It has been one of the worst years of my life and yet one of the least lonely.
Last New Year’s Eve, I was at a very good friend’s apartment in Noe Valley, San Francisco. I had been casually dating a young techbro — there’s no other way to put it — in New York for some months, and he met me there, his family being from the Bay Area. Another friend I met through the internet the year before due to our shared Lyme disease diagnosis came over; she was in a slinky silver dress and egged me on to put on my own slinky silver dress. Another friend from grad school, who’d recently moved up to the Bay Area, joined us, and we all had what you might call a small New Year’s party. We laughed at the idea — none of us are party people anymore — and we sat with our plastic cups with mostly untouched cheap champagne around a TV, watching Mariah Carey mess up every part of her live Times Square New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performance. No one was saying “2017” yet, of course, but soon they would be, and we’d be thinking back to the Mariah performance with a weary “How 2017.”
We were all friends in different ways, but now also one way: We shared a language. In January, everything was resistance, just two months after the election. It was still a few months before it became impeachment. And now I don’t know what it is. Both those words feel as vital as they feel impotent, especially since now, in the final weeks of 2017, we go day after day stuffed with the apologies of famous men, one after another, who have sexually assaulted, layered upon women who are coming out and speaking their painful truths. And all the rest of us are somehow living through their traumas as they collide in our psyches with our own. Meanwhile, our president is the one who has not apologized, who has not reckoned with his harassments and assaults, and all the many women who have accused him have become faded figures, like inefficient ghosts — never quite absent but ultimately lacking in their haunting ability. 2017.
We now know the most intimate parts of so many people. I see the hashtags #RoseArmy and #IStandWithAsia and so many more, the most private businesses of these once-undisclosed pasts. Suddenly all sorts of celebrities seem like they know us — and in a way, they do: liking our posts, retweeting us, sometimes even messaging as two well-known actresses have taken to doing with me of late.
All of them have become something like friends.
Maybe it’s easy to see who your friends are when you know who your enemies are, I’ve thought many times this year.
That first night of the new year, I couldn’t sleep, so I flooded Mariah’s Instagram with messages of love and solidarity — the first time I’d ever done anything like that. Somehow it had all made sense to me. Nothing was going to work out for quite some time, but we were all, as the cliché goes, truly in this together. Misery upon misery, meet so much company.
They say most adults have an average of two close friends. I have still a handful of my hometown friends from mediocre suburban Los Angeles schools — including one friend of 33 years known as my “best friend” — and then a handful from my East Coast liberal arts college. Then there are writers, so many fellow writer friends. And I have friends online, some I have never met, but whose eating habits, political alliances, ethical allegiances, family, and work I know as well as anyone’s.
This year, their existence meant everything to me. They say preaching to the choir is maybe a wasted effort, but as Rebecca Solnit — an online friend of many years who this year became a real-life friend after we finally met for dinner — put it in a recent Harper’s essay, there is some real underrated value in talking to “your own”:
Within most examples of broad consensus lie a host of questions and unresolved differences. Agreement is only the foundation. Yet from here we can build strong communities of love, spirited movements of resistance. “We cannot walk alone,” Dr. King said that day in 1963. Find people to walk with — and talk with — and we find power as well as pleasure.
I think often of an old poem by Kenneth Koch — friend of many of my older friends — that went:
You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.
There isn’t time enough, my friends—
It always seemed to me that Koch was, without quite saying it, choosing lovers and work, with friends losing out in his equation. I haven’t done that — if anything, lovers have been an afterthought, all gaining their pinnacle of importance ultimately as friends.
E, a recentish ex and friend, comes over to my apartment the day after the election, and we walk like zombies through a Harlem both unsurprised and visibly grief stricken and eat our feelings through two large pizzas. The night before, I’d been up with the young techbro well into what appeared to be a definitive Hillary loss, and we’d even tried to have some sort of sad sex. Afterwards I had cried, which was partially for America but partially for the fact that this guy was going to be nothing but a friend to me soon. Another one.
When I dumped him three months later, it was clear to me we weren’t even going to be friends.
