I have double-jointed shoulders that make me look like a gargoyle when I flex them into a certain position. It is a charming party trick I pull out from time to time when the host is on a booze run and a hero is needed to keep the buzz going. The other night, I was working late in the apartment where I live alone when my childhood best friend, Amy — whom I have known since I was 7 years old and with whom I haven’t communicated in five years — reached out via Facebook message.
Concerned at first that something was wrong, I was relieved to find that she just wanted to ask if I could still pop my shoulder blades out. When I confirmed that I could indeed, she giddily asked for photos to show her husband. And so, in the middle of the night, at the age of 30, I paused, changed into a sports bra that made my back visible, and used Photo Booth to take photos of my freakish hellspawn back for the pleasure of a woman I haven’t seen in at least a decade and her husband, whom I’ve never met. “As great as I remember!” Amy replied.
Amy lives in San Diego, where we grew up together and where she now has two daughters and a husband. I live alone in New York with a writing job, a cat, and several weekly pangs of urban professional ennui. Between my graveyard of Diet Coke cans and her holiday card featuring an adorable infant daughter, the two of us are a Feel Good Odd Couple Holiday Reunion Comedy waiting to happen. And indeed, around the holidays, there’s typically a collective groan exhaled by those who return to their hometowns and fret at the prospect of spending time with their friends’ spouses and children. This is particularly true of a certain subset of young urban professionals who have eschewed marriages and mortgages and parenting in favor of extended dating, disposable income, and, in lucky cases, career advancement.
For a moment, though, the two wildly divergent paths we’d taken were erased and we were a couple of weirdo kids again. We weren’t a married woman and a single woman or a childless woman and a mother. We weren’t one kind of woman who posts photos of her babies and another kind of woman who posts photos of her vacations and her outfits. For a moment, we were just two women who had been girls together, sharing the kind of scarce and sacred memory that reminds you why you had the friends you did in childhood in the first place. And though I am usually reclusive during holiday vacations, I was sad to think that we had spent so much time apart, and that, because my parents recently moved, I would not be in San Diego at Christmas to see her.
I don’t need to go home at the holidays to know that people I grew up with have changed, of course. Boys who made oaths to surf every day for the rest of their lives are working in biotechnology now and have kids who don’t appear stoned or otherwise unwell. Friends with whom I used to cross the Mexican border to indulge in underage body shots and heavy dance beats have bought a stucco house and are thinking of getting a timeshare. Yet, though we’ve spent the year seeing cliché engagement photos taken in photo booths or in front of vintage barns, holiday season elevates our exposure to other people’s life milestones more than any other time of year.
Infants in elf costumes sprinkle our News Feeds; some enterprising and sadistic parents actually dressed their children as turkeys at Thanksgiving; and a few years ago, my Instagram was awash in diamond ring close-ups on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, mine featured a photo of me looking pleased as punch to have received a One Direction beach towel. Single childless people are simultaneously aloof — sure that we’d sooner die than marry and mix DNA with Jeff from AP French class — and nagged by the sense that maybe we’re doing things entirely wrong, because, frankly, dressing a baby like a turkey seems delightful.
It is easier to accept these changes in our cousins and siblings, people we didn’t choose to bring into our lives. But there’s something more unsettling about the drifting values and priorities of friends. I have friends in New York who routinely snicker at the uninspired weddings of friends from home in one breath and bemoan their own singleness the next. When we go home for the holidays, our friends become people rather than symbols of foreign values or lifestyles. We have to contend with our different realities, and on each pilgrimage home, the gaps in our knowledge of each other’s worlds grow bigger, the silences in conversation longer. I used to dread the imagined judgment of peers who seemed to be settling into adult landmarks like clockwork, right down to the ideal ratio of stocks to bonds in their investment funds. My high-school friends have been having planned pregnancies for a decade at this point, so I’ve been imagining their disapproval of me for about a third of my life.
But lately I’ve begun to reconsider. At Christmas a few years ago, I reunited with another old friend, Brynn. In school we’d been Kewpie dolls from hell, managing excellent grades despite our degeneracy and going on to good colleges. Then Brynn married at 20 and took on the responsibilities of an Army wife as well as a student, while I was still enduring the humiliation of having New York men with beards read me poems after coitus. Brynn divorced and stayed off social media for years; she reemerged after remarrying and starting to have children just as my writing career was taking off. I always assumed she thought I was irresponsible or selfish for still indulging in some of the wilder aspects of young life.
When she came by my parents’ house with her oldest daughter, though, all the old familiarity returned. She made the same incredulous-but-amused faces at her daughter’s adorable-but-bizarre behavior that she might have made when a boy had said something asinine. We started making better efforts to see each other. The gaps in our relationship started closing.
As our conversations migrated from mostly social-media niceties to longer emails and visits, the sense of our difference melted away. Just as she was more than her charming Christmas card, I was more than the sum of my Instagram selfies and self-deprecating tweets. Though I am not one to believe in a “real” world versus a social-media world, it became clear that one without the other is an incomplete picture. I believe the latter is vital for sharing our best selves broadly and sometimes superficially. But I find that the former is vital for making visible those second and third dimensions that make us whole in times when we need a witness more than an audience.
I was able to confess the embarrassing cliché of perpetual singlehood in New York and the fear that my womb will shrivel before I find someone to knock me up. Brynn said that while she loved her family, she was sometimes envious of my freedom. We compared the comforts and miseries of living in our respective cities. She did not assure me that my time would come soon, and I didn’t say that she’d ever completely be free of her familial obligations. We did each other the kindness of refusing to time-travel or tell fortunes and just sat with each other in the present, as two women who had been girls together. With each resurrected inside joke or shared secret insecurity or hope, we exchanged gifts not of material objects but of the comforting memories of life before we were encumbered by milestones. And it’s as great as I remember.