On a recent night, I visited all my friends, and by that I mean: I tap-tap-tapped through the tiny circles of their faces at the top of my Instagram page while I reclined in my bed, drinking wine while halfway lying down. Since the pandemic started I have seen—generously—four people. Strictly the primo friends. I tapped, and then watched as the photos on my screen slipped into monotony. The same exact picture, slightly cropped, popped up three times in a row: The telltale sign of a group hang… Happening without me.
The photo was a cheese plate, captioned on each Story in some cryptic way that I imagined them all sharing a laugh about. One of my tier-one friends was hanging out with some of her tier-one/my tier-three friends, and here I was, conspicuously left out. I cycled through the appropriate emotions: hurt, scorn, anger, blind fury, insecurity, self-hatred, and landed, eventually, at FOMO. It took another few moments for my brain to wake up to the sickening fact of our current reality, at which point I moved into the rote acceptance of simply MO.
Being unable to safely see more than a couple of people at a distance means I (like everyone else who isn’t flagrantly breaking the rules) haven’t seen anyone I’m merely “cool with”—like, not close enough to make deliberate plans, only run into/enthusiastically greet at parties—in months. The last time I had to ask someone, in a genuine way, “What have you been up to,” was perhaps in some previous lifetime. The pandemic has whittled our social circles down to the circumference of a toothpick.
And for good reason: Social distancing, limiting contact with other people, and wearing a mask/staying outside during any in-person interactions are some of the best tools we have at preventing even more people from getting sick. Bars and house parties—perfect venues for catching up with people you sorta know and like, but also sometimes forget about—continue to be hotspots for COVID outbreaks, and are therefore, ethically, off-limits.
But the realities of social media mean that all these hangouts to which I was not invited, and could not reasonably expect to be invited to, are documented, and the nature of relative isolation means I have oodles of time to page through it on all my feeds, feeling mad.
I miss my C-tier friends but would I risk life and limb (and, by association, the lives of my roommate, partner, and essential workers I interact with at the store, etc.) for them? No, totally not. What would we even talk about, in those final moments before potentially becoming ill with a fatal disease??? How so-and-so hooked up with someone, mid-pandemic? The music on Selling Sunset??? What did anyone ever talk about??? Still, knowing and accepting this as I do doesn’t stop me from slipping into fear that everyone but the three closest friends in my “pod” or whatever hate me, just because I haven’t seen them in months.
I’m not alone in this. My fellow writer Katie Way characterized this particularly acute and precise strain of FOMO this way: “I feel like I’m becoming someone who is unpleasant to be around.”
She’s wrong and remains pleasant to be around, to me, but she raises a valid question: Small talk feels very much like a use-it-or-lose-it game, and this has been a year of unprecedented alone time and isolation for many previously social people. Does being unable to shoot the shit with acquaintances mean our ability to be just generally “fun” to be around is atrophying? Or are we just feeling the lack of opportunity deep in our souls?
Maybe none of our tier-two, three, four, etc. friends hate us; they’ve simply forgotten we exist in any material sense. Or maybe they are out there similarly not about to invite us into their personal space just to hang out, but are wishing they could run into us at a party so we can admire each others’ hair or makeup, trade two-line updates of how we’re feeling, and drift away, experiencing the light high of being on low-stakes good terms with another person.
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