When you are single in your twenties you are given certain steps to find a partner. Friends are an integral part of most of them. You need a friend to be your wingman at the bar, to help you write a good OK Cupid profile, to think of someone decent to set you up with. While searching, sometimes you feel lonely. But you're never really alone—you have friends.
Fewer guidelines are available, however, when you are new to New York City and friendless, missing even that first step. No one is there to help you. You talk on the phone to a friend in Denver or your boyfriend in Chicago or your mom in Florida but when you hang up the apartment is silent. You're alone.
Until this point, your friendships happened through a vague combination of forced institutional socializing, classes, sports and booze. None of your friends can remember exactly how they became friends with each other. But now you are an adult, and now that friend-making is a conscious act, you realize you don’t know how to do it.
Everything you've ever learned about meeting people is for meeting potential boyfriends, and in your case, the same rules don't hold up. If you make eyes at a girl on the train or even, more boldly, walk up and tell her you admire her cowboy boots and noticed that she's reading Anne of Green Gables and would she like to get a coffee sometime, she will most likely assume you are either (a) looking for a date or (b) a friendless loser stinking of loneliness. Category (c)—a cool person who had a lot of friends before she moved to New York, honest—is rarely on the table.
Because everything else about moving to a big city—finding an apartment and a bike and your way around—is made easier by having a to-do list, you decide to make one for friend-finding. You can cross things off as you go, satisfying your organizational impulses.
The first step is roommates. It would be great, you think, if you could just move in with someone cool. An insta-friend, like one of those pills you put into water and a minute later you have a dinosaur the size of your hand. You have limited means, so you don't have much choice about where you'll live, but fortunately this is true for many of your peers. After a Craigslist search you move into a converted loft in Bushwick with three other girls—more people, you think, better odds.
But it's pretty apparent, from the moment you play the new bluegrass album by The Devil Makes Three before dinner and everyone makes a face, that they are not going to be your friends. It's nothing overt. They're nice enough, but you don't have anything in common. One of them has an photographer boyfriend and you fall asleep listening to them fight about his relationships with his models almost every night. But you really want this to work, so you do the worst thing you can do, which is fake it.
Pursuing a friendship with someone you don't have anything in common with is like faking a British accent: it always comes off like you're trying too hard. You are trying too hard. You say, “What a coincidence! Fashion week is my favorite week of the year too,” but you don’t even know when fashion week is, and they can tell you’re lying.
You go to a party with them. This should be great. You're surrounded by people, out on a Saturday night. One of your roommates is nodding thoughtfully while a guy tells her about his noise band. Another is blowing coke. The third is standing next to you but not talking, because you don't share any interests or a sense of humor and it's two in the morning—too late, or too early, to fake it. Friends, you realize—more alone at this party than you were when you actually were alone—aren't just people to fill your hours with.
After that party, apartment conversations start to happen around you, rather than with you, and you have to admit it's for the best.
The next logical step would be coworkers. But you work in an office full of middle-aged parents—even if they had anything in common with you, they don't have any time. Onwards. It's time to put out the call for friends of friends.
A carefully composed email goes out to all of your far-flung friends, asking if they know anyone in New York. Though actual close friends of friends turn out to be scarce, a lot of people have at least a cousin or an old coworker or a childhood playmate living in New York. They send introductory emails and you do the rest, scheduling lunch, coffee or drinks.
On your first blind friend date you meet a girl for lunch. She's just come from a yoga class and is still wearing her Lululemon headband. She orders a salad and a smoothie. You order a tuna sandwich. Her eyes bug out and she starts talking about her dietary restrictions. When your food comes she wrinkles her nose. “No offense, but gluten will kill you,” she says. “And I won't even tell you about tuna.” You take the rest of your sandwich to go.
A few days later you meet a girl who wears mile-high shoes even though it's snowing, and talks all throughout coffee and a muffin about her hilarious friends and how busy she is, and for some reason when she stops for breath and you have a chance to share something about yourself you decide to tell her that you still really like jam bands. It comes out too fast, fueled by your urge to share secrets. She laughs a little and tries to disguise it as a cough. It's the fact that she tried to hide it that hurts.
You keep meeting these semi-strangers; there are at least a dozen others. Most are perfectly nice, normal people who simply aren't for you. It's subtle—there's nothing glaringly wrong about them—you just don't feel it.
You find yourself having to think about “it,” about the feelings that constitute friendship. The feeling of being with someone else who fits you, who gets you, whose company energizes you; around them you are funnier, better, more generous. Things about you that seem weird when you're alone are transformed into something special when you're with them. You have any number of friends just a phone call away, but you need someone like this in the same room with you. Someone whose apartment you can go to when you've had a bad day, or a great day. Someone who would choose you to be the recipient of their bad and great stuff too.
