Whenever my parents would have an unpleasant fight — a frequent occurrence in my home growing up — my mom would come find me sulking in my room, demand I get dressed, and then pack us both into the car and drive with silent ferocity to some friend’s home. There, she and the friend would laugh together about their terrible marriages, giggling over their shared unhappiness like a pair of secret-whispering and pinky-promising girls.
Even when we lived in a city far from her closest confidantes, we’d still get in the car and drive over to see a more casual friend, under the pretense of having an evening tea. My mother would save the sad cackling and the catharsis of her husband-bashing for phone calls with her closer friends during the drive. But no matter where we were, she never found herself without a house to end up in.
This is how I came to think of friendship from an early age: sometimes an escape, sometimes a lifeline, always essential. And yet, as I grow older, I find myself with fewer and fewer places I could get in the car and drive to.
The struggle is a typical post-college one: I graduated, found myself with a job in a city I didn’t particularly, like with co-workers who were all older than I am, and kept up with my closest friends only through text and FaceTime. But knowing that my situation was a common one didn’t make it any easier. I missed my friends terribly, and I missed the comfort of girlfriends in my city.
Sometimes, I would find myself eavesdropping on packs of women on the street, listening in on conversations about skin-care routines and weekend plans. I’d respond viscerally to the sound of women’s laughter and wonder desperately what was so funny. It did occur to me, occasionally, that I could approach one of these women — maybe one in my Zumba class, say, where I could force some sort of bond over our shared 50 minutes of sweating. But it always felt too weird to me to actually go through with it.
So, when I learned that my Bumble app now had a friend mode, Bumble BFF, I was thrilled — and then immediately ashamed. What was wrong with me, I wondered, that I had to resort to an app for something as basic as making friends? Never mind that I regularly swiped through men with the same lightning speed at which I consumed carbs — it didn’t seem seem normal or right for one to not already possess girlfriends.
I recalled the time I’d made a pro-con list about whether or not to continue dating a guy that included the con: “Doesn’t seem to have many friends or do anything with them. Internal footnote: Loser or American Psycho?”
Suddenly, I was the American Psycho.
Sarah was my first. I met her at a cheap Mexican joint, where we ate mediocre enchiladas as I taught her how to pronounce my name and she told me she was married. We had nothing in common. As we washed down our meal with the 16-ounce margarita special, I pretended I didn’t know this would be our last “date.”
Then came Veronica, who made me laugh with stories about her neurotic dog and her in-laws’ matching sweaters. She still exists in my social media, and I still like her posts. But she lived too far away, and we never saw each other again.
Lizzy was next. I met her for an outdoor concert in a three-way first date. The other woman had only recently ghosted me, a fact I delighted in reminding her of (she took it in stride). We picnicked, listened to live opera, and played cards, parting with the promise to “text soon” and hang — and then we all promptly forgot about one another.
There were others, too, that I don’t remember as well. Some ghosted me, others I ghosted myself. There was an urgency that seemed to be lacking in this swipe-based search for friendship; there was less of an impetus to follow up after the fact, and less guilt about disappearing.
Eventually, I moved to New York and swapped out Bumble BFF for a locally popular friend app, Hey! VINA. I met Kate over sangria and pasta, and while we never really hit it off, we did both find a certain harmony in having someone to do things with. She seemed to delight in bringing me to places that had been featured on TV (like Grey Dog, home to Broad City’s season-four premiere), while I coaxed her to explore seedy bars with me.
I went on many more friend dates after that, with varying levels of success. Some lasted only as long as a conversation. Others sometimes braved the subway to see me. But I couldn’t seem to make myself feel better about the whole thing — I remember inviting a colleague out to drinks once when I was at a bar with Kate and hoping he wouldn’t ask me how the two of us knew each other. It shamed me even more that I was ashamed.
At 2 a.m. a few weeks ago, I FaceTimed my best friend, who lives on the West Coast, to talk about it. She answered in the dark and told me to shush while she snuck into the bathroom to avoid waking up her sleeping boyfriend. Naked except for the retainers in her mouth, she settled on to the toilet to chat with me. I, also naked except for the bright pink zit cream on my face, was burrowed under covers awaiting a snowstorm.
I asked her what made her look for female friends in Seattle when she had me, and our other friends scattered across the country, and male roommates she was friends with. She looked at me like I was an idiot, then pointed out all the logistical challenges of our cross-country friendship: It didn’t matter how much she loved me; I’d still never really understand how blue Seattle’s weather made her feel sometimes. And we’d never have the bond born out of a shared routine.
Then she shrugged and said, also, “Guys don’t understand why you want to cry for five minutes because you missed the bus.”
I felt better.
Fostering the first tenuous moments of a friendship on apps isn’t easy. It’s just as rife with fractures and trip wires. And it’s so very difficult to rifle through the muck and find a connection. But it’s worse trying to fathom being without any.
Two weeks ago, I met up with a woman who brought me a lemon-flavored vegan muffin that I loved. We had matched months ago, but only now found the time to meet. I hadn’t eaten all day and the weather was brisker than I expected, and yet we meandered through Prospect Park for a long time, chatting.
Over Thai food, she told me about her mother and the “bros” she worked with, while I regaled her with the double life I live because of a devoutly religious family. We talked, without pause or prompt, for three hours and rode the train back together. I see her again this week.