The scene is a winter party, Chicago, the year 2015. There are large platters of powdered cookies and plates of soft cheese. There is an eight-quart stockpot of mulled wine on the stove, all floating orange segments and cinnamon spice. And there is an older crowd: professors and the partners of professors, the recently tenured and the not-so-recently and the soon-to-be.
In this mix, I, one of two graduate students present, seem quaintly young, with my heavily pigmented hair and asymmetrical cut. I find a glass, am poured wine. I talk to the lovely host. I smile around the room, out of practice. The small talk I usually make is with small people, under three feet tall. Small talk with grown-up strangers that is only moderately mediated by alcohol, but does not take place over the dinner table, is a different game.
I find a spot on a corner couch and begin conversing with a man who, it turns out, shares my alma mater. But he was there some three or four decades before I was, and after a few minutes, it becomes apparent that we are not only talking about different times, but different places entirely.
“I loved it there,” I say. “I couldn’t stand it,” he counters.
After some time, I see someone I know. I stand; I make my way to a crowded part of the room in proximity to her elbow and shoulder, tapping-distance. I don’t have much to say other than hello, and after I say it, with what I hope is warmth, I have nothing else to say. I like this person, but I don’t know her very well. I am not sure that we are friend-material. I am not sure what it would take to become friends, what exchange of intimacies, what shared experience, how many meetings, how many different modes of contact and communication would be required. I myself chafe against over-familiarity and so try not to be too familiar, too friendly. But I like her. I think she would be nice to get to know, and I wonder what it would take to make something like that happen: a friendship.
Later, after another abortive start, I find myself in conversation with this woman and a friend of hers, who I like just as much. The talk moves forward in fits and starts. Then a pause, awkward smiles, until someone takes up the football and runs. It feels very much like a sport that requires effort and perseverance, training, muscle memory. Equally, it is a mental game, this social practice called making friends.
Silence again, a smiling-apologetic parting of ways.
Awkwardness, and yet the stakes here are fairly low. I will likely not see most of these people again, as I don’t imagine that I will be living in this particular city for long. Actually, it is a matter of mere months more. In the last 18 months, we have lived in Berkeley, Princeton, and Chicago. We have friends in all of these places, which sometimes feels like none of them.
Academic life is like this for many people for a very long time: a condition of migrancy. Of always moving, never settling. Of making and leaving friends, collecting contacts, moving through rooms an outsider and interloper, here only for the year, only for the semester, only until the next appointment, only until the gig is up.
Migrancy (before it leads to immigration or naturalization, if it does) is a condition of betweenness, double-consciousness, what the cultural theorist calls “‘not-here’ to stay.” Which is a good description of how I feel these days, in the third city I’ve lived in, in as many years, as a dissertation-writing spouse, following my husband around on a tour of this country’s fancy universities.
My parents were immigrants from India, but they decided to be here, in California, to stay. They could find their chosen family, and they did. We’re here, but not staying, so why bother making friends? Why do the coffees, the walk to the lake, the texts, the emails and pleasantries and dinners, the clean-up after, the food preparation, the table setting, the family introductions, the showing of albums, the telling of stories—all the things you have to do to cultivate intimacy with would-be friends you didn’t grow up with, didn’t go to school with, don’t work with, don’t naturally run into every day?
Maybe the answer is that it’s not about making friends, but about flexing those socialization muscles. About cultivating the urban disposition that allows for strangerly and neighborly exchanges that need not develop into relationships, in the heaviest sense of the word. Maybe small talk is small for a reason: you are supposed to hold back, inhabit the silences, find a way to sit with the uncertainty of your own murky intentions and inch your way toward something approaching an honest exchange.
This, I find out belatedly, is a tenure party. Our host has just been tenured, which means that he is now effectively “married” to the institution where he works—which happens to be the institution near which I live, but to which I have no actual affiliation. This is his home. I imagine belonging here, buying a house, making and keeping friends. I imagine a rooted life. Then, I go to grab my coat from the pile and, pulling it against my chest, I make my way to the door.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.