Monday, May 17, 2010

Plus ça change

I've just returned from the longest solo road trip I've ever made (which, given that I didn't own a car and effectively didn't drive from ages 18 to 31 perhaps isn't saying very much). I was tooling through the state of Virginia, visiting two of my closest friends: Victoria, whom I've known since high school, and Evey, who was my first, best friend in Cha-Cha City until she moved away.

I've known Victoria for nineteen years, while I only met Evey in 2006. Victoria knows my family, has visited me in every place I've ever lived, has met virtually all of my boyfriends, and has heard me talk through most my crises and decisions. Evey, necessarily, has not met most of those people or seen most of those things.

And yet both friendships--or rather, the strategies and methods of both friendships--are strikingly similar. Though Victoria and I met when I was 16 and she was 14, we didn't become close friends until after high school, and since that time we've only lived in the same state for two years: we went to different colleges and different grad schools, and for a while we lived on different coasts. So both friendships have been, always, about narratives and backstory: that roommate, that guy, that class with that professsor, that coworker, that job. It's astonishing how much we know about people we've never met, and how actively we try to remember and reconstruct and keep straight their stories.

One of us will say, Omigod! So-and-so? I've told you about him?

And the other will say, "that's the guy. . . you had a class with in grad school? who was in the Peace Corps, and dated your friend, and then married an undergrad? And he had a like totally tragic mother, or maybe sister?"

And we'll reply that actually it was Teach for America, and it was a stepbrother who'd memorized all of Sylvia Plath--but basically, yes--and then continue on with his latest escapades or iniquities.

We care intensely about the people and about the details, about the life the other has led and is leading, even if we don't actively share most of that life. Maybe it comes from being novel-readers and literary scholars: we're used to keeping track of characters and plot, looking for patterns, and analyzing collaboratively.

So when I learned that my first boyfriend--last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad--is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus, they both shared my horror. Victoria knew Bob when I did, but Evey knows enough about him and about my subsequent dating history to see why I'd be so distressed. (Also, through the magic of Facebook, I could show her his photos.)

There's a real comfort in knowing other people's narratives, and having them know yours--it feels like a hedge against dissolution and chaos: I know you and you know me, we share this knowledge, and we each have a coherent, continuous self. This feels all the more urgent when one keeps moving, as academics who make friends with other academics (who are married to still other academics) seem continually to do.

But there's almost as much comfort in having a car, frequent-flier miles, and friends with guest rooms.


Evey said...

well, heck, it doesn't exactly hamper the situation when your backstories are so entertaining and well-told. what on earth would we talk about if we *had* met all those people??!!

Flavia said...

Aha! That must be it. We're fantastic story-tellers.

I shall think better of myself hereafter.