Being Human

I recently watched, “The Social Network,” and concluded that Mark Zuckerberg may be a billionaire programmer extraordinaire, but his social skills certainly needed some work during those college years, but who am I to judge? I made a lot of missteps at that age, and though none of them ended in a lawsuit, I still have regrets. My biggest social blunder didn’t even come to light for nearly two decades.

After graduating college in the mid 1990’s, I laid low in the early part of this millennium after a string of disappointments left me feeling less than human. When I finally began to reconnect with college friends, the catalyst was (ironically) Facebook. I joined in 2008 to keep track of my sister who was working overseas, but by 2009, a friend from college stumbled across my name on a Facebook friend suggestion list, and I was inundated with connections. Some long lost friends took the opportunity to reach out over messenger to learn more about my decade off the grid. Frank, who I dated briefly junior year, asked a lot of questions, and I responded with inquiries of my own. Once we had covered our personal lives, we began sharing updates on other members of our college clique.

We had a mutual friend, Mike, who was not on Facebook. Mike and I met in the early weeks of freshman year when I briefly dated his roommate, Andy (who left school before the end of first semester). Mike and I were best friends from the start. We even visited each other over summer vacations to attend music festivals, or just chill at the beach together for a few days. He was a great guy and a lot of fun.

Mike and I never dated. Our friendship was a simple “be yourself” relationship without the usual sexual attraction stumbling block that trips up most male-female friendships. I remember he dated an underclassman briefly, and some girl from another school during his semester at sea program, but he remained solo for most of our four years. Honestly, I didn’t think much about his dating habits (or lack of them) at the time because I was too wrapped up in my own drama, dating a new guy every term. Mike was always there to listen, and give me advice.

Mike and Frank had been quite close, and when I asked Frank about Mike, he was unusually slow to reply. Eventually, he told me that Mike had recently married and was expecting his first child. Then, I asked Frank if he would give me the contact information for Mike since he was not on Facebook. This time the reply was swift, “Don’t try to find him.” Only adding that it was not a good idea. “Had Mike entered witness protection?” I joked. Again, the reply was slow, and when it came, I was confused.

“It took him a long time to get over it, but he is finally happy. Just leave him alone.”

What did Mike have to get over? I received no reply, but there was only one possible answer. The platonic friendship I assumed we shared was one-sided. Mike had been in love with me.

At first I was mad. How could Mike not tell me? But the thought barely formed when the answer washed over me. He knew I wasn’t in love with him, and sharing his feelings would have ended our friendship. He kept his secret to keep me close. I wondered how long Frank had known. I seriously doubt Frank would have dated me during fall term of junior year if Mike had told him prior to that. Frank had a lot of flaws, but he was a loyal friend. The truth must have come out sometime after graduation. Who else knew? It didn’t matter, I felt terrible, and the only person I wanted to talk to was the one person I couldn’t because Frank insisted I leave Mike alone, but I couldn’t let it go. I Googled the company Mike worked for and emailed him, but received no reply.

Anxious and impatient, I attempted to assuage my jumbled feelings by looking back through my college photo albums and was surprised to discover that among hundreds of images of me and the girls, or my ever rotating boy of the term, were few pictures of Mike, and no good ones-more evidence of how much I took him for granted. I resorted to flipping through our actual freshmen facebook to find an image of his full smiling face.

My Linked In connection was eventually accepted, but I still don’t know if it was Mike or an assistant in his office that cleared my request. His profile image is a cartoon drawing. He will not reply to any personal correspondence. I considered showing up at his office the next time I’m in New York, but I know that isn’t fair. He is happy. I need to quell my own ego, and respect the life he has built for himself.

And because karma is a bitch, the same situation has occurred again, this time with Sam, but now I’m the lovelorn best friend being taken for granted as Sam moves from one drama filled relationship to the next. We hang out in between his liaisons, and I listen to him lament his latest loss, but just as Mike knew better than to confess his feelings to me, I know Sam doesn’t love me. So, instead of seeing my current situation as punishment, I’m trying to be thankful. I’ve been granted perspective on Mike’s experience that allows me to excuse his secret. From my knowledge, I generate the courage it takes to leave Mike alone, to allow Sam to be himself, and to forgive myself for being human.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

I had tremendous friendships growing up-powerful bonds so deep that my friends felt like an extension of my family. The early years often felt like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, and no matter what form the discoveries, experiments, physical and emotional growth and turmoil took, we did it together. Our shared history cemented us, and we naively believed it could last for ever never acknowledging the gray hair, wrinkles, and change to come. You can’t predict when or how, and you can never be prepared for the affects, but as life unfolds and forces choices, change ensues. People get pulled apart. Cemented bonds begin to crumble. New adventures begin with different people. One day the mirror reflects those gray hairs and wrinkles, and when you turn to laugh about it with those you once loved best, some are missing, and others seem like imposters standing in place of friends you used to know.

 

It wasn’t like flipping a switch. Friendships rarely begin or end in an instant. Startling changes normally ignite a desperate rush toward the familiar, like grasping for a life preserver. The most insidious changes happened slowly, over time. So, when did my childhood friendships began to unravel? My best guess is college: the curious combination of drastic change combined with subtle transition. Four years of physical separation from the people who had been a part of everyday was also four years of new and exciting challenges and experiences. Four years away from the usual safeguards doubled as a vast ocean of possibility. College was packaged so brilliantly, I dove in gladly and ignored the ring buoy tethered to the dock in case of emergency. Four years of college showed me that I could go it alone and I released my grip on the supports I’d previously held so tightly. I was strong, powerful, and independent. I didn’t notice how far the tide was carrying me away from my old life.

 

After college, I reconnected with childhood friends and stood witness as they married strangers. None of us stopped to think about what was lost because the gains seemed greater. The circle was expanding, wasn’t it? No one recognized marriage as a defining threshold. My friend became the spouse of someone else and no longer shared daily adventures with me. When the children arrived, the couple became a family. A new cycle began and replaced all that came before. But I never crossed the threshold of marriage, and without traditional means to restart the cycle, I was abandoned in a sea once filled with laughter.

 

I see my old friends sometimes, but the tides have carried us far apart. As I wave and smile, I barely recognize them and hear only the combined murmur of their family voice. I realize they remember me as I was and cannot see who I am now. At first, my individuality reflects harshly in the bright light of middle age, but when my eyes adjust, I see that the discoveries, experiments, and growth shared shoulder to shoulder with childhood friends was meant to be a launching pad. Like “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, the key is to pick the path that will extend the story. With no spouse and no kids, my story is wide open. Though my friends disappeared down long corridors without me, my adventure is ongoing. Which door will I walk through next? And who/what will be waiting on the other side?