Your friends want to go out for New Year’s. You do not.
They prod and cajole you: come on, it’ll be fuuuuuuun.
It’s not that you don’t like going out. You will more than happily join the group for beers 364 days of the year. On most of them, you do. But New Year’s Eve cannot bear the weight of its expectations, and neither can you.
Listen, you say, and you tell them how it’s going to go: Carlos will get reflective and overshare-y, like he has the past three years. Jen will physically fight a dude, like she has for the past five. Jordan will get thrown out of the bar because being called “Motherfuck” and told to “eat a dick” are not yet universally accepted as terms of endearment.
And you: you will listen to Carlos’ oversharing, you’ll try and fail to hold Jen back. You will explain to offended strangers that Jordan is just being friendly. You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. You’re reliable.
This isn’t the part you say out loud. You would never say that you’re the glue that holds your group together. You would never say it because they would make fun of you: Oooooh, I hold the group to-GETH-er, la la LAAAAAAAA.
And because you know the group so well, you know their pleading is merely a formality. They know you’ll cave, like last year, like the year before. Your capitulation is inevitable.
It all plays out as you thought it would: the fights, the confessions, the swearing at strangers. Even you enact your annual tradition: you realize, midway through your fourth cocktail, that you are in love with Taylor and you’re a fool for not being with her. You wonder if things will go differently than they have so many years before: a chaste peck on the cheek at midnight.
It’s getting harder to imagine that anything this year will be different.
You lose your drink count at some point, and suddenly time lurches forward: it’s close to midnight. You swivel on your stool—did Jen fight someone? Is Carlos crying?—but don’t see any of your friends.
Another lurch, and Taylor is sitting next to you. She is leaning close to your stool, your hands on the bar nearly touching. Have you been having A Serious Conversation about your relationship? You can’t remember a thing either of you have been saying.
She pats your hand. “I hope you’ll understand,” she says. She kisses your cheek. But she comes pretty close to your lips. Is it even midnight?
Understand what, you want to ask her, but she’s getting up from the bar and making a smoking motion with her hand. “Going out for a cigarette.”
I’ll join you, you’re about to say, but the TV is counting down to midnight and the patrons are shouting and the bartenders are popping champagne. By the time you look back toward her, she’s gone.
You wander the bar in a daze, looking into the faces of strangers for your friends. “Have you seen Will?” you ask them. They shrug. You search every corner. The bar closes, and you search the street. No sign of them. No one’s picking up their phone.
Eventually, you summon a ride home. It’s not the first time you’ve been separated from the group. Tomorrow, you’ll meet them at brunch and laugh over the miscommunications that have led you to now.
But the next morning comes and still no one’s responded to your texts. You wait as long as you can to call them. Nothing but a series of voicemail recordings. Maybe they’re all still sleeping, you think. In an hour you call them again. No one answers. You start sending texts, which swerve in tone, as the hours go by, from confused to angry to pleading.
You call them in different orders: alphabetical, chronological from when you met them, how much you love each of them. You begin to ascribe meaning to the number of rings before it goes to voicemail, to the length of them. There might be a code there if you can crack it.
You get in the car and drive to their apartments. The windows inside are dark. There’s no movement from the inside in response to your knocks.
You wonder: is it bad to prefer the thought that something awful has happened to your friends, rather than contemplate the possibility that they are pretending you don’t exist?
You begin to think there is a signal they are waiting for, a word or phrase you need to text that will end whatever is happening now. You text: Space bingo. You text: Johnny Francetti is out on parole. In-jokes bring no results.
You drive to the regular spots: the park where you all play softball, your bar for trivia Wednesdays, the vacant lot where you smoke before the movies. Your thumb hurts from mashing the call button on your phone.
No one’s work will tell you where they are, or if they’ve even been working there. You don’t know how to get in touch with anyone’s parents.
The search takes you from the frequent hangouts to the deep cuts: cafes you all stopped visiting, restaurants you haven’t eaten at together in years. Hosts and servers look at you like you’re an insane person. They don’t remember your friends. They don’t remember you.
More often than not, when your phone is low on battery, you just let it die.
Days pass without you leaving your place. There aren’t a lot of pictures in your apartment, but there are just enough to confirm that your friends existed. But maybe you’re imagining the pictures. Maybe you’re imagining you had friends.
Sometimes you get up and start to clean your apartment but get distracted by uncontrollable bursts of sobbing. Sometimes you watch hours of nothing TV. Your entire body aches.
You go to a therapist. You tell him your friends have disappeared.
“A lot of people feel that way in their thirties,” he says.
You tell him you mean it literally.
