What even are friends? Like sandwiches or gender, I think we’ve all got *some* kind of idea what a friend is. We certainly have strong reactions to recognizing what a friend isn’t. But trying to come up with a definition that is anything more than rough description is sort of a fool’s errand, and trying to come up with a test…
There was a turning point in my childhood where my definition of “friend”—the people I saw everyday and enjoyed talking to, a class of people that contained basically all the people in my class—underwent a sudden shift when an older kid taunted me for having no friends and when I asked my classmates to refute him, I discovered that was painfully close to true. At the very least, I had nobody in the room who was a good enough friend to say as much in front of the others.
As formative experiences go, that… wasn’t great. I had amicable relations with some of my classmates, there were ones I spent more time hanging out with and goofing around with during classes or extracurricular activities, but it was never the same after that. And the whole concept of friendship became fraught for me. My working definition was shot and I never really got a better one.
As a result, I’ve always pulled back from people if I feel like we’re getting too close, out of a mixture of the fear that I’ll be hurt or that I’m inflicting my presence, unwanted, on them. WisCon has been good for me in this regard in that it’s a space where more people are more frequently open and honest and explicit about their feelings and intentions than in outside spaces, and because there are so many structured times and activities to practice interaction.
It’s weird. Most people at the con we see once a year, twice at the very most. We’re trying to improve that a little, particularly with the people who are vaguely local. (If there are any other WisCongoers from western Maryland, I haven’t discovered them yet, but we do know of a few in the state/region.), and we certainly keep in touch through social media, but by and large it seems like it should be a glancing association.
Yet these are the people I feel about the way adults in TV shows feel about their friends from high school or college. Some of them I have shared quite intense and deeply personal moments with, in the weirdly compacted and dilated continuum of convention time. Some of them it was just moments. My friendship with each of them is probably different in at least one important way from my friendship with anybody else, because, again, friendship is like sandwiches or genders or any other noun/concept outside of the abstract and theoretical: even while there are clearly things that are friendship and things that are not-friendship, there are as many ways to friendship as there are friends, and none of them are wrong.
This year, a man saw me in a hallway and came bounding down the steps towards me, saying something like, “Hello, FRIEND!”
I’ve had only a handful of conversations with this friend, all of them memorable. I’ve only known him for a year, or really, a few hours out of a few days, since we were at three conventions together and nowhere else. I know his partner even more in passing. But, man, I am delighted to see them, and I never need to doubt this man’s friendship the way I distrusted my classmates’, because I can see how his face lights up when he sees someone there to support him in the audience of an event and because he didn’t just say he was my friend, he yelled “FRIEND!” in a hallway with other people.
There’s a family that I basically had one meal with some years ago and since then I’ve followed their work and interacted with them online, and they were absent from the con for a while and recently came back. The first time I saw them back, I said that I was so glad they’d returned, and I hadn’t thought about what I was feeling until it popped out of my mouth and I knew it was true. There’s a feeling of relief that they’ve returned, that their absence was not permanent and the them-shaped hole in the con has been filled.
There were old friends, new friends… people I’ve known for what seems like ages online who I met face to face for the first time this year, and people I never knew. There’s a line that comes to mind every year: “There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.” This year, someone who’d seen or heard me saying it even quoted it back to me. It comes from The Muppet Movie, Gonzo’s surprisingly introspective number “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.”
There were people who didn’t make it to the con this year for reasons financial or personal or the pull of scheduling, and there’s sadness on both ends about that. It happens every year. If I and the con both live long enough, the year will come where it’s me who has other commitments or inadequate opportunities.
Friendship is complicated. You don’t become friends by the physical act of sharing a drink or a meal with someone, but it can be through that act that you suddenly realize that perhaps you are.