Five friends walked into a Starbucks. Bundled into pea coats and brightly colored scarves, they purchased their overpriced lattes, Earl Grey, and chai and traipsed up narrow stairs to find seating. Huddled around tables large enough only for mice to have an adequate meal, and sitting in chairs built for third graders, they began to catch-up after a two-month absence. It wasn’t a long amount of time in the grand scheme of things, certainly they’d stretched out their social visits for far greater spans in the past. But the Thanksgiving holiday weekend allowed those tucked up in their grad schools a chance to come home and gave the rest an excuse to dig out time for their friends in their busy lives.
What followed was at first glance a lovely Black Friday afternoon, sequestered in a cozy coffee house with hot drinks and good friends. In truth it was the bleak reality of five people who graduated in a nasty economy struggling with a distinct lack of money and very uncertain futures. The usual questions of “How are you?” and “What’s new?” were answered with groans, frowns, and large sighs before the long stories explaining everything wrong in their lives began. Easy laughter and clever anecdotes that would normally pass at sitcom speed were decidedly lacking from the whole affair. Instead of the camaraderie of the combined potential of a group of people who had never known anything besides success, there was a sharing of the various methodologies of coping when all the steps they had taken in their lives meant nothing.
Rewind three years ago to another gathering, around a far larger English oak table, in a pub furnished in the same warm wood paneling, and replace the overpriced hot designer drinks with arguably still warm and overpriced pints. The service was crap, the night was still bitter cold, and the pea coats hung nearby. Neither of the two couples were engaged yet; their relationships were still in the realm of infinite possibility where they could either flourish or dwindle. All of their lives were hinged on that cusp, and if their cheeks were lit with a rosy glow, the potential of their futures was as much to blame as the rapidly diminishing ale. Only their glaringly obvious American accents amidst a sea of British voices made their table stand out from any other. In the small out-of-the-way Oxford pub, so many historic figures had sat in those same booths that to mention them was considered redundant. Laughter and lewdness echoed off the walls as the tables filled with students letting off steam as they neared the end of term. The friends had never worked so hard in their lives, but neither had they ever been more sure of their success.
Not once did it occur to them, in their fresh-faced and big-brained naiveté, that their impending graduations in the next year would not produce their desired results. Visions of boomeranging back to parents’ homes as engaged couples, of answering phones and being administrative assistants, or the concept of a combined debt the price of an average family-sized home never once crossed their minds. Now it was a reality and the crush of adulthood cynicism had washed across them, making them jaded and even a little belligerent. Some of it was the economy and the dearth of jobs. Some of it was the impracticality of vague dreams of studio apartments, careers making a difference, and the storybook idealism of having it all. None of it though, was what they thought it would be.
Their afternoon lingered on and eventually the tides turn to lighter fare. Stories were shared of the engaged couples’ new kittens, their starter children for the apartment-dwelling young adults. Wedding plans and woes volleyed across the table as they discussed bridesmaid dresses, bad photographers, and an early start to in-law horror stories. The mood softened and a new bond began to form far separate from the old. Gone were the days of reminiscing that unforgettable semester abroad that brought such unlikely friends together. A foreign feel of maturity that none of them would have suspected overcame them while they chatted. In their uncertainty they could relate even as they each went in different directions, at times all as unhappy as the other. Surrounded by the people who shared in their moment of unrivaled achievement, they found support, they could see that they weren’t alone. For all their plans and goals it was the knowledge that in their little microcosm there were others with untapped potential who were moving forward with no clear idea of what awaits them.
Around a small table on a cold day in November, five friends unknowingly met together for the first time as grown-ups. They were still naive in their hopes that eventually it would all work out, but their idealism kept the cynicism from penetrating too deeply. Bills were due and budgets had to be balanced, but somewhere along the line their friendship made the transition from college kids to the strange variation of adulthood in which they all found themselves. The coffee grew cold and responsibilities called, but as they huddled in the cold in their goodbye circle, they knew it would be another few months before they reached out again. Life as it does, would get in the way. But they knew as they hugged good-bye, that it would eventually keep circling back to each other.
I wrote this when I was 24 and recently found it again. Without realizing it at the time, this acts as prequel of sorts for “The Friendship Exodus of Your Twenties”