by Eryn Loeb
I came late to Facebook, after going through all the predictable phases: the disdain, the excuses, the stalking via “borrowed” log-in, the particular form of procrastination known as “what-would-I-put-in-my-hypothetical-profile?,” followed eventually by an ambivalent, job-search related realization that I had to bite the bullet. But before I did — before I opened the floodgates of reconnection — I knew I had to pick up the phone and call my childhood best friend. We hadn’t talked in years, but I couldn’t stand the thought of putting our past on the same level as everyone else’s, basically ensuring that our long history would be reduced to smiley, yearbook-style platitudes.
Darcey and I met the summer we were both three, soon after our families moved into mirror-image bi-levels in a new development. Situated on opposite ends of a U-shaped street, our houses faced each other so that the windows to our bedrooms aligned, both of them at the end of a hallway next to slightly smaller rooms belonging to younger brothers named Zach. If we stuck our heads out those windows and yelled loud enough, we could share crucial information across the short distance of two other houses and backyards — like what we were having for dinner — without having to pick up the phone. From pre-school (we were enrolled at Happiness Hut) through high school, we sat together on early morning bus rides, walked into each others’ houses without knocking, planned elaborate Halloween costumes that would invariably end up hidden under heavy jackets, rode our bikes into unexplored corners of our neighborhood looking for mysteries to solve, traded Christopher Pike books, and painted our nails in tandem during Sunday night viewings of “The X Files.”
In elementary school we borrowed the “S” volume of the encyclopedia from the library and holed up in my room with it to see what we could learn about sex. A little later, we pored over the dirty passages in Peter Benchley’s Jaws. When we were 15, we got caught smoking pot, and our parents — who took turns chauffeuring us to the mall and the movies and various friends’ houses — grounded us and kept us apart for a month. In high school, Darcey tried repeatedly and with incredible patience to teach me how to divide fractions, and was ready with ice when I used a safety pin to pierce my ear in her bathroom. We started spending our weekends at local punk shows, coming home late and savoring the stink on our clothes, both of us casually competing to be the one who was better friends with more people, and who knew more lyrics by heart. We made three issues of a zine, took guitar lessons from the same teacher and spent hours thinking up names for our band. We went through a brief and thrilling shoplifting phase, obsessed over boys, shared make-up and clothes despite wildly different body types, and mostly kept each other’s secrets.
And then we went off to college. The distance between our campuses was hardly insurmountable, but it was just enough to be a reasonable excuse. It wasn’t just about the miles that stretched between us; those just made literal the clichéd divergence of our paths, which seemed to me even then like the plot of some novel I’d read, down to the symbolism of our opposing majors (the sciences for her, the humanities for me). I was invested in being in a different place, and saw her attachment to our hometown as a sort of weakness. Now I think her loyalties were just stronger than mine, that she was less cynical, less restless, maybe more at ease when we were growing up. She wasn’t always plotting her escape.
Of the two of us, she was always easier to like. People were a little wary of me, and for a long time I thought this meant I was doing something right.
The last time Darcey and I had spoken was nearly four years ago, when she called to tell me that an acquaintance of ours — who had been more of a real friend of hers — had died suddenly. We managed to have a nice if surface-y conversation in the wake of the grim update, but the fact of the call stayed unsettling. Half by accident, I’d managed to cut myself off from the people we used to know, assuming we’d reached the point when everyone else would be moving on, too. If Darcey and I couldn’t stick together, I figured, no one else could. But it turned out that I was actually the exception, the outlier who now required special delivery of bad news. She was telling me because she knew no one else would.
Despite this precedent, she didn’t call a year or two later to tell me she was engaged — to a guy we’d gone to high school with, someone she’d loved for years and years. But it was fair to assume I’d just find out. Information like this just trickles out, getting passed along — between friends and parents and the woman who used to cut both of our hair and still cuts both Darcey’s and my mom’s — until everyone knows and you start to feel a little awkward for not acknowledging it to the person at its center, even if she’s someone you can’t say with any conviction you still know.
* * *
The process of accumulating friends on Facebook is pretty much the opposite of making a guest list for a real-life, in-person event like a wedding. A guest list has a limited number of spots, and it should be pretty clear who makes the cut and who doesn’t. On Facebook, your network is at once sprawling and concentrated, a group of friends and enemies and acquaintances keeping cautious, largely superficial tabs on each other. Hanging out in alphabetical order, everyone looks sort of interchangeable.
Darcey and I weren’t the kind of kids who fantasized about our weddings, except maybe once or twice, half-jokingly, to Keanu Reeves — whose headshot she had photocopied and taped up so it formed a border of identically scruffy, vacant-eyed but indisputably handsome faces just below the ceiling of her room. We played with Barbies when we were little, but Darcey’s big plastic tub of them was there mostly to provide a halfhearted counterweight to her tomboy tendencies, and my parents only conceded to Sleepover Skipper after she and her plastic bed arrived as a sly birthday present from my grandparents. Our Barbies had lots of wardrobe changes and complicated, confusing sex with our twin New Kids on the Block Donnie dolls (far superior versions of Ken), but I don’t remember them ever getting married.
Still, the kid I was would have understood that Darcey’s wedding — the wedding of anyone I knew, really — was a big deal. And since I tend to regress to a child’s perspective when I think about her, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that her marriage was a milestone in the most literal, loaded way, one of those eventualities we grew up with a hazy sense of, but at the time seemed as distant as pretty much everything beyond the current school year. Back then, all we really knew about the future was that we would be a part of each other’s. These years later, I was taking her upcoming wedding very personally and I couldn’t tell if this was indulgent or unavoidable.
