book excerpt

The Worst Friend Date I Ever Had

An excerpt from Samantha Irby’s new essay collection Wow, No Thank You.

Photo-Illustration: Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

You don’t have to cry for me, but listen: trying to make new friends as an adult is the hardest thing I have ever attempted. Harder than multiple colonoscopies? Yes. Harder than listening to the dentist pry my tooth bone away from my jawbone while I lie there wide awake? Also yes!

When I moved to Kalamazoo from Chicago, I thought for sure that I was going to be happy staying at home and never going outside. And, for the most part, I am. I get to travel and work in fancy cities with mass transit and Ethiopian food, then come back and pay $1.87 for a gallon of gas for the car that I can park anywhere on my sprawling 2,000 acres of land that were practically free. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but my point is FUCK THE CITY.

But, how does one make friends without an office to go to? Or a club to participate in? Or various PTA meetings to grimace at each other through? Are you just supposed to walk up to an interesting-looking person on the street and ask them to be your friend? I don’t know if this is some kind of reverse profiling, but I can usually glance at a person and know at first sight that we’re probably going to get along. I don’t have it down to a science (I’m not researching shit, dude), but here are some dead giveaways: they have interesting, alternative, “cool person” hair, dumb tattoos, or are carrying a book, multiplied by a factor of ten if it happens to be one I wrote (I’m sorry — I am an egomaniac).

Have you ever considered what a friendship is, or what any of your current friendships are, and thought about how to present that to a prospective new friend? You know, like how you are going to eventually be sending them selfies of you trying on 12 similar-yet-slightly-different pairs of glasses in your ophthalmologist’s waiting room while your garbage insurance is being processed? How do you convince a stranger to give you their real email when you are definitely going to litter their gmail dot com with dumb nonsense?

A few years ago (before I moved to Michigan and joined my wife’s community of backyard composters and travel-soccer chauffeurs), my lady and I went to her friend’s costume wedding and — I know you already know this, but let me just say it for anyone who is new or still has a shred of hopefulness in their heart — I did not wear a costume. The last time I wore a Halloween costume was in the second-grade costume parade at Lincoln Elementary School in 1986 (go, dolphins), and the only costume I could come up with was “housewife,” a concept I didn’t fully understand but thought I could approximate with my mom’s tattered old robe, a half-melted spatula, and the satin cap she slept in the nights after a fresh press ’n’ curl. Because I was a Very Large Son, everyone just thought I had worn my shitty pajamas to school.

Anyway, my wife and I were at this wedding where I knew a few people well enough to say “Hi” but not well enough to say “Hi, ____,” and as we’re sitting in our assigned dinner seats I’m looking around the room, taking it all in, wondering who I can latch on to in the hopes of a semipermanent relationship once I officially moved to Kalamazoo. A dude named Ike came and sat next to me as we waited for the buffet to be set up, literally the only reason I braved a room full of people unironically dressed as Tolkien characters. He was wearing a Scientology uniform as his costume, and I immediately fell deeply in love. I talked to Ike for a while, writing his name in permanent marker on the Potential New Friends list in my mind.

After he abandoned me to go fill up his plate with communal vegan enchiladas from the hot bar, a cool-looking woman with shiny bangs and interesting glasses (PRO) carrying a tiny crying baby (CON) and wearing a Ruth Bader Ginsburg costume (NEUTRAL) came over to introduce herself to me. We got on like a house on fire. After a few minutes, my palms started to sweat in anticipation of what would surely be an awkward transition from a pleasant introductory conversation to the method by which I could secure her contact information to lock down a future friendship.

Is there an app for this? I wasn’t the best fucking dater you ever saw, but by the end of my run I had certainly grasped the machinations of “let’s turn this thing into the next thing”: clandestine shared glance over the heads of the other people at the bar; awkwardly squeezing past other people’s sweaty boners to reach each other; eight minutes of scream-talking the coolest things you can think of directly into each other’s ears, standing close enough to get spittle on your neck; *fake laughter*; *elusive praise you’ll eventually come to regret*; EXCHANGE OF PHONE NUMBERS. At ten the next morning, smoking a joint and listening to some Anita Baker and deciding whether you are too hungover to make it to brunch, you stare at your empty inbox and curse yourself for being so desperate and eager. That, I have mastered. I am the queen of “they probably input the digits wrong, I shoulda had me call them” when it comes to a deal I couldn’t all-the-way seal. But with friends it’s weirder. For instance, I have some treasured Instagram pals that I would maybe like to text rather than DM, because memorizing people’s handles and organizing them all in my brain is difficult plus I assume everyone is like me and turns all their notifications off because all that popping up is stressful. On the flip side, some of these people live in faraway places like Omaha and Los Angeles, and it’s not like I need their numbers for emergency purposes, just for my convenience. It’s not important, but what if I wanted to call them? How in the fuck do people ever make non-romantic friends?

