My best friend of thirteen years just moved. I can picture her old house in a fuzzy kind of way—the room that functioned as a playspace for her baby brother with his toys thrown across the floor, the driveway that used to gush muddy water that left the downhill street slick with pebbles. I know the way there without reading street signs, and I knew her house before that even better because it was on the same street as mine, six houses down.
As I grew older, I found it less important to visit my friends’ houses and less important to have them exist in mine. Traumatized by the purgatory period in adolescence when more time is spent wondering what to do with friends than actually doing it, the moment I learned to drive I had no interest in being anywhere, only getting places. I spent this summer tracing loops around the canyons behind my neighborhood and going to the beach as much for the drive as the destination. I developed a fish taco addiction, and got good at driving one-handed while I ate them in motion. In light of the virus, permanence became wholly unappealing.
I have no idea what my best friend’s new house looks like. We aren’t big on phone calls, so most of our Covid communication has been in the form of grainy “I miss you” photos, in which object permanence has no place, and yet, thanks to my course load of four small seminars, I’ve seen the childhood living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and backyard patios of dozens of kids that I have yet to meet. In turn, though I’m not at home right now, they see me (in all my Pacific Standard Time glory) at seven AM in craftily disguised jammies. The college friends I’ve made so far (with whom I’m in a collective long-distance relationship that is every bit as painful as they say), have seen even worse—my terrible pajama shirts, my fat-cheeked toothbrush face, the thirty-six inch teddy bear that sits by my pillow. We volley letters back and forth across the country—I make them earrings that they trade for cookies and stickers and drawings—and yet I have no idea what they’re like in the flesh. For fun, we guess other’s heights with limited success and fantasize about group hugs. With startling frequency, I envision a nightmare scenario where I meet them and my eyes roll back into their sockets before I collapse from sensory overload.
Every rule of online etiquette has forewarned us against “online friends”, a demographic shrouded in stigma, creepatized and crawlitized by our societal fear of non-traditional intimacy. For older generations especially, “online” might as well be synonymous with “imaginary”. I used to discount friendships like these—denying the validity of intangible connections, but I don’t think I can afford to do so anymore, not when the alternative is being friendless in college. I was never the kid to get tangled up in chatroom relationships and online communities like many of my friends in middle and high school. I repent now, for the way I invalidated, even in my own head, the authenticity of their attachments. Laughter over zoom is still laughter, even when it lags and gets chopped to robotic bits by poor internet stability. Melancholy is still melancholy, even when the object of my attachment exists to me in limited dimensions. My favorite line is, “Any one of you could literally reek, and there’s now way I would know it.”
To engage deeply with people on the internet can feel disingenuous and embarrassing, especially when that day of in-person reckoning looms in the uncertain future, especially-especially when your ambitious post-Princeton plans might later put you in a position of public scrutiny where your every meme and message to date could be converted into ammunition. I, however, am liberated by two things: 1) I aspire to no such career, and 2) I feel sureness in my own irrelevance. About two weeks passed after I committed to Princeton where I felt myself too high and mighty to engage in online discourse with my freshmen peers, before loneliness and shamelessness became my twin saviors. They won me my friends, my roommates, and my sanity, and yet the friendship traditionalist in me still doubts the legitimacy of it all.
We’re meeting each other inside out. In many ways, the virtual friend-making landscape I’ve been forced to traverse has been a best-case scenario for me. I’m not extremely social, and my friendship style has been known to consist of (to cite one of my virtual Princeton friends) “separation anxiety, like a dog”. I was told that, in college, it could take a while to find your people. In my mind, it wasn’t out of the question for me to end up a miserable dorm room recluse. The all-in, oop-now-we’re-eating-dinner-together-I-guess, falling-asleep-on-the-phone kind of friendship is exactly my sort of thing. There’s no way of knowing this, but I suspect meeting people this way has suited me more than the traditional college way of collecting friends. I have more faith in Zoom-me than the genuine incarnation. I feel like I’m better over text. My roommates and I played “first impressions” and one said, based on my virtual persona, they thought I’d be really outgoing and talkative, but I turned out not to be. I’m so afraid to be the person my friends were wrong about, to not be who they think I am. When I meet my Princeton friends, I will know their
- middle names
- favorite colors
- favorite songs
- what breakfast food they are (Buzzfeed clickhole)
all without sensing them in any meaningful capacity. All I know are their phone voices and video bodies, and yet I love and miss these virtual entities like it hurts. It’s the uncanny valley of friendship.
I preemptively mourn the loss of this unique Zoom intimacy. Provided I don’t go comatose at the first sight of my classmates, I worry that the absence of my loneliness will take my shamelessness along with it. How much time will I spend recasting online friendships in the plaster of reality? Also, I’m going to miss seeing their pets every day. Like, a lot.
I finally crave permanence. I want Princeton to be my home, I want my peers to be my family, and I want going back to my hometown to feel wrong, like there’s a magnet pulling me back to campus. I want to be across the country from the comfort object that is my car (though I may print out a picture of him to keep in my wallet for sentimentality’s sake), because I no longer want this transient college experience.
In what is hopefully a microcosm of what’s to come, I met Beth, my online friend turned roommate turned flesh-and-blood soulmate in August. So far, besides the time we ripped apart each other’s Common App essays for the sake of the Nass, we exist in blissful harmony. For this reason, I’m harboring hope that, on reckoning day (once I peel myself off the ground and maybe follow up with a glass of ice water), I won’t have to start over.