How to Make Friends
By Jody Gerbig
Standing in the elevator, listening to her coworker Joe breathing behind her, Tina thought about the last episode of The Bachelor. In it, a woman had cried when another woman—the crying woman’s new friend—hadn’t also won a rose. Tina wondered what that felt like, having so many choices with people.
Beside Tina, a thin woman wearing a charcoal suit and a pressed blue button-down checked her phone. She tucked her long, straightened hair behind an ear so Tina could see her smooth face out of the corner of her eye. The woman laughed as she read.
“Share the joke with the rest of the class, will ya?” Joe said poking the woman’s back, who turned and smiled at him.
“Nothing. Just something Ricky sent me.”
“Oh, my god. That was hysterical,” Joe said.
“I know, right?”
Tina pressed her lips together and smiled, looking over at the woman. She felt she should say something. She hadn’t spoken to many of her new colleagues yet. She thought maybe she should be social. Seize the opportunity to reinvent herself.
Tina turned her head over her shoulder but kept her eyes on the lighted numbers increasing as the elevator climbed. She gathered her strength and let out a squeaky, “Who’s Ricky?” Though, she sensed Ricky was someone she should have known by now.
“He works in marketing,” Joe said.
Tina felt her armpits sweat and pinched her shirt. She pulled it out and let it go, fanning out her torso. “Does it feel clammy in here?” she said.
The woman glanced at her, her phone still propped between her thumb and fingers. The elevator stopped. The doors opened.
“See you at six?” the woman said, glancing back to Joe as she stepped off the elevator and turned left.
“Yup,” Joe said, stepping off and turning right. Tina followed Joe, several steps behind, feeling silly for thinking that she could just move to a new city, start a new job, and become a new person. She had brought with her normal Tina. Awkward, shy Tina.
That evening, sitting on her couch, her feet propped up, her laptop open, Tina began her quest to change that. This was the age of self-improvement, she thought. This was an age when anything she wanted to know, wanted to learn, was available on the internet. And she was familiar with the internet. She could become social by watching videos, she thought with delight. She logged on to YouTube, where she knew every how-to-video existed: “How to Build Your Own Baby Crib,” “How to Make Money on Ebay,” “How to Enjoy Lobster.” With one search, Tina found “How to Make Friends When You’re Socially Awkward.” She watched an expressionless cartoon blob approach a classmate. She felt sorry for the expressionless blob. She rejoiced when it chatted up a smiling figure.
Tina felt a surge of excitement watching the cartoon thing. She, too, wanted to better herself. It felt nice watching, from the comfort of her own apartment, other people—even simple, black-and-white blobbish people—successfully making friends. Tina believed watching more videos could help her. She would follow the advice, she thought, and she would be the best, social version of herself. Like the characters in the videos.
Lesson #1: Start Where You’re Comfortable
On Monday, Tina sat in the break room for lunch, instead of in her cubicle, on the raised stool that twirled in circles if she let it, and pulled from her cooler a peanut-butter-and-jelly and a small red apple. Next to her, Donat from her department leaned back in the cafeteria-style chair, his worn shirt stretching so she could see dark chest hair underneath. When taking this job, Tina had hoped she’d work with a female or two—maybe even one who’d moved here like Tina had—instead of the typical programmer: inert, introverted men like Donat.
Tina watched Donat peel open the lid to a Tupperware container full of heated goulash and mix it with a white plastic spoon. “Did you make that?” she asked, motioning with her eyes at the foul mush. “Smells good.”
“My wife did,” Donat said, slipping his plastic spoon into the dish and filling it with heaping stew. His scruffy facial hair caught gravy in the corners of his mouth. He didn’t wipe it away with the napkin from his right hand.
“Is your wife a good cook?” Tina asked, thinking of the video’s advice on asking simple, easily answered questions. She hoped Donat would talk about his wife, and about how they’d been married fifteen years and raised two children, one of whom had won the science fair last year or something. She shook her sandwich from a plastic baggy, and it fell on her napkin like a lump. She thought of warm meals she might learn how to make herself instead—veggie soup, pasta primavera, chicken curry—and made a mental note to watch cooking videos, too.
