Can you rekindle a lost friendship?

·13-min read
Photo credit: Marina Petti - Getty Images
Photo credit: Marina Petti - Getty Images

We’re lying on two single hostel beds, the crispy linen clinging to our bare thighs, the hum of music and the drunken laughter of Bangkok drifting through the rickety window. Her anklet-adorned feet are dangling off the end of the bed.

You should move to Australia and live with me,” Fiona says. We’re both tipsy from the buckets filled with booze that we’d been drinking all evening in the throng of other backpackers on Khao San Road, squeezing in and out of the bustling, sweaty bars. But it was midnight now, and we were all alone and nearing the end of our three-week Thailand adventure, just the two of us. The whole world is out therefor us to discover. I want to say yes and move across the world to be with her. Our future stretches out before us – babies, marriages, growing into old women who leave lipstick marks on wineglasses... Right there in that moment, our friendship was invincible.

At 9.30am back in March 2020, the world in lockdown, I sat with a cup of steaming coffee by my laptop. It was 6.30pm in Melbourne and I knew Fiona was about to log off from work. That was about all I knew of her and her life. Eleven years had passed. I was 36 years old and when I got married, four years previously, she wasn’t by my side. Nor was she there blowing up balloons for my 30th birthday party. Her move to Australia, and the fact that I stayed in the UK, did drive a wedge between us.

After years of shared history – tipsy walks home after nights filled with dancing, rambling heart-to-hearts in the early hours – we stopped talking. Somehow we’d drifted apart. We’d both let go without saying goodbye. Had our lives really become so full that we no longer had space for each other? Or was there something else?

Questions like this swirled in my brain as the UK’s lockdown came into force. And it wasn’t just Fiona my mind wandered to – so many of my past friendships had slipped away. Left with no certainty about the future, nostalgia became our go-to happy place. We all reconsidered the moments that led us to who we are, and the people who were once so important to us. When all my social events became screen-based, Australia suddenly didn’t seem so far away.

Photo credit: Marina Petti/Cosmopolitan UK
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Cosmopolitan UK

But is it possible to rekindle lost friendships from the ashes of your past? Would I even want them if I tried? There’s only one way to find out. So, armed with a laptop, a Zoom account and a fair amount of unexpected time on my hands, I decided to reach out to all the friends I’ve lost touch with over the years to see if I left them behind for a reason, or if we’d simply let go and moved on.

The high school friend – video call time: one and a half hours

Undertaking the obligatory Facebook stalk to scour for seeds of evidence of this grown-up version of Jenny, the girl I was once so close to, I find nothing. The last time she changed her profile picture was in 2017. In it, she’s smiling in a bar, no photographic documentation of babies or boyfriends. When I message her asking to catch up, she replies almost immediately saying she’d love to reminisce.

We met in secondary school, in a French class. We were both quiet, thoughtful. Away from the desks, we gossiped about boys, encouraged each other to be the people we couldn’t be during school. We were geeks, daydreamers who longed for more than our small hometown – where we never really fitted in – could offer. After school our lives just went indifferent directions. I can’t remember the last time we spoke.

On the call – which is slightly stilted at first – we figure out that we’d last seen each other six years ago, at our mutual friend’s 30th birthday party. The gulf that’s formed between us feels near impossible to cross.

“You’re still in Nottingham?” I ask. Nottingham had been her city of choice, her new beginning from the small Midlands town we grew up in. She is, she says. She’s in a bedroom, a headboard visible on the screen. I think I spy the corner of a cot when she tilts her phone to show me her dog snuggled by her feet. “I have a six-month-old son,” Jenny says, confirming it. We’re only five minutes into the chat, and I feel so overcome I burst into tears. How did I miss this? How did I let something so important slip by? “Oh, bless you,” Jenny chuckles in her familiar Midlands twang.

