Ashleigh Young reflects on the nature of friendship: online, offline and old school
I receive a strange, formal message request on Facebook. "I am seeking someone of your name who once resided at this address in New Zealand." The address is in my home town, and the message is from someone named Ben. I know him immediately. As a kid, I posted a "Pen pal wanted" ad on an internet message board. Ben and I began to email each other. I didn't know he was a divorced man in his 50s in California and, he says, he didn't know that I was a 12-year-old girl in New Zealand. "When I realised, it was too late," he writes. We became friends.
Looking back, I think surely there was some sinister intent on Ben's part? There had to be. This was the internet in the 90s. But he seemed conservative, even a bit square. He wrote to me about tennis (doubles), his tennis injuries and his work as a radiologist. He liked sentimental poetry and had a strong faith in online IQ tests. He critiqued a poem of mine, saying that the line "people swarming like ants" was a cliche. I didn't send him any more poems after that. He talked a lot about a film called Il Postino and his love of Barbra Streisand. He sent me a Barbra mixtape, which was unbearable. In return I sent him a mixtape of the Smashing Pumpkins and the Muttonbirds, both of which he seemed a bit lukewarm about. He rang me up once and his accent evoked tennis whites and legal dramas. I asked if he'd received my email that day. He said, wearily, "Aww, you know . . . I've had emails flying around." It sounded impossibly grown-up, to have emails flying around.
As I grew older, I became impatient with our correspondence. I had lost patience for Barbra Streisand and tennis injuries. One day, after we'd been writing for three years, I wrote a curt message to say I didn't want to write anymore. Ben said that although he was sorry, it was fine. He wished me well. Then we didn't talk for more than 20 years.
I keep reading articles where a person in their 30s begins to worry that they have no friends. Old friendships have slipped away, succumbing to the pressure of families and careers. In these articles the writer tries to make new friends – night classes, apps, whisky tastings – and they come away feeling optimistic or they realise that, in fact, they do have lots of friends after all. They just needed to talk to them. Like the "I've discovered wild swimming" article, the "I don't know how to make friends in my 30s" article suggests that if you make yourself momentarily uncomfortable, you will be rewarded. I love these articles and cheer on the writer as they zero in on a new friend, while also secretly hoping that they fail and the article takes an odd turn as the writer gives up on human friends and opens an animal sanctuary to enjoy the company of chickens, ducks, and sheep.
Ben and I email for a couple of weeks. He still plays tennis (doubles) but has trouble with sciatica. He still reads poetry. His sentences are bullet point-like. "I dislike speaking in public. I prefer an audit from the IRS, a visit to the dentist, or cleaning the latrine." He sends me an essay he wrote about sciatica.
Then he writes, "Something tells me that your life is full and busy. I don't want to infringe on your time. Re-establishing contact, knowing what path you took, is sufficient." I protest that I'm happy to write but then I do get too busy and I stop replying. Too much time passes. Then he unfriends me on Facebook. It feels like a benedictory unfriending – a gentle wave, a crinkled smile, a fond look. Then I realise that actually he has blocked me, just as I once blocked him and I pound my desk and shout at the computer. "How dare you, old man!" Was ours nothing more than a standard exchange between strangers on the internet, only stretched out over a very long time?
Then I recover myself and think of Ben fondly.
There are things to say about early internet culture, about my seeking of approval from a man, about lost and discarded friendships. But I try to understand what purpose our friendship had for me as a kid. I treated it as an investigation – trying out different voices, hoping one of them would unlock some deeper friendship, one in which our best selves were drawn from the other. As I got older I realised that the "best self" is a myth and that lasting friendships have room for selves of all kinds. I realised that a person didn't have to contort themselves to please a friend. Ben didn't try to be anything more than he was, and through some randomness, our paths had crossed.