“Wow,” any reader would say after getting this far in the story. “Looks like you had a rough go of it early on in college.”
I would agree. But I would do so in such a way that I would sort of wave it off, as though that wasn’t the point I was trying to make for sympathy’s sake. I would then cough into my hand and say, “Some might call me a hero but whatever…”
“What?” those same readers would ask.
“Hm. Nothing. I just have a little tickle and…” I’d clear my throat again. “What were you saying before?”
This inevitably leads to the same question though: “If things were so rough at college, why not look for some support from your friends and family?” It would then lead to an equally inevitable and more embarrassing question: “I mean…you actually had friends in high school, right?”
The answer to those questions is complicated. Or rather, it’s fairly simple but not really a super-pleasant topic.
So let’s talk about that now. At length.
I wasn’t so much “popular” in high school as I was “very broadly tolerated.” And while this always gave me people to talk to, sit with, etc., I was only close with about three (or four) of them. Within three (or four) “situations” of arriving in college, this number dropped to zero – which, despite being much lower, was much easier to remember than the three (or possibly four) I had previously.
The majority of these fell under the category of “general drifting.” Out of high school, it suddenly strikes you how little you have in common with some of your friends. And you ask yourself, “Huh. If I weren’t forced to sit in a tiny room with this person five times a day and eat lunch together, would we have anything to talk about?”
As it turned out, the answer was, “No.” Or, “Yes, but we’d probably just talk about high school. For every conversation. Forever.”
The moment this really struck me came almost a year into college. (Sorry for skipping ahead slightly.) I was in a random clothing store when someone I didn’t in any way recognize came up to me and said it was good to see me. As it turned out, this was a classmate who left my school in the seventh grade. “Wow,” he said. “You’ve lost a lot of weight. I almost didn’t recognize you!”
I cut him off before he asked about my non-existent exercise routine. And it took everything I had not to say, “You’ve lost a lot of relevance. I didn’t recognize you.”
We exchanged very strained small talk about the two or three things we both remembered from nearly a decade before. There were nearly ten awkward silences in only three minutes of conversation. And then, shockingly, he said we should hang out sometime.
I politely declined with some made-up excuse that was far different than what I was really thinking. But strangely enough, it made me wonder. Did I really have that much more in common with friends from high school after a year apart?
Well, yes, actually. The shared experiences from twelve plus years of recent friendship are more than a six-year friendship that ended ages ago. I like hyperbole but let’s not get crazy.
The real trouble was that these were now static relationships. They would never grow and never evolve. They would have the same talking points, the same in-jokes and the same general dynamic in a month, a year or a century. Like some predictable AIM chat bot, they’d be fun for a conversation or three before you never spoke to them again. Years later, you’d wonder why you talked to what was essentially a parrot made of ones and zeroes.
The chat bots, I mean. Not (I assume) your old friends.
It was the last of these three (and possibly up to five, now that I think about it) old friends, however, that left the most lasting impression in their parting. Since I’d gone to college in the summer, a number of people going in the fall wrote to ask about the college experience. And having spent literally hours there, I was happy to oblige.
For the most part, I described college as a lot like high school. Since I was taking mostly introductory courses it wasn’t much harder. But I did stress that there was a lot more personal accountability when it came to waking up and going to class. First impressions, I added, were very important to making new friends. I had made quite sure not to say anything like, “Your family is ugly,” or “I moved on your sister like a bitch.” I even double-checked the e-mails to make sure before I sent them out.
Most people replied with thanks. My last close friend, however, seemed to take deep offense at some part of my advice. He wrote only, “(expletive) you man. i’m so sick of you saying stuff like this (expletive).”
I don’t know which part of that advice upset him so. And when I asked in a series of e-mails, he never wrote back. So I shrugged it off by assuming his sister had been killed by personal accountability or a first impression and I’d touched a nerve. We never spoke again. And though we’d been good friends since kindergarten, something about our parting convinced me I was better off.
Now, as far as why I didn’t turn to family, well…
I won’t belabor the point of how I feel about my parents. The short version is that we never quite saw eye to eye on much of anything. They drifted closer to fundamentalist Christianity as they grew older, while my experience with their church had all but pushed me into the indifferent but non-judgmental bosom of atheism. They were Republican while I was sliding more liberal. They thought tomatoes were vegetables at a time I was starting to think they were fruit. You know. Irreconcilable differences.
There were also less pleasant, more specific incidents that drove us apart that I don’t care to get into. I realize that sounds a lot like, “It’s private and I don’t want to talk about it.” But I assure you it’s not as sinister as you might guess. It’s really just very tedious and not terribly good comedy.
Except for my mom beginning to replace her children with dogs. That was, at least in hindsight, pretty funny.
My brothers were sort of the opposite problem, honestly.
While I would eventually come to have a very good and healthy friendship with my brothers, it didn’t start out that way. I think age ironed out a lot of our differences. But it wouldn’t come soon enough for me to be seeking advice from them when I hit rough spots in college. I’d drifted too far from my friends and parents to relate. My brothers and I, meanwhile, hadn’t yet drifted back together.
As opposed to what I said earlier, I honestly don’t think the experience was all that unique or deserving of sympathy. I was, unfortunately, just observant enough to notice almost immediately that my old friendships were ending. It didn’t keep me from plastering an entire wall in my room (above my not-as-yet-arrived roommate’s bed) with pictures from those halcyon days. But it did keep me from wasting the one or two years non-athletes and athletes, respectively, sometimes spent living in the past.
But halcyon days don’t last forever. And for better or worse, they were never quite what you remember anyway. I mean that literally. Go look up “halcyon days.” Apparently it’s a period of seven days were there are no storms every year. Or maybe when some bird is laying eggs or something. Seriously?
I don’t remember any of it that way.