This Is Us

Reclaiming Friendship in the Age of Isolation

Quarantine has me longing for an intimacy I didn’t know I missed

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Deep into state-mandated quarantine, two of my dearest friends come to my house to drink wine and eat take-out on my roof. Maybe it’s the shared experience of pent-up-ness, six months into being told friends are off limits; maybe it’s cosmic alignment. But we’re having similar existential crises around our bisexual identities, and community care feels like — well — communing.

Late into the night, we get to know each other deeply — our histories, our fears, our dreamscapes, where they overlap and intertwine, where they fork only to come back together — while decontextualized fireworks pop overhead. We connect not in the slow, meandering way that adults tend to form bonds over time, but rapid-fire. We deep dive into intimacy like the only way out of our feeling alone is through a togetherness forged by vulnerability.

There’s a neediness hanging in the air — for being seen, for laughing too loudly. And because we’re women — and more specifically, queer femmes — who used to be girls, we have a collective memory of caretaking in this way.

It feels, at least in the moment, like one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Later, the only way I can describe the feeling I’m left with is middle school sleepover.

When quarantine starts, I am relieved to be released from the pressure of upkeep. Thinking/ hoping/ not really believing that we can accomplish a two-week fix, I’m grateful for an opportunity to self-focus, for an excuse not to meet for dinner. While community is the sun in my emotional solar system, I’ve caught too much in my orbit. I appreciate the breathing room.

But as the Covid-19 crisis extends into one month, into two, into six, with no discernible, definite end in sight, I start to miss my friends — the nurturing and growth I can only receive from their warmth. And I notice that others, who are less loud than I am about the power of love that straddles platonic and romantic, feel desperate for their friends, too. There seems to be a collective awakening happening.

In adulthood, our friendships start to fall to the wayside, that intimacy replaced by romantic partners and newly forming family units — the apex of relational achievement. This divide mostly goes unquestioned. Until one day, we find ourselves lamenting how hard it is to make friends as adults, asking for an explanation — rhetorically, usually. Because it’s too disturbing to explore how the system limits our access to community on purpose. But the way we’re socialized to care about other people is hierarchical. And non-partners, non-family members fall to the bottom.

This value becomes obvious when quarantine starts: Whoever you share a home with, usually a nuclear family system, become the only people you are allowed to see. And even those of us with politics on the more radical, anarchist, anti-establishment side tend to agree — yes, of course! — for the sake of public health. As if community isn’t a core tenet of liberation.

It’s no wonder, then, that the night on my roof felt so vital. It is a reminder: Haven’t friendships always been my lifeblood? Haven’t they always been the great loves of my life?

We’re 12 years old, knocking back root beer “shots” and getting (sugar) high off of too many M&Ms. We’re playing at adolescence, here in the doorway of puberty, performing what we see on TV. It’s the mid-’90s, and my best friend Rachael plays a mixtape — Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever,” No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” — and I keep applying Chapstick to my nostrils, my doctor’s remedy for tender skin following a sinus infection. We are the epitome of uncool.

She keeps her mattress on the bedroom floor. Above is a gauzy mosquito net; below is black-painted hardwood. We play Dream Phone late into the night — “You’re right! I really like you!” Later, when we’re much, much older (and much more alternative) in the eighth grade, we try our hand at blood bonding. Her mom knocks on the wall separating their bedrooms, begging us to keep our laughter down.

Everything is equal parts deadly serious and hysterically funny. We are figuring out, for the first time, who we are. And we’re lucky to have each other on the journey.

Years later, I’ll write my college application essay about her — about how her brazenness taught me to be brave, to step more fully into my authenticity, at this tender stage where I am psychosocially coming into my own. I’ll refer to her presence in that essay as Technicolor. You would think, reading it, that I am in love with her. And at 12, at 13, at 14, I am. But love isn’t an inherently sexual thing. And our most intimate friendships are, undoubtedly, romantic.

The soundtrack of my quarantine, come July, is Taylor Swift’s Folklore. This, her eighth studio album, is 17 tracks that manage to capture both the depth and breadth of nostalgia. It takes her three months in isolation, from conception to production, to complete. It takes me less than a week to learn every memory-soaked word.

“In isolation, my imagination has run wild,” Swift explains on Instagram, “and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness,” a musical storybook that she “poured all of [her] whims, dreams, fears, and musings into” — a time capsule of 2020.

I immediately fall in love with an especially beautiful offering, all piano and diary, “Seven.” In it, Swift reflects on the power of girlhood friendship, digging through her memory to breathe new life into an old friend, contemplating the long-lasting impact of childhood intimacy (“And though I can’t recall your face / I still got love for you”). This isn’t the first time Swift has written an ode to female friendship (see: “Fifteen,” “New Romantics”), but it is the most whimsical. Told in detailed vignettes with a begging to be remembered (“Please picture me in the trees”), it’s not unlike her best breakup songs (compare the structure of “Seven” to “All Too Well,” and you’ll see what I mean). The theme is the same: I loved you, and I lost you — and I remember.