“You’re not supposed to bring peanut butter in here,” Donat said. He pointed to the sign above the entry door, which read Warning: Employee on Premises with Severe Peanut Allergy.
“Fuck,” Tina said, packing her sandwich in the plastic bag and zipping up the cooler. “Sorry. I’m an ass.” In front of her, the small apple stared at her, and she imagined the featureless face of the video character, whispering, Good one, Tina. She regrouped, remembering the video’s advice about asking people about their leisure time.
“So, Donat. What do you like to do outside of work?”
Donat looked up from his goulash. “What do you mean?”
“You know, like do you ever go to happy hour or anything?”
A drip of gravy fell from Donat’s beard to the plastic bowl below. “No,” he said, looking up, at the man walking toward them. “But this guy does.” Donat stuck his spooned hand in the air and nodded at Joe, who nodded back and headed for their table.
“What’s up?” Joe said, standing over them with a brown-paper bag bunched in one hand. Tina had never much looked straight at Joe. He was cute, she thought, in an office sort of way. He combed his dark, longish hair back so that one strand fell over his eyes. Tina felt her nerves from the elevator return.
“Um, happy hour?” she said. Her armpits began to sweat. Tina realized how bad she was at approaching people. She was glad she was making the effort to improve.
“Yes?” Joe said.
“You guys ever go?”
“Yeah, sure,” Joe said. “We’re going Thursday.” Joe shifted on his feet as though waiting for a follow-up question, but Tina couldn’t bring herself to invite herself. She let her eyes wander away and back to Joe.
“Want to come?” he said.
“Okay, yeah, sure,” she said before the vapor from Joe’s mouth had settled in the room. She smiled, feeling as though she’d made a new friend. And it had been easy! How silly, to have never asked such a simple, harmless question, she thought. Everyone liked happy hour! Tina congratulated herself, then, for having watched three hours of YouTube videos. She thought maybe she might just be the fastest learner ever.
Lesson #2: Don’t Listen to Self-doubt
Tina couldn’t decide what to wear to work Thursday—something sensible for work and a gastropub with Joe and his friends. She googled “What to wear to work and happy hour after” and found a collection of videos with a girl who dressed herself for exactly those two occasions. Tina watched three videos, all the while sifting through her closet of tiresome clothes, most of which had wool-pills or needed hemming and dry cleaning. She sat on her bed, in the quiet of her bedroom, a pile of slacks on her lap, and almost forgot the reason she had turned on her computer that morning, its blue light like a moth beacon.
Her phone beeped.
“Shit,” she said, seeing a message from her boss. Tina jumped up, sifted through the clothes pile, and quickly chose the closest items she owned to the outfits in the last video: straight gray slacks, black flats, and an easy sweater over a silk camisole. She pulled her hair half-up.
In the hallway at work, on her way to the bathroom after lunch, she ran into Joe who nodded as he passed. Tina couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. She glanced down at her shoes, as though her flats had laces that had come untied, but Joe stopped just as he passed and said, “I showed your picture to a friend of mine, by the way.”
“My picture?” Tina said, stopping and turning to face him.
“Yeah, from the company site. Anyway, he’s single. He thought you were cute.”
“Why?” she said.
Joe laughed and wagged his head once. “Why did he think you were cute?”
“No, no. Never mind.”
“Annnnyhooo,” Joe said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and rocking to the edge of his heals. Tina realized she’d embarrassed herself. The ringing in her ears grew loud. She strained to hear him say, “He’s coming tonight. You still in?”
“Oh, well.” Tina looked down at her slacks, thinking now she hadn’t dressed appropriately, that she hadn’t prepared for a blind date but a friend date. She’d watched twenty videos on how to make friends. Friends. Not dates. She wondered if she’d have time to stop by home, watch a few videos, grab more flattering jeans and a dab of makeup, and Uber across town. “I may be a little late.”
