How 1 Friend Can Change the Course of Your Life

“Judo found my house for me in Seattle. Judo gave me all my initial friends [there]. Judo introduced me to my girlfriend, who I live with currently. Judo introduced me to a guy who eventually helped me get my job.”

Illustration of two men sitting on a yellow background, their shadows stretch out long behind them and the shadows are made of flowers
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “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 men whose friendship of convenience—Mitchell served as an unofficial guide when Judo moved to his hometown, and vice versa—grew more intimate as they became embedded in each other’s lives. Mitchell helped Judo through times of family crisis; Judo helped Mitchell find a job, a home, and a girlfriend. They discuss how they’ve stayed close as they’ve moved around, how sharing their differences has challenged them and deepened their connection, and what it takes for two men to build a truly intimate friendship.

The Friends:

Judo Lata, 26, an environmental engineer and project manager for the U.S. Navy, who lives in Seattle
Mitchell Laferla, 27, a data analyst who lives in Copenhagen

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: How did you meet?

Mitchell Laferla: I think the story starts with me. In college I befriended this girl in my study-abroad group, Courtney, who was from Washington. Later I came out and visited her. I’m originally from Nebraska. That was my first taste of the Pacific Northwest, and I was totally hooked. After I graduated college, I wanted to move out there.

Courtney and Judo went to high school together. The summer I graduated, before I moved to Washington, she says, “One of my buddies got an internship in Omaha. You guys should meet up. You are actually a lot alike.” She made the introduction, and Judo hit me up on Facebook.

Judo Lata: This is what I said: “I will take you out to dinner and buy you booze in exchange for friendship.” And he’s like, “Ha ha, right on, man. I just graduated. I’m currently saving money up to move to Seattle in a few months. So this friendship will be mutually beneficial.”

Two young men sit on a sidewalk stoop with an empty pizza box full of crusts in the street in front of them. The man on the right is eating a slice of pizza.
Mitchell Laferla (left) and Judo Lata (right). (Courtesy of Judo Lata)

When I flew into Omaha, Mitch was like, “Oh, I’ll pick you up.” Then I arrived and [I sent him a message], and he’s like, “Oh man, wait. That’s today?” He shows up in his Jeep. He’s pretty dirty; he was going camping or something. He smells bad.

Beck: What were your first impressions of each other?

Judo: When I met him, I was like, He’s one of those outdoorsy bros. Courtney told me he was in a frat and I thought, Maybe he’s a frat bro too. He is super outgoing, really loud, and super distracted. When he was driving, I was like, “Bro, you’re not driving that great.” Overall I was just thinking, This is a white bro that I’m not used to. Most of my friends are POCs.

I love new experiences. I’m like, I’m going to take this in stride and try to know someone I know nothing about. Slowly I find out Mitchell is very liberal for Nebraska. He paints his toes and does yoga in the park and does all this super hippy-dippy shit that I do. And I was like, Maybe we’re not that different.

Mitchell: My first impression was the enthusiasm he came at me with when he first messaged me. That’s how I communicate too. Judo absolutely thrives in social situations. You can take him anywhere and there’s this magnetism toward him. He’s going to find something that interests the other person, latch on to that, and connect with them. That’s how it was when I picked Judo up. There was an instant connection. I didn’t just pick you up and drop you off. I took you to my house. You met my friends, we hung out, we went to the park, we did some yoga.

Beck: You went to yoga that same day that you picked him up?

Mitchell: That same day, yeah. That kicked off a whole summer of fun. That’s what’s great about me and Judo’s friendship. Judo understands my friends, my family, where I come from, because he spent that first summer with us.

Judo: The powers of the universe put us together and it just happened very naturally.

Mitchell: I would totally agree with that. It’s an intangible thing, having that connection with somebody else and knowing that they are feeling it to the same magnitude. Throughout our four- or five-year friendship, there’ve been times when you needed to prove that. And Judo has always proved it to me. And I feel like I’ve proved it to Judo by being there in harder times.

Beck: So Mitchell introduced Judo to Omaha, and then Judo introduced Mitchell to Seattle when he moved out there. How did that go, when the tables turned and Judo was playing host?

Judo: He made me feel at home in Nebraska, so I was like, “I’m going to do the same.” I helped Mitchell find a house. He was having a hard time finding a job, so I connected him with one of my roommates and that’s how he became a data dude.

