The house across the street: How friendships change as we age

May 16, 2021, 8:05 p.m.

Every time I go home, I look across the street at the pristine two-story house I used to visit on weekday mornings before my middle school bus arrived. I remember it won the neighborhood’s “lawn of the month” award one year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were still vying for the prize: Its hedges are trimmed, the grass seems to stay green despite the Texas summer’s unforgiving heat and the shutters on the windows still feel as white and bright as they did when I was 11. The house was, and to my knowledge still is, where my first friend in the neighborhood lives.

The summer before I started middle school, my family moved into a neighborhood 20 minutes away from our old one so we could be closer to my mother’s tailor shop. That summer, everything was new: the house with carpets that didn’t carry juice stains, the bed frames that tolerated the bounces we snuck when our father wasn’t looking, the puppy that was ours for 10 bucks after we’d driven two hours out to a farm that had an accidental litter in its hands. I can remember how the light filtered into the house on the morning we moved in and the long puddle of pee our new puppy was polite enough to hold in until he was no longer in our laps, but I remember very little from the days that sat between these bursts of novelty and excitement.

In one afternoon that I do remember quite clearly, though, my brother and I took the puppy, Cookie, out on a walk. I remember walking out the front door and spotting a short, bony girl with curly brown hair playing on the lawn across the street with a pudgy, grey-black dog. We caught each other’s gazes — in suburbia, just about any movement is worth a glance for the reminder that you’re not living in a static image — and I shouted across the street, “Maybe they can have puppies!” She stood up and crossed the street, walking toward us with the dog in her arms. “This is Maisy,” she said, smiling.

That afternoon, Alexis and I learned that we were both starting sixth grade in the fall and would be riding the same bus to and from school. When the school year came around, we clung to each other as we waited for the bus to arrive and sat next to each other on the ride over, comforted by the familiarity we could offer each other as we began a new grade at a new school, surrounded by new — and much older — kids. We talked about our dogs, about what our families did over the weekend, about the annoying things our siblings did. We enjoyed each other’s company and eventually decided to begin walking to the school bus together — spending time together at the stop just wasn’t enough — and meet at one of our homes every morning at 7:35 a.m. One day she’d come to mine, the next I’d go to hers, and we continued like this for a few years. 

During middle school, she was the only person outside of my family who I regularly spent time with outside of school. We exchanged gifts our parents paid for from Walmart during the holidays. I helped her parents plan a small surprise birthday party when she turned 13. I’d watch her mother straighten her hair in the mornings before school, flattening out the beautiful curls I admired while nodding at mine and saying, “Not everyone gets to be born with hair like yours.” I’d say hi to her grandma when she visited and watch them fold an abundance of tamales, scooping what I learned was called masa from a bucket into corn husk wrappers. This is all to say: she became more than just a neighbor or schoolmate or school bus companion. 

But, some time during high school, she returned to being the girl who lived across the street. She joined the school wrestling team, whose grueling workouts kept her after school, and I joined the decathlon team, which met in the mornings, and our encounters on the bus went from being a regular occurrence to a rarity. We had less and less to say when we encountered each other, and eventually our conversations and exchanges were replaced by polite nods and waves. 

These days, I have no idea where Alexis is or what she’s up to. If it weren’t for my parents telling me they see her mowing the lawn from time to time, I wouldn’t know if she and her family still lived there. I sometimes wonder if she still occupies the bedroom whose window I once gazed out of at a brilliant sunset as she brushed my hair — the only memory that comes to mind when people ask me to describe my happiest moment to date. It was some time during sixth grade, and my home life had finally found a lull after weeks of disorder and chaos. I was sitting on the carpet in her bedroom, looking out her second-story window with hair pins and accessories scattered around my legs, feeling the bristles in her comb massage my scalp with every stroke. It felt like a happy ending in a coming-of-age movie — my mother was doing better, I had a good friend and the sky was worthy of a cinematic panorama. I remember how quiet life felt in that moment. I thought, “This must be the happiest I’ve ever been.”

When I look across the street and wonder if their house still has the same furniture or if her dog Maisy’s still alive, I experience a pang of nostalgia tinged with perplexity. I feel puzzled because I don’t understand how it can be that the only time I can recall feeling nothing but joy and relief is a time I shared with someone I haven’t spoken to for close to a decade now but who is still living and breathing and roaming the Earth.

I suppose I’m not all that surprised that we haven’t spoken in a decade; looking back, we never had that much in common beyond being born during the same year and growing up in the suburbs of Texas. Our senses of humor weren’t exactly compatible — I missed her jokes and she missed mine — and the way we approached our lives and school were quite different. I’d shovel cup noodles into my mouth while scrambling to finish a school project minutes before we had to walk to the bus stop, and she’d saunter onto the bus with blank homework assignments and a plate of her mom’s freshly made pancakes in her belly. I would ask in astonishment why she hadn’t finished her homework, and she’d explain with frankness that getting enough sleep was more important than finishing schoolwork. Many times I imagined us as lines in space that kept missing each other, lines that kept approaching each other but were destined to never intersect. 

What strikes me most is how one of the memories I cherish most is one I share with someone I probably wouldn’t grow close to today because I’d think we were too different for either of us to get much out of the relationship. Whether this belief is rooted in reality or insecurity, I don’t know — my guess is it’s a mixture of both — but the outcome is the same. If I met Alexis today, I’d probably note the awkward silences created by jokes that we tossed to each other but ended up on the ground. Or I’d note our differing backgrounds and find myself nervous and slightly paralyzed, trying to actively identify and correct implicit biases. In short, I might focus on reasons why our friendship would be doomed to fail, long before it even had a chance to begin. 

As an adult, it seems to only take a few differences for us to decide we’re not destined to be friends with someone: They don’t share our political leanings, they don’t laugh at the same jokes. As a child, it only takes a few similarities: they’re in the same class, they like the same toys, they play on the same playground. This shift might be best explained by what has been coined “socioemotional selectivity theory,” which addresses the role our perception and anticipation of time plays in shaping the way we approach relationships. Studies testing hypotheses of this theory have suggested that the older we get, the more selective we become with our relationships. These conclusions feel intuitive. As we get older, school and work make time and energy more scarce, and in the presence of scarcity, we often optimize. Sometimes that means strengthening the relationships we know bring us joy instead of seeking new ones, and other times it might mean pursuing the people we think we share a lot in common with instead of the ones who feel like wildcards.

Sometimes when I’m in a crowd in public, perhaps on the subway or while walking home during rush hour, I look around and wonder how many people in the sea of faces I could be good friends with: the napping old woman whose dreams must have so many years of history to draw from, the man who has eyed the bag of takeout in his lap so many times I’m itching to learn where it’s from, the teenager who could probably teach me what’s so uncool about wearing skinny jeans or using the laughing emoji. I’d look at them and lament how most of us seem to lose that childlike approach to friendship. But now I think what I’m actually lamenting is no longer feeling like I have all the time in the world, time that I can squander on pursuing friendships or curiosities that might not go anywhere.

Because everything has to go somewhere, right? This can often feel like a physical truth as an adult, when time no longer feels infinite like it does when we’re young. We let this idea guide us as we try to make the most of the time we do have. But sometimes the things that make us feel like we’ve made the most of our time are constructed when we’re least aware of time. This idea may be what makes the sight of Alexis’s house so unsettling. I look at her house and am reminded of what can happen when you don’t have expectations. I look at her house and am reminded of what can happen when you just let yourself be.

This article is part of a series on the myth of coming-of-age.

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Cindy Yu '22 is a desk editor for The Grind for volume 259. She is majoring in Earth Systems.

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