Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two women who went from high-school acquaintances to long-distance pen pals to roommates, learning the skills that make friendships last along the way. One says she had a hard time making friends when she was younger, due to a strict upbringing in a nomadic military family. The other went through some tough life transitions in high school and college that left her feeling unmoored. They discuss how they navigated the struggles of adulthood together, and how their friendship taught them to grow up, build a life, and nurture relationships.

The Friends

Kelli Nakamura, 33, a financial analyst who lives in Woodbridge, Virginia
Annie Toro, 33, a consultant for an education nonprofit who lives in Woodbridge, Virginia

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Julie Beck: So you both grew up with military families—how often did you guys move around, and how did that shape your social life?

Kelli Nakamura: My dad had retired by the time I was 6. His last station was at the Pentagon. He decided to retire and keep us in the Virginia school system. I didn’t really have what people would recognize as a typical military lifestyle. A lot of the people that I knew, we had been friends since kindergarten.

Annie Toro: I did move around—every two or three years. By the time I got to high school, that had been my seventh move, I think. I got very lucky and got to do all four years of high school in one place. Before that, I lived in Mexico, and went to public school, and then we moved to Lima, Peru, right before I started middle school, where I went to a private international school for the first time. Which is pretty different, because there were a lot of wealthy, elite kids attending that school. After that, we moved back to the States.

Annie Toro (left) and Kelli Nakamura, on a trip to Toronto. Courtesy of Annie Toro.

Peru, like I said, was a very different academic experience. Middle school is hard enough for the average kid, and it became that much harder for me. I went through some bullying issues there. On top of that, I always felt like I was slightly immature compared to my classmates. Before Peru I was very outgoing—talked all the time and was really, really friendly. Middle school definitely changed that, because of how I was being treated. I became very introverted, very uncertain of myself. By the time I got to high school, I kept to myself. I was very observant, trying to figure out the social norms of the people around me so I wouldn’t offend anybody. It’s sad that this is how I had to think, but I was like, What social group is the safest to be in? Who would be the least likely to hurt me?

Beck: When and how did you guys meet?

Annie: It was our first band class, in ninth grade. Gosh, it must have been the first day of school. I had just moved back to the States from Lima maybe two weeks before school started. I was sitting with the other flutes in the flute section. We didn’t talk to each other.

Kelli: I had an established friend group, but the middle school that I went to split into two different high schools, and most of my friends went to the other one. I actually didn’t have too many friends going into high school.

Beck: So you two were scoping each other out in the flute section. Do you remember your first impressions of each other?

Annie: Kelli seemed very quiet, but she also seemed very put together compared to me. I felt like a mess. I know everyone feels like that, but I felt like a genuine mess. Kelli was sitting with different people during lunch periods; I honestly sat by myself for the first few weeks of school. I remember thinking she was hardworking, and she was better at the flute than I was. And that I had a lot of work to do.

Kelli: My initial reaction was, Who is this girl? I don’t know if she’s my competition or what. We would have what we called “pass offs,” where we had to play little clips in front of the entire class, and keep going until you missed a note. I was a decent flute player, but I never really practiced. Then one day, Annie was playing and she passed off like 20 songs in one go, and I was thinking, Crap, now I’m gonna look dumb. So I went home and practiced. My brother was like, “Please make her stop!” It was a friendly competition. I was used to being ahead. She was my motivation to keep going.

Annie: The funny thing is, I wasn't aware that was how Kelli felt. I was just like, Oh, she’s getting really good too! I was very oblivious, I think.

Beck: How did you end up bridging that gap to actual friendship?

Kelli: Annie’s parents were a little bit stricter, and she was busy with swim team. And I was working a part-time job. I also had a strict upbringing, with my dad being in the Air Force and also being raised with some of the Asian “tiger parent” stereotypes, so Annie and I did have that in common.

My junior year in high school, my dad suffered from a heart attack and then days later suffered from a massive stroke that left him disabled. My home life changed drastically after that. I was no longer under that same strict household. My role at home was reversed, having to help care for my dad. I think that is probably why I felt a connection with Annie—knowing that she had a similar home life to the one that I no longer had.