“Not too late, I hope,” Joe said, turning and walking again. “We move pretty fast.”
At six o’clock, Tina still sat at her work computer, staring down at her pressed gray slacks and lavender sweater with tiny cat faces sewn in it. She felt like a five-year-old. She opened a browser, searched “when happy hour turns into a blind date,” and found a video simulation of a young couple sitting next to each other amid a larger group, drinking ale at a beer garden. They smiled and laughed about their friends setting them up, how they hadn’t been ready to meet someone, how funny life came to be. Tina didn’t think she had it in her to be so honest.
She searched for another video and found one about a young man who’d hired a life coach to find him a girlfriend. She clicked and watched, entertained by it all—allowing another person to be awkward. She cringed when he let pauses become silences; she covered her eyes when he acted offended by his date’s dinner choice. But then one episode turned into two. She was fifty minutes deep in Life Coach videos. She watched the clock slip away from happy hour to full-priced hour. She realized she was no longer watching videos to learn but to stall. She felt lazy. Guilt set in. Of course, she thought, she should be out socializing rather than watching others socialize. And, yet, the longer she watched, the farther away happy hour with new friends felt. It seemed pointless. Like hard work. Not “happy,” at all. She pressed “continue,” and next video played. She breathed, relishing the neat thirty-minute packages of online entertainment.
Below the video, a comment from a live viewer, Bergerman1600, appeared: Is it seriously that easy?
Tina sat upright, a sudden burst of energy filling her cheeks. How funny, she thought, that someone would type exactly what she was thinking. Maybe she didn’t need to go to happy hour to make a friend. Maybe she could make one right here, behind the screen, where she really felt comfortable.
She hit reply: I know, right?! Makes me think I might actually have 15 min of fame in my future. She could do this, she thought. She could converse this way, with the extra time to think through her replies, without facial expressions and eyes to muck it all up. Tina waited, staring at the 1 minute ago next to Bergerman1600’s comment. She imagined him, a thirty-something-year-old man, sitting sat at his work station like she was, so present, so available, just at the push of a button.
Where do you live? he replied.
Tina’s stomach turned, thinking of meeting this stranger. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. Cleveland. You? she typed.
Close enough. Wanna fuck?
Tina covered her mouth, staring at question, stark against the white behind it. She looked behind her at the empty room, and closed her tabs, hoping no one had been watching. She slipped on her flats, picked up her empty lunch cooler and jacket, and headed home, trying to remember if she still had spaghetti in her pantry.
Lesson #3: Awkwardness is Okay
Natalie, Tina’s childhood friend, was perfect. Tina remembered how the two of them as children rolled on the ground laughing and snapping photos of each other posing with flowers. They had talked effortlessly and endlessly about nothing, sitting for hours in the grass in front of Natalie’s house as they picked clover.
On the first day of their freshman year, Tina leaned over in algebra and whispered, “Hey, want to sneak outside for lunch and have our brown bags on the lawn?” Natalie simply shook her head and passed a note that said, “Have a DATE.”
Later, from the Spanish classroom window, Tina spotted Natalie and an older boy sneaking in late from lunch through a back door and into the dark halls of the art wing, their hands locked, a wondrous smile plastered on her friend’s face, her eyes buried under folds of cheek. Suddenly Tina felt she didn’t really know Natalie. All those hours spent together, telling secrets and sharing fears, felt then like scenes from a cheap “B” film she might watch on a rainy, summer Saturday. How can a person truly know another? she thought, watching the pair. What relationship is truly real?
As Tina sat alone at the lunch table in her work break room, a cold turkey sandwich in front of her, Tina wondered where Natalie was now. She wished she had kept up with her friend—not let her slip away for a boy—if for no other reason than to have the getting-to-know-you part over, to experience ease around another person not her mother.
