I have some friends with whom we discuss our parents. We say that our mothers are unhappy or overbearing, and that our fathers are infuriatingly punctual or unkind to our mothers. From these assessments, we make evaluations about ourselves, about our own unhappiness or jealousies or obsessions, our own inabilities to love and be loved. We don’t, as a rule, connect what we might consider to be our good traits to our parents. After I leave these particular friends I feel vaguely angry with my parents, but also guilty for criticizing them, and subjecting them to the scrutiny of people they do not know. I also feel that I have better parents than my friends, and an outlook on things that is generally less bleak and more promising than I would have thought if I did not have these friends.
I have other friends whose parents I know nothing about, and who know nothing of my parents. With these friends, I go to restaurants. If a new restaurant opens, I will meet these friends there, and we will talk about the menu and the décor and the demeanor of the servers. We will order drinks, and then discuss the drinks, and pass them around to one another to try. We will order appetizers, and discuss them, and entrees, and discuss them, and lastly dessert, which we will also discuss. We will scrape our forks and spoons against one another’s plates and say things like, I wish I had gotten that, or, too salty. When we are not talking about the food, we will make polite inquiries into the least personal aspects of our personal lives. But mostly, we will talk about the experience of being in the restaurant, and when the bill comes, we will argue over who will pay, and make promises that next time, we will pay.
There is one friend whom I don’t look in the eye, and who does not look me in the eye. We are close, save for this fact, which makes me think we are not close at all, but dishonest with each other, and unable to encounter one another on an intimate level because of certain deep fears. We see one another frequently, and talk of many things, and yet I’m fairly sure that we make each other uncomfortable. Still, we insist on spending time together, as if to prove that the opposite is true.
Around some friends, I feel the presence of something sexual. It’s contained, and pretty much in the background, but there nonetheless. At times I have had dreams about friends I’d never been even remotely attracted to, but in the dream we were together in a hazily sexual way, and since then, I find myself regarding these friends differently, with an offhand, detached kind of lust that is more idea than longing. I have the sense that each of these few friends have had the same dream featuring me in the role that they played in my dream. It is as though we, as a small ruling body, have vetoed sex with one another in favor of latent sexual feelings that make us laugh hard at one another’s jokes and compliment one another’s hair: the harder we press the feelings down, the harder we get along.
I notice that every group of friends has its own culture, its own customs and language, and I find myself therefore traveling from one little country to the next, fluency wondrously restored to me the moment I disembark. In some places, we speak entirely in metaphor. The thing is never the thing that it is, but a different thing that makes its antecedent, its denotatum, more totemic. Or, we say the things that are next to the things we really want to say, thereby creating two conversations, one that runs between us and another that runs amok in our heads like a shiny pinball, ricocheting noisily off of the first conversation and clamoring at us for days.
I have friends who like to talk about politics, and whose politics they assume I share. They assume this because I neither disagree nor agree with them, but make reassuring noises and affable facial expressions as they speak.
Among two or three friends, I feel confined to my adolescence. We meet in memory, at the bleachers or in homeroom or at the prom or in the basement of someone’s house, and we talk about what we see. Around one another, we are very careful to remain as close to whom we were as possible. Again and again we reveal the same things, using slightly different words each time. Very little is said about anything current; we are experts of all the past tenses and can make fun of ourselves skillfully. If we are married, we talk about our marriages as extensions or foils of relationships we all remember. If we are divorced, we talk about closure the way we did after we first learned the word. These friends know my first favorite foods and details about my body during its tenderest times.
I have friends I have never met, people I know strictly through e-mail correspondence. We sign off “Best” or “Cordially” or sometimes just our names or initials. We do not make inquiries about family or hobbies. One time I wrote “I hope you and your family have a happy holiday” because it was December and because I was reasonably sure that this person had some kind of family. But generally, we are specific and task-oriented in our communication.