“That makes sense that you would,” he says, and begins doodling what seems to be a Boston terrier in his notes.
Days will go by when you can’t look at food; then you wake up starving. Outside the world is road salt and slush. You have everything delivered. Your place stacks up with dirty takeout containers and fruit you can’t bring yourself to eat.
After weeks of this, a neighbor knocks on your door to ask how is everything going, and did you maybe have a pet that died or something, because the smells coming from under your door are, well, concerning.
After assuring him everything is fine, you close the door and are elated. Someone was concerned about you. Your door is worth knocking on.
The weather warms and you start going places. You go to movies by yourself. Your friends would have laughed at you for this: Make sure you bring your trench coat, Pee Wee.
You find that you enjoy it. When you sit alone in the dark, the light from the screen washing over you, you feel peaceful in a way you haven’t in years. You can think about something other than your isolation for two hours at a time.
You’re not used to going places on your own. People outside your friend group have always made you nervous. There was no shorthand with them, just hours of feigning interest in their pets or favorite TV shows.
But now you need these people. You go to the places they are: to malls, libraries, museums whose contents hold no interest to you. It’s enjoyable to be alone in a crowd, you find. You have no history.
You watch old people holding hands, adolescents struggling to impress each other. Couples exchanging glances and parents rolling their eyes. Seeing them interact is like breathing secondhand smoke: it’s the next best thing.
You search on your laptop: How do I make friends? You close your laptop and delete your search history.
You talk to people: servers, baristas, mail-carriers. Customers at the laundromat. You bask in the small talk you used to avoid. You talk about weather and sports teams you don’t care about with zeal.
When the usual topics dry up, you keep reaching. “So who was your first great love?” you ask the Time Warner guy. “How old were you when you had your first drink?” you ask the dignified lady in line with you at the Ralph’s. You track the looks of quiet desperation and horror on people’s faces.
Not everyone reacts this way, of course. There is one barista at the café around the corner, a short girl with a beauty mark on her left nostril, who doesn’t visibly tense up when you approach the register.
One day, when you go to pay for your cappuccino, the girl checks over her shoulder for her manager and hands you a piece of folded paper. You’re excited for the time it takes for you to unfold the paper and see that it’s a flyer for a Bible study hosted in this very café.
“We meet every Tuesday,” she says.
You’re disappointed. You don’t want to go to a Bible study. Or that’s not it. It’s more that you’ve never considered going to one until now. It wasn’t in the rotation of friend group activities. You can’t imagine anyone from the group sitting earnestly at a table and sharing their favorite psalm. You can’t imagine them at any social gathering not centered around alcohol.
Then you remember that they’re not here to make fun of you. With amazement, you recall all the flyers you have seen just in the past week: shuffleboard league, tabletop gaming, blacksmithing. There are so many things that can bring people together.
You tell her thank you, and that maybe you’ll see her there.
Running clubs. Chess meet-ups. Mystery writers’ workshops. For someone who has no friends, your social calendar is full.
You are not an avid lover of archery or swing dancing or home pickling, though you are willing to engage in them all. You’re not going to activities for the activities themselves. They’re a hunting ground for your target: potential friends.
When you do meet someone that’s potential friend material, you get anxious. Everything about the friend-making process makes you feel panic-stricken and sweaty. You are nervous initiating a hangout. You’re nervous about picking a place. You have no idea what to wear. You blurt nonsense during lulls in conversation to avoid silence. At the end of the night, you think you’ve had a good time, but it’s hard to tell. Your face hurts from smiling.
You do Friend Activities: darts, billiards, paintball. You’d forgotten how supremely uncoordinated you are. If a friend-date says nothing about your abilities, you know it’s not going well. If your friend-date razzes you, your sphincter unclenches, and you begin to act like a human once again.
If you feel really comfortable, you bring up the subject of friendships themselves: how rare the good ones are, how hard it is to maintain them at our age.
One potential friend confesses that he’s lost most of his to career moves, to differences in opinion, to the dumb antics of youth. “My girlfriend’s friends are my friends now,” he confides.
It’s then you know what the next step in your journey must be.
Dating is fucking terrible.
You go on one date with a girl from the shuffleboard league. She is freckly with long legs and always wears interesting hats. At dinner, you pass an entire ten minutes naming all the teachers you can recall from each other’s middle schools in a desperate bid for conversation. You exchange a one-armed hug at the end of the night and decide you will miss the next month of league play.
Your next date is with a girl from blacksmith club. She is three inches taller than you and has very toned upper arms (from the blacksmithing). You spend the night worrying if she’s having a good time, and at the end, she kisses you. You go on three more dates in rapid succession, the last culminating in you meeting a sizable sample of her friend group.