At the end of the call, Jenny comments on how content I sound. It’s a wonderful feeling to see us both in places that were once the stuff of adolescent daydreams: me writing for magazines, and Jenny a successful osteopath; a partner, a mother – both finally content with who we are. “It was such a warm feeling when you texted me,” Jenny says when we’re about to logoff. And I have that feeling too... Although, can it ever really be what it once was?

The complicated friendship – call time two hours and 27 minutes

Sam and I were never small-talk people. Just before I call her I sigh, a deep exhale of breath. I knew when she’d said yes to the call over Facebook Messenger that we’d probably go deep... and quick.

We’d met in ballet class, where our teacher had systematically critiqued our Lycra-clad bodies. It led to something toxic, though I don’t think I recognised it at the time. We constantly egged each other on to be thinner, smaller, shrink ourselves. Calorie-counting was one of our shared “hobbies”.

“I can’t believe how horrible I used to be to you,” Sam says, opening the conversation. She'd constantly criticise my choices and my body: “Don’t smoke, it stinks”; “That top doesn’t look good on you”; “You’ve put on weight.” I took each judgement to heart, mostly staying unresponsive, but occasionally spitting back horrid retorts or texting her later after I'd turned the comments over for hours in my mind.

Over the years Sam has done a lot of soul-searching. At 30, she sought out treatment for her eating disorder, one that I’d probably recognised during our twenties. She tells me about a dark period of anti-depressants, overdoses, years of cognitive behavioural therapy. It was hard to hear, especially as I can’t deny the part I must’ve played. As an adult now, I also realise that despite the hurt she’s gone through, I could probably never have been the one to support her through it. The cracks in our friendship were too deep. Plus, I had too many noxious issues of my own.

Photo credit: Marina Petti/Cosmopolitan UK
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Cosmopolitan UK

In my mind, our friendship started to dissolve when I moved to London and she stayed at home. I thought I’d lost her number as I’d upgraded my phones, and our different life choices meant we no longer spoke. But, it becomes unavoidably clear, I’ve rewritten our past. “You know you texted me to tell me to never talk to you again,” Sam says. “I took a step back, actively removed myself from your life, thinking we’d bump into each other eventually, but we never did.” I’m not sure how I wiped that from my memory, but I did. I thought I wasn’t aware of how malicious our friendship had become. But I must have been to text her that.

A vague memory starts to take shape. We used to get so drunk together, perhaps some of our moments are best left in the darkness to rot. But I also can’t lie to myself any more. I’d had a brief drunken flirtation with a man she then started to date – the person she is now married to, it turns out. This forgotten memory is the hardest of all to swallow. Instead of being pleased for her, I'd bubbled with jealousy. We used to view the other getting attention as a bad thing, something to snatch away rather than celebrate.

It’s confronting to be faced with the person I once was, and I wonder whether, if we became friends again now, we’d slip back into those old ways. I like to think we wouldn’t. We’ve both had mental health issues, both reassessed our priorities and changed who we are as a result. For the first time, it feels as if we’re no longer in competition. Our chat, although difficult, was cathartic; we cleared the air in a way that I hadn’t known we needed. We also talked through our uncertainty about life’s big choices and our indecision about whether or not we wan children with unfiltered honesty, the way you can with someone who’s on the same page. We’ve since been sending each other regular WhatsApps. Our fiery outbursts have been extinguished, meaning we understand each other anew. Our past, of course, will always be a footnote in our friendship.

The party pal – call time: one hour and 27 minutes

Anna always made me nervous; one of those friends who secretly scares and thrills you in equal measure. Fiercely intelligent, she'd comment on politics with an obscure reference to something I’d never read. I spent time with her hoping perhaps a little piece of her wit would rub off on me. We’d met during our master’s in Oxford, although our bond was cemented when we both moved to London after graduating. She became my party pal. We’d chain-smoke Marlboro Lights in random living rooms until 5am, then kiss each other goodbye at sunrise. “Too much,” we’d cackle. It was our catchphrase and it could be applied to all manner of things: too drunk, or loud, or busy, or fun.

