Whenever I’m particularly nostalgic, I like to think back to exactly how many people I have claimed to, or who have claimed to me, that we would be friends forever. I usually stop when the list grows too naively, foolishly long. I forgive myself those who I claimed life-long allegiance to from Kindergarten until about mid-high school, as friendships that last more than a year through schooling basically count as a lifetime friendship, anyway. But even as I’ve grown older, I seem to be perfectly confident of the longevity of the friendships I adopt, only to see them evaporate once the situation no longer holds us in one another’s company.
Part of this has to do with where you pick up your friends. In certain scarring and high-pressure situations (wars, competitive work environments, high school), you are smooshed together with people. You come in close contact, and you are held there by the invisible force of the situation and made to spend a lot of time together. You can do away with a lot of the first clutching awkwardnesses of forming a new relationship, because the situation compels you to get some confidants, and fast, lest you be devoured by the social hierarchy and spat out an isolate. Intimacy blooms out of necessity, and friendships suddenly become tight and irreplaceable in days.
In high school, like in war, you band together against common enemies. The people who become your closest are special, they’re not like those other guys, who are jerks. You close ranks, and spend all your time with one another. You develop group-think, and your own vernacular, and you have all the same inside jokes. Like couples who have been together for too long, you develop overlapping interests, and begin to resemble one another, as though disparate cells re-fusing in antimitosis. You develop the same style, and if anyone tried to pick you out of a line-up that included your close friends, it would be a strain.
When I was in high school, I was part of the people who liked to fancy themselves as daring outcasts (just like everybody else). We weren’t like all those other posers (back then, I would have spelled it with a horrific, douchebaggily superfluous ‘u’). Our individual identities evolved largely out of who we were not–namely, those other jerkwads . Together in our outcastedness, our friendship forged like wrought iron, and we were certain we would be friends forever. How could bonds so deep, so strong, and so based as they were on mutual interest in indie rock and Saddle Creek records, ever splinter?
And then we graduated.
Some of my high school friends are still in my life, and indeed some are important. The vast majority, the teeming hordes of individuals I encountered from ages 13-17, are now ciphers. They are personalities with mystery years and dozens of unread chapters, accruing life stories and experiences and growth that I neither know about nor desire to learn. They are detritus on my facebook page, lingering remnants in times of nostalgia, people I’m too wobbly to ever fully delete, despite having no concrete desire to ever contact them again. Occasionally I hear about them: who got pregnant, who got arrested, who got into med school. With years and miles and oceans between us, I can barely muster the righteous upraised fists that these sorts of futures would have brought to a 16-year-old me. They’re barely real to me anymore.
In teacher’s college, another crucible of pressure and desperation, I grew close with a greater number of people. With no legitimate common enemy apparent, we elected an arbitrary one (an opposing class of other primary/junior teacher candidates, who we had never met, became the target of our directionless and fervent ire. Crosstown!!!). We closed ranks and became friends, because we saw each other day, and experienced the same mind-bending lectures, the same reflection exercises, the same Mystery Box Feelings Controversy (teacher’s college was weird sometimes). We all faced the same crushing reality of the teaching job market. We would surely be connected forever, unified as we were by profession, and university, and passion.
Again, a few individuals have become embedded into my actual life, some of whom are even in Korea now. Some are lifelong pho-buddies, others I meet in bars for cake and discussions of pedagogy, others live in far-flung countries, people who I still nurse hopes of visiting and seeing again. And still others are life fodder, finitely bookended relationships that simply withered and blew away in a stiff wind once convenience no longer put us in the same sharing circle, the same shape group, the same drumming class (I told you).
Sometimes I worried about these lost connections. Was it healthy to let so many people go, so easily? I didn’t extend the effort, and neither did they, and just like that, suddenly dozens of people had all but vanished, drifting off on their separate orbits now that our brief tangent had passed. Was I just lazy, or incapable of maintaining healthy bonds?
The worry became still greater in Korea. Under the weight of culture shock and being so far from our supports, gaining friends was a crucial survival strategy. We each needed a system of sane, likewisely foreign individuals who naturally understood every frustration, every want, every longing. But with this greater understanding also came greater risk: I’ve become closer to people, and faster, but these are people from different countries, from different continents and hemispheres. We converged on a similar point in Korea, but when they go home, and indeed the go home time for many is soon, their home will not be my own. If I can’t manage to keep a friendship going across a few streets, how am I likely to manage across an ocean?
Every graduation, every end-of-year party, every final get-together holds a sense of finality. You’re closing out your years of study, or work, or drinking adjacent to libraries, but you’re also saying goodbye. They’re about new beginnings, but also about closing off most of the old beginnings. Each of these days sees promises: held hands under bright June skies, promises of the long years of connection to come. Constant hearkening to the first meetings, and to the many meetings yet to be had. Only when the situation no longer calls for your connections to be reinforced does their tenuousness become obvious, and people simply slip away from you.
But as this moment has come closer and closer for me in Korea, I’ve tried to find ways to make peace with it. For one, you can’t stay friends with everyone you’ve ever met, simply as a matter of time management. And people grow, and change, and move, and become jerks or get married or join cults or get new jobs and haircuts and cars and hobbies. And so do you, and so do I. And the place that you were, and the person you used to be, are no longer the same, and to try and force the puzzle to fit again won’t work if each of the pieces is still mutating.
And some friendships and connections aren’t supposed to last forever. Some are supposed to grow out of a situation, to help lead you through it, to provide you the support and the like-minds to get you over a hurdle, and then they can break. And I think I’m adjusting to the idea that this is okay, that not every bond I make is a forever one, that sometimes we’re not going to totally talk to each other after graduation, or that I’ll totally make the trip down to bumfuck wherever-in-the-world. Sometimes, friendships are supposed to have definite ends. This doesn’t make the bond less important, or less meaningful, just because you won’t be picking out matching coffins and trading quips in the retirement home, it just means that the time actually spent together should be cherished for what it is, and the time after shouldn’t be one of longing, or nostalgia, but one of fond recollection. Not regret for what is now gone, but thankfulness for what was then gained.