Senior year, I tried to make the effort to develop more of a friendship; that was me wanting to stay connected to something familiar. Even though my military family may not have moved around as much as Annie’s, I feel like there were some major transitions in my life that were similar to having to pick up and start again, even if it’s in the same place. Those same events also happen to be ones where I learned the importance of having and developing quality relationships.

Annie: When I say I was on the swim team, I was on two or three different swim teams a year. I got to a semi-elite level, and if you are still in public school trying to train that way, you don’t really have a life outside of your studies and your sport. It was almost like I wasn’t allowed to be very close to anybody else, until my senior year, when my parents started pulling back. They were like, “Well, you’re gonna have to be independent next year in college.” So our senior year, our friend group kind [of] became more close-knit.

There was a school-sanctioned senior skip day at our school and our group went to Busch Gardens together, and we bonded. I had never told anybody how strict my home life was—that’s when it came out, and people realized, Oh, this is why Annie doesn’t hang out with us all the time. Toward the end of the year, when we were signing yearbooks, Kelli very seriously wanted to keep in touch with people. She was, at that point, just better at it than I was.

Annie (second from right) and Kelli (third from left) on senior ditch day in high school. Courtesy of Annie Toro.

Beck: Where did you go to college? How did you keep in touch while you were there?

Kelli: I ended up going to Virginia Tech. Annie went to the University of Chicago. This is back when AOL Instant Messenger was very popular.

Beck: Tell me a little bit about the AIM conversations.

Annie: At first, I think Kelli and I had to get to know each other better. It was about like, Oh, how's orientation going? What classes are you taking? Things like that. She would ask me what city life was like because I was living in Chicago and she was in Blacksburg. From there, we started talking about more personal things. Both of us were kind of emo in college and kept blogs. We would read each other’s entries, and if something bad happened, we’d be like, Hey, are you okay? It felt like—this always happens, I guess—a continuous conversation.

Kelli was the only friend who ever visited me in college. She met all of my college friends. That was pretty important to me. Other than my sisters, nobody had ever really done that.

Kelli: I had a boyfriend in college, and Annie didn’t know about this guy until I mentioned something, and then she was like, “What? You have a boyfriend and you didn’t tell me?” I had already been dating him for a few months. I think that’s what started a dialogue over AIM one night—“I thought I knew you! I thought we were friends!” It didn’t really cross my mind to shout from the roof that I have a boyfriend. I realized that there’s certain aspects of my life that this person doesn’t know, because we are not in the same vicinity.

Annie: That was one of the things that drove us to start speaking even more openly with each other. After this boyfriend explosion happened, I found out that she was working a ton in college too and she was half putting herself through school. I remember just being in awe that she had her adult life put together. Like, I wanna learn your ways.

Beck: After college, Annie, didn’t you move to Japan?

Annie: That’s true. Also, when I was in college, I was an international-studies major, so for almost a year I lived in Europe—in Paris and in Athens.

Beck: So you were still maintaining that lifestyle of moving around a lot, like your parents did.

Annie: Even now, every few years I feel slightly antsy, like I should be moving, or there should be some big change coming. When I finished college, I ended up applying to the Japan Exchange and Teaching program.

Beck: Kelli, what were you doing at that time?

Kelli: I graduated with a finance degree. It was the summer of 2008, and I was sitting at home. I just looked up at my mom and I was like, I think I’m gonna move to California. I was fortunate enough to have family there to fall back on, and I was able to get my first real finance job.

Annie (center) and Kelli (back, right) with a group of friends in high school. Courtesy of Annie Toro.

Annie: I stayed in Japan for three years. By the end of my third year, I was starting to feel burnt out. I was telling Kelli this and she was like, Well, have you thought about living here? What about Silicon Valley? It was 2010, so the housing market had already crashed. The only sector that seemed to be growing jobs at the time was the tech sector. So instead of moving back with my parents, I ended up going to California and living with Kelli.

Kelli: I’d been in California for a little over a year. My dad had passed away. I was going through some things; I was living with my grandparents, and it was like having parental supervision. I felt like I wasn’t an adult. I just needed a change, and I don’t think I was ready to live on my own. Plus, it’s expensive in the Bay Area. When she decided to come back and we made it official, I felt, Okay, now I can be an adult.

Beck: Living with someone is a very different beast than being just friends. And you guys had been long-distance friends for a long time before that. How was that transition for you?