When her face flickers onto my laptop, she’s sitting with one leg upon the chair, her fingers running through her long red hair. The last I heard of her was a few years ago, when I received a WhatsApp from our mutual friend. It was a picture of Anna, cradling a swollen belly. “About to pop!” our friend had joked. It stung. Why hadn’t Anna told me herself? She must have told her other friends. I didn’t press for an answer, I just wrote her off as another “lost” friend I’d never get back.

She tells me that her baby, Edie, is now two, and I blurt out, “What happened to us?” Over the years, our own versions of our shared history had been written. “You never used to turn up when we invited you for drinks,” Anna said, matter-of-factly. I hadn’t noticed I was doing it, but I’d started filling my time with other people, other commitments. I must have turned down so many invites that I’d just stopped being included.

I can feel the prick of tears behind my eyelids. I can’t go back and alter the way I acted, but that doesn’t stop the sense of sadness. But I have to act on what I have today. Anna and her family now live within walking distance from mine. We’ve said we will go for a socially distanced walk. I now know Anna is there. She actually always was, I’d just failed to notice.

The one who moved away – call time: two hours and 45 minutes

Out of all my past friendships, Fiona is the person I feel most nervous about reconnecting with. What if she rejects me? What if her version of events is different to mine? My hands are hot and sticky; I scratch at my palms. Then she answers. We talk very briefly about how we’re finding lockdown, but it seems we can’t wait to get to the bigger stuff.

“I can’t believe this happened to us,” Fiona says. “You’re one of the most important people in my life – we weren’t supposed to drift apart.” I remind Fiona of that conversation we’d had at the end of our Thailand trip. She remembers it with the same clarity. “You could still move,” she jokes.

Not long after I returned from that trip, I’d met the man who is now my husband, so I’d stayed in London. Things became more complex and priorities shifted. I didn’t have the time to cultivate my friendships with the same vigour as I did as a teenager. I now have different expectations from my friendships, and they are not as all-consuming as they once were. I got myself tangled into a web of self-doubt about why Fiona and I had stopped talking. I realise that in the back of my mind, I’d always held on to the hope that she’d come “home” to the UK, rather than building a life without me in a different time zone.

But Fiona moving wasn’t about me or our relationship. How easily we picked up where we left off tells me that it could never have been anything but distance that kept us apart. She was destined to come back into my life, and now that we’ve reconnected, I don’t think I’ll let her leave again.

Looking back, to look forward

Those video calls were two years ago now, but they will be forever etched into my lockdown memory bank. Especially because revisiting my past friends inevitably made me revisit past versions of myself. Each friendship was so wound up in a certain point of my life, it was almost impossible to untangle what had happened.

According to research, we’re only capable of having five close friends at once, and I’m realising that they can be a revolving cast, with only a rare few getting a permanent starring role. The truth is, since those video calls, Fiona has given birth to twins who are now one-year-olds. She wasn't even pregnant when we chatted and I've never even met her daughters on a video call. I see Sam for a drink every now and again when I go back to my hometown, because she fits the person I am right now. I haven't chatted to Jenny at all. Perhaps I will one day, though, you never know when our paths might cross. As for Anna, ultimately, without the bass-lines reverberating in our ears at a nightclub, we don’t have quite the same connection, our friendship requires the backdrop of a bar or the cacophonous laughter of a group of women. We did go for a walk in the park, back when that was what we all did, but it just wasn't the same. And that's okay.

I’ve learned that once someone has been in your life in a significant way, they will always be there – the experiences you share leave a lasting thread that can never be unpicked. Friends come and go, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. When we evolve as people, what we need from our friendships also shifts. And in my many possible futures, I know there are friends I am yet to meet. Ones to suit all the possible versions of the person I might become.

Follow Alice on Instagram and Twitter

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Cosmopolitan UK, it has been slightly edited and updated.

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting