new relationships?
- When others do not match my expectations, do I reject them?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could be unknowingly isolating yourself.
I read about how capitalism wants everyone to live alone so we buy more stuff and how most friendships last on average seven years and maybe I wasn’t broken, maybe I was a casualty of modern society, but I did not want to get cancer. So measures needed to be taken. I made rules for myself—minimum requirements for real-life social contact. I left my house in winter. I went to parties where I was bored sometimes and told myself I’d survive—it’s not about being entertained a hundred percent of the time. I thought of it as exercise or medicine—not always pleasant, but salutary nonetheless.
I made new friends. Lindsay, who’d been part of one of those loosely formed tribes of my twenties, moved from second tier into first when we co-taught a writing class at Lake County Jail. I bonded with Emily, a colleague in the arts nonprofit I worked for, while we worked the coat check one night at a benefit, drinking white wine, eating M&Ms and playing a game I invented involving song lyrics, of which both of us had formidable mental catalogues. I paid attention to these friendships—how they gained ground in increments, what I worried about as they progressed. I had the familiar thirteen-year-old anxiety that the coveted friend wouldn’t like me back. It takes time to know and be known.
I’d made up my mind that Elizabeth was part of my tribe; she was family. What I forgot was that family relationships, not least of which my own, are often fraught. Distant. Hard to navigate. The family you struggle to understand. The family that sometimes dashes your hopes. The family you can’t turn your back on. She’s moving across the country this summer—plus she now has two preteen daughters—so she may change her mind about Facebook, the better to stay in touch. Maybe someday I’ll be liking pictures of her family’s chicken coop and yurt.
Recently, someone shared a post by Anne Lamott. She quoted Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” Part of me scoffed, new age hokum, but another part felt it was a true thing. We’re all connected, all going to the same place. I took Lindsay’s arm once when we were crossing the street, and I thought in that moment that that might be how we’d cross the street when we were old ladies. I was pleased with the thought, because I don’t always imagine myself making it to old age, and pleased also with the idea of having a friend for that long, someone I would love and be loved by in return, year after year after year. Almost like a tiny tribe. Like family.
The reunion in The Big Chill is occasioned by the suicide of one of the friends. At the start of the movie, the camera lingers on each character as they get word of their friend’s death and then make their way to his funeral. One bathes his young son, another gazes out the plate glass window of an office building and takes a drag on a cigarette, a third sips from a plastic tumbler on an airplane. You see the little behaviors only the people who live with them know—only the people who know them well, like how I know that Emily doesn’t like blueberries and Lindsay will get pissed if you make her do something crafty. At the funeral, they play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which is the song I voted should be played at my college graduation. (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It” won instead.) I loved that song—something about the organ and choir sounded like Jesus himself was offering you, yes, you there with the Walkman running past the cemetery, that fatherly bromide, No one said life was going to be handed to you on a silver platter. There was something comforting knowing that was our human condition. Even the Stones sang about it. It was on the radio. You could try to get what you needed, and that would have to suffice. It was a relief.
Anyway, when I took Lindsay’s arm she said, “This is how I walk with my sister.” Suddenly, she got a little choked up. “You’re like a sister to me,” she said. I play the Rolling Stones in the movie of that moment, when I roll it back in my mind. It was spring. We’d shed our winter layers. My jacket blew open in the wind. Lindsay tucked my arm more firmly under hers and we walked across Sheridan east toward the lake.