I think the term “growing up” should be amended to “growing in” or “growing out.” “Growing up,” as I understand it, is a physical reference to people as if we’re trees. We begin as a fleshy sapling and over time, earn our rings and sprout upward—some higher than others. At a certain point, we’ve branched as high as we’re going to but life keeps moving us to new places. We never truly stop growing as people, thus making the term “growing up” obsolete. Navigating the different phases of our homogenized lives is really a series of growing into one phase and out of another.
As a society, there’s an understood blueprint in place for this. There’s our lumpy phase of being selfish and cared for, unable to tend to ourselves. Then we grow into the next phase by learning to walk—our first real expedition into freedom. From there we grow into articulating our selfishness, mostly our insatiable desire for Cheerios and Happy Meals, then into learning to count the number of piggies on our hands and feet, and eventually into the structured and measured growth system that is grade-based education. Within all of that, we sprout new ideas, new concepts of our maturing world, new vocabulary and new hairs on our chests and chins.
The education system, as it exists today, provides a quantitative structure by which strangers assess our current phase of growth. They do this with heavy semantic anvils like pass and fail. But unless we’re raised with a great therapist to give us weekly report cards, the emotional phase of life we’ve grown in and out of is up to us to qualify. As young people, we don’t recognize we’re living in a constant state of transition but as we age, the growing aches become more noticeable. I call them aches because change doesn’t have to be a pain.
As we’re growing in and out, many of us encounter people with whom we fit like the interlocking letters of a university logo. Most friendships are transient and even with the advent of social media making it easier to stay digitally connected, our person-to-person relationships rarely stand the transition from one phase to another. However, there are those that do.
In college, I had a handful of real, lasting friendships click into place, but with Lisa, we clicked more snuggly than with other friends. Not more or less important, just different and perhaps more pronounced. Our interests were aligned, we perpetually seemed to be on the same page, and we ended most evenings by watching The Golden Girls together. Even our joy was syncopated to the point people claimed our kookaburra laughter sounded like the Wheel of Fortune wheel spinning and slowing down.
With age comes change and if you’re an early adopter to embracing that, you’ll feel more like you’re along for the ride rather than life riding you. It took me a while to look at it that way as it’s much easier to complain about change than it is to embrace it, but easier doesn’t always mean correct. She and I gained some new friends, detached from some old ones, learned from past-tense life experiences and grew into new ones. It was kind of like what happened on FRIENDS as they coupled off and started making babies, things changed but the group remained together.
My clan and I very much lived a FRIENDS-like existence in college. Our apartments were mostly within walking distance of each other and we didn’t need an invitation to show up at each other’s doorsteps. Most of our non-class time was spent together, many times watching FRIENDS while talking about how our lives mirrored what we were watching on TV. Some people wish for that sort of existence, we were lucky enough to organically happen into it.
By the time we connected, I’d grown out of the phase where I felt I needed a large net of acquaintances around me. I made room for the people who were important and they were enough. But just because that was my temperament didn’t mean it was everyone else’s. There would frequently be exterior people around; people I knew from experience would orbit out of our sphere soon enough.
Our last year in college, Lisa made all kinds of new friends, all at once. To be fair, each of us had friends outside our little clique—we had great friends outside our little clique—but I didn’t care to make room for these new people. Discernment may be one of my spiritual gifts (along with sarcasm and shouting), and felt like I could see the fire ahead of the smoke. I didn’t say anything about it to her but I’m incapable of hiding my feelings—they seep through my expression like cheesecloth—so she and everyone else knew how I felt about these slow orbiters. In the vacuum of that silence, I became calloused very quickly, like watching a cartoon character turn to stone. It’s a stalwart defense mechanism that usually does me more harm than good and it’s one of my defaults I’m slowly working at reprogramming.
She began spending more and more time with them and less and less with me. Looking back at the ebb and flow of that period of my life, I should’ve taken a seat, popped a Xanex and waited for things to calm down. When you have such a deep, almost telepathic connection with someone and it’s interrupted without warning or weather advisory, it’s natural to feel lost and disoriented. This is a classic friend break-up story, fodder for B-level comedies and half-season story arcs on an ABC show.
I was comically trapped in my feelings about these replacement friends to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to have even a casual conversation with her, much less talk about anything substantive. I knew that if we even exchanged surface level pleasantries, the people I viewed as replacements were going to make guest appearances in her life updates and that would irrationally upset me. She didn’t want to talk to me for the same reasons.
We spent weeks living out a weird version of “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, talking to all our mutual friends about how we weren’t talking to each other. When we found ourselves in the same room, we played nice and dusted off as much small talk as we could, but the sowed jealousy now left us to reap a palpable awkwardness. I hated that part, even though I was the primary cause of it. Of course this really stems from my desire to be included and not wanting to feel left out. I revert to being a kid on the playground in that sense. These replacement friends were being chosen first and I, the loser, was being picked last in the dodge ball lineup. We both privately mourned our lost connection and at the behest of all of our friends, we eventually tried to talk about it—a couple of times.