So, a phone call. Sitting on the couch with a tumbler of whiskey as I got ready to dial her number, I was reassured by the idea that our history made us special to each other. It may not have been enough to keep me in the running for a wedding invitation, but it was enough to warrant the use of something as old-fashioned and intrusive as a telephone. If I joined Facebook without actually talking to her first, I felt sure we wouldn’t stand a chance of getting out of that online purgatory. On the most basic level, for the most selfish, possessive reasons, I wasn’t ready to let that happen. As I listened to the phone ring, I got the same cold sweat and butterflies I used to get before calling a boy I had a crush on. When Darcey didn’t pick up, it was a little anticlimactic, but I was also a little relieved; I left a rehearsed message conveying a belated congratulations and saying that I was hoping to catch up. On voicemail, so long after the fact, it suddenly felt painfully, even opportunistically overdue.
A few weeks later — after some phone tag and a preliminary chat — we met for dinner at a chain Italian restaurant not far from our high school, and attempted to bond over bowls of gluey pasta fagioli and glasses of okay wine. Even kitted out in corporate business attire, her face looked reassuringly, unnervingly the same. She told me about a string of years stuck working in retail, long bus rides to visit the once-hesitant guy she was now about to marry, the sturdy new SUV she recently bought after totaling her Civic when she hit a deer. I told her about the hole in my bathroom ceiling, a scarf I was slowly and semi-ineptly knitting for my boyfriend, the dubious freedom of freelancing. We talked about our favorite new TV shows in almost the same breath as the status of our childhood pets (the latter all dead but one).
It felt like there was a space in my brain waiting for all of this, a designated slot next to the major themes and tiny details of Darcey’s life that I’d accumulated and sorted over the years. Even if it hadn’t been enough to forestall this kind of polite sit-down, we knew each other too well to pretend not to know certain things, or to act like it was even possible to have forgotten them. Darcey seemed settled, happy. And she seemed to have a better understanding of boundaries than I did — at least, she knew when to end a dinner that I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself away from until the restaurant was turning off the lights.
It had been really good to see her. When I got back home a few days later, I finally joined Facebook and made her my “friend.”
* * *
One day — one day soon — all of this will become too mundane to be worth mentioning, but for now, while all this access still feels at least a little bit surreal, there are stages to move through as you test the limits of connectivity and your own willingness to connect. Sign on, and suddenly everyone is right there, posting exclamation-point-ridden messages to your wall about how “It would be so great to see you! We should get together!!!” that you quickly come to understand are mostly symbolic, a kind of conventional shorthand similar to the uncaptioned sonograms that passive-aggressively announce new pregnancies and changes to the clinical-sounding “relationship status” that don’t need to be conveyed personally because Facebook delivers the news itself, as a weirdly neutral intermediary. All this blatant good cheer butts up against a steady stream of updates from people saying they hate their jobs, are exhausted, feel sick, feel fat, feel nostalgic for the days when they used to look forward to the life they now have.
In my first few months on Facebook, I was just as fixated on it as a feared I would be. I exchanged messages and exultant wall posts with old friends from summer camp and college-era political campaigns and former jobs and, of course, high school. With minimal effort, I found out who was married, who was (already) divorced, who was drifting, who was successful, whose home birth had been featured on A Baby Story. I looked at photos of ex-boyfriends’ infants and a one-time mean girl’s beach vacation and the new apartment of a guy who sat next to me in chemistry class. Some people’s good news and contented lives made me smile. Others appeared to have gotten what I once thought they deserved.
And then, a few reconnections managed to make their way offline. They weren’t always the ones I would have expected or chosen. I had a pleasant, macrobiotic lunch with a girl I was last tight with in fifth grade, when we co-founded an exclusive environmental club before abruptly shifting our attention to Native American crafts. Now she was three months pregnant, and spoke with a vaguely European accent.
On one of the hottest nights of the year, I got dinner with an old friend from Hebrew school, who I once helped run for junior high student council (an optimistic effort which ended in miserable defeat) and who had been the first person I knew to French-kiss a boy — an experience she modestly, infuriatingly refused to describe in much detail.
I went out for an impromptu drink with a guy I was torturously close to when we were 16, who wrote me pained letters about his unrequited love and would sulk in corners at the parties we went to together. Now he was a burly, talented tattoo artist who turned sappy after a couple of beers and told me that in spite of everything, I probably knew him better than almost anyone else. In that moment — in a tight, sweaty hug outside the bar before I pulled away and headed home — I even believed him.
Darcey and I exchanged no more than two messages. She got married, beaming and surrounded by people I used to know. I wasn’t at the wedding, but I gave myself a headache staring at the pictures as they were posted online. I clicked through hundreds of snapshots taken by various friends and family: not just the professional portraits, but the awkward candids and blurry mistakes that these days don’t always get immediately edited out, but will eventually be stricken from the official record.
It’s so strange, this way that you can be left out of something but still have such a clear window in. How can I know so much about so many people without actually knowing them? Everything I used to know about Darcey, I knew because I was standing right next to her. If I squint a little, it still feels sort of like I’m just looking over her shoulder.
Eryn Loeb is a writer and editor in New York.