“Ever feel like you were fated to be friends with someone?” Michael Pedersen writes on the first page of his memoir Boy Friends. “An alchemy in your meeting, instant fondness—part chemical, part kismet. This is how I’ve felt about every friend I’ve fallen in love with—none so much as you.”
No, I wrote in the margin.
All the great friendships of my life have begun tentatively—sometimes even calamitously. The first playdate with Tom, my best friend in elementary school, ended in banishment from his house, likely over an argument over G.I. Joes. Jonathan and I circled each other warily for weeks after my parents and his hit it off during college orientation, distrusting that so uncool an origin could ever yield a worthwhile connection. I worried I had nothing in common with Kevin, my suburban neighbor, until his offhanded mention of having once loved R.E.M. broke through my reserve. Each of these friendships has been important to me for years, even decades, and each started not with an explosion of chemistry but with the dance of two guys wondering if and how they might move from fellow dude to friend.
We hear it all the time, in articles about the “male friend crisis“: Men don’t know how to make friends, or keep friends. The result: emotional dependence, isolation, loneliness, greater risk of disease or death. But I’ve never recognized myself in the (usually straight, white) dudes in those articles who yearn silently for someone to open up to, nor their stunted quasi-chumships in the rich and varied bonds I’m lucky to have had with other men over the course of my adult life. Though they weren’t love at first sight, my friendships are crucial to my happiness, and without them I’d be lost. I have been thinking about those friends, and one who isn’t a friend anymore, while reading Pedersen’s Boy Friends and Hua Hsu’s Stay True, two new elegies for friends’ lives cut cruelly short that are also both deeply interested in friendship as a social construct and as a human need.
In 2012, Pedersen asked Scott, a musician, to perform at a literary event. “Sometimes a stranger’s stare lands so purposefully it’s safe to assume they’ve seen part of the future yet to unfurl,” Pedersen writes of their first meeting. “This is the way you first looked at me.” The language is striking, its second-person construction giving it a near-romantic intimacy. Pedersen, a poet, loves a grand statement, and his memoir is testament to the naked emotionalism with which he views this lost friendship.
The birth of Hua Hsu’s friendship with Ken feels more familiar to me. “The first time I met Ken, I hated him,” Hsu writes in his memoir, Stay True. “He was a genre of person I actively avoided—mainstream.” Handsome, a frat guy, and to Hsu’s eyes effortlessly assimilated, the Japanese-American Ken lives one floor up from Hsu’s dorm room their freshman year at UC Berkeley. But as in so many of my own friendships, Hua and Ken become close by surprising each other, each bringing out in the other new facets of kindness, of cleverness, of loyalty. Hua takes Ken vintage shopping for a ’70s party. Ken gets Hua to join in some petty vandalism against a rival frat. Hsu views it as a sign of personal growth, he writes, that he comes to so respect a person who loves Pearl Jam so much. Yet he also sees that Ken is cool in a way he hadn’t previously understood was possible: “He was comfortable with himself.”
I’ve never read so perfect a description of collegiate friendship as the scenes in Stay True in which Hsu recalls the long days and nights spent with his friends, including Ken. The two develop a ritual of “smoke breaks” out on the balcony when they want to talk, even though neither smokes—“an escape from homework or a crowded room of strangers.” Sometimes some fool would come out hoping to bum a cigarette: “We would somehow make them feel dumb for thinking that’s what we were doing.” Later, they do start smoking, which makes it even better.
And the drives! Hsu chronicles countless late-night trips to the 24-hour Kmart across the Bay Bridge, just to get ice cream. He liked to volunteer his old Volvo, so he could control the tape deck. Reading this I smiled, remembering Jonathan’s old Volvo—“the vulva,” we oh-so-maturely called it—with the glove compartment door I once accidentally pulled off its hinges. I can’t estimate the number of hours I clocked in that car, Jonathan at the wheel, peering at North Carolina roadsides through the long scratches on the windshield from the time he tried to scrape off winter ice with a beer bottle. What mattered, as for Hsu and his friends, was not where we were going but that we were moving in concert. “We would have driven anywhere so long as we were together,” Hsu writes.
Hsu’s book, like Pedersen’s, is about grief—while they were still students, Ken was killed in a robbery—but also like Pedersen’s it is an exploration of what friendship means, and how it can mean different things from relationship to relationship, buddy to buddy. Hsu writes:
There are many currencies to friendship. We may be drawn to someone who makes us feel bright and hopeful, someone who can always make us laugh. Perhaps there are friendships that are instrumental, where the lure is concrete and the appeal is what they can do for us. There are friends we talk to only about serious things, others who only make sense in the blitzed merriment of deep night. Some friends complete us, while others complicate us.
