When I was a girl, I believed wholeheartedly that in order for best friends to be for real, they had to be forever. And I know I’m not alone. Want proof? Just look at any girl’s yearbook. The acronyms may go in and out of vogue, but the sentiment remains:
Now that I’m resting solidly in the middle of my 40s, I wonder if there’s any such thing as a “forever” best friend. We all change so much over the course of our lives, I barely recognize the young woman I was in high school, much less the kid whose prized possession was a Donnie and Marie Barbie play set. So why do we believe that the friendships we made back then should survive the dramatic overhauls and upheavals we traverse on the way to adulthood?
I’m still in touch with many of my earliest friends; we wish each other happy birthday on Facebook and exchange holiday cards decorated with photos of our children. But we no longer tell each other our deepest secrets, and that’s okay. Friendships, especially when we’re growing up, are situational: they suit the very particular needs of a certain time and place. It’s like leasing a car: Periodically you transition to the next model, and while it might not be inherently superior to the previous one, it is hopefully a better match for you right now.
Our earliest friendships are often formed by proximity. That kid digging in the sandbox with you at the playground? Insta-friend! I met my earliest best friend when I was just ten months old, when my parents became friends with her parents. She lived up the street from me, making our friendship easy and convenient. As we grew older, we found that we had little in common other than a desire to perform our two-woman version of the musical Annie for our parents as often as possible. By middle school our best friend status had cooled to mere acquaintance. The last time I saw her was at a bar in Boston the summer before my senior year in college. We hugged and shouted to each other above the noise of the crowd for a few moments, and then we went our separate ways. She’s not on Facebook and has a very common, un-Googleable Irish name, so I have no idea what her life is like these days. But I wonder sometimes if she ever queues up Annie on Netflix and if she still remembers all the words like I do.She’s not on Facebook and has a very common, un-Googleable Irish name, so I have no idea what her life is like these days. But I wonder sometimes if she ever queues up Annie on Netflix and if she still remembers all the words like I do.
In middle school, friendships become harder to navigate. Cliques of girls create the perfect conditions for toxic explosions of drama, so it’s important to find the right best friend, one who can provide support when both of you are just trying to figure out how to be a human. As luck would have it, in sixth grade science I sat next to a girl who wore tiny gold unicorn earrings. Every day, I told her how much I loved those earrings. This was how we became best friends.
Two other girls joined our crew, and we hung out together most days, getting dropped off at the mall where we perused the posters in Woolworth or at each other’s houses where we watched movies we’d taped off of HBO.
The thing about middle school, though, is that popularity begins to matter. My best friend was way cooler and more popular than I was, and it became clear by eighth grade that our social circles were diverging. She was dating, whereas I was trapped in an epic awkward phase, complete with glasses, braces and an unfortunate perm. She started hanging out with a partying crowd, whereas I preferred to curl up with a book on Saturday nights. We remained friends, but by the end of middle school we were both gravitating toward different groups of girls.
If middle school is all about fitting in, high school is when we start to choose a distinct identity for ourselves. Perhaps that’s why the friendships I formed in high school felt like they had more to do with who I was as a person than any of my previous friendships.
Rather than having one best friend in high school, I had a group of them and I was fiercely loyal to them all. I was a drama and music kid, and all of my best friends were too – even the ones who weren’t performers because drama and music welcomed everyone. As a group, we were an odd mix of the extremely shy and the wildly dramatic, but together we carved out a social space where we all belonged. We created our own definition of “cool,” which is what you get to do with your best friends in high school.
The unfortunate thing about high school friendships is that things sometimes get really weird right around graduation. Towards the end of senior year, my friendships became alternately clingy and distant as we prepared for college when all of us would scatter across the country. We exchanged addresses before we left, and we cried as if we’d never see each other again. Part of us knew that, even though we’d be home for Thanksgiving, things would be different then. We’d no longer share everything with each other. We’d be friends, but not best friends.
As we get older, our personalities don’t shift and change quite as dramatically as they did when we were very young; we start to become ourselves, like a picture slowly coming into focus. It wasn’t until the end of my college career that I started to develop into a person that bears a partial resemblance to the woman I am today. So it makes sense that my best friend from college has stayed in my life the way my previous best friends haven’t. When we see each other, we reminisce about old times, but we also talk about our current lives: our families, our jobs, the things that bring us joy and the things that bring us pain. Our friendship certainly isn’t the same as it was back in college – we live in different states, for one thing, and we only get to see each other once a year at most – but it’s a real, living friendship, rather than a relic from the past.
And as for my first best friend? If she’s reading this right now, I hope she’ll get in touch. We’ll most likely never be best friends again, but it would be fun to grab a beer and sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” For old time’s sake.