There was a time, between sophomore and junior high school, when Android phones became a thing, and each of my friends carried one like a gemstone in their pocket. I, however, coming from a lower-middle class family, couldn’t afford to access the technology. I tried asking my grandmother, calling the request an advanced birthday gift and even swearing not to ask for anything else for the next six months. The following day, I was still without a smartphone.
In high school, though, I followed the trends my friends were into. With a keen eye and an observant nature, it was easy to know what footwear, gadgets, and pop-culture trends interested them. I copied them all the way—including detachable pieces of brightly colored strands of fake hair, and their manner of walking, the sway in the hips and a quick twisting of the ankle as one foot shuffled to another. Imitating them was fun and required little to no conversation or much socializing at all. I crafted myself into their image and likeness.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” as Charles Caleb Colton once wrote, rang true in high school, and even got me through it. High school was not the safest, most secure place for a developing, growing human being, and I was glad when it was over. But I also felt sad when I realized that not only would I leave my friends behind but also the self I’d photocopied from them.
I was, maybe two weeks into the freshman program of a Catholic liberal arts university when the slate previously stained by high school imitation emerged clean once again: I did not know who I was, what I was there for, nor who my friends were. Panic rose and settled as I struggled to breathe, going from class to class, trying to locate my photocopied self. I texted my high school classmates and asked them what they were up to, what they were currently listening to, what they regularly ate for lunch, in an attempt to reinstate the imitation game. Unfortunately (and maybe fortunately, dear god), my friends were no longer the people they’d been in high school. I was left to my own devices.
An introvert left to her own devices with few social skills to hand, trembles at the thought of abandonment. I trembled a whole lot before I could even muster the courage to simply say “hi” to the woman sitting next to me. Her name was Rachel* and, like me, she was hard to place. I wondered if she actually liked Psychology or was just trying to make it through the semester. As I met and said hi to five more people over the course of two weeks, the “I wonder if…” queries multiplied. Dropping out of that liberal arts university made me confront how the breadth of those brief friendships—including the hobbies and interests of the people I chose to hang out with—had also been influenced by how much I missed the childish, carefree demeanor of friends from high school: “Hello. I’m Kiana and I’m gonna be friends with you because you can talk about My Chemical Romance the way my high school friends did!” Or, “Hello, I see that you like taking photos like this one friend from high school, so yeah cool, friends?”
While living the college dropout life to the fullest extent—that is, by watching The Simpsons every night and drinking Coke Light under the sun—I managed to snag a scholarship at yet another Catholic university. I started as a sophomore once again; a 19-year-old girl, maybe almost dead inside, trying to exist with people who were either far older or far younger than I, because that’s just how college works for irregular students trying to catch up on their courses.
I became close with Jess, a passionate individual who treads the earth lightly. She and I climbed an empty lot’s fence one starless night, and sat on the posts to stare and marvel at the full moon hovering left of our heads. We talked about the stars, as she often did. It fascinated me that a person could contain so much knowledge about something so obscure and far away. Friendship with Jess introduced me to a whole new dynamic; one that involved regularly asking the other how they were doing, what they were up to these days, what they’d had for lunch. My brain considered ours an Ideal Friendship, but dear brain was just waiting for good chance: The photocopying resumed, I began to strive to exist within Jess’s mysticality.
After hanging out with Jess intensely for several months, my high school pals met up after a very long time of not seeing each other. I immediately noticed the glaring difference between my friendship with Jess (plus a few people in my new university cluster), as compared to my high school friendships. When my high school pals started talking about the new eyeshadow palette of a cult-favorite makeup brand, I sighed inwardly and longed to talk about beauty as a tool and a weapon, not an endgame. I grumbled as they discussed Hollywood power couples, and tried to steer the conversation toward the Mars exploration and the recent photos taken of Pluto. They acknowledged my excited, extremely corny conversational starters, for sure, but later dismissed them, when the group got distracted by Kendall Jenner’s recent Instagram upload of her turquoise vintage car. For the first time, I was disappointed by the person into whom I’d modeled myself during high school.
When I hung out with people I considered Profound and Deep Conversationalists, I felt a boost in my ego that told me, I’m HELLA SMART: Look at me, hanging out with these nerdies one-upping each other, and debating the mysterious existence of the one true god. This was contrary to hanging out with people who only talked about their Instagram feed or Twitter timeline, which made me feel like I was wasting my time not reading or thinking about Important Things. Was it my fault that I was so fascinated by “non-trivial things” to the point of finding trivial things repugnant?
Existing between groups of such varied interests and personalities left me confused and stranded on Friendship Island, isolated. I had a hard time reconciling who I was when hanging out with friends from university and high school. Nobody told me it was OK to slide into and out of a spectrum of interests, friendships, and personalities. Instead, I thought of my existence as a one-act play that I would either make or break. The incongruity and dissatisfaction I felt in my relationships with others led me to isolate myself: I felt unappreciated when really it was me who was causing the problem. I failed to look at my friends as individuals, and instead saw them as people who need to serve my needs and interests; carriers of traits and tastes that I yearned to photocopy.
Pondering my faults as a friend is a very unsettling task. But when I finally traced the cracks of my friendships both from high school and at present, I recognized that the trouble lies in me not being able see my friends as constantly moving across a spectrum of traits, interests, and tastes. Whether that is the latest Hollywood tabloid gossip or defending human rights, they are human beings and not just some boxed ideation of what a person or friend “should” be. To neglect my friends’ multiplicity is to neglect a potential shared interest. I must instead seek out common ground, a spectrum on which we can coexist. Even now knowing all this to be true, I’m still struggling with making ends meet: I must continually remind myself that my friends can be this or that, this AND that. In my everyday interactions and observations, I’m still learning how people can move together in the same space, despite glaring differences and, sometimes, unwholesome personalities.
In trying to model and remodel myself after other people, I’ve gleaned that being a whole, living, breathing person in the world may not always come easy, that there is no handbook by which to assemble a self. It may be that I needed to photocopy people’s traits and interests to fit the social environment I existed in at the time. Looking back, I can see that experience as formative in a way that I’m secure with. Taking in parts of others that are not my own, or tucking in a part of myself that I don’t want to show to the world at any given point in time is human and vulnerable.
Several weeks ago, I got food with some friends at a place near my university. I chose to lean back in my chair to observe my friends conversing, sharing the finite space in that crowded diner. It was actually beautiful, really—I had to prevent myself from closing my eyes to savor and store the feeling, like, “Don’t leave me!” or a silent call, Go on, I want to save this moment forever. As I watched them laugh aloud trying to impersonate a Vine star, I saw how things become glaringly beautiful and profound when we truly, actually look and see. ♦
*Names have been changed.