I don’t feel as though I have many friends, but when I really think about it, I see that I do, where I define “friend”liberally and exhaustively. But I am not a person who particularly likes having friends. I don’t like the telephone, and I don’t, in general, like making plans, and since talking on the phone and setting up opportunities to meet in person and then actually meeting in person seem to be important practices for sustaining friendships, I find myself at odds with the very nature of the enterprise. I become nervous before I attend social situations, and check my hair and clothing many times in the bathroom before entering. I still feel the way I felt when I was quite young and quite alone on the playground, because of my glasses, and how my hair looked, and because I did not have the courage to perform daring feats on the swings. And yet, here I am, in relatively secure possession of many friendships and many kinds of friendship.
Here I pause to reflect on the legitimacy of friends, the requirements.
The earliest friendships are based on proximity (neighborhood friends, friends from school) and shared experiences(same bus stop, riding bikes). This doesn’t totally change. Bus stops become workplaces and riding bikes becomes cycling or writing poetry or knitting or going to business school. Often, I choose friends who remind me of myself, or I am chosen by friends for the same reason, or I become mixed up with “mutual” friends where the choosing becomes a matter of compliance. Then there is always a friend who has nothing to do with me, whose interests don’t intersect with mine and whose weltanschauung is decidedly different. Under the influence of such a friend I have behaved in ways I would not have otherwise. I have stolen candy. I have put wet, wadded up things in mailboxes. I have bought astoundingly expensive shoes and blacked out from drunkenness.
From a young age I understood that there were always things a person wanted to hear in the pauses of their speaking or storytelling. I became adept at filling those pauses with the desired responses, and as a result, over time, I have gained many friends. I understand now that they are not admiring me; they are admiring themselves in the mirror I provide. When I was twenty-five I left the man I’d been in love with, telling friends—the friends I talked to about relationships—that he was not right for me. What I meant of course was that he was not me; he did not act how I would act or say what I would say or deliver the coveted reactions when I told him things. For two dark years I contemplated the implications of this. I allowed myself to be set up with people, and went on dates with them in an almost catatonic state of politeness. I worried about what would happen if I stopped being polite and started expecting things of them and found them unable to perform those things. My worry made me very popular with men. They wanted second dates, and third. My friends, the ones who engineered the first dates, reported that the men found me charming, fascinating, beautiful even. Which confirmed my fear that love was an ignoble trick based on pretense and the delicate calibration and tireless negotiation of the ego.
But this was a conclusion arrived at in my late twenties, and as such, unreliable. I have since stopped forcing love to be one thing, and I have become humbler and more reverent toward it. I stand somewhere in the narthex, looking out over its pews and stained glass and impossibly ornate chandeliers, and I don’t snort at the heavy grandeur as I would have once. I feel instead sort of dazed, but happy enough to be a witness, to be just inside. And then I go home and I catalogue my friends, and see my own needs and the needs of each one very plainly, and I feel no guilt or confusion about how these needs, across friendships, are met. Each friendship is a synecdoche of friendship, and all friendships are the products of communication and desire. Communication and desire are made up of so many parts, and instead of looking at those parts, I look at the people who render them for me, and based on this rendering, I determine whom I choose as friends, and why. This much is clear to me, and the clarity is a comfort. But beneath the comfort buzz unpleasant questions reminiscent of the late-night, booze-soaked, cigarette-studded revelations of my late twenties: is a friend only a friend insofar as she or he adequately performs a certain part of a social equation? Does the friend matter at all, or only the words of the friend, and very occasionally, the actions? And aren’t words really only words, and even less than words, since they are received as sounds that purport to mean things, but fail, since a word can only be the sound of the word, or the sight of it, but never the thing itself, and the thing itself is only definable with words, which puts us in the miserable spin-cycle of the world’s most symbolic washing machine? Couldn’t the specific friend, in fact, be anybody, anybody at all who sensed the need, and filled it? Do I have friends, or only prismatic projections of myself, echoing meaningless sounds? And does this possibility make me more alone than if I had no friends at all? Because if I had none, I would be alone but somehow more accountable?
Kristen Iskandrian’s first novel, Motherest, was published by Twelve/Hachette in August 2017. Other work appears in Tin House, Zyzzyva, Epoch, and Ploughshares, among others. In 2014 her story “The Inheritors” received an O. Henry Prize. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.