I think this is right, and I think those valences can also change in friendships lucky enough to last longer than the two tragically cut short in these memoirs. But I also think that there is a way in which we stay true, to borrow the phrase with which Hua and Ken signed their emails, to the person we are, the person we hope to be, in our most treasured friendships. I am certain that my midlife friends view me differently than my college friends, that my internet friends have a very different idea of me than my childhood friends. Yet I also think all of them see something of me that’s the same, a core value that I bring to all of these pairings, the thing I see as the center of my self: loyalty, honesty, showing up.
Hsu and Pedersen dwell less, understandably, on what they brought to these relationships than on what their lost friends gave them. But you can see why they were loved, are loved still. For Hsu, it’s his willingness to chronicle and analyze, to tell the stories of his friendships. That’s a gift he’s given his friends long before the publication of this book; it’s no accident that Hsu’s group of friends chose him to deliver the eulogy, constructed collectively, at Ken’s funeral. “I was constantly writing,” he says now; “I wrote it all down, because I never wanted to forget any of it.”
For Pedersen, it’s his extravagant certainty, the way he loves to take his friends’ hands and hold them, just hold them, as long as the other can stand it. Scott, the lead singer of the band Frightened Rabbit, died by suicide in 2018, and Pedersen wrote the memoir in the year following, his grief the engine which drives the book. That explains, in some ways, the fireworks of the book’s language, how overflowing every page is with emotion. But it’s clear that even when Scott was alive, Pedersen was an exuberant friend, because he describes all his life’s friendships this way. “I would tell my friends I loved them constantly, with humility, be soppy, undeterred by the rowel and rankle of others’ or my own trepidations,” he writes. “It took years of candor, bravery, and heartache to break the constraints of my own thinking about male friendship and unlock a new move of loving.”
It is possible I am not as evolved as Pedersen. I seldom tell my male friends I love them, though I do. (Guys, I hope you read this!) A substantial amount of my interaction with male friends involves talking shit with one another: jokes, fake insults, gossip, arguments about songs. This might seem impersonal, unemotional, but in fact the digs that Sean and I deliver to each other are based on the particulars of decades of playful banter; each fresh debate with Ehren about a new album advances a conversation we’ve been engaged in since 1994. And interspersed with these rituals are real revelations about our own lives, our partners, our dreams, our families, our anger.
What are friends for? What are my friends for? These companions who have accompanied me through life, sometimes crammed close together in horrible apartments, sometimes far away for years and years. Words on a screen, a voice over a phone, a face across a table, a hand on my shoulder—they know me, in part because they’ve seen me at my worst. They were there when I cruelly, thoughtlessly called someone ugly. There when I drunkenly embarrassed myself, when I threw a tantrum on the basketball court. The things I wince to remember about myself, the things I would never air in public, they know—as I know about them. Yet we remain friends.
And sometimes we don’t. Sometimes friendships end, not because of a death but because the people lose the crucial ability to forgive. In Boy Friends Pedersen proposes a friend contract, a written agreement initiated at the start of a friendship. “From the outset,” he cautions, “such a contract would require fidelity to the notion that friendship is closely linked to forgiveness.” The contract “could grow with grace: each clause cut from an instance of us at our best and worst selves.” He tells a story of a friend of his, “the Cous,” a drinker and a pain in the ass who once wallpapered Pedersen’s fancy new London apartment with pages from a porn magazine just before a meet-and-greet with the new landlord. A breach of trust, yes. “But the Cous is a mate; he can be an incorrigible cunt but I knew the risks of accepting his offer to help.” Anyway, Pedersen writes, “the loyalty and support he’s given me over the years more than balance out these aberrations of judgment.”
What I thought of, reading this, was the friend I no longer have. I’m not attempting to claim Pedersen’s and Hsu’s grief as my own; my friend didn’t die, and I don’t mourn him. But our friendship did, and I mourn that. Once we had a fierce and partisan connection. We were tight, to the exclusion and alienation of others. Our friendship created a closed ecosystem, one so self-contained that I think now it was doomed to system failure, like a malfunctioning spaceship traveling to another galaxy.
Our friendship ended over a stupid disagreement, one for which I am to blame much more than he is; what led up to it was years of me being hurt by him, and him being disappointed by me. I don’t know how he views our old friendship, if he recalls it with the same combination of regret and affection and humiliation that I do. He drove me away; I allowed myself to be driven away—they seem, with the perspective of age, to be equivalent failures.
The Cous, Pedersen writes, is a different man these days. He lives on the Isle of Skye, is building a farm, dabbles in claymation. “He is the friend I recognized he would be and sacrificed for, looking past all manner of breaches.” I don’t think my old friend is on the Isle of Skye. Nevertheless, I do think it likely he’s very different from those days. Maybe he’s even the person I once thought he would become. Maybe I’m something like the person he dreamed of, too.
I don’t want my former friendship back. I’m too old now, too wary, too unwilling to open myself up to be hurt that way again. But reading these two remarkable books made me freshly grateful for that friendship I once had, and for the ones that have managed to stay true.
By Michael Pedersen. Faber.
By Hua Hsu. Doubleday.
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