Friends aren't that easy to assemble.

    Remember those kids in high school who seemed really nice, really sweet, but everybody avoided them, and it just didn’t seem fair?
    So you talked to them once in a while and they still seemed nice.
    Then you spent a little more time with them and something seemed “off”.
    Then you realized that even though they were nice, there were valid reasons the others avoided them.
    This story’s kind of like that, except that I’m in my forties.
   
    I feel so bad, I really do, but my hands are tied, I can’t call her now, it’s too late.
    She’s probably reading this and if she is, I mean, if you are, please accept my apology; I’m only human, it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t a match.

    Our paths first crossed at IKEA, where we were both shopping for curtains.
    I was at the other end of the aisle when someone accidentally bumped into her with a cart. She said something funny, sort of to the woman that bumped into her but also sort of indirectly, and I laughed.
    Then a moment later, I said something funny. She laughed.
    Before too long, we were shopping for curtains together, asking each other’s opinions, both of us saying funny things, both of us laughing. She was really nice, really sweet, with a great sense of humor.
    I didn’t want it to end, so I formally introduced myself.
    It had been so long since I’d made a new friend, and this was a perfectly cute setup for two people to meet, and to become friends. A gay man and a single woman, both shopping for curtains, both starting new eras in their respective lives.
    We talked in the IKEA parking lot for half an hour. In addition to being funny, we had a lot of other things in common. We were both in the process of furnishing our new apartments.
    We made a date to go shopping together, for house stuff.

    I showed up at her new place, a little bungalow in a courtyard complex, and yelled through the slightly-open front doorway.
    “Hi! Good morning! Ready to shop?”
    “Hi,” she yelled back from some unseen recess. “Can you do me a really huge favor?” she pleaded.
    That sort of request never (never) bodes well.
    “Sure.”
    “I’m not ready just yet... can you run down to Starbucks down the street and get me a latte? I’ll give you money.
    “Oh, uh, sure,” I, uh, agreed.
    Our first date. She’s sending me on an errand before we even begin, I thought.
   
    We had fun, and I liked her, and she bought me a cool Chinese-restaurant sign that was perfect for my bedroom from a thrift-shop we visited. Still, there were a few more red flags that worried me.
    I was running late for work (I was taking a half-day that day, an allotment I had already exhausted by the time we hit Target) and we still needed to eat. We did pass through a fast-food restaurant to use the bathrooms but we couldn’t stop there as she couldn’t eat that food.
    We finally found a nearby sandwich shop, where she took her time chewing every bite as I checked my watch repeatedly.
    “I have to eat slowly or I get a tummy ache,” she explained, cutely.
    We talked about our new beginnings, mine in my very first apartment all to myself, hers in the new apartment that brought her closer to her new workplace.
    She had been working in her chosen field for years, but people, circumstances and conditions had recently prompted a change in location. She was forced to transfer her job and home.
    “...and we really don’t need to ruin our nice lunch by discussing why,” she grimaced, cutely.
    She also told me of newer career aspirations, and how, with my vague and distant Hollywood-type connections, I might be able to help her.
    “...and of course, if there was anything at all you needed from me, I would do my best to help you out, too... that’s how I am with my friends.”
    “Of course, I get that, I really do.”
    “So what do you think?” she asked.
    “Oh, well, I can look up some names for you, I think.”
    We still didn’t really know each other, yet her picture was becoming clearer and clearer to me. There was a considerable level of maintenance necessary, just to sustain an acquaintanceship with this well-meaning, fun-to-talk-to woman.
    When I dropped her back at her place, she gave me a tour of her apartment. She did warn me that she hadn’t cleaned the place since her hors d’oeuvres party the week before, but that did little to assure me that the woman didn’t live like a pig on a daily basis.
    The place was filthy. Dirt, dust, crumbs, cans, food, wrappers.
    I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She’s a busy woman, I said to myself. On top of everything else, she visits her ailing grandmother, suffering through the last days of assisted living, at least twice a week. I scolded myself for being judgmental, one of my worst habits.
    As I prepared to leave, she looked into my eyes.
    “Whenever I make new friends,” she said somberly, “I have this fear that I’m never going to hear from them again.”
   