Two men sit in nature, one with his arm around the other's shoulders.
Mitchell and Judo on a hike in Washington (Courtesy of Judo Lata)

Mitchell: I moved to Seattle with my suitcase and a couple grand, no job, and knew one person: Judo. Judo found my house for me in Seattle. Judo gave me all my initial friends. Judo introduced me to my girlfriend, who I live with currently. Judo introduced me to a guy who eventually helped me get my job, which kicked off my career. I can’t even imagine how it would have played out without Judo. It was a total game changer, having him in my corner.

Judo: I think the most critical part of this story is the introduction to Mitchell's girlfriend, Ilsa. Ilsa was my calculus tutor in my freshman year of college.

Mitchell: Judo invited us to a ragtag group [hangout]. When Ilsa and I met each other, I immediately started pursuing her and she was interested in me. But in those early stages, it’s almost seventh grade-ish, where you’re talking through your friends.

Beck: Like, “Find out if they like me, but don’t let them know that I like them.”

Mitchell: Yeah. Or, “Don’t tell them we had this conversation, but tell me everything that they told you.”

Judo: It’s so funny because they both were playing like, I’m not interested. Ilsa was trying to play it coy, like she’s a badass bitch and she doesn’t have any heart. And Mitchell’s like, I don’t know.

Mitchell: She definitely did try to play a bit of an ice queen, but it was all a facade, having now dated her for four years.

Beck: It seems like you both have moved around a good amount. How long have you lived in the same place?

Mitchell: I lived in Seattle for two years alongside Judo, sometimes with Judo.

A dimly lit picture of an attic with a beamed ceiling, and an unmade bed tucked into a small nook next to three tiny windows
The attic where Judo and Mitchell lived together in Seattle (Courtesy of Judo Lata)

Judo: I was living in my friend’s basement in Seattle. Then, I started working at this place called RoRo BBQ where Mitchell was doing a part-time job on top of his other job. At some point I moved out of the basement and back to the attic that I used to live in. Me and Mitchell lived there together because it was super cheap. It was a legit unfinished attic. It was cold at night. There was one light bulb and one cord to charge everything. I was sleeping in a tent.

Mitchell: I loved living there though. It just wasn’t insulated.

Judo: We called it the House of Baes.

Mitchell: In the fall of 2019, I moved to Spain. My girlfriend has been going to school here in Europe. Then I kept traveling. The spring right before the coronavirus, we were in the Philippines. Judo came and met me, because his family lives in the Philippines. Then we were forced to go back to the United States. Me and Ilsa lived with her parents in Washington and Judo was also there, for nine months. [Since then] I’ve been bouncing around. Judo is going to grad school in San Diego. Ilsa and I are considering going down to be roommates with him.

Beck: Generally, it seems like when you’re young and you’re moving around, there’s a lot of friendship churn. Have you experienced that? And how have you managed to hold on to each other through those transitions?

Judo: When Mitchell left for Spain, I didn’t feel that sense of loss, that someone’s leaving for good. I think it’s because I always make the effort to visit people. When I say I’m coming to see you, I’m going to come and see you. I’ve done that twice. I went to Spain with my cousin and we visited Ilsa and Mitchell in San Sebastián. And then again, when Mitchell was traveling Asia, I saw him in the Philippines, [where we stayed with my family]. That was a great experience because he really got to see what makes me, me. It was fun being able to share that and for him to experience that culture.

On a stone bridge overlooking a body of water, two men and a woman share a group hug. There are mountains and a town in the distance on the other side of the water.
Judo, Mitchell, and Mitchell’s girlfriend, Ilsa in San Sebastián, Spain (Courtesy of Judo Lata)

Mitchell: There are so many flaky people, who’ll be like, “Oh, I’m going to come visit you.” Then nobody ever does. Judo 100 percent will. Now, he might tell you the night before he’s coming or he might show up six hours late, but he’ll be there.

Judo and I both really care about friendship. Our other friendships are also in good standing, I would say. If you want something to last, you need to make an effort. You have to go out of your way, because there comes a time in every friendship when it’s not convenient anymore. The ones that fall off are friendships of convenience. The deeper ones persist.

Judo: It’s ironic because our friendship started as a friendship of convenience.

I’ve gone through a lot of really tumultuous life things. Mitchell has been there for me, and my other friends just weren’t. One of the biggest instances came three months [after] you moved to Seattle. [My family’s] house went under foreclosure. It was during Thanksgiving. I was really broken and I was failing some of my classes. I was just like, “I’m so stressed right now. And I just don’t know what to do.” Mitchell’s like, “I’ll be there for you. We can help your brother and sister move out,” because my parents weren’t around.

