Up until the day I started school, friendship and friends were things that just happened.
Like any toddler I had my playmates and within days of moving to a new town, just months before the birth of my brothers I had made friends with a girl that lived just a few houses away. It was an easy time, where I could just go along with what my friend and her older sister planned for us. I might have been delegated supporting roles in the games we played, but I remember enjoying it. The structure and knowing who I could trust and spend time with was a comfort.
When both my friend and her sister started school we began to drift apart, as the two soon found new friends among their classmates. I accepted this change as something expected and natural, for would I not find new friends once I started school too? That was a concept put in my head by my parents, TV shows and society in general. Classmates became best friends and that was how it all would be for me as well. Alas, I was destined for disappointment.
I still remember that feeling I had of being let down, that I had been lied to, when I had not gained friends the first day of school. I did not feel overly sad, but the disappointment was clearly there. Days passed, then finally one girl approached me and soon enough we had formed a bond that tied us together for the next couple of years. I had made a friend and again it had been effortless on my part.
I had some typical childhood years then, life split into school, home and playing with my friend. She came to my birthday parties and I was invited to hers. Though there was one difference when I compare myself with others, I never had any proper sleepovers with my friend. There was one attempt, but I became so distraught and home sick that my parents had to come and pick me up before bedtime.
There was also a boy I played with occasionally, though he acted mostly as a source of information about the cool boy’s shows I liked, that I could not watch much, since my family did not have cable at first. We played boyish games the few times we hung out, like one game called “blow up the pigs”, using a car mat and some plastic pig figures. This association was enough though that my mother began to tease me that I liked this boy. Having no such thoughts about him I felt outraged and upset, in the end distancing myself from the boy, just so everyone would see there was nothing going on between us.
My life changed abruptly once I started fourth grade, losing my favorite teacher and gaining some new classmates in the process. Perhaps it was early onset puberty which made me break out in pimples, perhaps there was just something awkward about my behavior, but something got me singled out by the other kids and then the worst betrayal happened. My friend abandoned me for a new girl and together they began to tease me.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much of fourth grade, not much I want to remember anyway, but what I do recall is time spent with younger kids, playing dogs and puppies in the bushes around the yard, or I just spent my free time alone, creating elaborate stories of fantastic creatures for me to act out. That probably didn’t help how the others viewed me, in hindsight. But at the end of the day it not only made it hard for me to trust people, but at the same time I also lost some of that idealistic, simple view of what friendship was. If you cannot even trust a friend to stay the same then…well what?
When we moved and I changed schools just in time for fifth grade I retained some hope that this might be a nice new beginning. It had started out well after a visit to the new school before summer break, where I had been welcomed and even received an invitation to one of the boys’ birthday party.
Alas, when fall arrived, another new kid had joined the class as well, a pretty Iraqi girl who soon became the new exciting thing, causing me to sink back into some form of anonymity. I wonder what would have happened if the teacher had not selected me as one of her teacher’s pets, which resulted in me getting some attention, of the negative sort. There was one girl in particular who felt threatened that she wasn’t the favorite smart kid in school anymore.
The teacher caught onto the change in the class and dealt with the problem, though my relationship with some kids remained rocky. But I became visible again and by the end of sixth grade I found myself with friend again. Once more it was a girl that had begun to approach me and soon we were hanging out. I had seen her with two other girls before and I felt good about now being the new friend, the chosen one.
We hung out a lot that summer and I regained some of that lost trust, though I must confess that visitations to her house sparked a fear of dogs in me that lasted well into adulthood for me. See, she had this unruly, enormous schnauzer, who thought he was a little puppy still, even though he could topple you over when he reared up on his hind legs.
I was fairly content with my social situation in the years leading up to high school. Sure, my friend began to drift back and forth between me and the other two girls she hung out with before, but I was okay with the attention I got. My previous betrayal had instilled in me this feeling that I should be happy she still wanted to spend some time with me at all. It made it easier to tolerate it when I became the next best friend; all the time spent with her was precious.
Looking back then on my relationships I had at that point I can see how passive I was, always waiting to be approached, to receive the hand of companionship, never extending it for someone to take. Perhaps it was this passivity that made me allow those people I had gotten to know, only one which I might have called friend at the end, to simply drift away once I started high school and eventually moved away from that town.
