Tag: friends

Friends in Average Places

shady

(Note: No, I didn’t turn to drugs due to how sad the last part of the story was. But…well, you’ll see how it all fits in.)

Luckily, things almost immediately got better for me friend-wise, though it had very little to do with me.

I’ve never been all that good at making friends. Which is to say, I’ve never understood the process. I couldn’t tell you good places to meet people or effective techniques for finding shared interests or anything like that. I am, however, surprisingly good at going about my life randomly and then having friends when I go home.

Which would be great, if I weren’t also surprisingly bad at overthinking things.

I spent a lot of my first two or three weeks of college “trying” to make friends. I approached random people before class to have awkward conversations. I spent time in places that reflected my hobbies and waited for friends to arrive, like some sort of horrible friendship trapdoor spider. And as you might guess from the words “horrible friendship trapdoor spider,” it didn’t go all that well.

When nothing came of it, I sort of gave up. This wasn’t because I’d suddenly become aware that you can’t force friendship. The truth was, I had more than enough to keep me busy attending classes and trying to kick start a fledgling writing career.

(It’d be hard to argue, in fact, that a key reason I was able to succeed in either school or writing was because I had plenty of free time.)

And that was about the time my RA stopped me in front of my building, reached into his pants and showed me something that would change my life.

“Um, good for you,” I said, looking down at the six cans of beer he’d expertly crammed into the elastic lining of his pants. It didn’t look like the first time he’d done it, and that made it all the sadder somehow.

“You want one?” he asked, glancing about conspiratorially. “Don’t worry. I won’t rat you out to anybody.”

I briefly reviewed my policy on drinking any liquids that had been warming in another man’s pants to make sure and then offered an excuse at random. “I have a policy against drinking liquids that have been warming in another man’s pants.” Okay. In hindsight, it wasn’t that random.

He gave a chuckle and nodded. “That’s cool. That’s cool. You probably shouldn’t be drinking anyway. It’s not good for kids to get into stuff like this too young.”

I thought about defending myself and then remembered I was only seventeen. He wasn’t technically wrong. “Is there a reason those are in your pants?” I hesitantly asked, seeing that information wasn’t going to come about on its own.

“It’s against the rules, man,” he said, explaining that alcohol was strictly prohibited in dorms – even if the student was of drinking age. “But every now and then I do the guys on my floor a solid and smuggle some in.”

Considering I despised my RA with the white-hot heat of a thousand dying suns, I briefly thought of turning him in. Unfortunately, he was my only point of contact. And something told me he wasn’t likely to escalate the matter. Still, identifying the situation as one I wanted to be nowhere near when it blew up in someone’s face (or in their pants), I promptly returned to my room and locked my door to the maximum extent it could be locked.

Then, I waited.

(I vaguely recall also playing “Metal Gear Solid 2.” I can do two things at once.)

It didn’t take long for the police to arrive. By which I mean, they took an almost suspiciously short amount of time to arrive after the RA had returned with his spoils and shared them. (All told, it was about seven minutes.) And that’s when it hit me. My RA hadn’t just smuggled beer into the dorms in the lamest way humanly possible. Instead, he’d just pulled off the lamest sting operation of all time.

I breathed a sigh of relief at having not chosen that particular moment to violate my own policies regarding reaching into another man’s pants and pulling something out for any reason.

The rest, as they say, is history. I stood in the hallway with the rest of my floormates as we watched the police escort Hitler’s Youths – the only two people stupid enough to fall for (or be enticed by) that sort of slapdash operation – out of the building. Both were weeping openly, though I choose to remember them as they once were. I like to imagine them walking away proudly, arrogantly and shirtless, each dribbling a basketball as the elevator doors closed and they vanished into legend.

“Wow,” a voice said to one side as the onlookers began to disperse. “I can’t think of a more deserving pair of assholes.”

The voice, as voices often do, belonged to a person. I turned to see one of the floormates I’d very briefly interacted with on my initial tour of my surroundings. He extended his hand to me to shake. “Sorry. We didn’t actually get to talk when you stopped by. My name is Matt.”

“Huh,” I said, biting my lip pensively. “If I ever write about this experience later, all these people with the same name are going to start to get confusing.”

“Wouldn’t you just refer to yourself in the first person?”

He actually had a point there.