RBG sits down next to me at the table, and my lady is off being charming and laughing with her head tossed back, because these are the adulthood friends she’s acquired through various Parent Teacher Associators and Slumber Party Coordinators, circles I don’t have access to. Also, a lot of these people are Neighbors, a club I have no interest in joining! RBG’s given name is actually Emily, and Emily is funny and smart and has a bubbly energy that is very appealing to me, and the more she talks, the more vivid my fantasy of us listening to somber podcasts in her minivan while driving to the petting zoo becomes. I can literally taste the nutmeg silt from the bottom of a pumpkin spice latte on my tongue when her husband (CON) comes over with a towering plate of food for her (PRO) and coaxes her away from my table. I start to say “hey, do you like tweeting?” or some other useless shit, but she’s got that goddamn baby and this Jedi Knight is looming anxiously over us balancing a precarious platter of nachos, so I stammer out a “Nice talking to ya!” in my most nasal midwestern twang and go back to fucking around on my phone.

When I officially moved to Kalamazoo half a year later, rather than thinking about making new friends, I spent my first few days hiding from the surprising number of people who knocked on our door throughout the day. It’s possible that they were coming over to offer me homemade bread or a hand-drawn map to all the local breweries or perhaps even their friendship, but I will never know, because I’m from Chicago and I don’t believe in answering an unsolicited door knock. I took a couple weeks to get myself situated: I ordered fancy deodorants from Aesop and had a desk shipped to me from CB2, stacked boxes of cozy Madewell cardigans in the front hall and ripped Ladurée macarons from their smoosh-proof packaging, all in an attempt to approximate my old life in a place where you can buy gym shoes at the grocery store.

Fast-forward to the next Halloween. I’m in Kalamazoo. I’m still not wearing a fucking costume. My wife is corny, and to prove how much the evidence of our visit to an actual pumpkin patch is lined up on our porch. We live in a house, up the street from a school, in a neighborhood filled with children, and there are going to be trick-or-treaters. Since I hadn’t bothered to meet anyone or answer the door I’d hidden behind while someone proffering a welcome casserole knocked on it, I’m going to have to sit on the steps with a bowl of premium miniature candy and assure all the little ghouls and goblins that I am indeed the witch that lives in this haunted cottage.

I don’t know if they smelled my desperation and eagerness to please or if they could hear my cauldron bubbling in the backyard, but I spent the afternoon freezing half to death in arctic winds chasing third graders with single-serving bags of Sour Patch Kids as they ran screaming past my house. After several hours of creepily trying to coax kids whose costumes I had no reference for (what is a Minecraft?) to unload ten pounds of Skittles off me, I spotted a familiar pack of white people making their way down our hill and at the head was old Ruth Bader G from that wedding the year before: My Possible Friend Emily! I waved, despite my hesitation to appear enthusiastic in public. She and her family were convincingly dressed as the family from
Bob’s Burgers, the littlest one (now walking!) toddling around in a pink bunny hat. I poured mini boxes of Milk Duds into the kids’ outstretched pillowcases and made small talk, trying to come up with a smooth segue into asking Emily if she was in the market for a new best friend.

“Ha-ha, it’s cold out here, huh?” Omg, stop. “You guys look so cute. Do you have a cheeseburger in your pocket?” Holy shit, swallow your own tongue. “Tell me everything that has happened in the year since I last saw you.” Samantha Irby, if you don’t shut the actual fuck up!

A crowd gathered as I put on my best show to convince her telepathically to beg me to hang out sometime, sweating and awkwardly laughing way too much as children who had never met one another before swarmed around our knees, loudly chattering and comparing costumes. They were instant friends. HOW WAS THIS SO EASY FOR THEM? “Hey, Hendrix,” I hissed under my breath at a child in a Handmaid’s Tale bonnet hugging some sort of plush human dinosaur, “so did you just, like, ask for Clementine’s phone number or did the moms have to get involved or what?”

Emily’s kids were ready to go; the block was buzzing that the people with the pool in their yard were giving out full-size Twix and inventory was going fast. My palms grew slick from nerves as another wave of shouting kids threatened to trample us in the pursuit of sour Nerds. I could not let her get away again.

“It was great to see you!” she said, drifting toward the sidewalk. Why has age made me better at so few things? I thought getting older was supposed to make me wise and good at stuff? Should I ask her if she has trouble emptying her bladder all the way? Invite her to an early afternoon book discussion at the local library? HOW WOULD YOUR MOM DO THIS? “I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second. “We should get together! We could eat some black licorice and watch God Friended Me!”

