“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
When Greta Gerwig’s breakout film Lady Bird came out in 2017, I was yet to experience the many heartbreaks the next two years of my life had to offer. Still, my heart shuddered at that line. Somehow, I knew that those words would come to haunt me, even if I didn’t know how.
We all crave love and attention—to be liked, remembered, and admired. In quarantine, this need has become even more vital by nature of our physical isolation. I’ve always been a needy friend—my primary love languages are definitely words of affirmation and quality time—but now that I am thousands of miles away from all of my closest companions, my desire for affection has taken on a new kind of urgency. I don’t require grand gestures. But when a friend shows that they have been thinking of me, whether through a quick text or by tagging me in a post, I feel a rush of relief. Oh, good. They haven’t forgotten me.
Logically, I know that there are plenty of people who can go weeks or months without directly contacting their friends, and that doesn’t mean that they love them any less. It just means that verbal communication isn’t as important to them as the other aspects of a relationship, like physical touch or gift-giving, which are especially challenging to replicate in quarantine. But when I feel—or imagine—my friends’ attention waning, the panic and self-doubt begins to rise in my throat. Maintaining online friendships is difficult; there’s no closure when a virtual relationship ends. If they want to, the person on the other line can change their number and disappear, as if they were never even there at all.
I know this from experience. A few years ago, I was abandoned by a close friend in a time of need. We first met at a college summer program in 2016, and remained close friends through Skype and Whatsapp. It wasn’t uncommon for us to talk for hours at a time, not hanging up until 2 or 3 in the morning. He was the first person I wanted to talk to about literature and writing, and I was the only one he’d ask to read his poetry. He was one of my closest friends, and I trusted him.
In 2018, we happened to be texting at the very moment I realized that I was experiencing an active shooting. He texted me throughout, asking what was going on and if I was okay. And then, he vanished.
Later, when I confronted him, he said that my trauma was too much for him, and he would never talk to me again because there was no way to make things right. That infuriated me. I wanted to be angry at him, to tell him exactly how I felt and hear his reply, and he had the audacity to preemptively jump ship? What the fuck was I supposed to do with that? Did over two years of friendship mean nothing to him?
We texted a few more times throughout the remainder of the school year—always very basic, dry conversations. The last message he ever sent me was in August, right before the start of my freshman year. I replied, and he never answered. I haven’t heard from him since. It’s ridiculous, but I still miss him and find myself wondering what he’s up to.
I don’t think I ever realized how much this betrayal hurt me until recently. Ever since then, all of my virtual relationships—my internet friends, my friends from high school, and most recently my friends from college, who are quarantined at home—have felt strained by my desperate need for attention. Silence, to me, feels like I am being left behind. No longer wanted. Every single day a text goes unanswered, I become more and more convinced of my abandonment. I know that this mentality isn’t healthy, and I try not to let it to affect my relationships. I refuse to hold my loved ones hostage to my insecurities. But internally, that fear is still there, and it eats away at me.
“We’re afraid we won’t get into the college of our choice, we’re afraid we won’t be loved, we won’t be liked, we won’t succeed.” These words drawl from the lips of a priest while the titular character, Lady Bird, waits to receive her communion. She doesn’t look entirely there behind her eyes—daydreaming, perhaps, about the Northeastern colleges to which her mother forbade her from applying.
When Lady Bird moves to New York City at the end of the movie—a journey which, in just a few months’ time, I would also make—we watch her call her mom and tell her that she loves her for the first time. Throughout the film, both characters struggle to communicate the depth of their affection for each other; they fear that the love they express will be rebuffed, mocked, or misunderstood. I know that feeling. It’s hard to love and be loved when you’re consumed with the fear of loss. Sometimes, this fear is so consuming that you don’t even notice the love and attention you’ve been receiving all along.
Frequently, my paranoiac brain tells me that my friends don’t love me, don’t miss me, don’t need me the way that I need them. In the loneliness of quarantine, that voice has become even more convincing. It’s a sick internal monologue of my own invention, and it urges me to disregard the fact that not everyone shows their love in the same way—but I’m slowly learning to ignore it. I can’t control the way other people feel, or how they choose to convey those feelings. So why should I make myself miserable attempting to predict every possible outcome?
It’s better—and much, much harder—to love openly, without fear of heartbreak or regret. To pay attention to those close to you, appreciate their friendship, and refuse to wonder which conversation could be your last. That’s why Lady Bird remains one of my favorite movies, and why I cry at the ending every time. Leaving a voicemail for her mother back in California, Lady Bird thanks her with genuine, overflowing emotion. She asks her how she felt the first time she drove a car in Sacramento. She paid attention.
By Isabelle Robinson
Illustration by Heidi Younger for The New York Times