I won’t oversell Matt as being some friend that changed my life forever. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to claim we were incredibly close friends. But he was the first friend I made in college, and as it turned out, the single decent human being on my floor.

Just because the others hadn’t been arrested didn’t mean they weren’t terrible people for a variety of other misogynistic and/or racist reasons.

Probably the only thing I remember about him with any real clarity was that Matt was absurdly, astoundingly and relentlessly lazy. I won’t pretend to be any sort of paragon of hard work myself, but Matt had attained what I can only assume was a Buddha-like level of enlightenment in a religion of pure inactivity. Without spoiling future events too much, he once commented – perhaps prophetically – that he was glad we were only three doors from one another because he didn’t think our friendship would survive a flight of stairs between us.

From there, I went about my life and went about making friends in very average ways. It wasn’t a rite of passage or a step on my way toward adulthood. In fact, if not for the beer story it wasn’t even all that interesting. (Though that portion alone is largely worth the price of admission.) But it was an event and it happened.

When you see all the stuff I eventually don’t leave out, you’ll probably see that it happening was almost all it needed to be included.

The War at/with Home

halcyon

“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.

 

“A Sense of Belonging (Elsewhere)”

basketball
Note: I promise there’s eventually context for this picture.

The years have dulled many memories of college, but I still feel the sting of rejection as though it happened only yesterday.

That’s not a joke. I realize there’s supposed to be some sort of joke there. And yet, even seeing that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things all this time later, I still struggle to put any sort of positive spin on that first weekend in college. So, if it helps, imagine me wearing a funny t-shirt or something.

It’s hard to say exactly where things started to go wrong. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that it was a very fundamental misunderstanding of what college was. I mean, sure, I knew that it was a bunch of buildings with teachers and classes and what-have-you. But I’d made rather lofty assumptions about fresh starts after high school. What I didn’t realize nearly soon enough was that, for almost everyone I met that first semester, high school had never really ended.

Sigh. I hope you’re imagining a really funny t-shirt, is what I’m trying to say.

In what was probably meant to help people get to know one another, our RA had instituted a few rules for welcome weekend. First off, we were to have our doors open at all times in case someone wandered by. Talking would ensue. Friendships would be forged. No doubt, BFF bracelets would follow and we’d braid each other’s hair.

A second – more puzzling – rule was that we were forbidden from leaving our floor without someone else from the floor or special permission from the RA. I’m not sure exactly what he’d hoped to accomplish there. My only guess was that it had something to do with being in co-ed dorms – boys and girls being split into dorms every other floor. Most likely, it had been meant to keep us out of trouble in the form of ending up in an entirely different form of alternating boy-girl stack. (Hi-yo!)

And third, we had to eat all our meals at the same time and at the same table as the rest of our floor mates. This rule seemed to make the least sense to me, since friends would already be eating meals together anyway.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about eating with friends, mostly because it only took me about four hours to hate every last one of my floor mates with every fiber of my being.

It began, as most stories do, with two shirtless teenagers dribbling balls loudly in front of my open door. The two had actually been doing laps of the floor when I mistakenly waved to them as they passed. Without saying a word to me, they exchanged an irritated look and proceeded to stand there dribbling louder and louder over the next five minutes. “Can I help you two with something?” I eventually asked, a bit exasperated.

“What’s wrong, frosh?” one of the interchangeable Aryans with a crew cut asked. “Is this annoying you?”

“A little, actually,” I admitted.

“Well, that’s too bad, frosh,” one said with a sneer. “There’s no rule says we can’t dribble out here.”

I was actually pretty sure there was a rule that said exactly that, but I hadn’t read up on the literature yet. So I changed tack. “Okay. And…what’s a ‘frosh’ now, exactly?”

The two exchanged another look, clearly delighted by the simple pleasure of being assholes. “It means ‘freshman,’ frosh.” I’d honestly lost track of who was talking at this point. But whichever of them it was, they delivered it with an emphasis that suggested they thought it was an insult rather than a completely accurate description of a first-year student. And one, I considered noting, that applied to all of us equally.

I blinked back. “Oh.” Their sneers faltered a bit when I failed to burst into flame from the white-hottest of all the sick burns. “Anyway, why are dribbling there, exactly?”

