“Best Friend” Isn’t a Person, It’s a Category

There’s room for more than one.

06.01.17
Graphic by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

My first best friend was a scrawny blond girl named Stephanie. In kindergarten, we’d scramble into adjacent bathroom stalls and swap outfits, head-to-toe. We always preferred what the other was wearing and we liked to confuse our teacher, Mrs. Edens. We were attached at the hip, and spent hours after school doing homework and playing house. If she got in trouble, so did I, and vice versa. We were on the same sports teams, performed together in talent shows, logged countless sleepovers, truths and dares. Her mom kept the kind of jelly I liked (no seeds) in the pantry. My mom was always finding her jean shorts in my laundry.

In fourth grade, we found a third. The three of us would meet at the park between our houses on our matching Razor scooters, discuss our crushes in sleeping bags after lights out, chat with strangers over AOL Instant Messenger like little creeps, wonder what it’d be like to French kiss. We combined our names into one for easy group identification. Later, we bought our first thongs together, took our first swigs of whisky in the garage, snuck out through the back fence to hang out at Ricky’s, got our first boyfriends, had our first kisses.

We were as cliché as best friends come. They were my secret-keepers, my weekend plans, my safety net. More than all of that, they were a given. I defined them as my BFFs with a kind of definitive, youthful certainty. We were sure we’d go to college together, build lives next door to each other, eventually die, knobby knuckles interlocked.

When we drifted apart in high school, I tried so hard to hold on. I remember the moment we called it quits with strange clarity. It was July 4, 2005, I was sitting on the curb outside my house in the beating sun and I texted one of them, hands shaking: “I keep expecting too much and getting hurt. So maybe we should just be friends instead of best friends, to save us both the pain.” It was a very teenaged thing to say. She agreed; I was distraught. The title downgrade felt like a breakup.

I felt so untethered without our little tribe. From that point on, best friend felt like a void I had to fill. After growing up with go-tos, I didn’t know how else to be. Good friends never felt good enough until I could call them best. Until we knew each other’s deepest secrets, had a long list of inside jokes and preferred each other to everyone else in the world. I spent the rest of high school and college operating that way. My world consistently orbiting a dominating few. I found comfort in social tunnel vision.

As I got older, I started to feel silly using the term “best friend” to describe someone — it felt so childish, like having a favorite color — but I struggled to find another way to explain what I meant. No, this wasn’t just someone I sat next to in Spanish, this was a person whose bed I cried in after a breakup, whose apartment I could drive to with my eyes closed, whose freckles I could draw by memory. But as my world expanded, and not all my friendships had so much history, a pecking order felt less appropriate. Adult relationships are more nuanced than that. Sometimes they’re short but deep, or weird but perfect, or long and low-humming. I felt attached to the term anyway.

Then one day last year, Amelia said something in passing that I never forgot: “Best friend is a tier, not a person.” She said she’d heard Mindy Kaling’s character say it on The Mindy Project and, random as that was, it had stuck with her. It stuck with me, too. When I heard it, I felt my confused relationship with the term click into place. It’s probably a personal sickness, my love of applying structure and scaffolding to feelings, but maybe I’ll always be that way. Best friend is not a superlative nor does it mean anything specific: years known, time spent, calls made. It’s a level of intimacy, a shared space and language known only to those inside of it. Something about that makes friendship seem much more limitless. It can be re-imagined, in those terms, to infinity.

Get more Brain Massage ?