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On friendship: When reach becomes grasp

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MAY 11, 2023

For the first month of college, everyone traveled in a pack. Entire dormitory floors huddled outside thrift shops in the afternoon and Artichoke’s at night. The sidewalks were crowded by big groups of people, brought together by proximity more than anything else.

That first year kicked off at hyper-speed. I met more people than I thought was possible and couldn’t believe anyone remembered my name. Berkeley opened up a world of abundance. In a few blocks, there were at least three of everything — bookstores, boba shops, bars, pizza parlors, bakeries, cafes. As a freshman, it struck me as a restless kind of place where free time felt like a failure in friend-making.

I’ll be the first to admit I was an unusually lucky freshman. I loved my classes, got on with my roommate and settled into a relationship that taught me how to love and be loved. My partner was about two years older than me, which meant the world she had carved out at UC Berkeley was well-defined.

It was also undeniably cool. She surrounded herself with warm and witty people who went to band shows in basements and threw birthday parties where the cake was homemade. Everyone was always talking about art.

Her world was the antithesis of mine. Dorm life looked clumsy and desperate in comparison. I was tired of Clark Kerr Republicans and fending off condescension from EECS majors. Slipping into her world was a way to fast-forward and escape the awkward growing pains synonymous with the freshman year experience.

Since my partner doubled as a best friend, I became a bit careless with my own friends. I was friendly with a lot of people and quickly culled a handful of close, intimate friendships with people scattered from different areas of my life. These relationships didn’t add up to a “friend group,” but I found it hard to be good friends with everyone everywhere all at the same time. I didn’t think anything of it until my birthday in October when I threw a party and realized none of my friends had met each other. I chalked it up to a side effect of college.

I wasn’t necessarily a bad friend then, but I’ve grown up a lot in the last three years. The ways I understand friendship and the care that goes with it have changed.

The pandemic hijacked the spring semester, snuffing casual closeness and redrawing social circles as germ bubbles. It didn’t matter how much or how little I saw someone anymore — our bodies and their distance were no longer reliable coordinates to map intimacy.

During the Plague Year, I lived with three people in an apartment near Willard Park. I got closest with one of the girls, in part, because the things that each of us really wanted to do were no longer possible. She liked to hike the fire trails but instead spent afternoons testing odd recipes in our kitchen. I couldn’t go to the movies anymore, so I started watching them in the living room, projecting films onto the ceiling where she liked to study. Her friendship snuck up on me that fall, and by spring we were inseparable.

She graduated last year, moved across the world and wished me happy birthday in a message that made my heart all mushy and soft. We’ve talked about being bad texters enough that a few months of radio silence don’t set off any alarm bells. Our dynamic now looks a lot like my friendships from home — we don’t talk much when one of us is away, but as soon as we’re both around, it’s time to “debrief.” The sporadic intimacy resumes as if nothing really changed.

Not all friendships are like this, I realize. I’ve always been an obsessive person, which means if I’m intrigued by someone, it becomes a fixation. My favorite kinds of friendship are the ones where you’re not sure if you’re in love with the person or just in love with the fact that you finally have someone to talk to. You and the other person feel like the most important things in the world.

In my experience, however, college indexes different, often contradictory kinds of relationships. Some people are experts at parsing through personal problems, while others make good company in the Slurpee aisle of 7-Eleven. I have some friends I see every day, some I would gladly see more often and some I see so rarely that a chance encounter caught me so off guard I nearly pissed myself in the line outside Raleigh’s. But I care about all my friends, even the faint ones, and I want them to know it.

People say college offers your first taste of independence — the hallmark of modern adulthood — but as a graduating senior, I’ve never felt more interdependent. I know that people will be scattered and sorted into new lives, but goodbye is freighted with too many feelings to do it properly. I worry about the durability of friendship, then wonder if I’m selfish. Is friendship about understanding someone else or being understood? Which is more important?

I don’t have answers. For a long time, I thought friendship meant saying yes to things, whether it was running errands, watching movies or hightailing it to Vegas. I understand now that it’s also about being the one to ask — to create a world and invite someone in. Reaching out is a vulnerable process, and I’m not perfect at it. But now, when everything feels subject to change, I chase that rush when reach becomes grasp, a mutual decision to reject chance and say, let my care be on purpose.

Maya Thompson joined The Daily Californian in spring 2020 as an arts & entertainment reporter and has continued to write for the department for three years. She was the film beat reporter in fall 2020 and spring 2021, a deputy arts & entertainment editor in fall 2021 and the head arts & entertainment editor in spring 2022. She then served as arts training manager for summer 2022, film beat in fall 2022 and classical music beat in spring 2023. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Russian literature.

Contact Maya Thompson at 


MAY 12, 2023