By Elena Schneider
I was standing in the security line at Reagan National Airport when I saw my ex-boyfriend for the first time in more than a year. He’d moved to D.C. recently, but despite an early attempt to meet up, he’d remained a ghost for months. It took a long time, but despite our shared zip code, I’d started to find my footing again.
But then I saw him. And I ducked. (Mature, I know.) Under my convenient sweep of hair, I texted two of my best friends, Laurie and Meghan. SAW HIM, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Even in this long-distance friendship, where we often struggle to stay in touch, they were magically both there to panic alongside me. It was a long security line, me at the beginning and him at the end. I thought, OK, I don’t think he saw me. We can get through this and not talk. Cool.
But as I sat at Gate 35X, I stared at my phone with a text from an unknown (but oh so known) number saying he’d seen me passing by and how he just wanted to say, “hi” — a text shrouded in the obligatory “haha,” because can’t you tell how casual I am? (Granted, he was more of a grown-up than I was by acknowledging it, so Maturity Round One: He wins.)
Typing and deleting — I cycled through all the iterations of cosmic meaning that put us in a place of arrivals and departures at Christmas time, wondering frantically: What is this supposed to mean? Does it mean anything at all?
Before responding, I asked Laurie and Meghan what I should do. I’m the youngest of three girls, so I’ve been asking women what to do my entire life, and I believe deeply that three heads are better than one.
“You spend four years building your little castle in the sky, populated by friends who make you laugh until you cry, who challenge your perceptions, who hold your hair back as you vomit — every once in awhile, all at the same time — and then, one day, that castle’s gone.”
But rather than support my not-so-passively aggressive text that would ask for answers from him I’d been dying to hear, they said absolutely not. Don’t respond, they said: This isn’t a sign. You shouldn’t talk to him. This doesn’t mean anything. Get on your plane, and go home.
Rage ripped through me as I read blurring blue messages from my long-distance friends. Finally, here was an opening to ask questions that went so long unanswered after this relationship stuttered to an end.
Fury flickered brighter and brighter. They don’t know me anymore. They don’t know how I’ve been feeling. We don’t even talk to each other. They don’t know me anymore.
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Growing up, I lived in a small, conservative college town in North Carolina, and I knew I hadn’t found my tribe yet. Sure, I had nice friends who are lovely people. But beyond the convenience of high school, I knew, at my core, I didn’t belong there. I was not going to stay there.
Then, [trumpets] I went to college. And the rest of this paragraph will read much like a love letter because, to be honest, I fell in love. My friends and I, we assembled a league of extraordinary women who delighted in each other in every way. But that same group also knew when to grab you by the shoulders and ask, “What the fuck are you thinking?” And you probably deserved it.
In my bones, I knew, “Here they are. Here’s my tribe.”
But then, we graduated. Which, yeah, happens to everyone. But we’re also young and human, so we thought we felt graduation the most deeply. You spend four years building your little castle in the sky, populated by friends who make you laugh until you cry, who challenge your perceptions, who hold your hair back as you vomit — every once in awhile, all at the same time — and then, one day, that castle’s gone. You’ve all fallen face first on hard concrete, and when you get up, you’re not together anymore.
One of my most insightful friends put it this way, glancing down a long table of us, sitting in the June Chicago sunshine just before graduation: “I don’t want to make new friends. No new friends.” Sure, it was a joke, but that joke cradled a whole lot of truth in it.
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That refrain we chant to the people who no longer shape the everyday contours of our life: Things never change between us. We see each other and it’s like no time has passed. We’ll make the distance work.
I say it, too. I say it all the time. I’ve scattered my best friends like crumbs across this country, making trips to their new homes a thrill. But it’s a poor trade-off for what we once had. A trip to India, where one friend lives, might be cool, but then how do you save for the plane ticket? What about vacation days? Walking down the hall felt much easier.
Then again, this is adulthood, right? We grow up, out and on. We chase careers across the world, and why wouldn’t we? Passion is what brought us together in the first place.
“Friends can and do fade, disappear. Sometime it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Keeping your tribe together takes hard, intentional work, and we’ve, luckily, each chosen to fight for it.”
Our friendship looks a little different these days. Weekend trips. Long, unplanned phone calls. Awkward FaceTimes on public transportation. Hurried, sometimes empty, texting conversations. Likes on Instagram and Facebook.
On a weekend last June, Meghan, Laurie, and another friend, Jacqueline, and I went to a country concert (country, we know). We sat on blankets in the fading summer light, splitting cheap beer with arms hanging loosely around each other’s waists. Meg and I posed for a million pictures before we found a social media-worthy one. We renewed each other, finding, again, the depths to which we fulfill each other by simply being there.
There are a million ways to stay in touch these days, but without that essential there-ness, communing in each other’s daily minutiae, do we still know each other in the same way? How do we find each other again?
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Back at the airport, my fingers drummed at the edges of my iPhone. Tears stung the corners of my eyes as Laurie and Meghan continued to send a stream of texts that poked holes in my anger and irrationality.
Laurie lives in Waco, Texas, and Meghan lives in Chicago, but they know me. Because even as I text-yell at them, they don’t bend, they don’t disappear. They know, sometimes better than I do, who I am and what I need.
I swiped left and the texts from my ex were gone, without a response. Kid Cudi reminds us, “Memories, they soon delete.” He’d be more accurate, though, if he’d added, “…if we choose to delete them.” (Mr. Cudi, please forgive my rhythmically poor edit.)
Friends can and do fade, disappear. Sometime it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Keeping your tribe together takes hard, intentional work, and we’ve, luckily, each chosen to fight for it.
When I landed in North Carolina, I planned to call Laurie and Meghan to thank them. But dinner had already started by the time I got home, so I forgot. I think they’ll forgive me.
Elena Schneider writes for Politico and lives in Washington, D.C.