The Best Friend I Never Had

When I was in third grade, each kid in my class wrote to a student in China. We were trying to meet pen pals. I don’t remember if I ever heard back from my new Chinese BFF, but I can say that a true pen-palship was never formed.

I always wanted a pen pal. To this day it seems such a romantic notion, the idea of getting to know someone through letters. Entering the blogosphere has actually resulted in some friendships via email—I correspond with other writers and readers and get to know people I’ve never met—though I wouldn’t give them full pen pal status.

Still, I was pretty excited last weekend when I finally came face to face with one of my virtual friends.

Lauren is a fellow blogger and, from what I could tell online, kind of a rock star. We connected when I first started this site and over the last eight months have written back and forth, been virtual study buddies, and helped each other with writing projects. When she emailed that she’d be in Chicago and would I like to meet for coffee, the answer was obviously “well, duh.”

And meeting her felt like reuniting with an old friend. We definitely had to fill in some blanks, but conversation picked up pretty seamlessly. If not old friends than it was definitely, like, a fifth date.

It’s fun making long-distance, email-only friends as an adult. But imagine how integral a role pen pals can play for teenagers. When it feels like no one at home understands you, there’s this girl, seemingly worlds away, to whom you can say anything. And from what you can tell, she totally gets you. It’s the stuff of lifelong friendship.

I recently met a woman who has still never met her best friend. They connected some ten years ago on a Seventeen magazine message board. From there they started emailing and now they write back and forth on a blog. It’s a fascinating read really, a voyeuristic look into a real-life BFFship. Except, they’ve never even talked on the phone.

Part of me is totally confused by the whole thing—why not just dial her up or, if they have the means, buy a plane ticket? They’re both in the U.S.—while another, larger part is totally jealous. Here’s someone who doesn’t know the key players in your life and can act as unconditional support. As for not meeting, maybe it’s about not fixing what’s not broken.

I wonder if a teenager today would even know what a pen pal is. It’s such an outdated practice. Now everyone’s connected via Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare, writing letters—even emails!—is practically pre-historic.

And yet I think a pen pal could be the most valuable friendship I never had.


Filed under The Search

7 responses to “The Best Friend I Never Had

  1. LizC

    I had a pen-pal when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. We corresponded quite regularly and I think I have the letters still stashed away in some shoebox at my parents’ house. And then one day she just stopped writing. I’m not sure if I ever learned why.

    I sort of have a pen-pal now. We went to college together but now he currently lives in France so in addition to keeping up on Facebook we actually send postcards and letters back and forth. It’s fun. I get to find silly postcards and send pretty stationary and there are things we put in letters that we don’t share on Facebook (the last letter I sent, which I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to top, was a story about my dad, an orphan rooster, and a hen).

    It’s also interesting because I think we’re closer now that he lives across an ocean than when we went to grad school in different states. We would send occasional postcards and letters but not with the frequency with which we do now.

  2. My mom started writing to a girl in Hong Kong when they were both 12. They are now 50 and still occasionally correspond. They even met once, in their 40s in Vancouver.

    This woman has known my mom longer than even her best friend. Longer than anyone except her family. They’ve even been through a name change (the lady changed her name because of something she did during the Chinese taking control of Hong Kong).


  3. Lorrie Paige

    I think many people who have penpals as BFFs are afraid to meet them because it would possibly ruin their perfect fantasy of who they want them to be like.

    I had penpals growing up, and they are nice to have, but I’m concentrating more on local friendships to really hang out with.

    But I still keep an eye out for that special kindred spirit penpal (preferably one living in a major city too), that has main similar interests.

  4. Ól0f Zoëga

    I had a penfriend in England. We had been wrieting to each other for many years, and I met her twice when I was travelling in England. She was so nice. Sadly she died when having her second daughter. I still miss her letters.

  5. Christina

    Oh, I love pen pals! This doesn’t follow the traditional pen pal path. When a close friend moved away in jr. high (eons ago), we kept in touch via snail mail for many years.

    Eventually life just enveloped us, and we lost touch. I thought of her often and kept her letters. She had a great sense of humor and was so refreshingly honest and amazingly kind.

    Twenty years later she found me on fb. She now lives in Colorado, and I live in Illinois. We set up a time time to talk via phone, and although we’d only known each other for two years as young adults, our letters had solidified a true friendship.

    We chatted for over five hours, and even after being out of touch for many years, she still seemed to know me better than any friends I have now. She shared with me that she also has kept my letters all this time (carrying them with her from state to state as I have), and reminded me of the one I sent with chocolate donut stains on the envelope.

    I am still crazy about chocolate-covered donuts to this day, and I’m crazy about my new, old pen pal.

  6. Sweet sweet sweet! You mentioned you were mentioning me and I, of course, promptly forgot about it. You, my friend, are the rock star. I am merely the unpublished wannabe writer who idolizes you.

    I hope our coffee date was the first of many in-person meetings. You have officially crossed over from bloggy friend to brick-and-mortar friend. So, like, don’t be surprised if I show up on your doorstep one day asking to crash for the weekend.

    Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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