In this new column, Strange Friendships, Helena Fitzgerald explores the nebulous nature of friends.
We got to the house in the middle of the night, our five cramped bodies spilling out of the car and onto the driveway. It was Fourth of July weekend and we’d gone to a friend’s house in upstate New York. The leaves in the driveway swirled in front of the headlights of the car—a tiny storm for an invited audience. We threw our bags inside, sat at the kitchen table, and passed around a bottle of whiskey until it was empty. The night blurred greasy lamplight across my vision at the edge of the morning. It somehow felt momentous being there that weekend, all of us having agreed to go away together. I thought how a scene like this one was the closest thing I knew to what I mean by the word “family,” sitting around a kitchen table late at night and believing that there’s nothing in the world from which the people you’ve gathered here can’t keep you safe.
I woke up early the next day, made coffee, and sat out on the porch until somebody else joined me while the heat of the day descended onto the morning. I thought that this was a word for family, too—sitting in silence together, stretching out an interior solitude into a shared space. It got later and sweaty and we ran out of coffee while we waited for another friend who had just driven cross-country and would end his trip here. When he arrived, we cued up a stereo to play loud music and we ran alongside his car yelling and cheering as he pulled into the driveway.
It was cheesy and embarrassing—most things I’ve ever really wanted are things I've called cheesy and embarrassing when I didn’t want to admit my longing for them. We spent the weekend running around pelting each other with water balloons in an absurd game we’d created. No one could remember the rules, so everyone just threw as many water balloons as they could, shrieking and dodging. We ran out of balloons and picked their remains out of the lawn, illuminating the greens with tiny swatches of bright neon like confetti.
Romances, couplings, marriages: all of these contain premade signposts and triumphs. Part of a romantic relationship is the moment when you turn and display the achievements of continued intimacy—look how close I’ve gotten to this person, look how committed we are to each other. The proofs of legitimacy are built in, like points on a map between which one can drive cleanly, staying on the wide highways, the well-lit roads. We know when we have reached the next plot point and we know what it means when we get there. From the declaration of a relationship to cohabitation to marriage to the decision to start a family, the world lifts the couple up at each turn, affirming their choices.
Friendship, however, has no such reassuring signposts, and no answering congratulations upon arrival. Friendship is the catchall for otherwise nebulous relationships—acquaintances, crushes, coworkers, people you’ve hooked up with, people you’ve only met on Twitter, people to whom you haven’t spoken in years. Friendship is a grey area, and this very lack of definition, this space beyond category, is what has always drawn me to it, made it feel bigger and more consequential than other relationships. Friendship offers an undefined space that can be made new without expectation.
We called the water balloon game a “tradition.” I thought that that was a way of saying family, too—the traditions to which one chooses to be loyal. I went to high school in a small town peopled almost exclusively by residents who had moved there within the last twenty years, and there was a running joke about how people in the town would call anything they’d done more than twice a tradition. But I understood the longing there, the desire to be part of something larger, something that repeats and returns again and again, the baseline keeping time underneath the melody, the desire to create a family.
I’d met these friends in ones and twos in my early twenties, pulled together through time and crisis and accumulated trust into a small constellation that stretched across fifteen blocks of Brooklyn. Most of the romantic couplings I attempted in those years were trash fires, disasters so terrible that they were almost funny. But with my friends, I was clear-eyed and loyal and wanted desperately to treat everyone well. Friendships were the place I returned to again and again, the lit-up house at the end of the road. Every time someone broke my heart, it was something to carry to the apartment overlooking the wide avenue and the empty billboard, where we all congregated into a kitchen too small for us. I didn’t know I had made a family of friends until it was already happening.
I grew up an awkward, unpopular kid. Adults were always telling me that I would find my group of friends, and so I waited for it to happen as though it were a guaranteed event that required no action on my part. I hovered around and—from the outside—looked into other people’s groupings. Until I was well into my teens, I watched obsessively, trying to understand how other people managed to make friends. I took apart and put back together the ways people formed groups, the ways they pulled some people in and shut others out. I reached for some grand logic that would unlock friendship like a dance that could be learned.
