How might my life have been different had I chosen — or been able to choose — my friends more wisely?
Way back at college, I only really had two close friends. One was an English girl who was in my tutor group and studied the same course as me, with whom I got on really well. The other was a Bengali lad, to whom I really had no academic links whatsoever; we became friends because he was the first person I encountered starting college as a stranger, knowing nobody at all. Through the first of these two, I became friends with another English lass and lad. Through the second, I got to know two young men of Pakistani origin, one more than the other.
Other than this pair of three, I really had no friends at all. In the early weeks of college, I tried to find a place amidst a large group of English students, but they didn’t seem to welcome me. I assumed at first this was because they had established relationships going back five years or more from the feeder schools. But as it went beyond unfriendliness to open hostility, I began to conclude that it was because they knew of my background and where I had come from. I felt that they resented me for having studied at private school, and having been raised in privilege in the suburbs. That’s why I took to hiding that part of my identity.
I should have been content with that small group of English friends. We mostly got on very well. I don’t really know why I gravitated towards the other group so much, other than that they seemed to treat me with respect. I did, of course, carry baggage with me, borne in experiences at my old school. I’ve never had a large group of friends in any period of my life, tending only to have a small number of close companions instead. But in the last few years of secondary school, my friendships had diminished to such an extent, with longtime friends steering clear of me, that I had ended up spending most of my time on my own. Therefore, I would have been desperate to hold onto whatever new relationships were established.
That would be how and why I became so close to a young man whose cultural background was so completely different from mine. By that, I am not referring to the fact he was Asian or belonged to a different faith. Had either of those been important to him, we might have had more in common than anybody could have imagined, for the crossover in traditional Muslim and Christian ethics and values is immense.
In that regard, our friendship seemed quite unlikely. He was very outgoing; I was very shy. He was a ladies’ man; I was awkward and self-conscious. He was very stylish; I had no fashion-sense whatsoever. He lived in the inner-city; I lived in affluent suburbs. His dad owned an Indian restaurant; my dad was a solicitor. He had previously had a run-in with the law; I was from a strict, religious home, expected to remain on the straight and narrow.
Yet, despite all this, he seemed to genuinely value our friendship. He would confide in me about his relationships, even though I thought his choice of girlfriends was rather suspect. We would hang about in town on Saturday mornings for a time, where he would act cool, forever chatting with every girl he came across. Later on, he was thrown out of home by his parents due to the ongoing saga of his relationship with a girl much younger than him. He seemed to value me as a friend so much that he called on me to support him through that time and asked me to accompany him to arrange emergency accommodation. In short, he genuinely seemed to consider me a friend, something that I had never really experienced before.
But this is where we ponder the question of wisdom, for we had very different aspirations. In some senses, our divergence on vision was quite benign. For example, he once set out his dream of us forming a boyband, akin to Take That. Yes, him, slightly overweight Bengali lad with no musical talent and me, prize nerd, barely capable of stringing a sentence together, whose instrument of choice was the oboe, my repertoire limited to dying cow impressions. We both knew that was a nonstarter and I saw it as just yet more evidence of a crisis of identity. Little did he know that while he was practising dance moves in front of his bedroom mirror, I was attending orchestra practice in preparation for a tour of northern France.
Perhaps the reason that we got on so well was because we were both equally immature, and quite possibly completely blind. Or it may have been that I was very loyal as a result of having had such problematic friendships previously — and perhaps he was the same. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he was just as incompetent in relationships as I was, and that the advice he would give me was often both unsound and unhelpful. Most of the time I had no idea what came out of his mouth at all; certainly, I had no control over it. But I projected onto him a sense of worldliness and maturity, which he probably took pride in, given all of his insecurities, which saw him shunning his Bengali identity.
But the truth? Neither of us ever really knew anything about each other at all. He didn’t get me, and I didn’t really get him either. I probably had some patronising ideas about traditional culture, which meant I believed we shared the same strict, religious upbringing. In reality, he was just your typical teenager, enjoying life to the full. He was part of the under-age clubbing fraternity, getting drunk and high, and engaging in promiscuous relationships.
I think he imagined that I was the same. Only, my own social life was limited to attending a Christian youth club on Sunday nights, run by my mum! I was, as everybody else had concluded, just a very boring nerd, too shy to pursue anything my friend considered exciting.
It turned out that it was not a wholesome relationship at all. In fact, it was pretty disastrous for me personally. Neither of us realised that we were both imbeciles, completely out of our depth. He didn’t seem to realise that I was not at all cool.
He had no idea how different our worlds were. Some of the things he used to say were simply preposterous — but, worse than that, he had absolutely no conception of the damage he was doing every time he opened his mouth on my behalf or in my defence. We really were both completely clueless.
Teenagers, generally, make bad decisions, but I seemed to be liable to make the worst. Perhaps I could blame the affects of that once undiagnosed chromosome disorder, by which I’ve come to explain so much that went wrong in my youth. In all the literature regarding the pyschosocial impact of living with this condition, there’s a common theme often reported: the difficulty making friends and the feeling of being socially isolated.
Is this because we’re typically very shy, quiet and passive, and are therefore less able to build up a rapport with new people? Or is it because others see something in us, which perhaps embarrasses them, causing them to shun us as potential friends? Who knows?
One thing is certain, this deficit can lead to some seriously problematic relationships, compounding all those preexisting issues associated with the condition. This is where it becomes apparent that it’s important to choose your friends very wisely. Choose well, and these relationships will be strong, long-lasting and loyal — there, the other side of the coin — like so many relationships in my adult life.
But perhaps it had nothing to do with who or what I was. Perhaps that relationship simply had to happen to carry me on towards my ultimate destination. Perhaps we were catalysts for one another, carrying us on — through disaster — to what was ultimately better and worthwhile.
I suppose it was a good thing that we were both totally, absolutely, atrociously clueless, hurtling towards catastrophe, because it opened up whole new worlds we couldn’t possibly have imagined. No pain, no gain.