We settled on lunch. Lunch is a good friendship-testing situation, because nighttime feels too much like a date and doing anything during the day makes it easier to pretend you have something urgent to get to if it fucking sucks. “Hate to eat and run, I have a meeting!” Bitch, you don’t have a meeting. But no one can prove that you don’t have a meeting, especially since it’s noon. Also, pro tip: if you’re friends with someone who has a kid, you better learn to love a daytime hang; otherwise you’re going to find yourself sipping Juicy Juice and saying nonsense words like, “Girl, you are not gonna believe this, I found a fu — I mean, a frigging boo-boo on my hoo-ha,” while a 6-year-old who should’ve taken his little bad-frigging-ass to bed two hours ago screams, “WHAT?!” and throws peas at your face.

I picked a sushi spot even though I don’t love sushi, because the restaurant is really sunny and cute, and I wanted to make a good impression. Which, in hindsight, is fucking misleading, because I am 100 percent the kind of friend who wants you to pick me up so we can go to the drive thru and gossip over Big Macs in the McDonald’s parking lot. All my real friends are like, “Sushi? Table service? In daylight? I once had to watch you eat a hot dog on the bus!”

I don’t dress up anymore, ever, for any reason, so I’m sure I just wore a dumb T-shirt and high-waisted pants, but I put on some blush because it’s a quick and handy way to make you look like you care about yourself, even when you don’t. Never leave home without something you can blindly rub on to your cheeks in a public bathroom stall. I keep a grimy, dusty NARS multipurpose stick in the bottom of my bag just in case I run into someone who knows me and might ask, “Damn, are you sick?” all loud and shit in the middle of the mall.

Emily showed up to the empty restaurant, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I mean, that’s the biggest hurdle, right? Just getting someone to put on pants for you? I don’t remember what she ordered, but I do remember that I was brave enough to order edamame with sriracha salt to start, and by “brave” I mean “foolish,” because it was way too hot for me and I had to fake that I actually enjoy eating flavored foods. She was talking to me about her life, and I was thinking about how to excuse myself to the bathroom and fake my own death. Sriracha salt? We talked and ordered rolls and laughed and ordered tempura and laughed even harder, and I resisted drooling over the dessert menu, and then the meal drew to a natural close and our waiter, a young man I don’t think was even old enough to serve us alcohol, hovered nearby with the check. I pulled out my debit card and waved him over. It had been my invitation, plus I really wanted Emily to like me and I don’t believe I can win anyone over with charm alone, so I was going to pay. That is another benefit of asking someone to lunch: THAT SHIT IS CHEAP. The waiter took my card and vanished.

I had checked my bank account before I even left the house, because I don’t fucking play that. Chase Bank is not gonna be embarrassing me out here in these streets. So when it took several seconds longer for the waiter to return, I assumed there had been a glitch with the machine, or he’d had to stop and fill someone’s water and got lost on his way back to our table. The clock ticked excruciatingly slowly. Emily was on the booth side of the table and I had my back to the restaurant, so I didn’t notice when the waiter silently appeared behind me with the black check holder. He held it open and looked at its contents for half a beat too long, and I felt my insides liquify. My brain panicked. “How is he going to say it? Is he going to announce to the entire place that I don’t have $47 or is he going to let me have my dignity?” He looked at me, really studied me, and my heart clawed its way up to my throat. Oh my god, were the police already on their way? I stole a look at Emily, unable to tell if she was the type of person who had broke friends and would be cool with this. “Will she spot me a few bucks or just abandon me here to pay for our meal by washing miso cups and sushi mats?”

He set the check down next to my elbow, and I tried to be chill and just, you know, casually glance over at it to see if anything was circled in red marker or if my card was cut into shards like you sometimes see in the movies. “Excuse me,” he began timidly, “but are you from Chicago?” I relaxed immediately. Of course! He’s a fan! Honestly, I don’t even know why I got all worked up — I’m over here crawling around the floor looking for a Xanax and this dude is hiding out trying to think of an unobtrusive way to ask for my autograph! Emily perked up when he asked where I was from. Her eyes danced, as if to say, “Am I actually eating lunch with a celebrity?” I nodded and smiled back. “Yes, regular-person-who-is-lucky-I’m-considering-being-your-new-friend, you are.”

I am nothing if not totally gracious. “I am!” I gushed, hoping that he hadn’t remembered me from anything embarrassing. “Are you familiar with my work?”