One night, as you wait for the check at dinner, she asks you why you never bring up your friends. Then it’s all coming out: your friends’ abandonment, your search for answers, the gaping hole of unanswered questions and grief in your life. She says nothing for a while, then takes your face in her hands. “You’re a survivor,” she tells you, then kisses you in front of the waiters.
But she is distant the date after that. She responds slower to your texts, then not at all. What happened, you type. Can we work this out.
I can’t be your entire life, she responds, and you hear from her no more.
When people ask about your friends, you usually kill them off. Boating accident, you’ll say, all somber. House fire. Your various acquaintance groups—they are not at the level of friends, not yet—surround you, gasp in sympathy and horror. Plane crash, you’ll tell them. Ski trip.
“Ski trip?” someone asks.
You shake your head. “They were really bad skiers.”
Finally, someone asks the obvious question: “Why weren’t you there?”
You consider this for a moment. “I guess we weren’t that good friends.”
You still hear your friends in your head sometimes—the way we hear everyone we’ve ever loved and hated in our heads—but they’re distant now, muted. In the new quiet, you imagine what you could do with your life: get a job you don’t hate. Pick up a hobby that you’re actually good at. Learn a language. Move out of your overpriced apartment. Step out into the street and just keep walking. Move out of the city, of the country. Call your parents.
For a while, you thought of your friends only in anger: the time they left you with an angry bouncer, the way they bullied you into being DD, even when you were drunk. Now, it’s getting a little easier to remember the good times: the booze cruise where Jen nearly fell overboard, getting thrown out of the bowling alley for reckless endangerment. The three times you made out with Taylor.
If they are out there somewhere, you hope that they are well. You think.
You once thought that every life needed a great mystery. Now you know mysteries are most fun when they happen to other people.
It becomes impossible to ignore approach of New Year’s Eve.
Your groups invite you to various New Year’s celebrations—all told you have four options to choose from—but in the end, you decline all of them. Just going to stay in this year, you tell all who inquire. Good for you, they say.
You do, and it is glorious. A mug of tea, no booze, one joint, and a stack of black and white DVDs. You roast chicken and multi-colored potatoes for yourself. Having no friends this past year has really improved your cooking.
You deliberately put down your phone past arm’s length when it gets past eleven, but you can’t ignore the clock as midnight draws near. The countdown runs down, and you take a contented sip of tea as music and shouting sounds from outside your window.
Then there’s a knock on your door. Weird, you think. You cinch your bathrobe and go to answer it.
All your old friends are at the door. With a greeting shout of “Eat a dick!” they are in your apartment opening bottles of wine, laying out veggie trays and dip. They clap your shoulders and casually offer fist-bumps like it’s been a week since you last saw each other.
“What are you all doing here?”
“Celebrating with you, motherfuck,” Will says.
You are too overwhelmed to think of a good question to ask. “What have you guys been up to?”
The group looks a little uncomfortable. Work, one says quietly. Busy, murmurs another. Livin’ life. Chillin’.
“So you’re not, um,” you swallow. “Dead?”
“No shit, Sherlock,” says Jen. “We’re all here, let’s party.”
“But this doesn’t make any sense.”
“Ooooh,” says Carlos, “la la laaaaa, this doesn’t make any—"
You throw your mug against a wall. The handle breaks off awkwardly. The group falls quiet.
“It’s been a year,” you say. “And you just show up! What the hell?”
The group is quiet. “Our bad,” says Carlos.
“Come on,” says Taylor, and she walks over and begins to rub your shoulders. “Everything’s okay now. Don’t be mad.”
Will hands you a beer. “Let’s put on some music,” he says. He does, and Taylor begins to dance with you.
She whispers in your ear: “You remember what I told you last year, at New Year’s?”
You do not, because you were wasted.
“Of course,” you say. “I’ll never forget it.”
“Let’s just put this behind us, ok?” she says. “Things can go back to the way they were.”
You stiffen in her arms for a moment. Your friends are back in your life. All your worries, all the theories you’ve spun are now moot. This is what you’ve dreamed of.
So why does it feel so terrible?
“Is everything ok?” she asks.
You smile. “Of course,” you say. “I’m just gonna go out for a smoke.”
As you close the door behind you, you hear one of them say, “Why did he grab his keys and wallet?”
The night outside is cold without your jacket. Your breath comes in chilled clumps. You don’t mind. The light in your apartment window is still on. The street before you gleams with ice. It’s dangerous to walk.
Small steps, you say to yourself, and you begin.