I have plenty of friends, but no best friend

WASHINGTON • When my mum was my age, she'd paint 15cm wedge heels metallic gold, laminate fake identification cards and sneak into live performances of Rocky Horror Picture Show. She'd save just enough for a plane ticket, then jet off to Italy, Morocco and Greece, hitching moped rides and disregarding plans back home. At 23, she was light-hearted, spontaneous and loving. And she was never alone.

In every story so hackneyed I can repeat the scripts by heart, my mum was with Jean. She had a boyfriend through her 20s, too, of whom I know equally as many, if not more, stories of. But he wasn't her "partner in crime" or "soul mate". Jean is, and always has been, her "person".

Growing up, I felt I should have a "person" too. My Jean. And I did, kind of. Through high school and college, I had a close-knit group of friends. I was rarely alone. I was, and am, blessed to have "people". But that's how it's always been - I'm a "people" person, not a "person" person.

I've never hated this aspect of myself, but it's always bothered me slightly, like that freckle on your back or the off shape of your eyebrow - the traits you rarely notice, but wish you could fix.

In college, I felt close to many but often sought a deeper friendship with my roommate, or the friend whose life, at the given semester, most intertwined with mine. I'd find that initial closeness and, with some, that would last. But with time, I'd watch these friends grow equally close (or closer) to others, leading me to think I hadn't found "the real deal" or my true best friend.

Watching friends "couple off" as I remained somewhere in the middle sometimes spurred a light form of jealousy.

But this year, lacking a "person" meant something different. It was my first year out of college and my first year in New York City - the year my mother and Jean rented their first apartment, as did many of the pairs of best friends I know.

Over the holidays, I visited old friends in Boston and admired their cosy, shared space. Upon returning to the city, I'd grow envious. My apartment, strung with Christmas lights and candles, shared with a (lovely) woman I met online, suddenly felt cold and isolating.

Friends lived mere subway stops away, dispersed among neighbourhoods. I'd see them every few weeks, enjoying the intimacy of reunion. But in the quiet moments, the rides from work or on solo weeknights - time I once spent at dining halls or libraries, surrounded by friends - I became fixated on what I lacked. At 22, I'd senselessly stress about who would be my maid of honour, who would rock beside me at the nursing home and who would star in the reckless, exaggerated stories I'd tell my kids someday.

For weeks, these friendship fantasies and fears expanded, lifting me out of reality. My boyfriend would ask, "What about me?" After two years of highs and lows, we now know each other better than anyone else. He is my best friend.

But it's different, I told him. Of course, many people feel their significant other is their best friend. While I hope my boyfriend and I would remain close if we were to break up, our friendship would probably suffer. My closest platonic friendships, though, do not necessarily require physical proximity or daily communication to keep us close. This unconditionality makes the way I share, argue and confide in my closest friends different from my friendship with my boyfriend.

In the past three months, I faced two emergency surgeries. Both ejected me from the city and placed me on bed rest, immobile and isolated for weeks. The first days, of course, were flooded with messages - how are you's and feel better's and heart emoji.

Yet what shook me came days and weeks later.

There was the bouquet from a high school friend I'd unsuccessfully planned to meet up with. An art project from my former roommate. A page-long list of mindful activities from a close college friend. A fruit arrangement from a former colleague. A book on wellness from my boyfriend's father.

Perhaps more importantly, my recovery was adorned with non-material love. The weekly check-ins, shared photos, laughs at memories and assurances of more to come. The birthday calls from friends long-since distanced, or Facebook posts: "wishing the best day to my partner in crime" or to my "best friend".

Unexpected hardship brought me back to reality. Convinced I needed a "person", I became irrational. I lost sight of my people. Yet they had not lost sight of me. Friendship, I learnt, is an investment and a privilege: Sometimes, even when you don't deserve or expect it, it returns. But friendship can't be quantified and that's what I'd gotten so wrong.

Like all relationships, friendships are about mutual exchange: Sharing parts of yourself, be it humour, memories, adventures, love or support and receiving parts of others. Yet given the complexity of each person, it's impossible to get everything from one person, or vice versa - a reality as true in friendship as it is in romance.

In the absence of a best friend, I've come to cherish being a "people" person or taking a polyamorous approach to friendship. What shone through after my surgery wasn't just love, but the power of many individual bonds. One best friend was not by my side, but with each check-in came reminders of the parts of my heart that others carry, and the unique parts of them that I cherish.

I'm sure that, among them, I could find at least one who's ready to spray-paint wedge heels, binge-eat M&Ms or gallivant around Europe.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'I have plenty of friends, but no best friend'. Subscribe