The oxygen was instantly sucked out of the fucking room. You could hear a mouse fart. The waiter’s face, while sweet, looked confused. I registered it immediately and searched the table for something to cut my throat with. Of course, this young, cool person with pink hair and hand tattoos wasn’t familiar with the self-indulgent ramblings of a middle-aged depressed lady with chronic diarrhea! Why am I even still alive?

Okay, let’s assess: my card worked, that’s good; I’ve humiliated myself in front of my new friend and haven’t yet figured a way out of it and both of them are still looking at me, and that is very, very bad. And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan? Back home in Chicago, where it is busy and overpopulated and I am not one of six blacks, it happens to me all the time, so why not here?
“Um … no?” he replied sheepishly. We blinked at each other for a solid three seconds, which is an incredibly long time in shame city. He nudged the book with my card in it. “I’m not exactly sure, but isn’t that the Chicago skyline on your debit card?”

SON OF A FUCKING BITCH. I should’ve opened an account at fucking Wells Fargo, goddammit. I knew this stupid card was going to ruin my life today. Emily, my brand-new ex-friend, stifled a laugh behind her hand and averted her eyes. My face filled up with blood. “Yep, you’re right, son, that is the Chicago skyline.” I sighed, dejected. Our waiter valiantly attempted to save my ego. “What is your work?” he asked earnestly, trying to give me a hand up out of the grave I’d dug for myself. Imagine my answering this without crying. I would rather eat my own shoes than explain to this teenager what blogs are with soy sauce dripped all down my shirt.

“Are you familiar with my work?” What kind of fucking asshole says shit that way? It echoed off the walls of my brain, mocking me. Dude, I don’t even talk like that. I meet people all the time who breathlessly come up to me like “HI, I LOVE YOUR STUFF” and I play it cool (“Oh my gosh, thank you so much! You’re the sweetest!”), and then they shout “BAD FEMINIST REALLY CHANGED MY LIFE” right before their husband uses his phone to capture the exact moment my heart breaks in half like Ralph’s in the “I Choo-Choo-Choose You” episode of The Simpsons. 

Why couldn’t I just have said nothing, or played dumb and waited for him to point to the Sears Tower on my card? Why didn’t I just say “Evanston, technically,” and wait for him to ask what the Hancock Building looks like? Am I ever going to stop writing the horror movie I have been starring in since the day I was born?

Today, Emily and I share an office. It’s above a coffee shop that doubles as a moped warehouse, and even though I pay rent, I still have to pay full price for an oat milk latte, which, if I were to go there and pretend to work every day, could cost me $25-plus a week. The office is a big, airy space with shiny hardwood floors and gigantic windows that we’ve filled with plants and crystals and candles. I ordered another CB2 desk (an office one, for my office, rather than my at-home one, which is for piling shit on and forgetting it) and bought a fancy stapler even though I never, ever need to staple anything, and they look right at home next to Emily’s draft table and rolling cart crammed full of oil pastels and gouache materials. She writes and illustrates gorgeous children’s books about little glasses-wearing babies who explore the ocean and learn about weather, and I do a lot of anxiety-snacking while writing about my prickly labia and feeling self-conscious about the music I choose for us to work to. We have a strong, solid relationship.

We talk a lot about how beautiful Meghan Markle is and what podcasts we listen to, even though talking about talking is dumb, but we have fun. I know that her littlest kid is in kindergarten now and doesn’t wear the bunny ears anymore.

She probably knows me well enough to tell you what to get me for my birthday, and she’s been in my house enough times to tell you where we hide the best snacks. I like working next to her every day. We drink a lot of carbonated water and take a lot of CBD tinctures that don’t work. I somehow survived the awkwardness of that early attempt at courtship and we’ve settled nicely into the very comfortable next stage of friendship, also known as “do you want this old lipstick that looks weird on me/can I borrow five dollars until the end of the week.”

A few months ago I was entering my debit number into an unsafe website to buy some trash I definitely didn’t need and noticed that my card was on the verge of expiration, and with a pang of despair in the center of my chest that humiliating sushi date came flooding back to mock me. There was no way I’d be issued a Chicago card to my adopted Michigan address, right? Would my umbilical banking cord finally be severed? The day the new one showed up in the mail, I almost threw the envelope away because it looked like something from a bill collector, and I peeled the flap open slowly, braced for the reveal of my Built Ford Tough card or whatever it is they have here. Blessed be, they sent me another Chicago card, made of a dipped Italian beef and a lock of Rod Blagojevich’s hair. I immediately texted Emily to see if she wanted to meet me for lunch, my treat.

Excerpted from Wow, No Thank You.: Essays by Samantha Irby. Published by Vintage, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2020 by Samantha Irby.

The Worst Friend Date I Ever Had