Eventually, I saw where the codes lived between people, how they verified themselves and why they returned to one another. I began to identify and speak the shibboleths that someone was looking for, even when I didn’t mean it. I was nervous whenever I visited religious or political groups, aware of the longing—bursting just behind my teeth—to enact some sudden bolt of faith, to then be welcomed by the group. I pretended to care about television shows, bands, movies, actors, and other pop culture signals because I heard someone else declare loyalty to them. The truth seemed immaterial next to my all-consuming desire to be part of something larger than myself.
The friendships I found in my twenties, the ones that crowded into the rickety house on that Fourth of July weekend, were based in something real—I’d pushed my way into enough groups by that point to learn that mouthing words I didn’t mean was at best a temporary measure. I felt buoyant, aware that, for a brief moment, I’d achieved the utopia I’d been chasing: a group of friends who replaced and enacted the family, one that affirmed whom we all chose to be, not who we had to be.
But that weekend, when we chased each other with water balloons, when we sat on the wide porch and talked about how we’d all grow old together someday, we were already splitting apart. We were retreating to the idea that a life based on friends—rather than on more clearly defined relationships—is essentially adolescent; to grow up, one has to grow out of these idealistic and amorphous groupings.
There was just one spot on the porch with phone reception, and that weekend I would gravitate to it again and again, texting a man who lived far away but who was beginning to pull my world into a different orbit. The friend who had returned from a road trip got out of his car and kissed his girlfriend like he’d just come back from war. Three years later, they’d be married; at least four other friends from that weekend would get married within the following three years. We pulled back to the premade patterns, the traditional couplings with their obvious rewards, and pushed our friendships to the sidelines. We still loved one another fiercely, but we spent holidays with our families, and kept our secrets, losses, and triumphs inside smaller boxes.
There is no widely understood way to mourn friendships when they recede from centrality in our lives—romances, even if they end amicably, come with mourning periods and a language to explain the loss. But a friendship that fades into the margins is merely considered a condition of growing older. I only noticed the change after it happened, when a lack appeared and I wondered where it was that the cold wind was getting in through, and why it felt like something was missing.
I have often fallen into the trap of praising friendships for, unlike romance or family, not being an obligated relationship. The defining utility of a biological family is the very aspect from which we rebel—its built-in obligation. Family is where love and inconvenience are one and the same—they are the people we see even when we wish to turn away. We are forced to take ownership of the choices we make in regards to the members of that family; to distance oneself from one’s family is a definitive action, a clear and visible break. Often it’s those of us who have cut ourselves away from our biological families who seek out tightly-knit friend groups to replace them.
Friendships, on the other hand, often end in a kind of anticlimactic fadeout. There is no external structure that compels us to keep up friendships when they are inconvenient. The closest friendships, the ones that feel like family, can end in a slow and undramatic muttering, with no defining event or explanation, until the word “friend” means “someone I used to know.” We depict friendships as an escape from rigorous relationships, forgetting that love itself is a form of rigor. Maintaining any type of meaningful relationship requires a daily reckoning with ourselves and with our obligations to others. I only realized later that it is our obligations that bind us together, that raise friendships up out of the casual, the nebulous, and toward the realm of family. The idea of a friend group, of a utopian chosen family, still often seems to me more noble and more beautiful, the thing I should have wanted if I had been a better, more interesting person.
My boyfriend and I spent the Christmas before last in London, refusing the obligation to either of our families. Feeling glamorous and rebellious, we planned to spend this most family-centric holiday in a hotel room, drowning ourselves in the luxuries of the couple form. But then my best friend, who lives in London, let me know he’d just gone through a brutal breakup, and another friend from the old friend group in New York happened to be in London for the holiday. My best friend lived way out at the edge of London, and we barely caught the last train before they stopped running for the holiday, rushing through an abandoned cityscape on Christmas Eve to get there. It was arduous, and annoying, and I hadn’t wanted to go. I’d planned to not get out of bed all day long on Christmas, giddily refusing obligation. But there we all were on Christmas, sitting around a table, sharing an excess of food meant to represent love. It was exactly the utopia I’d dreamed of when I’d said my friends were the family with whom I’d grow old. I chose to inconvenience myself in order to connect to something larger, in order to reaffirm a tiny chosen family. Perhaps that’s the only code, the one that never revealed itself through years of lonely study of other people’s friend groups: The work we choose to do to build homes amongst ourselves and others, and the rewards, however brief, that that work yields.