Tina couldn’t stand looking at the sandwich, at the limp, gray meat and over-bleached bread, a sad reminder of her ineptitude. She picked up half her sandwich and shoved it in her mouth, all in one bite. As she chewed, she imagined she was a girl on a blind date with the man from the Life Coach video: her hair resting on her shoulders in soft waves instead of pulled back in a tight bun, one finger surfing through it as her head tilted left, her mouth slightly open instead of stuffed full, thinking, wouldn’t it be grand to be on the other end of the awkward, to be the one grimacing instead of choking.
“Missed a good time last night,” a voice said. She looked over her shoulder at Joe, standing behind her, a tray in his right hand, a Coke can in the other. He wore his button-down slightly unbuttoned. He looked handsome, then, standing like that, slightly hungover. Tina tried to swallow. She couldn’t. She could hardly move her jaw up and down.
Instead, she nodded.
“We were there awhile.” Joe stared at Tina, who held her lips tight, restraining the food from falling to his feet. “You could’ve come late.”
Tina knew she needed to say something then, to explain herself, that she wasn’t blowing him off, that she had wanted to come but that work had crept up on her. She felt the moment linger, as though her own video had paused. Her eyes darted between Joe’s shirt to his shoes as she imagined a voiceover: Will Tina act on this opportunity? Or will she crawl back into her lonely world?
Tina thought of Bergerman1600, how she’d been excited over an internet stranger. He could have been anyone, she realized. Joe could’ve been anyone.
Also, Tina wasn’t a chatter, she told herself. And happy hour requires chatting. She wasn’t drinker, either, or even funny, able to throw around jokes as though a million awkward things didn’t linger behind them, as though people like Joe—work-cute Joe with the buttons undone, not at all her type—might let someone like Tina into his world. She was a homebody, a single woman who looked forward to heating up her takeout leftovers.
Joe raised his eyebrows and smiled, waiting. Tina’s heart thumped. Her ears grew hot. She pictured responding to Joe, and Joe asking her out again, maybe with just the two of them, maybe as more than a friend; she pictured fretting over what to wear, lying awake at night playing out every possible conversation, every crinkle of eyebrow. She felt tired thinking about it.
Tina looked up at Joe, met his gaze, swallowed a giant piece of sandwich so that her mouth was clear, and tacitly nodded.
“Okay, then,” Joe said, his voice drawn. “Maybe next time.” Joe walked away, in that fashion only live people can.
Lesson #4: Friendship Takes Time
Tina didn’t feel like leaving her apartment that weekend. The weather had grown cold and stubborn, and her pajamas felt soft and loose. She wished she could wear the pjs the woman in the video, “How to Lounge in Style,” wore. She wished her kitchen were as clean and her bathrobe as white and fluffy. Sometimes, Tina wondered what kind of video she would make, if she were to film one. She thought probably something, like making the perfect peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich lump, but who would want to watch that? Sometimes, she stood in front of her bathroom mirror and practiced a conversation, pretending she was in a bar, pretending, too, that a hidden camera was mounted in the upper corner of the room filming her. A voiceover—someone wise and comforting, like Tom Hanks—said, “Now, watch how Tina leans back as she laughs, revealing her earnest joy in her friend’s presence.”
The woman on the video propped up her feet on her own polished coffee table. Tina noticed she had a fresh pedicure. “Oh, what a lovely color orange,” Tina said aloud to the screen. Hearing her voice, Tina felt embarrassed. But, the woman—a late-twenties professional with perfectly blown hair and “barely there” makeup—didn’t seem to mind. She smiled as though she heard Tina. Saw Tina.
Tina paused the video, the woman held in a half-gaze and full smile. Tina stood from her own couch. It was time for a snack break. Her friend in the video would wait, Tina thought, as she opened a jar of peanut butter. The woman wouldn’t tilt her head and press her lips together as Tina talked. She wouldn’t look up and down at Tina, or nod with pity as she spoke. She stared right into Tina’s eyes, smiled, and stayed there, for as long as Tina wanted. That was all Tina needed, she decided.
To pause perfection and get a snack.