So much is written about friendships and people we should hang onto during the fluid time between our early 30s and early 60s: people who knew us when we had acne, braces, bad boyfriends, tiny apartments. But as life intervenes, we maneuver the platonic puzzle pieces of our evolving lives for the here and now. By the time we’re in our sixties (I imagine; I have conducted some anthropological research on the subject but haven’t reached the milestone myself), we cling to those who are still alive, willing to speak to us, and have a valid driver’s license.
The other day, a friend (whom I’ve known for years!) and I were chatting about a new University of Colorado study about making friends on Facebook. Apparently if you de-friend someone in virtual reality, you’re more likely to avoid ‘em in real life too. This isn’t shocking … but it made both of us ponder: How do you decide who to let go and who to keep in real life? Online, that’s easy: I mute people who send me endless invitations of Bejeweled Blitz. In a series of texts (how else?), we came up with these characters that round out our real-world social circle.
The online chum. You’ve been making plans with this awesome-on-Twitter person since last January. You G-Chat. You email. You like one another’s Facebook statuses. You re-tweet as an act of solidarity. You admire her wit, her candor, her charm, and her ability to Instagram like Avedon. Yet you’ve never actually, ahem, met her—except for five Chardonnay-fueled minutes at a cocktail party in 2009. You swear you’ll get together—soon!—yet somehow, something keeps you apart (snowstorms, sicknesses, deadlines, death). You reschedule weekly … and it’s these rescheduling notes keep the friendship alive. Someday you’ll go out to dinner. It might be in a nursing home dining room, but you’ll do it.
That person you Google. This is someone from your past who somehow permeates your present—even if it’s just for a couple minutes each week. Chances are unresolved issues are at play: You compulsively Facebook or Google this slippery individual during minutes of distraction. Maybe he broke your heart. Maybe she moved away and never said goodbye. Somehow you know exactly how many children he now has, the profession of his wife, and where he took his most recent vacation. (You are ashamed of this.)
The duo on the move. You love them. They moved next door with kids the same age as yours. They come over with pizza and wine and you spend two hours laughing gamely while your children chase each other around in circles and screech. You’re ready to program their numbers into your phone … until they drop that heh-heh bomb after dessert that he or she is planning on relocating to Iowa to be closer to family. You feel irrationally betrayed. Iowa?? But they went to school in Boston!! Didn’t you just talk about how awesome the Museum of Science really is? They email you or text a few times as they pack, to suggest trips to the park. But really, what’s the point? You make a diplomatic promise to keep in touch. You never do.
The quirky ones worth cultivating. You might not have a ton in common, but you can tell they’re in for the long haul. You love where you live; they love where they live—and they live next door. They’re not going anywhere. Yes, her yen for kiwi and chia pets is odd; yes, your husband doesn’t have tons in common with her triple PhD astrophysicist husband—but damn you can fake it, because chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of them for the next 20 years. Time to find common ground, Google esoteric physics terms, and go out to dinner once a month.
The Tracy Flick. You thought high school was over, but then you joined the PTA and realized there is a subspecies of social roach that refuses to decompose. She is in charge of everything, because she has been in charge of everything since the second grade ice cream social. She sends the emails, organizes the playgroups, does the research on the teachers so you don’t have to, proffers information about vegan diapers, and is generally a meth-eyed ringleader who requires generous deference and a Xanax. She is harmless and possibly beautiful. Give her a wide berth; compliment her whenever possible.
The fragile friend: Her four kids are sweet but she treats them like mini serial killers. “I can’t take much more of this,” she says, as she flops onto your couch with tears welling in her eyes. Her bathroom ceiling is leaking. She has had the same lingering cold since 2010. Her freeloading brother-in-law is always about to visit. You’re not sure what to do, so you conjure up tales of similarly arcane woes involving disturbed family members and explosive toilets. Who knew your life was so horrible? You basically have an IV of white wine running from your fridge to her house down the street.
The work ally: You might have nothing in common outside of work, but you’re also similarly aligned against a viperish boss or a huffy colleague. You probably won’t stay in touch after you switch jobs, but for now, he or she is as crucial as Spanx.
The irreplaceable old friends (who could blackmail you): They know your parents’ names. They knew you when you wore jungle creature T-shirts from the Old Banana Republic and sculpted your hair with Suave hairspray. You might not see them every day or every week—maybe you only get together a few times per year—but you’re good for life. Once someone has helped you pluck your eyebrows for the first time, really, there’s no going back.
The gem: And every once in awhile you meet someone who has been speaking your language all along. Who even remembers where? It doesn’t matter. You have instant shorthand, similar sensibilities, and inside jokes that can take years to cultivate. You can discuss politics and chortle over chin hairs. It’s like finding a crisp $20 in a trusty jacket on a rainy day—a pick-me-up as we chug through the routine days, the months, and the years, a reminder that every now and then, the universe just throws us something good.
Not included but worth honorable mentions: The person with crazy drinking stamina who can somehow get up at 5 a.m. to train for marathons, the woman with the mute husband, the couple whose home is never ever messy, and the person you knew in high school who now lives next door!
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