Annie: It was different. It was interesting. We had talked so much, but when we moved in with each other, we didn’t factor in the fact that despite how much we knew about each other, there was a lot of stuff that you don’t know physically about somebody. Kelli’s very straitlaced at home. She wants things to be tidier, and I’m a slob some days. It felt like she was the adult in the situation and I was like, Oh, I do need to grow up.

This is gonna sound silly, and maybe even horribly naive, but I was like, How do we set up a cleaning schedule? Or How do we take care of each other? Do we cook together? Do we always hang out with each other? How do we address conflict? I was so anti-confrontational. I didn’t want to fight with her. But that’s inevitable when you’re living with somebody. For me at least, it felt like a growth point.

I stayed unemployed for at least six months. Kelli helped carry my rent for a while. I felt guiltier and guiltier about it. Finally we had a confrontation about it, and she was like,  “What are you doing to change this?” I had not come to terms with the fact that a bunch of people from my generation were out of jobs and weren’t able to use their degrees. I eventually bit the bullet and started working retail. I think that her push to do that gave me a lot more balance.

Kelli: We had a regular roommate situation—who cleans the dishes, or who takes out the trash. But also I think the two of us were dealing with some underlying things that were a little more difficult. Like I said, my dad had passed away, so I think I was dealing with some depression issues. And with Annie, it was an adjustment to move back from a foreign country to the States. There were definitely some growing pains living together, but I think Annie’s personality definitely balances my personality, and we were able to work through those.

Beck: It sounds like you guys were going through some big transitions throughout your whole friendship. What do you feel like your friendship added to your life at that time? Was there anything that you learned from each other that helped with these growing pains?

Annie: I think the biggest thing that Kelli gave me at the time was emotional support at home. She just became this very stable force for me at home. She also gave me something that my parents will accuse me of never having—any kind of ambition. She got me to look at things in the future instead of just the present. Kelli had planned so much for herself that I think it started to rub off.

Kelli: What I’ve gotten out of it is learning to see different perspectives. Annie will tell you, I’m a very passionate person, so when I have a view, that’s my view. She’s very good about seeing both sides of things. I feel like she’s opened up my view, so it’s not just black and white. That definitely helped in my career, as far as being able to work with a lot of different people, and in my social life, being able to make deeper, better connections with people.

Beck: How long did you live together? What directions did your lives go in after that?

Annie: We lived together for almost three years. Looking back, I did a bad thing. Very quickly after the summer of 2013, I was like, You know what? I'm ready to go back to the East Coast. I kept thinking like, Well, I’m not using my college degree. And I get antsy every few years. I have to make a big decision and leave. I told Kelli, “In a couple months, I wanna move back.” That is not a lot of time to give somebody that’s been your roommate and your friend for so long. Kelli, I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I felt guilty every day after that. It felt like I was leaving her in a lurch.

Kelli: I was kind of caught off guard. I ended up living in the apartment by myself for a couple months and then moving back in with my grandmother. I decided that I would take another year to live out here and work, and then make the transition back to the East Coast as well. Back to where we are now—Woodbridge.

Beck: It seems like over the course of your friendship you were kind of figuring out at the same time how to maintain long-term friendships: What are the skills that we need for when we’re apart? Or when we live together? Or when there’s conflict?

Annie: It always felt like Kelli was a little better at keeping in touch with people than I was. I think we got really good at being able to compromise for each other. Kelli knows that I hate talking on the phone, but once a week I will make an hour for her. She’s a special case. I would also say that I’ve gotten something from our friendship that I’ve never had outside of my family—and that’s a grounding. For an Army brat like me, friends always came and went, and sometimes it felt a little like maybe I wasn’t going to be the type of person people stuck around for. Kelli didn’t let that happen. We bicker and have different opinions sometimes, but we’re always there for each other. Even after I left California, she still made sure to contact me every couple weeks to check in. When she came back, it felt like two halves of a whole coming together again.

Kelli: She said I’m good at keeping in touch with people. I think it’s more that I’m afraid that these people are gonna forget me. I think the best part about our friendship is—it’s nice to have somebody who knows who you were when you first started, and who is okay with you evolving and changing through life. Some people may not be as accepting of changes that you go through. Annie is able to be like, I see you changing over there, but that’s okay; we’re gonna grow together.


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