The queer vibes of Folklore have been well-established. But “Seven” doesn’t have to be about sapphic desire to be a love song — or queer, at that. Queering relationships includes prioritizing friendships, includes seeing friendship as romantic in itself. The desperation for connection — the celebration when it’s found, the devastation when it’s lost — is what makes “Seven” romantic. As Rachel Charlene Lewis writes for Bitch, “The sense of longing crafted in Folklore’s lyrics builds its bones,” and “[l]onging is, after all, queer.”

Here in isolation, we’re all getting a taste of reimagining relational values, as we long for intimacy, for community. That you, and I, and even Taylor Swift, are reminiscing about friendship at a time when nuclear family systems are being prioritized isn’t all that surprising. We are, collectively, coming into the realization that these relationships are, like other partnerships, both soul-stirring and essential.

In high school, my gaggle of girl friends is affectionately nicknamed HBC — the Handlebar Crew — after me. The boys who we hang around, the T-Birds to our Pink Ladies, call me Handlebars because I always wear my hair in two braids, a crude reference to blow jobs. I’m purportedly the leader, but in reality, any looking up to me that the other girls do is purely because I’m a newly implanted suburbanite, fresh from the city.

They eventually grow tired of the hierarchy — or maybe they just grow tired of me — and our foursome falls apart senior year. But before that, we spend weekend nights at Kari’s, whose single parent is the Cool Mom™ who leaves us to our own adolescent devices. Each sleepover is the same: Armed with chicken lo mein from the local Chinese joint and a jar of vanilla funfetti frosting (one spoon) for dessert, we play Truth or Truth, a game we made up because without sexual tension, dares are no fun.

We spend hours awake on the living room floor — or out on the roof ledge we cautiously crawl onto — spilling secrets. Here we are, in the middle of what we’ve been told will be the pinnacle of our lives and, as we’re growing into our sexualities — starting to consider the Great Beyond of colleges and careers, deepening the value systems that will carry us into adulthood — we have, simply, each other: a group of girls dedicated to our evolution, at the ready to pick up the (landline) phone at the hint of a crisis.

It takes a village.

It’s our sophomore year of college, and we’re lying face-up on our respective beds, just a handful of feet apart in our dorm room, in the dark. It’s daytime. But that’s irrelevant in Boston in mid-February; with the lights out, it may as well be dusk. We’re listening to a LimeWire-downloaded mix of breakup songs, quietly sobbing. I’m in the middle of a relationship with an emotionally abusive partner; she is reeling from the loss of her first queer love. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Alex is the college roommate coming-of-age stories are crafted around. When I suggest, a few years later, that we get matching tattoos while on vacation, she balks — What if we have a falling out? — and I cannot fathom such a future. She is soft where I am rough, patient where I am unkind, a beam of pure light in my sarcastic, holier-than-thou early twenties. She once gets a tote bag that cheerily says “I’d Rather Be Dancing.” I get a matching one, but cross out D-A-N-C and replace it with fuck. We are a dichotomy: We can’t exist without the other. She is my life partner; I’m sure we’ll be roommates forever.

Earlier that Valentine’s Day, we exchanged gifts: red roses with baby’s breath from the on-campus flower shop, a dozen heart-shaped doughnuts from Dunkin’, cards scrawled with “always.” I knew she was heartbroken; she knew my boyfriend wouldn’t try. So despite our budding anti-capitalism, we romanced each other.

We fall asleep that night whole, even though we are cracked.

Maybe this — maybe this is what true love is.

What happens when we get older? What, internally, allows us to eschew the beauty of friendship in pursuit of a domesticated, one-and-only kind of love? Why is monogamy, even, sometimes threatened by the sheer power of close friendship? Why do we let it be?

Older — wiser — now, I choose to actively unravel this socialization deep within myself; I choose to U-turn back into friendship as a priority, as a gift. But quarantine has illuminated for me the length that I — that all of us — have to go to push back on how certain relationships take precedence.

Recently, Raechel Anne Jolie sends me a copy of her memoir, Rust Belt Femme, a love letter to Ohio, ’90s alternative culture, and loud women. Getting a piece of mail — something that another person has touched, has blessed — feels sacred in isolation. Inside the cover, she handwrites a note: “Grateful to be in femme community with you.” And I think about how much of our experience is already intertwined.

In the book, she writes gleefully about the two best friends who see her through childhood and adolescence. I’m overcome with curiosity, searching her list of Instagram followers for their names, wondering if their connection has lasted, desperate to know that this kind of friendship can be lifelong, soulmate love.

Stunning me with her honesty, she writes, “When you think about it, really sit with it, the love built between young girls will knock the wind out of you.”

And now, more than ever, I’m sure that kind of love — passed down like folk songs — is the beginning and the end.

The politics of relationships, bodies, and wellness. PhD in Human Sexuality Studies. Taylor Swift is my problematic fave.

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