I don’t know how many friends I have. I guess, if I were expected to count them on some rigorous criteria of how much time we’ve spent together or whether or not I would trust them to pick me up if I were stranded on some deserted interstate at three in the morning, I wouldn’t have that many. But people don’t look at each other that way. People just exist in your life, and there are peaks and valleys in your closeness dependent on what the two of you are doing at any given moment. There are people about whom I might have said “they are my friends” when I was blowing out the candles at the birthday party they attended, but with whom I don’t consider myself particularly close in everyday life. People aren’t meant to fit in concrete, unchanging categories — or, at least, not most of them.
But then there are people for whom we insist on a category, a title. We build them up in our minds as being someone important, someone who defines us in some way. I don’t have a ton of people like this in my life personally, but they are as much a marker in my timeline as the first day of kindergarten, or the day I got my driver’s license. For example, there was before I met my best friend, and there was after. Some things are best explained through the prism of these relationships: “When we went on that trip to the beach by ourselves, it was probably the first time we felt like grown-ups.” I can’t speak for her, of course. Only I know for sure that I felt like an adult, but something about me knows that she did, too. It just makes sense. This story and these feelings happened in the context of “we.”
You were another person for whom I had always set a title. You were someone who defined things, who changed things, who made things clearer and more neatly-ordered. We met, and I felt a certain way that I had never felt before. Sure, I had my high school sweetheart or the guy I dated two cities away, and they were wonderful people. But I met you as an adult and there was something more organic, less storybook and more rooted in a kind of refreshing reality with you. Without even realizing it, I had begun to term you as my first “real” love, because there were things behind you that no longer seemed to make sense in the face of your existence. How could that have been love, when this is clearly it?
It took me quite some time to properly identify my feelings, to clarify all of the grandiose terms I’d been only too happy to use when we were sitting in my real, grown-up apartment and drinking legally-purchased beer for one of the first times of my life. In my haste to label you, to put you in a category the way we would “real friends” who would rescue us in the middle of the night, I had created you. I had made an image of you that I was happy with, filled in whatever blanks you had no intention of clarifying yourself, and constructed the perfect person to go with my newfound sense of freedom and maturity. Before we had even held hands I was imagining all of the things we could be to one another — that our ability to joke and laugh together would necessarily translate into something more profound, more romantic.
And when we did hold hands, I allowed it to be all of the meaning I had been looking for in the years that preceded it, the “adult romance” that I was able to choose as a grown woman and construct out of a carefree friendship. I chose not to notice when you limply held mine in return, when you didn’t look me in the eyes when we talked, when you avoided my calls because you didn’t know how to respond to them. While it was clear to anyone that wasn’t me that you were pulling in another direction as my affection closed in on you like a cloying wool blanket on a 100-degree day, I imagined some elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. I imagined that there was subtext, when there was only disinterest.
It is easy to see now, with years of hindsight, that I did not know you. There were superficial things I could correctly identify, of course, but the majority of what I had deemed to be “you” was an amalgam of all the things I wanted you to be — your wit mistaken for flirtation, your responsibility mistaken for empathy, your politeness mistaken for affection. I had gotten myself consumed in the desire to know you, enough so to miss you entirely. And now, when I hear your name occasionally, I wonder more than anything who you actually are. I wonder the person you may have proved to be if I had let you be yourself instead of driving you away with my need to define you. Perhaps I wouldn’t have liked you at all. Perhaps I would have loved you even more. It doesn’t matter now.
But you did give me one thing, mostly in your rushed efforts to leave my life with as little conflict as possible. You taught me that people are who they are, that they are going to tell you and show you what it is they want you to see, and that insisting on them being something else is a profoundly damaging endeavor. There are only so many ways to interpret a word, or a hug, or a text message sent in the middle of the night. There is only so much agonizing you can do to make it fit into the box you insist it belongs in. And if someone is telling you, in actions as much as in words, “The person I am isn’t who you want me to be,” the best thing you can do in that moment is to listen.