Seven years ago, my friend Kim poured warm champagne into plastic cups and, raising a toast, quoted Winston Churchill: "Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." It had been drizzling all day, and my college friends and I were clustered together, taking shelter under a library's stone porch.
We raised our glasses and drank.
It was graduation week at Brown University. My friends and I had finished our final exams and handed in our final papers. Our college years were almost over, but how was that possible, when I could remember so well the first hazy days of freshman year? As we toasted with Kim, I told myself: Remember this moment. You don't know when we'll all be together again.
When you arrive at college, you have no idea who your friends are going to be. You don't know which girl down the hall will backpack through Thailand with you when you're 40 and which ones you'll never see again after you leave campus. It's scary -- and it's even scarier because nobody admits how nervous they are, too. But we all feel it: Finding the right friends takes a lot of luck, trust and perseverance.
By the time senior year rolls around, you know who your best friends from college are. You probably all live together in a shared house, the way my friends and I did. Now, thinking about the crushes you had freshman year and how intimidating professors seemed makes you feel that you were impossibly young. There've been countless midnight fridge-raiding sessions and marathon nights of staying up until dawn, just talking. You've road-tripped to each other's hometowns. You know the details of your friends' most intimate secrets. You know each other, possibly, better than you've known anybody in your entire life.
And then? Graduation.
You'll lose friends you never thought you'd lose touch with. You'll meet new people who went to your college in your new cities and wonder how you never knew each other during those four years. Some friends you'll keep for a few years until gradually, the closeness fades and suddenly, they're nothing more than a Facebook status to you.
Rachel and I met the first week of our freshman year at Brown. She claims that for the first week, I'd often mix her up with another Midwestern girl who lived down the hall, but I can't believe this is actually true. Rachel and I had both been assigned to live in the worst dorm on campus, Perkins, and away from home, we found comfort in what we shared: We grew up reading the same books, we both came from public schools not on the "coasts," but in what many of our Ivy-league colleagues would refer to as the "middle," and we both harbored a secret love for Gilmore Girls.
The summer after freshman year, I even lived with her and her family in Chicago, working my first job. We drew even closer together as we sat on the patio, shivering and trying to tan in the cold Chicago June. Eventually, we shared a house senior year with our other two best friends. Our life at college was familiar, easy and wonderful.
And then we donned our graduation caps and gowns and walked out of Brown's gates forever.
If your experience is like mine, the week of graduation will be a sleep-deprived, emotional haze of last goodbyes and last hurrahs. You and your roommates will spend evenings at barbecues, subtly trying and failing to kiss all the people you had hoped to kiss over the past four years. Your parents will arrive to watch you graduate -- and finally, you will.
On the night before we walked through those graduation gates at Brown, my friends and I stayed up very late, reminiscing. Gradually, one by one, friends turned in, until it was just Rachel and me left, sitting on the steps of our porch. We had already talked over all of the usual fears about entering the real world: Did we even know what we wanted to do with our lives? If we did, how would we get there? What if we fell flat our faces and ruined our lives forever? (Things may have gotten a tad dramatic that night.)
I had already booked a one-way ticket to Beijing. I didn't speak a word of Mandarin, but had decided to move to China, hoping that I would find a job, figure out what I wanted to do and find the love of my life. At the very least, I wanted to have an adventure. Rachel had already secured a job working at an art gallery in New York and was moving to Brooklyn the next week. We were excited and scared and almost -- but not quite -- ready to transition into the unknown. Like most college graduates, we felt like we were standing on the edge of an abyss. Anything could happen.
Or worse, nothing could happen.
Most of all, Rachel and I feared that the closeness we had, born of four years of spending most days and nights together, would eventually be lost. We would be reduced to "happy birthday!" messages and then, after a few more years apart, maybe even those would stop arriving.
We hoped this would never happen to us, but we also both knew about our mothers' relationships with their closest college friends, which were also built on late-night talks and dreamy confessions. Luminous, roaring relationships that had eventually tapered into nothing but annual holiday card exchanges.
How could we make sure this didn't happen to our friendship?
I turned to Rachel. "You have to email me every single week. At least one email. It doesn't always have to be long, but it has to be every week," I said to her.
"Agreed. Once a week. And it has to honest. Brutally honest," Rachel said. "I don't want us to write those fake updates where everything is rosy and wonderful when actually we are dying on the inside."
"Right. If we skim over the embarrassing stuff that happens at work or the niggling doubts about our relationships, then it's not worth staying in touch at all," I said.
And so that was our graduation pact: brutally honest, in-depth emails once a week, no matter what.
The next morning, I was the first to leave our shared house, quietly slipping away when my parents came to pick me up. At the end of the summer, I flew into Beijing -- a chaotic, loud, bustling city where I understood nothing and knew no one. Back in New York, Rachel was working at an art gallery and falling in love. The time difference between Beijing and New York is 12 hours; on my darkest nights in Beijing, I could write to Rachel and know that she was awake, sitting at her desk at work or in her apartment in Brooklyn. It was such a comfort, even when we were as brutally honest as we'd once promised we would be. Maybe because of it.
Five years passed. During that time, I had moved countries twice and Rachel had moved to Paris. As luck would have it, we both eventually ended up in London, for very different reasons. One spring day in Kensington Gardens, we were finally reunited. Suddenly, it was like we were back in college. Most days, we met for coffee, and even though we'd only seen each other twice in five years, it felt like we hadn't been apart at all -- our in-depth, frequent emails had kept us close. Instead of sending summaries of our lives, we had written to each other as we were living the big moments.
Rereading our emails takes us right back to those moments of heartbreak and despair in our early twenties, of giddy excitement and falling in love in foreign lands. Eventually, our emails spanned the world: from cafes in Paris to vineyards in Australia, from New York fire escapes to Beijing windowsills. And we knew that these messages that we'd quickly typed to each other in our spare moments had actually become something so much bigger than either of us.
I encourage you do to this with your closest friends who live far from you. It's a record of your your friendship. Eventually, the messages become a record of your life as well.
Years from now, you will be shocked by how many things you have forgotten. You will fall in love again with all your past dates and then hate them again, as the emails document the decline of your relationships. You'll read entries in which you can't even recognize yourself, and you'll see how much you have grown and how far you have come. You may reread them and grow embarrassed, but you won't regret documenting a single moment, especially because you can look over your friend's emails and see that she, too, was once naïve and scared; that she, too, made mistakes and fell in love and chased her dreams.
As the end of May approaches and graduation looms for several students, my advice is remember to write your friends often, be honest and true, and never lose sight of what you mean to each other -- then you don't have to worry about growing apart or losing those precious friendships, even if you are 7,000 miles and oceans apart.
Graduation doesn't have to be the end of your friendships -- it can be a new beginning, seeing you off to a new chapter in the story of your lives apart, and together.
The author's book on her friendship with Rachel Kapelke-Dale, Graduates in Wonderland, is out today.