In high school, I had a very close-knit group of friends—when I look over my senior yearbook, I am always amused and touched by our habit of referring to one another as “brothers.” When we graduated from high school and dispersed to different colleges, I insisted to myself that the bond I shared with them was too strong to be broken by mere distance. The love I had for them was not the kind of love that decayed or dulled over time, nor was I the kind of person who would let changes in my own life prevent me from maintaining our intimacy. I have since given the same speech to myself at two successive college graduations, and when I fly back to Chicago next week for a third graduation I suspect I will be tempted to give it again. For years my reaction to the possibility of losing friends has been to convince myself that I could somehow keep things from changing, even as I and all my friends grew up and yo-yo’d around the world. I vowed to write letters to all of them, and to visit them in their various new homes.
But recent events have conspired to disabuse me of my optimism and reveal to me how naïve I was in thinking my love was strong enough to resist time and space. There are only so many hours of the day and only so many dollars in my bank account, and the past year has been so full and painful and exhausting that now I find I cannot even remember how long it has been since I have seen certain of my friends from high school. I used to keep tabs on the time we had spent away from each other, but now that the intervals have grown from three months and six months to a year and two years, it seems I have given that up, perhaps for my own good. The same is true with my friends from college who graduated when I was a freshman or a sophomore. The effort required to make the calculations—I last saw him here, I’ll be in the same city as her at this time—is Herculean. It is far easier just to sink into the minutiae of the day, to enjoy the richness of my life without thinking about its proximity to, or distance from, the lives of those I have loved most.
When doubt struck, I used to feel hopeful about staying in touch with my friends when I thought of how my mother and father reacted when they first made Facebook accounts—they could reconnect with people they had not seen in years, and take in the whole trajectory of these lost friends’ lives with a few scrolls, a few messages. But for someone like me, who has been on Facebook since before I had even met any the people whom I have ever thought of as lifelong friends, there is no vividness when a high school friend posts a photo climbing a mountain or with a new girlfriend. My senior homecoming date and her boyfriend of several years, two people I love with all my heart, recently posted on Facebook that they had gotten engaged. I was in a movie theater lobby when I saw it on my phone, and in a flurry of emotion I called him and left a voicemail saying how happy I was, how beautiful it was, how much good I wished them. I have not heard back.
It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just that the forces that separate us are like continental drift, too strong and too subtle for us to resist. We don’t know how to resist them, because most of the time we can’t even see them. Every decision to go out drinking instead of writing a letter, to “like” or scroll past an update from an old friend—these are not even decisions, they are just the runoff of life lived, and yet they distance us from those we love. It seems to me in this moment that Facebook makes it worse, because it turns the richness of others’ lives into something to be registered, catalogued, and then immediately bypassed, but it has probably always been this way, and it always will be this way. People simply do move apart.
Another thing I used to tell myself was that no matter how long I went without seeing one of my friends, if we ever got to see each other again we would pick up right away. No doubt this is true for many of them, and there is no feeling that compares to the feeling of reading a friend’s letter and finding myself awash in their personality, but even within the small circles of our own lives, irrespective of our relationships to others, we change radically, invisibly, irreversibly. This spring a friend and mentor of mine, someone whom I write as often as I can, dropped by my apartment when he was in Chicago as a surprise, and as I stood up from my sofa I was shaken by anxiety. I didn’t know what to say to him, I didn’t know where or how to begin.
The only thing that comforts me from the unbearable thought that I would not be able to hold a conversation with many of my old friends if I saw them tomorrow is the equally unbearable thought that in many cases I will never have to find this out, as I may never see many of my friends again. My parents have packed up and moved from Florida to Washington, D.C. I have very little money and am always busy. My friends are all living lives of their own—who knows where they will go? I have friends who are graduating next week who will go on to move to India, China, and God knows where else. How will I see them? How will I stop myself from forgetting them?
I tell myself I will have to write them letters. I will have to stay updated on where they are so I can visit them if I find myself in their cities. But even writing those sentences breaks me in half, because I already know how hollow those vows are, and how little they matter when life moves us in different directions so swiftly and pitilessly.
Even as it takes away, the world always provides us with new things, sometimes even vomits up the old things, but that fact is small consolation when I think about the pe0ple I may fall out of touch with in the next year—Madison, Julianna, Kevin, Bess, Maira, Nora, Konje, Hannah, Cathryn, Jackson, Andrew…I cannot bear to continue, the numbers swell as I try to write even the first few, they surround me like premature ghosts. God forbid I think about those I have already fallen out of touch with: I cannot even write their names without falling apart, I want them all back, I want to fold the map and send them all flying into my living room—Jonathan, Jeffery, Ryan, Morgan, Brandon, Ryan, Nick, Natalie, Wynter, Quinn, Harrison, Olivia, Katryce, Hannah, Bea, and so many more, some of whom live so close to me, some of whom I could see at any time and yet from whom I am separated as though by layers of atmosphere.
Few things are more important to me than solitude, and yet as I sit here in the living room of the apartment I am subletting, alone in an unfamiliar city, I wish I could give my entire life to other people, fill my days with a carousel of friends and relatives so that I could always keep everyone fresh in my mind, always know that I would see everyone again soon, hold everyone within me the way heaven holds its occupants.
The nobility of writing comes from the certainty of its failure, its unbearable insufficiency. How horrible to have to sit here and say all this with words: I would much rather be a beacon visible around the world, a star my friends could see from a bedroom or the patio of a bar and know that I am saying, wordlessly, constantly, I still love you, I am still here.
New York, 6/6/16