    I kept up with the occasional phone call, and we made a date to go dining two weeks later in her neighborhood. She stopped at my place to pick me up, and said nice things about my apartment, which I appreciated.
    Her car was filthy. Inside and out. Dirt, dust, crumbs, cans, food, wrappers.
    Again, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I enjoyed her cheerfulness and her complimentary nature. She was a loving soul, I could tell that, and I mined that healthiest of traits to form my best opinions of her.
    However. A teenager can get away with filthy home and Honda, maybe even a twenty-something male, but a forty-ish woman with a steady paycheck who lives in voluntary squalor in both residence and transit can’t help but seem like a tragic curiosity.
    Still, we did meet at IKEA, shopping for curtains no less, and that alone seemed like a recipe for friendship.
    I don’t remember who brought it up, or how the subject was broached, but the topic of friendships and how different people navigate them surfaced.
    “You know, to be honest, I’m a little more casual about them... I don’t believe they should be forced. They should grow organically.”
    “Was there anything about me that worried you?” she probed.
    I gently, apologetically showed her one of the red flags, just one, the one that waved when she told me that she worried of new friends abandoning her.
    “I admit, I was really overwhelmed, it was the stress of moving...”
    “I understand.”
    “Were there any other red flags?” she asked.
    “No,” I lied. “Not at all.”
    She smiled, happy that we’d cleared things up.  
    “We could go there,” she said, pointing at a restaurant through her driver’s-side window, “but it gets so busy and there are just so many people there that I know, I’m worried that we wouldn’t be able to really talk.”
    “Oh, anywhere’s fine,” I smiled hopefully.
    “There’s this other place down the street,” she said, brightening.
    We drove a few blocks further down the boulevard to another chic, metropolitan restaurant where she hoped we wouldn’t be too distracted by people she knew.

    I met the owner of the restaurant and at least half of the wait staff; kindly, attractive people she had befriended over the course of her patronage.
    The impression made itself clear to me: she went to the restaurant often, alone, and had engaged the staff in conversation, invited them to her parties, claimed them as friends. She went there, not just for the good food, but to talk to everyone.
    As various men and women passed, they said hello to her, or if they didn’t, she hailed them to our table, to make introductions.
    Again, she stressed her concern over taking me someplace where she knew too many people, giggling and rolling her eyes with satisfied embarrassment.
    She stressed it twice during the evening.
    We concluded our dinner warmly; she paid, which she didn’t have to do.
    She was sweet, loving and generous.
    Her smile betrayed a thick air of desperation.   

    A couple of weeks went by, and I didn’t call her. I just couldn’t. At one point, my cellphone rang and the number displayed was hers. I let it ring, and she didn’t leave a message.
    A while went by, maybe a month, and she called again. This time I picked it up.
    “Hi, Sweetie!” I beamed (over the phone).
    “Hi. I have some bad news. My grandmother died.”
    “Oh, Honey. I’m so, so sorry. I know how much she meant to you.”
    “I was thinking, maybe... maybe we can do something sometime? Maybe we can go to a movie?”
    “Oh, sure. Of course, Sweetie. Of course.”
    “When are you free?”
    I choked a little. I felt for her. I also felt the need to protect myself.
    “Um, you know what? The next couple of weeks are crazy for me, I am so so sorry, I just don’t have a break yet.”
    “So... I should call you in a couple of weeks?”
    “Yeah, that would be great.”
   
    She didn’t call for a couple of months, perhaps getting the signal that I was distancing myself. She might have identified the pattern by now, the course taken by those fleeting friends she had once mentioned, the new playmates who shared quality time and conversation with her before eventually disappearing. Maybe the flags waved in both directions, and she had learned to spot them, too.
    When she finally did call, it was on the cusp of a New Year. She left a message.
    “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, we met at IKEA and had dinner a while back? Anyway, this is the time to wish everyone a Happy New Year, so that’s what I’m doing. I am wishing you a Happy New Year. I hope all is well with you.”
    I’m paraphrasing; it was something like that.
    Her voice was sweet, befuddled and matter-of-fact, all at once. I know she meant what she said.
    Even if I haven’t called her back, I wish her well, too.
    I hope she was able to spend New Year’s Eve in the company of friends.
    I hope she has friends.
    I hope they are good people, with few worries.