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All my friends

My friend T has a borderline insulting view on friendships. Insulting because we’re friends, and he puts me in the particular category I’m about to explain. Borderline because, well, he can’t help what he feels, right?

‘When I’m not in the company of someone, when we’re done catching up, they just disappear from my mind,’ he said.

We were sitting in my car after a dinner of fried chicken at this newish Korean place that had opened up in the city. Dinner was followed by a stroll along what passes for Canberra’s Main Street, but the chill in the air saw us retreat to the relative warmth of my vehicle.

‘I just don’t think about them at all,’ he continued. ‘I don’t wonder about how they are or what they’ve been up to. It’s like they cease to exist.’

That is, unless that person happens to be someone really close to him. Like a girlfriend or his family. Me, on the other hand… he admitted that I wouldn’t cross his mind.

That was a month ago. We haven’t spoken to each other since. Not because I was overly offended by his remarks because, remember, only borderline insulted. But because this is what happens when you have one person for whom others cease to exist when they’re not there with him and another person who can’t be arsed to get in touch first.

I’m not like T. Every now and then I do an accounting of the people in my life and when I was last in contact with them, and what we were last in contact over. With some people, it’s been so long between drinks that I know we’ve fallen off each other’s maps irretrievably. Some friendships you shouldn’t seek to prolong. I’m always happily surprised though, as I was the other weekend when I was in Sydney (to see Taylor Swift) when you almost pick up where you left off and find that the old chemistry is still there between you and someone you haven’t had face time with in years.

A, my grandfatherly friend, is fascinated by the strange alchemy behind both romantic and platonic attraction. He brings it up every fourth time we do brunch, yet never seems to have advanced his theories about it each time.

A fits into a small space in my Venn diagram of friendships. We have this camaraderie that I can’t explain, and it’s one that I feel with only a few others. This is gonna make me look bad, but what the H.E. (double hockey sticks) –

There are some people who I want to spend as little time as possible with because I often find myself bored in their company. And there are other people who bore me fairly consistently, but I’m delighted to be with them all the same. It’s a fine line between experiencing the sort of boredom where you’ll inflict pain on yourself just for the novelty of it when you’re in the company of someone you can’t escape, and the sort of boredom that relaxes you into a kind of zen state.

Or maybe it’s not boredom at all. Maybe I’m characterising it all wrong, and what I feel in times like that that is actually a deep level of comfort.

Either way, it’s strange the way the chips fall the way that they do. People are strange.

***

For the first few years that I knew her, I didn’t like her very much. We were amicable, though I found her a bit prickly and unpredictable. Plus we both liked the same guy.

Time passed, the guy disappeared from view, and somehow, we stayed in contact. And we became friends.

If you don’t count the odd year or two when we didn’t talk, from start to now, she has become my longest running friendship. Certainly didn’t see that one coming.

I can’t tell her everything. There are some things I’ve done and may do again that she wouldn’t understand. But the way we interact is like what they say about the couch that has moulded itself perfectly to your butt. It’s very comfortable.

Despite this sense of ease, it’s not a friendship of convenience. M lives more than 12,000km away. If either she or I were like T, our friendship would be fucked. Luckily, neither of us are.

For many of our years, we exchanged long emails. Since I visited her in October, almost an Obama term since our last meeting, I’ve managed to persuade her to re-join WhatsApp and that has become our new medium.

It’s a mode of communication that is completely suited to the rhythm of our connection. Frequent. In short bursts. For extended durations. It’s a mode that is kind to the time difference between us – although lately her sleeping patterns have seen that difference almost fall away.

I don’t consider myself a needy person, but the frequency of our contact is such that I’m reminded of her absence if we don’t talk on a given day. She has become part of the fabric of my life, a vital piece of digital furniture.

Here we get into the inexplicable alchemy between people again. My exchanges with her are often steeped in a level of mundanity that I could not tolerate of just about anyone else, even within that small pocket of my Venn diagram. You know how people post photos of their food on Instagram – and we all love to sneer at them over it? I don’t do that. I send photos of what I’m eating solely to her. And she shares similarly with me. And I don’t find this boring. How can that be?

I have to admit, there was a moment there last week when I thought I’d reached her threshold. I messaged her a photo of my tomato and feta, with rocket on the side, and said, ‘Lunch’. She didn’t reply for hours, which was unusual. But then she did, and it was just another case of WhatsApp not notifying her of the new message. (And yes, I believe her when she says that).

Part of my fear is not irrational. It’s all too easy to get lazy about maintaining a long-distance friendship and let it fade into nothing.

It’s not only that though. I’m reminded of a couple of lines from the Atlantic article I endorsed recently. Lines which read:

If you never see your friends in person, you’re not really sharing experiences so much as just keeping each other updated on your separate lives. It becomes a relationship based on storytelling rather than shared living — not bad, just not the same.

I’d never thought about it that way. And now that the thought has been put into my head, it freaks me out. Julie Beck may insist that it’s ‘not bad, just not the same’, but it feels like she’s saying that the quality of the friendship is affected. And of course it is. I just don’t wanna hear it.

If sharing experiences is how we bond, it strikes me then that describing the minutiae of our lives, constantly, to someone far away is an attempt to do that. If we get into the habit of talking about all the little things that happen to us, and the big things, it’s almost like they’re here with us.

Almost. We may try, but our attempts will forever resemble an exponential function; tending towards zero but never quite reaching it.

*

We have different expectations for the people in our lives, and the people who newly enter. We fall for people we shouldn’t, and struggle to explain the depth of our attraction to them. We tolerate one person’s bullshit but not another’s. You have an open valve for the minutiae of one friend’s daily goings-on but find someone else’s insufferable.

I guess this is what we call one of the enduring mysteries of life. Or maybe it won’t always remain so mysterious, and science will come up with the answers.

Whatever the future may hold, in our present I think there’s a lot to be grateful for if we have someone in our lives who listens to our trivial babble day in, day out, with patience and genuine empathy. It’s a worthwhile endeavour to step back, and view it for how important it is. A good friend is someone who would walk through fire for you. But they’re also – I say – someone you fail to bore.

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