I walked into the dark bar and looked around nervously. I was supposed to be meeting someone named Ava. It was my first time meeting up with someone from the BumbleBFF, the making-friends version of the dating app. We’d been talking for a few days, but I worried maybe she didn’t look like her profile photo. I scanned the room for someone with bangs and wondered if making friends through an app was a dumb idea, but it felt like my only choice.
I recently moved to Boston and realized when I got there that at 30 years old, I was super happy with my new husband and our two cats, but I had no idea how adults make new friends. Boston is a town made up seemingly entirely of young people. I see people my age looking over apples at the B Fresh grocery store and walking dogs on the community path every day. Surely someone here also likes cats and baking and falling asleep to old Frasier episodes.
But I have no idea how to meet them. You can’t just walk up to someone in the grocery store and say, “I, too, like honeycrisp apples. Do you prefer peanut butter or are you more of an almond butter type of gal,” starting off a years-long friendship that involves borrowing each others’ clothes and fun road trips to antiques stores in New Hampshire, right?
If I’m being honest, this isn’t exactly a new problem for me. Over the last few years, my circle of friends has started to dwindle. I never used to have trouble making friends, and while I am pretty good at maintaining friendships over text and offering a lot of emoji-filled comments on Instagram stories, most of my old friends are now spread around the country.
I’ve signed up for various classes and volunteer gigs in the last few years, hoping I would make friends, but attendance is rarely reliable, and I’ve found it hard to take that step from “we both like taking care of homeless cats” to “let’s hang out in real life.” Which is probably my fault. I always assume everyone already has enough friends, and my new friendship would be a burden on their already busy social schedule.
Making friends in high school was easy: I just sat next to someone who looked nice, and then when things were especially boring in history class, wrote something like “Do you think Mr. Stevens has a girlfriend?” in the margin of their notebook, and then all the sudden I was at their house eating popcorn and watching three Lifetime movies in a row.
College was even easier—you were basically assigned friends who lived next door, so everyone just kind of knocked on each other’s door asking, “Do you know anyone who can get us vodka?” and suddenly we were six vodka shots and a liter of orange soda deep scream-singing “Hey There Delilah” in the dorm bathroom (and later attending a mandatory alcohol training class together).
And grad school was the easiest: I went to school specifically for a thing I liked and so did everyone else, so we never ran out of things to talk about. Of course, I’m exaggerating. It wasn’t always easy, but people were always around in school, were often required to interact with me, and eventually, friendships formed.
Even into my later 20s, I could make friends in the bathroom of a dive bar just by asking someone what shade of lipstick they were wearing—45 minutes later, we’d be locked in a stall together crying over our ex-boyfriends from four years before.
Most of my relationships in my 20s were based on drinking and screaming and occasionally dancing, which was easy. But around 28, my drinking and screaming and dancing quota had been met. Thirty-something adult friendship is a nebulous area, between the stage where you get drunk and giggly over 3 a.m. hot dogs and the stage where you bond over your kids’ soccer games. It’s not completely clear what you are supposed to do and if anyone will want to do it with you.
I always assume everyone already has enough friends, and my new friendship would be a burden on their already busy social schedule.
I wonder sometimes if this isn’t the reason that so many people, myself included at times, have declared themselves “introverts.” This word is everywhere online: The internet is awash in memes describing how people would rather stay home and binge Game of Thrones wrapped up in their blanket armor than go out with friends.
It’s tempting to identify with them because I do love cuddling up with my cats and watching hours of TV, and because on the internet, it feels like there are two options: You’re either an introvert who loves staying home alone or you’re out, taking photos in front of colorful murals with your friends every weekend and Boomeranging your clinking mimosas. It’s not really an option to admit that you are just kind of lonely right now.
At the bar, Ava recognized me first. We sat at a high-top table and sipped red wine, the drink of choice for people who have swapped 1 a.m. karaoke for turning in at 10 p.m. after two episodes of something British on Netflix. She was nice, funny, and easy to talk to. I was relieved.
My foray into BumbleBFF was my first serious attempt to look for friends who were also looking for friends, and so far, it had been a little disheartening. Most girls’ bios listed the same things over and over: Let’s get brunch. Let’s do yoga. I love The Bachelor. I swiped left on almost everyone. Maybe I was being harsh, but they all sounded so generic. I don’t think it was their fault. How can you sum up who you are and what you want out of a female friendship in fewer than 600 characters, especially when, like me, you’re probably not even sure what you’re supposed to be doing?
But Ava had seemed funnier and more interesting, mentioning something about the dumb voice she uses to talk to her cats in her profile. We had a lot in common: We both liked to bake and had been experimenting with things from Mary Berry’s cookbook. We had both lived in North Carolina before moving to Boston. We both were obsessed with our cats. I left feeling cheery about the possibility of having a new friend in Boston. But I didn’t know what to do next.
Without the structure of school or the crutch of alcohol or a very loud club where the person can’t hear what I’m saying anyway, I am suddenly more insecure at 30 about making friends than I ever was as a teenager. I once had confidence that I was fun and interesting, but now that nobody is forced to be around me, I wonder if anyone’s approval of me was an acquired taste. Once they have the option to take it or leave it, I’m afraid they’ll choose to leave it.
After a while, maybe it becomes easier to embrace introversion as a part of my personality than it is to admit that I just don’t really know how to make friends—and what’s more, acknowledge that I’m afraid I can’t.
… I think the only cure for loneliness is vulnerability.
It would have been easy to just not ever contact Ava again. I could pile on the fleece blankets and decide that my only friends in Boston were my husband, my cats, and five seasons of Call the Midwife—the things I know are safe. I could always just hang out on the couch and text my trusty high school friends, who are all guaranteed to laugh at my jokes. That could be enough. But I also know it wouldn’t be. I’m not actually an introvert. On the introvert-to-road-trips-through-New-Hampshire spectrum, in my heart, I want to be on the New Hampshire road trip.
So now I think the only cure for loneliness is vulnerability. That and knowing yourself well enough to know that you probably couldn’t pretend to be interested in The Bachelor long enough to keep up a friendship with just anybody—and when you find someone you like, you should go for it.
A few days later, I texted Ava and asked if she wanted to meet up again. She texted back right away, excited about the prospect. I wondered if maybe she had been waiting around, worried about how to move forward like me. We may not end up being BFFs, but as an adult, it turns out that making friends means taking the risk that people may not end up liking you. It’s not fair, but a lot of growing up isn’t fair. And at least we don’t have to scream at each other in clubs anymore.