Delight returned to their faces. “Oh, look how pissed he’s getting.” The two kept from high-fiving, but only just. “Poor frosh. It’s annoying him.” He mimed crying. I started looking for hidden cameras, because I honestly had no idea what was going on.

“Yes. I think we covered that earlier.” The conversation went on a little longer, with the pair sharing looks and laughing at insults that were neither funny nor particularly insulting. At no point in the conversation did they come close to hurting my feelings, though on two occasions they actually insulted their own mothers. In the end, I closed the door and went back to watching television.

The dribbling outside intensified over the course of the next two minutes. Then it became the telltale rattling of balls being thrown at my door over and over. I spent most of the time trying to figure out what I’d done that had made the two so upset, aside from my deeply insulting wave hello. I didn’t have long to think, however, since the RA arrived soon after. Much to my surprise, he chided me for having my door closed while the two shirtless boys openly laughed and repeated “busted!” behind him.

Realizing whatever I watched on television was going to sound a lot like loud dribbling, I went about and tried to meet new people. And that’s when I made an even more unpleasant discovery. In addition to being the only one without a roommate, I was also the only one not in a room with a friend from high school.

Not surprisingly, no one was all that interested in making new friends when they came to college with someone they’d known for the past decade or so. And in the few moments I came close to starting a decent conversation, Hitler’s youths would arrive to lob ever-weaker insults or otherwise make the situation too awkward for pleasant company. After doing my rounds of the floor and enduring an awkward meal consisting of nothing but in-jokes and high school anecdotes, I’d pretty much realized it was a lost cause.

It didn’t take long. I am, after all, a quick learner. Sigh.

The final nail in the coffin came late in the evening when, as I did some writing, a group of girls called up to my window. We talked back and forth until they finally asked me to come down. Exhilarated, I threw on my second-least-embarrassing shirt and rushed for the elevator. Where I was promptly stopped by the RA.

“I was talking with some people down on the quad. They seem cool. I’m going to go hang out with them for a bit,” I explained to his increasingly displeased face.

“Honestly, I think you need to focus less on them until you make more of an effort with your floor mates. You don’t seem to be hitting it off with them,” he explained. “Since you don’t have a roommate, I worry you’re not going to have any friends.”

“Yes…but that’s why I’m going to go try and make some now,” I reasoned. I went over my gut feelings about the people on the floor already having existing friendships and that I’d be better off trying elsewhere. “Besides,” I pointed out, “everyone else left to go have fun already. Even if I stayed up here, there’s no one to make friends with.”

The conversation went on for the next ten minutes, with the RA becoming increasingly agitated, as though my decision to find my own friends was an affront to him somehow. In the end, though, he stepped aside. “Fine. Whatever. I’m just an RA. I can’t force you to do anything anyway.”

That is tremendously good information to have,” I said, and brushed past him.

Of course, cliches were all the rage back then. So I doubt I have to tell you that the RA’s long talk had lasted just long enough that the group of girls were long gone by the time I walked out the side door. I could have approached one of the random groups laughing and talking, but I didn’t feel all that lucky at that point. Honestly, I didn’t even feel all that sociable anymore.

I walked back to my room and, in my single victory of the night, closed and locked my door since, as my RA said, he couldn’t force me not to.

I want to say that the story has a happy ending or silver lining. At the very least, I’d like to say that it ended there without getting worse. But that’s not what happened.

I remember being jarred awake at 3am by the sound of loud dribbling directly outside my door. The Aryans had returned and, apparently fueled by whatever motivated idiots, decided to cap their night by dribbling in place for the next half hour. They talked about girls and parties and what fraternities they planned to rush in the fall. And, much to my irritation, they were joined by the RA, who seemed to have much laxer rules regarding noise violations than whether or not doors were arbitrarily left open.

“So…you guys like basketball, huh?” the RA asked. I put in my headphones.

Listening to music on full blast, I returned to my writing. I poured all my loneliness and angst and disdain by bouncing balls into it. And I haven’t stopped since.

Both the late-night dribblers, on the other hand, did eventually stop dribbling. At least long enough to be sent packing two weeks later when the RA carried out a one-man sting operation that resulted in an underage drinking charge for both. It was a dirty trick, but suffice to say, I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

Well, look at that. I guess there was a happy ending to the story, after all.