For reasons we can never know, fate brings friend to friend, then leaves the rest to human nature. The results are mixed. While a few special friendships last a lifetime, the vast majority prove easier to leave behind. Some take years to fade away; others end spectacularly. Research shows that the quickest way to end a friendship is betrayal; the second-quickest, a canoe trip.
In fact, we have to lose a few friends before we can appreciate their most important gift: the stories we share. In hearing these stories, you may begin to sense a deeper truth, that our friends and friendships are not as unique as we first believed. They’re more like summer movies: the dialogue changes (kind of) but the plots and characters keep recurring. Here’s a catalog of the archetypal friends that over the course of a life you’re likely to encounter again and again.
The Best Friend: The gold standard of friendships. A best friend listens but never judges, helps you out of a jam, tells it to you straight, and often forgives a debt. Best friends resemble invisible friends in that both are most common in childhood (and may not really exist).
The Old Friend: Ideally, a lifelong bond that stirs fond feelings and cherished memories—unless you’re a celebrity or out on parole. In reality, most old friendships are embedded in a complex economy of favors. President Bush rewrote the entire tax code for his old friends.
The Older Friend: Two varieties:
(1) Someone your senior who mentors you with wit and wisdom, as portrayed in the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie. (2) The client of an escort service, as detailed in the cult classic Wednesdays with Brianna.
The New Friend: Generally speaking, a person who can do no wrong until you’ve had a few more outings together. New friends are more likely to enjoy your stories and show up on time. It’s also easier to be who you are with a new friend, as opposed to who you were—which is what you end up being most of the time with your old friends.
The Wild Friend: The friend whose bad behavior never ceases to entertainand may at times inspire you, for better or for worse. Though wild friends get a bad rap, they save as many lives as they ruin. Boring people—writers, for instance—desperately need wild friends.
The Ex-Friend: Don’t ask, but if you do, the answer may well involve money or sex. Or both.
The Scary Friend: Someone who never fails to nudge you out of your comfort zone—way out. Scary does not mean quirky. If a friend likes to spend his weekends re-enacting Civil War battles in period dress, that’s quirky. If he shows up at your door in uniform late on a weeknight, that’s scary.
The Boss Friend: A person higher on the org chart who thinks your brittle smile and the startled look in your eye is an invitation to further terrorize you outside the workplace. One reason golf is popular in the business world is that it gives underlings a way to pal around with their superiors and still stay 30 yards apart.
The Train or Bus Friend: A person who apparently shares your unquenchable interest in the weather and the fortunes of the local ball team.
The Confidant: Someone who wheedles more out of you than you planned to share. Sadly, many confidants are also talented gossips who will soon be bartering your deepest secrets for someone else’s.
The Single-Modifier Friend: Any companion you proudly describe, if only to yourself, with one word: for instance, "my gay friend" if you happen to be straight, and vice versa. You can train yourself out of the habit by slowly adding modifiers, as in "my neat gay friend" or, with practice, "my socially inept and secretly homophobic straight friend with a godawfully bad haircut."
The E-mail Friend: A digital update on the kind of letter-writing friendships that thrived in the era between the invention of ink and the arrival of cable. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan claimed, then the message of most e-mail friendships is goofing off at work.
The Special-Interest Friend: Group friendships form around a shared passion—for soccer, French cooking, sky-diving. Special-interest friends often go by nicknames, usually be-cause they don’t know real names or anything else about each other be-yond their common interest. Which can create problems. If you run into your softball team’s home run leader in the courthouse, it’s probably not a good idea to shout "Hey, Killer!" You might influence the jury.
The Road-Trip Friend: From Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady to Thelma and Louise, the rolling duo is ingrained in American myth. Romantic notions aside, a good road buddy can read a map, is willing to bathe, and has a credit card and a driver’s license—preferably in the same name.
The Secondhand Friend: When someone introduces you to someone else, supposedly because they think you’ll hit it off, it could be a clever strategy to ditch you both. Which is good: Secondhand friends are a better deal than new friends, which, like cars, lose 20 percent of their value once they leave the showroom floor.
The Dormant Friend: Every so often a dead friendship will spring back to life, bringing two people even closer together than they used to be. The reawakened friendship speaks to the mystery of friendship in general—especially if you’ve forgotten why you drifted apart. But give it time; you will be reminded.
The Friend-You-Only-Drink-With Friend: A subspecies of the special-interest friend. In extreme cases you might not even recognize such people in the harsh light of day, having only seen them in the barroom glow—and from the side.
The Treatment Friend: Same as above, but in that harsh light. Like bonds formed at summer camps and religious retreats, treatment friendships may soon dim outside the virtual reality from which they grew.
The Friend with Benefits: Not the kid down the street with a trampoline or a parrot that swears. We’re talking sex buddies. Popularized in a lyric by singer Alanis Morissette, friends with benefits were actually observed and documented years ago by anthropologist Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa. Caution: Sex for the fun of it may be illegal in 13 states and the District of Columbia.