Since childhood, while my classmates were dreaming of ponies, weddings, and things drenched in glitter, I dreamed of lifelong friendships. The kind popular culture feeds young boys and girls like me, looking for a place to fit in and person to confide in. The friend I wished for was the one who was comfortable enough to walk into my home and call my parents Mom and Dad, to which they’d reply fondly, asking if my dream friend wanted to stay for dinner, and she always did. I wanted what Shawn Hunter and Cory Matthews had. In fact, I longed for it and hoped I’d someday be worthy enough to step out of my dream and into a reality where I was platonically loved by someone who wasn’t obligated to love me but chose to anyway. I crave and craved friendships for many of the same reasons I believe other people do. When I think about my closest friends, I know that outside of us having shared interests, I matter enough to them to be missed when I am not around in the same way that I miss them just the same. We choose each other, and the act of being chosen quells the fear of worthlessness. At least, for me.

The first best friend I ever had is named Nicole. When I sat down to write this, I texted her for permission, which she granted excitedly. Nikki knew me at my first worst and my first best. We met in kindergarten when she asked if she could play blocks with Leah and me. We were inseparable after that, Nikki and I: We sat next to each other for every possible thing, played together, and made promises that kids can never keep, like being best friends forever, buying houses next door to each other, and never fighting. Nikki remained my best friend throughout elementary school until fourth grade, when our elementary school became an alternative school, and we were forced to move to different schools. In middle school, I met Lorraine, and we became fast friends the way you do in controlled spaces. She and I would navigate those years joined at the hip, before her family moved at the beginning of what was supposed to be our freshman year of high school. Our friendship has lasted the test of time, thanks to cellphones.

Nikki and I met again in high school, a little older, much more emotional, but with the same childlike magic in our eyes. We spent four years of high school relearning each other, creating new memories, fighting and making up and fighting again. We grew apart for a bit after high school, trying to figure out the world on our own, trying to reckon with and love the people we were becoming. My dream of a childhood best friend died when we drifted, but I look back on our friendship with nothing but fondness. Nikki was the first person outside of my family who knew me and loved me still without pause or resentment. I loved her too, and I remain grateful that she was my first best friend.

As I grew older, I saw the validity of friendships formed in adulthood. Friendships like Meredith Grey’s and Cristina Yang’s—two of the best characters with the best female friendship TV has ever seen. Cristina and Meredith were ahead of the curve and culture. They cared more about each other and their careers than they did their romantic and sexual partners. In a TV and film landscape that is quick to pit women against each other for the affection of often-mediocre men, Shonda Rhimes essentially said, “We’re good over here.” In Grey’s Anatomy, the hospital is cutthroat, dripping with massive egos (which sometimes belonged to the two women), breakups and makeups and back again, but the women always had each other. Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey’s friendship was the longest-lasting and healthiest relationship on the show.

Cristina may be gone, but I still believe that it was and is the best and most important relationship the show ever had. When most other friendships felt unattainable to me, theirs never did. In fact, it felt like the most possible for me in my sarcastic, soft, and excitable personality. The magic of their friendship is truly a testament to the show’s writing. Popular culture often shows female friendship in one of two ways: The friendship is either completely perfect, or it’s dysfunctional and toxic. But Cristina and Meredith were never perfect, never always right or wrong. Their relationship wasn’t always seamless or easy, and they didn’t always agree, but they were not toxic for each other. This was made clear in episode nine of season five. Meredith was upset because her sister Lexie said that Cristina knew they were going to cut Sadie open, and Cristina was upset that Meredith didn’t have her back when she was taken out of the running for a surgery. Out of all their fights, this one humanized them for me, allowed me to see that even imperfect people deserve the kind of friendship they had and would come to have. The kind of friendship that is long-lasting, takes real work, and matters at the end of the day despite every fight or disagreement. I realized then that maybe I deserved that kind of friendship. Personally, I enjoy seeing both the attainable and unattainable friendships in popular culture, because what is unattainable to me may not be for someone else and vice versa. We all deserve the chance to feel seen.

I met my best friend Ashley at the tail end of my senior year in high school and her junior year of high school, when Grey’s was in its sixth season—the season when George had just died and the doctors were grieving and Cristina tried to work in the pediatric ward to avoid the layoffs. In episode 23 of that season, Meredith watches Derek get shot, and it is Cristina who is holding Meredith back as they watch in fear. Once Derek is shot, the episode closes with Meredith saying the hospital was her safe place and sanctuary until this moment tainted it. I was in my freshman year of college by the airdate of this episode, and I wouldn’t fully understand Meredith’s pain until a month later, when I would lose my grandmother, tainting the excitement of college. Like Meredith had Cristina, however, I had Ashley and she had me. I got through that year and all four years of college, the ups and downs, because I had Ashley in my corner.

When Ashley moved to California in 2015, I thought again of season 10, episode 24, when Meredith watched Cristina leave for the last time after they danced it out and Cristina told Meredith that Derek was not the sun—she was. We didn’t dance it out. Instead, we took a trip to Target for last-minute things she needed before leaving in the morning. I was worried that the distance would end our friendship when I hugged her goodbye that night and smiled through watery eyes. The distance, however, has only strengthened our friendship. We text every single day and call on weekends. We plan what we will do when I visit her, which will likely include the pinwheel sandwiches I loved when her mom made them for us in high school, movies we love, and alcohol. The last time that I saw Ashley was in January 2017, a day after Donald Trump was sworn into office. I flew to California for a conference on the day he was sworn in, and she drove two hours to see me the following day.

When we are apart, we catch each other up on the weekly happenings of our lives and complain to each other about TV shows that the other person may not even watch. Ashley is the second best friend I have ever had in my life, but we work toward making our friendship work in a way I did not know how to the first time around. She is the first person I turn to when I am having a good or difficult day. Her mother, “Mama H,” and her brother Nigel I consider my second family. They welcomed me into their lives with open arms and open hearts. Ashley and I care too much about the friendship we’ve built to let it falter, and as twentysomethings trying to figure out the world and where we fit, our friendship is a constant that has strengthened our resolve on our worst days and cheered us on during our good ones.

Nikki was my first best friend when I believed it was only possible to have one and that I had to constantly work at. Now Ax`shley is my second, and now I know that it is possible to have many best friends and to nurture and work at each. A running aspect of our friendship has always been that she is Meredith and I am Cristina, both strong, smart, and funny and with great taste in clothes. We have each other’s backs in the same way they did. She is Meredith in her ability to calm me down and keep me sane. I am Cristina most when I say and mean that she is my person and she makes me brave.

What I’ve learned from loving two people outside of my family during two very different times in my life is this: You do not need friendships like the ones you were fed as children—the unbreakable bonds from childhood. Those are great, sure, but you do not have to know someone from childhood for your friendship to count or matter, and you don’t have to model your relationships around the fictional relationships of TV characters you love for that relationship to be meaningful and to change you for the better in ways that take too long to explain. Friendship, regardless of gender, takes effort the way any worthy relationship should and does. You have to put in the work in any type of relationship, and friendships are no different. With Ashley and my friends from college, I never question how easy it is for us to fall back into easy conversation and an understanding of each other. Still, the ease when we are together is only possible because of the work we do to stay in touch when we are apart. As an adult in friendships, I now know that you can have more than one best friend, and that it isn’t a competition, but the same bonding over shared interests, which stays the same regardless of age. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from both Nikki and Ashley is that whether the friendships in my life last or fade over time, they are central to who I am and my growth as a person.