It was also during these years that I first became familiar to the internet and the opportunities it provided. Online chat rooms for people with specific nerdy interests meant a group of people who liked the same stuff was but a mouse click away. Coming at a time when my more “boyish” areas of interest had begun to make me turn away from the girls in my class to the boys, who were more accepting of that stuff, it changed things for me. Suddenly I was talking to people from all over the world and I was instantly accepted, again, with minimal effort on my part.
The feeling in me that there was this huge group out there to fall back on, though they lived in different places, some as close as another suburb, some as far away as Australia, fed a confidence in me that resulted in a shift in attitude once I started high school. For one brave instance I became an active party, approaching a girl on one of the first days of high school and striking up a conversation with her. I can still recall my thought process at the time, musing that the girl looked a bit lonely, like how I had always felt as a new kid in a school, and that perhaps I could be bold enough to make the first move this time. My heart was pounding like crazy all that day.
I guess it was successful, for we began to hang out during school, sitting next to each other in class and sharing tables at lunch. We didn’t have a terrible lot in common, she was more of a sports nut and I was a typical bookish nerd, but we had enough shared interests that we got along in school. And besides, I had my nerd friends from online for my special interests. I only hung out with my school friend after school a few times and only one of those times was not school project related, when we went shopping for some silly trendy fashion thing.
The exact moment I first felt a rift open up between us was during a school trip to London in our second year, when her sports nut persona came out in full force and everyone besides me seemed to be terribly interested in her football magazines she got in the British newsagents, for the long train rides to here and there. We continued to hang out after that, but by the summer between the second and last year of high school my feelings for my online friends had grown enough to eclipse my feelings for my classmates and my friend, which made me less tolerant of attitudes and things were we did not see eye to eye.
By the last year of high school I had formed extremely strong bonds with one particular group online, a group I had been able to meet in person for the first (but not last) time that past summer and my time in school had turned into one long painful separation process, where I felt myself pulled away from the group so much that by the time I graduated I felt like I didn’t want to see anyone in my school ever again.
I might have had regained my trust and belief in friendship, but now most of my friends lived on the other side of the world. Sure there were one or two other nerd friends that lived closer, but I focused my attentions more on the faraway friends. Perhaps because I feared I would lose them if I did not, because had I not seen now that bonds of friendship did require some effort to maintain and if they lived so far away…
I kept spending money to see my group of friends most every year after that, using money from summer jobs, from student loans and eventually from work, just so I could have a week or so in their company. I know I suffered during the long months in between, but in some part of my mind I had begun to dream that one day I would move closer, which made it easier to bear.
Like most people here I did what was expected of me (or so I felt) and I went to college for a full four years. Yet, despite all that time I didn’t make a single friend, thought I made some feeble attempts when a couple of guys in one of my classes expressed an interest in anime and manga, which was my obsession at the time. When they stopped watching anime though, we stopped talking.
Years passed and the dream to move closer to my faraway friends faded as life and all that means forced me to focus on the here and now; a job, making money, finding an apartment and paying my bills.
I forget when it was that I looked up and realized how different my social life was to most others at my job (my introvert nature does not help). I have all of one friend that lives near enough that we can hang out, one of those few more proximate nerds I met online many years ago. With that old group of friends I still maintain a sporadic line of communication, though I focus on just a few of them, including one girl I’m fairly close to and a guy I used to date once, whose wedding offered the last opportunity to hang out with most of the group for the last time.
I wonder now if that ease of interacting and befriending people I encountered online did not hamper me somewhat in my social development. If I had not had them, though I do not regret knowing them in the least, perhaps I would have been forced to learn for real how you make and maintain friendships in the offline world. That I suffer from anxiety from time to time probably made it easier to stick with the familiar online group.
When I attended a writing class a few years ago I actually told myself that now, now I would actually throw my fears away and try to make friends. Yet for all my efforts I felt as if there must have been something missing in the way I interacted and spoke with the others, because I could only observe helplessly how others in the writing class suddenly bonded and become friends, swapping numbers and email addresses, while I remained just a classmate.
I dare not speculate if there is some piece up in my brain missing, though I have sometimes felt that I would like whatever cheat sheet everyone else is using. What remains at the end of the day is that feeling that what friendships I have and enjoy is precious and to be treasured, never taken for granted.
If that is not a proper life lesson to take from all this, well I don’t know what is.