I’m watching a play. There are two 20-something aged girls in pyjamas, curled up in over-sized armchairs facing the audience. Over the next 45 minutes I listen to their conversations. The ones that happen in the small hours of the morning, when best friends talk about everything and nothing simultaneously. I know these hours and friends well. Immediately memories start playing out in my mind. One friend inebriatedly crying about the effects of global warming on ocean animals after we built a fort and had too much whisky. Squeezing the hand of another on a rooftop right before we graduated college, afraid of letting go and growing up. Having the worst flu of my life and deciding the obvious antidote was to cuddle up on the couch together and spend the entire day watching the Godfather series for the first time.
The stage lights end and begin scenes intermittently. I soon recognize that I’m witnessing a shuffling of memories—various conversations during those hours that become the breeding grounds for future nostalgia. The girls, still enveloped in their armchairs, begin to turn from the audience towards each other and their discussion reveals that this is actually a play-within-a-play. The earlier conversations are perhaps entirely false. One girl tries to remember while the other gets upset for parts being erroneously represented. One is really here, the other is not. This relationship now grievously exists in one-sided memory.
“The worst part is that I’m not even me anymore. I’m just how you remember me.”
Light-hearted, funny, sentimental conversations fade into something that is universally experienced yet rarely portrayed: the loss of self that happens when old friendships dissolve.
The small-hours-kind-of-friends are like mirrors. We love the part of ourselves they reflect back to us. When one of those friendship ends it’s as if there’s a part of yourself you can’t see anymore. Whether the ending happens suddenly or more commonly, slowly and gently over time, any attempt at revisiting is prone to error and inaccuracy. I think one of the most jarring parts of growing up that no one tells you about is how often you will experience this:
Looking back on something you thought you knew and discovering the reality you believed was something else entirely.
We talk about making vows with partners, but don’t we also make them with our friends? Not ones said out loud wearing pretty outfits in front of a smiling crowd. Silent ones in pyjamas that happen between “what’s up”s and “remember when”s. Vows that are spelled out in leftover pizza crusts and danced out on dorm room floors. Those vows made during the small hours propel us through so many big days. We assume best friends are forever kinds of things. We assume these friendships will fill us in the ways they always did. That this friend will know how to love us the way we need through all of life’s ups and downs. We assume that we’re honest with ourselves and with one another. We assume that we’ll always put forth effort in equal measure. But vows made between friends are just as subject to change as vows made between partners. It feels to me that most of us are taught to regard these changes with an air of nonchalance and progressive acceptance. This seems increasingly evident to me as I journey through a phase of life that is incredibly transitional for everyone my age.
It’s natural. Life happens. They’ll understand. People change. Things get busy. I’m sure we could just pick up where we left off.
I get that. I’ve parted ways from friends both abruptly with mutual acknowledgement and in a slow, silent fade out. I’ve cried after hearing about a friend’s engagement because of the changes that I knew would inevitably follow. I’ve quietly seethed over a friend’s job placement knowing it would take them far away from me. I’ve stayed up all night anxious about how things “felt weird” when we hung out last. I’ve experienced the sink in your chest the instant you realize they don’t care as much as you do anymore.
This play made me realize that everything I just described is a reaction of fear. These “normal” transitions in a friendship doesn’t just mean the change or loss of this person who has a specific and important part to play in your story. It’s kind of like a change and loss of self. If you love who you are around someone, if you’re attached to what they bring out in you or how they know and understand you, and then that connection shifts in a big or small way…it’s startling. Hard. Uncomfortable. It’s shitty, okay? It’s just shitty. And I wish friends acknowledged the silent vows more often. I wish friends talked about the transitions when they happen.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion or a specific point to make. Mostly I just saw a play and it brought my feelings to life in one of those beautifully messy ‘ME TOO’ ways that art tends to do.
Here’s to the magic of the small hours.
I wouldn’t take any of them back, no matter the outcome. Maybe that’s the point.