This has never been so difficult. You begin to believe that instead of being everywhere like you'd thought, real friends are rare. There should be a click when you meet a real friend, like the sound of a safe being unlocked in a heist movie—all the burglars suddenly elated, the suspense relieved. You're sweating like a jewel thief every time you set out on another blind friend date, waiting for that click.
But there’s no click. The girls are not compelling, and the boys don't usually buy the premise that you're really looking just for friends. When you tell them you have a long-distance boyfriend, most of them never email you again. Some of them will even be angry. One of them says “I have enough friends,” and accuses you of wasting his time. “Why would you get coffee with a strange man when you have a boyfriend?” he says, and when you hear it put that way what you've done sounds weird to you too.
After this disaster you decide to join Meetup, a website that is like online dating, but more embarrassing to talk about. You worry that you won't meet anyone worth being friends with because all the cool people already have friends. What kind of loser would have to sign up for this thing that you are signing up for right now? But it's another thing to check off your list.
Scrolling through the list of groups—everything from pick-up dodgeball to nude model drawing sessions to karaoke parties—you finally select a knitting group. They meet at a bar, which seems fun and young. Knitting is hard and that will give you all something to talk about.
You buy knitting needles and yarn, and also a knitting guide called Stitch and Bitch, because you want to know the basics before you show up. Feeling as nervous as if you were going on a job interview, you prepare in much the same way: by doing research. You watch the latest episodes of a few shows and leaf through Us Weekly at the drugstore check-out so that you'll be able to participate in any pop culture discussions. You make a list of your favorite books and bands so that, in a moment of brain-clearing panic, you won't forget.
Just outside the door to the bar, you stop. Your heart is beating so loud it's embarrassing and before you can even think about it you cross the street to get some distance. You watch the bar, stamping your feet in the cold. People are going in, some are women, some are men; it's hard to tell who is here for the Meetup and who isn't. What if they all know each other already? What if you forget how to talk? What if they don't like you? You call your best friend who lives in another state. “I think I'm having a panic attack,” you say, and because she is a real friend she listens patiently and then tells you to suck it up. “You're great,” she says. “They'll love you.”
You hang up, cross the street and walk into the bar. There, in a corner, is a group of totally normal-looking women knitting away. They seem older than you imagined—solidly into their thirties, maybe a decade older than you—but none of them look scary. You walk up and introduce yourself. They say hi all at once like you're at an AA meeting.
What ends up happening is that you have a perfectly fine evening with a bunch of newish moms, all of whom are amazing at knitting and have nothing in common with you. They invite you to come back the next week and you feel pride at being asked—you are likeable!—and a guilty sadness too. Because you won't go back. There aren't any friends for you here.
You cross off Meetup. Another item on your list is to go out and mingle like you did to meet boys back when you were single and had friends, but you can't quite bring yourself to do it. It feels weird to go to bars alone, and your mom reminds you that it isn't very safe for a lady either, so you stay home. At first you read, but this exacerbates your loneliness—especially when you come across a line about New York in Frank O'Hara's Personal Poem: “I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is thinking of me.”
Maybe you're being too picky. Maybe you were just lucky with your early friendships, and the click you’ve been wanting is a myth. Shouldn’t you be pursuing everyone you’ve met? You're the one who needs a friend. Just one might be enough. Maybe real friendship really is like gold: rare, and also once you have a little bit it becomes easier to get more.
In a few weeks you'll go on one last friend date, lunch with a girl who had to reschedule the first two times around and whom you'd almost written off. You'll meet her outside a deli on a blustery spring day. Though you've never seen each other before, and you realized on your way there that you forgot to ask what she looked like (what a rookie mistake), you know when you see her: this girl with the long skirt, big smile, and shaggy hair must be her.
You hear a click somewhere.
“I'm famished,” she says after you hug hello. “Let's go inside—they have great tuna sandwiches.”
You, the two of you, walk to a nearby park and eat your sandwiches in the sun. The friend date is still awkward and stilted at first, but only because you’re both a bit shy. You bite your lip with all the nervousness of a first date—you really want this to work, you really hope she likes you—and tell her that you like The Devil Makes Three. So does she! There's a tattoo on her foot, a line of poetry, and you know before she tells you that it's from T.S. Eliot.
Unlike a date-date—where there are proscribed things to say and a kiss at the end means you both did all right—on a friend date the outcome is murkier. But there was that hug, the easy conversation, the tuna and bluegrass and poetry. And something subtler: sitting on the grass with her, you inhale the scent of trees and dog pee and halal vendors, and within it all, not a whiff of loneliness.
Mary Mann (@mary_e_mann) lives in New York and writes a column about dead essayists for Bookslut, among other things.