"Friends," by Maha Ahmed

For the last week, the only person I love who I’ve been able to see in real life is my roommate. This afternoon, that changed. A dear friend of mine has been going on runs in the neighborhood, waving to friends in third-floor walk-ups from the sidewalk; today they ran to my stoop. We stood six feet apart on opposite sides of the door to my building, chatting while some people filmed a music video a few feet away. I wanted to cry looking at their face—their real face, in front of me, unmediated by a screen, their cheek there for me to kiss if I wanted to.

There are many ways that pandemic-induced quarantine is going to change us; there are many ways it has already changed us. We might be confronting a much-needed transformation of social and economic relations. As someone who has been single for almost two years now, I’ve had a lot of time to think about relationship hierarchies and what it might look like to rearrange them. A normative relationship hierarchy compels us to prioritize romantic relationships and those that preserve and reproduce the nuclear family structure over more secondary ones, like those we have with our friends, or tertiary ones, like those we have with our neighbors. To rearrange these priorities would mean to pour ourselves into the people around us who don’t want to fuck us in return. (Not that we aren’t all attracted to our friends anyway, but that’s besides the point.) Resistance to that hierarchy feels unnatural, but it might need to be done in order for us to survive together.

This afternoon, my friend and I talked about the same things we could have talked about on FaceTime—how is your family, is your employment steady or in flux right now, what about your neighbors, should we pay rent next month, do you need anything, let me know how I can help you. But they have green eyes with brown flecks that don’t show up on video chat. They have dark brown roots poking out from under bleach blonde hair, a contrast that is sharpest in direct sunlight. They have a body language that I have come to trust and love over years of knowing them. I didn’t know how much I missed these physical contours of their existence until they were there in front of me again.

I imagine every time I see a friend in the flesh from now on I will feel this same surge of emotion, this heightened attention to the details of their presence, their countenance, their demeanor, the edges of their smile and the crinkle around their eyes, the romance of them—those things that fill the parts of our brains we typically reserve for every detail of someone we’re madly in love with. It might be a long time until things go back to normal, if they ever will. By then, our relationships to the people in our lives will have shifted in some way, with the lines between primary, secondary, and tertiary blurred together. I don’t know when I’ll next time be able to be in a room full of people I love, but I will probably not be able to stop myself from crying when it happens.

Maha Ahmed

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