He was there while I was packing up the house, trying to clean it up before they seized it. I found these papers that my mom hid in her room that were like “How to fix a broken family” and I was crying because my parents had just gotten a divorce. My dad was cheating on my mom. There was a bunch of stuff going on and having Mitchell there was really comforting.

There are so many other instances. Like graduation. My dad wasn’t there, but Mitchell was. [One Christmas], Mitchell and his family sent us a card with some money in it. At that time I was broke as fuck, and my brother and sister also don’t have money. Getting $100 so we could buy food or cleaning supplies meant so much. I well up just thinking about it. I want to cry, because it meant a lot. I love you.

Mitchell: You can cry, buddy. Sometimes you just got to feel the emotion. Judo has been there for me emotionally and vice versa. A lot of times you can’t have that level of intimacy with another male friend. Even some of my best homies, we never can go that deep. It’s too awkward, or nobody wants to. Judo and I have always been able to have that.

Judo: We’ve been able to transcend the typical masculine stereotypes and be okay with accepting our full selves. We all are a little feminine, a little masculine.

Mitchell one time asked me, “Judo, are you bi?” I was like, “Yeah. The label is not really a big part of my identity. It’s just what I am.” And he was like, “Cool.” And I was like, “Dope.” It was nice because most of the time people judge and they make you feel weird about it and Mitchell’s never done that. We can still be intimate. In the Philippines, we were staying at my auntie’s house with like 15 other people and no AC. It was incredibly hot. There’s one fan blowing hot air on you. We’re both just in our underwear. For some people it’s uncomfortable to be in a bed with someone who isn’t straight. But it’s never weird [with Mitchell].

Beck: When we were in touch over email, you guys mentioned that you feel like your differences have brought you closer—what did you mean by that?

Two men stand outside a fast food restaurant, next to a statue of a smiling bug wearing a chef's hat and a red and yellow outfit. The men are mimicking the statue's pose.
Judo and Mitchell at Jollibee, a fast food restaurant, in the Philippines (Courtesy of Judo Lata)

Mitchell: Me being from the Midwest and him being from the West Coast, people would assume political differences. Honestly, we have extremely similar politics, but our way of communicating and thinking about those things is very different. I get so much out of our friendship because I am challenged by the contents of our conversation; I’m challenged by the way you choose to think about a problem. I’m challenged by the things that you expose me to.

Judo: Before [Michell moved] to Seattle, I went to the Afropunk music festival in New York, and Mitchell was like, “Oh, I want to come.” So we’re in New York for about four days together. We had a great time. I really enjoy being in different cultures.

There was one moment where someone was doing a spoken word and talking about white supremacy, and Mitchell’s one of the only white people there. He turns around, and he’s like, “This doesn’t make me feel good.” I’m like, “This is what I feel. And this is what a lot of people feel. So it’s now your turn to feel that for a little bit.”

In that moment, I didn’t have enough emotional capacity to understand how he felt.

Mitchell: Up until meeting Judo, I didn’t have a bunch of friends who were from a different background than mine. Going to Afropunk and having someone to help guide me through these experiences was really helpful. Now, because of Judo, I am more comfortable in different types of groups.

We speak different love languages too. I’m words of affirmation and quality time, where Judo is a giver, through and through. Sometimes Judo will even bring me back gifts from places, which means a lot, even though that’s not a way I normally communicate. But being a good friend to each other means understanding how Judo likes to receive love. And that may not be the same way that I give it. But that’s how you invest more in a relationship: by better understanding what your friend needs from you.

Judo: In the Navy, I do diversity work. And I always talk about building connections and being able to fail. Too often, when you fail, you get canceled. Mitchell, you could have hot takes sometimes, but I’m not going to cancel you. I want to know why you think the way that you think. Is it because you actually think this way, is it your family, is it growing up in Omaha? Let’s hash it out. At the end of it, it often turns out, we are really similar in how we think, even though we started at opposite ends.

I need to be able to see that if I want to make any productive change in my community or in the world. That’s what I value in the differences that we have—we’re able to transcend those things and it doesn’t define our relationship. We’re more than that in our friendship. We’re such good friends, from completely different places, [through] just being open with each other and being real.

Mitchell: Figuratively and literally we started in completely different places, yet we found each other in the middle.

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