Over the next few months, I did so much crying. My depression was back. It wasn’t so much the breakup as it was the state of the country, and sometimes I got the two confused. After all, I was never less alone. Suddenly, friends were all I had to keep going, but I was also all they had to keep going. All the many like-minded became the only reminder that this could be endured, that this was most of us, it had to be. Everyone I knew that season, until now even, was suffering from a sort of constant low-grade depression — our hopelessness so incredibly collective.
In April, on a bus to Amherst, where I was to give another reading in a season of too much work, I DMed a writer on Twitter to thank him for his support over the past few months. He was not a friend, but I could see him becoming one. Before the election, I had wanted to distance myself from social media — to maybe pull the plug on Facebook, to go more minimal on Instagram, and to maybe even take a long break from my most beloved Twitter — but as time went by, the social media world felt like a support group. Who else to vent about our new president’s tweet? Where else to get an understanding of these new rapid-fire executive orders? How else to see support for my people and against the Muslim ban? I began to hold tightly to my online friends, and I began to notice new ones. One was this guy: a writer in Oakland whose work I had recently read and deeply admired; he wrote about race and identity in a way that spoke to me. He had taken to retweeting many of my most desperate tweets, and then I’d see him liking many of my photos on Instagram. On the bus, I wrote to thank him and found myself adding, “I hope I meet you one day.”
I met him four months later, in my hometown in California, where he had also lived. And shortly after that he became my boyfriend, and still is today.
He often says, “I like you so much,” and my joke back is, “What, you don’t love me?!” — even though this man tells me he loves me several times a day — and he responds, “But liking you is more important.” The first time we said goodbye outside Burbank Airport, he suggested maybe we would end up just friends. It shattered me — just friends?! — until I realized many months later that for him, friendship with a lover was the highest of callings.
In my native Iran, a polite way to refer to your significant other is “friend” or doost. You could say it’s a euphemism borne out of formalities. And it has a lot to do with its delivery: intonation and facial expression. It feels italicized when you say it that way. The equivalent in English would be to say “my special friend.”
You can tag on the word for boy, pesar, or the word for girl, dokhtar, and it becomes normalized into literally boyfriend or girlfriend, though the friend comes first. In a way, it’s not just polite or a euphemism; it’s simply short for boyfriend or girlfriend, like ’friend. We don’t have gendered pronouns in Farsi, so it makes sense that the friend part is what matters most.
It took me not too long to realize the absolute magic of for once finding a doost in love, in every sense of that word — both words, really.
In Farsi, you can take the word doost and turn it into dooset daram, which means “I love you.” Although it’s not as explicitly romantic as asheghetam, which means something more like “I’m in love with you.” Dooset daram comes from the noun doost, and you can use a verb doost to say you doost a dessert or a book, just like a person. It’s a like that is also a love — it has all the fluidities of ardor without any of its limitations. Whoever is on the receiving end of the speaker gets to interpret the context, what type of love, what type of like, and everything in between.
It occurs to me that in Iran, where men hold hands as friends, where women hold hands as friends — and both men and women do it together and with each other as more than friends, as we do — friendship is of the highest order. I am known in my family as someone who is very rich in friends. My family always assumes I will be alright because of this. But it’s a high compliment in my culture, friends being the highest spiritual currency.
I think of how in Iran, there is a saying: “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
And how in Iran, there is another saying: “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.”
We are a people who have known tragedy through empires and wars and revolutions. In the final days of 2016, I spent hours in my room crying uncontrollably — sometimes for as much as six hours a day — about the state of America and the chances of my survival in it as an Iranian. And now, at the end of this year I thought impossible to survive, I am still here. I am crying less, but if I am honest, it’s not because I’ve become used to the misery. It never stops surprising me. It’s because when I thought I couldn’t grow anymore, when I thought I was beyond spent, something in me opened, and into it came friendship, my whole world of likes and loves expanded. Maybe because it had to. Maybe because it knew the way.
If I have one hope for our future, 2018 and onward, it is this: They can take everything away, but they can’t take us. We have each other. We still like. We still love.