Growing up, I lived in a lot of strange and exotic places—Alabama, Missouri, Arizona. I can feel your envy from this side of the screen. Not for any reason so exotic as being an Army brat or having free-spirited parents but because my mother, for a short while, was married to a guy who worked as the foreman on an underground cable crew. This was back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Back before anyone outside of major urban areas had cable. If you lived in truly rural places like we did, you were lucky to get one fuzzy TV station if you turned the rabbit ears just right and it wasn’t raining too hard outside. Sad but true: I was 20 before I finally saw “Mork and Mindy” and trust me, it did not withstand the test of time.
One of the things I learned, between frequent moves and a mother who made misanthropy an art form more tangled than macramé, was not to get attached. Move in, make casual friendships with people then, when you’re gone, you’re gone. Unfortunately, that did withstand the test of time. I’m an excellent casual friend. Heck, I can even be a pretty good serious friend. What I struggle with is being a long-term friend. That “long-term” thing implies that the relationship remains through moves, downturns, upticks and miscellaneous outside forces. It implies that, when the people you’ve come to love and care about aren’t around, you miss them. I have managed to avoid that particular trap.
Or, at least, I had. My husband and son notwithstanding (I keep them with me whether I’m conscious of them or not), I float along occasionally thinking about people I know and love back in Michigan and elsewhere, experiencing a sort of vacant-feeling in my midsection that I ignore because it is uncomfortable to think about or even acknowledge.
It is curious how a single comment in a single moment can somehow change everything. I was at work the other day, my second day back in NY, and one of my colleagues stopped by—I suppose I should call him a friend now—and we were chatting about things. Families, students, books. And he said, at one point, “I’m glad you’re back—I missed you.”
What made the words profound were how they were said—matter-of-factly, with no particular inflection or exuberance. I’ll confess now that I often, and to my own detriment, take overly-enthusiastic expressions of affection with a grain of salt. It is a common trait among women to be enthusiastic and social even when we don’t really mean what we’re effusing about (and for those among my friends who are naturally effusive and enthusiastic, I’m not calling you disingenuous, I’m saying that I am cynical), so it was the simplicity that took me by surprise.
To be sure, I have some 20-year friendships, and some younger ones that are important to me, but those are very much the exceptions. Mostly I’m quite talented at keeping people out, at not missing them.
Missing implies attachment. Later, as I was thinking it through, I realized how carefully I had constructed a life in which I wouldn’t miss people—I learned not to get attached because attachment has the possibility to hurt. That weird emptiness in my midsection can remain unnamed and ignored so long as I remain detached.
So, maybe “missing” is as simple as carrying memories with us as sustenance until we’re together again. And maybe, too, it is leaving parts of ourselves with others; taking the leap of faith that allows us to hand over those pieces of ourselves and believe that they will return to us unharmed. More frightening still, perhaps it means that we carry nebulous bits of those we call our friends, charged with keeping them safe and intact until some unknown future time when we put them back together again.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about Mork and Mindy. They’re probably best left to the annals of mostly-forgotten history.