The first attempt was hers. I was alone in my apartment, a place I loved. I’d spent two years living with my best friend and after he graduated and moved out, I decided to make the apartment my own. In the living room was a second-hand couch I’d received from my parents. They’d had the couch since I was a kid and it looked pulpy and worn from years of kids and teenagers plopping on it. It was the couch I sat on when I cried about forging my mother’s signature to get out of track practice, it was that couch I sat on when I tried salad for the first time, and in its new life, it was the couch I sat on with my college friends while we watched American Idol. I’d bought a bright Smurfy blue couch cover to transform the faded jewel toned fabric into something new and aggressively optimistic. A couple hundred dollars spent on picture frames, pillows, unnecessary table décor and rugs and the room felt new, felt happy and felt mine.
As a part of that redesign, Lisa and I had gone to a housing warehouse, bought discarded cabinet doors of various sizes, and painted each of them with bright colors. Vibrant, obnoxious hues of orange, green, gold, blue and pink created a wooden patchwork on the wall that was at once an art project and a throwback to the Lisa Frank colors of my childhood. I loved that wall we created together.
Outside my Technicolor paradise, it was raining when she came over to try to fix us. We did our clunky do-si-do around the problem and muddled our way to a pregnant standstill. I don’t know whose move it was to make but I stood in my kitchen, she stood across the room, and what felt like the entire rainy world stood between us. We came to no sort of conclusion. She left and I sat down at my parent’s old kitchen table which now took up space in my pieced together, aggressively bright colored, college apartment.
I sat still in the melancholy sound of the infant thunderstorm. Rain is as reflective as a floor length mirror when your spirit feels unsettled. I think you feel this kindred connectivity more when you’re from the South. Even if it wasn’t raining, when you’re raised in Dallas, walking out the front door meant it was time to swim through the humidity that makes the air heavy. Early morning or long after sunset, the murky air is ever present. As such, rain often feels like a reprieve; a way for the clouds to clear out the air. I love that clarifying kind of rain.
Sitting in the kitchen, the echo of our years of friendship was louder than the rain outside. Soon, the school year would be over and on the other side of May sat the real world with all of its grabby distractions. We were growing out of our carefree college phase.
It felt like a distended hour but after what had only been a handful of minutes, she came stomping back up the rainy stairs, crying horizontal tears and saying we couldn’t keep doing this because we missed each other too much. She was right and I should’ve cracked off the dry and hardened part of my ego so we could connect again, but I stood stubborn and firm, rooted in my belief that I hadn’t caused this rift—she’d done so by cutting me out. Still, I knew we needed a period to the end of this sentence so I made some sort of joke that diffused the situation and made us feel normal again. It was a fleeting feeling, nothing had healed, we put a temporary Band-Aid on our self-inflicted wound and went right back to being who we were before.
Another series of clunky weeks went by and as the ink dried on final exams, I could no longer rest knowing we might go our separate ways and never again intersect. I drove down the block to her apartment, knowing she was there packing up her college life. I expected it to be an easy fix being that time wasn’t on our side anymore, but we had the same non-committal conversation we’d had on that rainy day. Feeling defeated, I started to leave only to get halfway down the stairs, realize this wasn’t the way best friends who are adults should be acting, and marched back up to her room. I threw my car keys down in the middle of her floor and started shouting—my spiritual gift. I shouted that I wasn’t going anywhere until we *expletive-ing* figured this out. We were too important to each other, we were too good together, and we were going to bury the hatchet and fix this. It all came rushing out like when the cap is released on a Diet Coke bottle full of Mentos. I then sat down in the center of her empty room and declared I wasn’t leaving until it was fixed.
That’s been a plotline of every sitcom ever made: “We aren’t leaving this room until you two have things worked out.” If it was good enough for scripted life, then it just might be good enough for us. And in an odd twist, it actually worked. It didn’t work because I shouted, it worked because we were both broken and needed each other to piece us together again. She sat with me on her empty floor and we hashed out everything we’d said to our friends but never to each other. I confessed that I’d been jealous but that I also felt I’d been left behind. She said it wasn’t her intention but it had happened anyway. At the root of our fight was a fear of being left out and left behind. We’d allowed it to separate us when we should’ve allowed it to make us closer. In the end, that fear made us fight and that fight made us loyal.
We made our peace; a genuine, ocean water at sunset kind of peace. I told her to abandon her packing, it could wait, and we drove to pick up food from the local grimy Chinese restaurant that was our place. We drove back to her partially packed up apartment, singing along to Beyoncé on the radio, and we set out upon the business of healing each other’s wounds over takeout and an episode of The Golden Girls.
Dedicated to my golden girl on her birthday week. Thank you for being my friend. I love you.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.