“I’m really worried about her.”
I was laying in my bed, staring up at my ceiling, envisioning all the different situations one of my dearest friends could find herself in, now that she was living in the downtown of a big city, far away from people she knew and the community she’d grown up in. Handsome was on the phone, listening to my concerns.
“Why? She’s a grown-ass woman. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Well… I’m just worried that she’s away, and so busy, and the only relationships she’s forming are with people that she works with.”
That question made me pause. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by so? This was a straightforward concept, at least to me, and he didn’t seem to understand my concerns at all. Which puzzled me, and I wasn’t sure how I could explain what was, to me, a foundational idea about relationships. I was running into conversations like this one with Handsome more and more often– concepts I’d lived with all my life, that I had accepted as normal, seemed completely foreign to him.
“I… well, I mean, hanging out with non-Christians is fine, but it seems like it’s more difficult. You need Christian friends, too. So they can help you.”
“I don’t understand, Sam. None of my friends growing up were Christians, and I think I turned out just fine.”
That stopped me in my tracks. “Really?”
“Yeah. All my friends were Muslim or Sikh or non-religious. I knew a few people who were Orthodox, but yeah, all my close friends weren’t Christians.”
This was a complete about-face from anything I’d previously been given about the nature of friendship. I fell silent as I struggled to process what Handsome had just handed me– it felt like a deluge, like being thrown into a river and I couldn’t quite tell which way was up.
“Anyway, I don’t think you have anything to be worried about. She’ll be fine.”
We talked for a few minutes longer, but when we hung up, I didn’t move. I continued staring up at the ceiling, recalling past relationships, past friendships I’d had. I realized that I had always assumed that being a Christian made you a better friend, and even through all of my struggles with God and religion and faith, even when I’d lost my faith completely, it was such a deeply held belief that I never even bothered re-thinking it. But, suddenly, I could almost taste how ridiculous the idea was. Nothing about being a Christian makes anything about me intrinsically better than any other human being on the planet. But that was what I’d believed– I’d believed that having Christian friends was better. To an extent, I’d believed that having “non-Christian” friends was almost a waste of time.
I was nervous. More nervous than I’d been on my first day of class– more nervous than during my freshman piano audition, even. Philip* had approached me during choir practice and asked if we could go to dinner together after church– just the two of us. I was confused by this, especially since Philip earnestly believed in never being alone with a girl, so whatever it was he was thinking, it was serious. I had accepted, and here I was, sitting at the cafeteria table, waiting for him to get through the line and join me. I arranged the potato chips on my plate, fiddled with my silverware, wiped the condensation off my glass.
I jumped when he appeared, and my heart started beating harder as he took his seat. He said grace, and he dug in while I picked at my tuna sandwich. Eventually, after a horrendously long attempt at small talk, he brought up why he’d asked me to dinner.
“I’m worried about you.”
I didn’t say anything, knowing he’d explain without prompting. I couldn’t even look at him.
“Why have you abandoned all of us?”
I didn’t know how to answer him. Being honest– if he even believed me, it would not be well-received. “I’m just not comfortable hanging out with you guys any more.” I could feel my promise to myself wavering. I’d sworn I wasn’t going to get pulled back into the politics of it all. The backstabbing, the gossip, the lies and manipulation. I was done. I was leaving.
“Why not?” He was careful to keep his voice calm, soothing.
“I just don’t get along with . . . people.”
“Sarah*.” The one word was an accusation. I expected him to know; the problems between me and Sarah had long become obvious to pretty much everyone.
“You’re both being utterly ridiculous.”
That made me look up, look him in the eye. “What do you mean?”
“You two. You’re both squabbling over something that isn’t even your decision to make. It’s mine.”
I cringed. He’d caught on to that. Finally. “I’m not squabbling with her over you, Philip. I could care less.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe you.”
“No, honestly. I don’t care. I’m your friend, and that’s it. I don’t want anything more than that. I’m not interested in anything more than that.”
He leaned back his chair, crossing his arms. It was a gesture I knew well. “Then why have you been constantly fighting with her over me?”
I sighed, exasperated. “I don’t like you. But she does, and I think she thinks that I do, too, and so… well, I’m a threat. And she’s been manipulating all of us, and I’m sick of it. I’m not interested in participating anymore. I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but it did no good. So I’m done. It’s pointless, and stupid, and it sucks.”
“I think you should stay.”
“Because it’s your obligation to. We’re friends, and that means that we’re supposed to help each other. Iron sharpeneth iron. You can’t just abandon your friends when you don’t like what they’re doing. You have to help them grow.”
“Hey, you think I could try on your scarf? It’s so fluffy!”
I turned from the pool table, grateful for a momentary distraction. I was terrible at pool. I was losing, embarrassingly, to Michael*, who had already imbibed six bears, half a bottle of rum, and a few shots of . . . something that smelled a bit like gasoline. When I saw who had just asked me that, I laughed. “Sure. Absolutely.”
A few minutes later, after Michael had completely stomped all over my terrible billiard-playing abilities, I walked over to introduce myself, and we ended up chatting for a few minutes.
“Hey, you want to catch a smoke?”
“Do you smoke?”
“Uhm . . . no.”
“Cool. Mind if we go outside while I smoke?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
We stepped out onto the rickety porch and joined a few others who had stepped out of the crowded entryway and living room to get some air or to smoke. Someone I didn’t know launched in to what seemed to be a familiar speech, describing all the benefits of “whole leaf” cigarettes. I got handed one, and in lieu of lighting it on fire and sticking it in my mouth, I sniffed it. “It smells like tea!” my surprised outburst interrupted the flow of conversation. Initially, I was embarrassed. I never knew how to handle myself when I’d inadvertently grabbed attention.
But everyone just laughed. “Of course it does. Awesome, isn’t it?”
And they moved on.
No admonishments about not interrupting people.
No gentle reminders to let everyone take their turn in the conversation.
I looked around at the group of people I’d found myself in– I wasn’t entirely sure how I had ended up here, at this party. But it was the first place I’d ever been where I felt like I could belong. A stranger, someone hardly anyone here had even met before. The shy, nervous little girl who didn’t know how to play pool, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t talk– and when I did talk, it was random outbursts that didn’t fit. The woman standing in the corner nervously fidgeting, obviously desperate to fit in, to be cool. They could see right through it– but they didn’t care.
It didn’t matter where I’d come from, who I was, where I’d been, what I believed, where I went to church, if I went to church. None of it. I was a person. And that was enough.
As I lay on my bed that day, my conversation with Handsome over, staring up at my ceiling, I realized something.
By and large, my relationships with regular church-attending evangelicals (with a few notable exceptions, my best friends among them) have been extremely toxic and unhealthy. It took me having friendships with men and woman who had never been Christians, who had grown up Christian but were now agnostic, who were still Christian but would be described as “nominal” or “backslidden” by anyone I’d grown up with, to experience friendship. Real, honest, loving, friendship.
I don’t think Christian culture really knows the meaning of the word.