When I First Met You (Part I)

When I first met you, I was surprised to be meeting anyone at all. I was in the café below my apartment, where I often liked to work. Truthfully, I was there to become cold and dry, two physical states of being that are nearly impossible in a country where the average temperature hovers at 90 degrees and air-conditioning is only found in bougie new cafes like that one.

Immersed in whatever I was doing, I don’t think I saw you peering over at me, trying to decipher what my nationality was and which of your five languages you should approach me in. According to you, my sport leggings and laugh gave me away as American and you, like the you I love so much, got straight to the point:

“Are you American?” I blinked, happy to be encountered in such a way—boldly and with an open-faced friendliness which I immediately loved. Your hair was blonde, but not as blonde as it became in the four months we would spend together sitting on my windowsill overlooking the ocean and the city that seemed to say a millions things all at once. We often listened to it, and when we listened, we were inspired to tell each other of our dreams and ambitions, of what treasures we would find together out there in that city full of color and sound where we would build our friendship.

“Yeah, I am,” I said, a little bit hurt, but also amused, that you guessed so quickly. I also asked you where you were from because that is how conversations are supposed to flow, but based on your accent it was unnecessary. I know if you read this, you will not like that I wrote that, because as an international woman who works in several languages, cultures, and countries you resent this highlight, or “mockery” of your accent, I can hear you saying. But to me, it enriches your English-speaking personality and gives you an immediate charm. It is one of my favorite things about you. No matter how long you live in the states, I hope you never lose it.

All I can tell you is that I hope to one day know you in your language too. Like we said, people change depending on which language they use and become a slightly different version of themselves. I love you in English. I hope that you can love me in your language, when I can finally speak it. Maybe in ten years, you can even kick my ass at your language’s version of Taboo.

But back then and now, English was and is our language, except for when you slipped into your native one once when we were running together over piles of rubble, up and up, along the sheer cliffs above the Atlantic behind my apartment building. It was our routine. First, we would make mango smoothies and chill them in the fridge. We’d be practically licking our lips as we sprinted back for them, up the seven flights of stairs to my apartment, and past the guards who shook their heads at us, not understanding why we would put ourselves into an even greater state of sweatiness than we already were without exercise. Maybe it was the routine that made you forget. I remember it because it made me honored and sad at the same time. Honored, because you said that you felt close enough to me that you accidentally forgot for a moment that I couldn’t speak your language. Sad, because I couldn’t. You reminded me of this encounter the most recent time we met, and I didn’t tell you that I’d never forgotten.

I also had never forgotten the time we windsurfed on the back of that truck, standing next to each other gripping the hood for balance, our hair whipping around our faces as we grinned wolfish grins at each other. The moon might have passed behind the shadow of that huge statue I hated so much or glistened off the ocean as we sped by it, but all I can remember is you shouting to me, “This is life!”

I know exactly what you meant, and agreed in the deepest part of my heart. I think that’s the part of my heart that matches yours. The living of that life with you is jumbled into a thousand images of your wide smile, infectious laugh, smoky bars, and crowded markets. Fish tacos and philosophical discussions and raucous Alhums smelling of hot metal and human sweat and broken flip flops and sandy alleys with the sound of drumbeats reverberating off the walls. Dance parties and scavenger hunts and toga parties and bank visits. Some of those images are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday: Like when we walked down the beach, a little bit drunk on lukewarm beer and the warm sun on our bikini clad bodies. You helped me bargain with a local guy about the cost of riding one of his horses down the beach, even though it had no saddle and only a rope as a makeshift halter. I’m grateful that you were smart enough not to ride along with me, but encouraging enough to hold my beer for me until I got back.

That was even before our initiation to soul sister status, which was granted to us in one of the most horrible days of either of our lives. I’ll never forget you lying on the cement next to me, cracked sidewalk rippling from under you in the two o’clock afternoon sun. I was held frozen, petrified to statue stillness under the blade of a rusty machete trained at the height of my collar-bone.  My own bag had already been hacked away from me and was swinging from the other hand of a less-than-sober looking youth. Time seemed to catch, buzzing in the heat, as you struggled with all of the fierceness I love about you, against a giant three times your size and armed like the other thief with a rusty machete. I remember willing you to give-up and let him have your bag, but the scream I wanted to scream to you stuck in my throat. It took several punches with the hilt of his knife to finally make you relinquish your grip. When they left, I pulled you off the ground, and we watched them saunter off together, nonchalantly dangling our bags full of everything that was important to us at the time, writing and pictures, but luckily not our lives.

I was happy to be with someone who was grateful for that, and even in our loss, even in the continued humiliation we underwent by going to police officers for help who merely insulted and patronized us, to getting kicked out of the police station after I lost my temper and called them a bunch of “F#(#%#@”, to throwing a mugging party because we were alive and there was still life to live, I knew I had found someone who was brave and true. You showed your character that day. We got drunk together that night on the alcohol brought by all of our friends, and toasted each other to adventure and friendship and shit that sometimes happens.

***

You surprised me the first time, so the next time we met, I decided to surprise you. It was another continent completely, two years since we said goodbye in a bustling swirl of heat and people, me getting into a taxi with all of my stuff and waving to you through the broken window, not knowing where or when we would see each other again.

With the help of our other friends, I spontaneously crashed your New Year plans in a city none of us knew very well at the time. When we saw each other, I lifted you up in the cement stairwell of the rented apartment and hoisted you onto my shoulders. I was wearing a faux fur coat and Chelsea boots. Your hair was darker and with the lack of West African sun, it had faded back to a darker hue. We were different and the same, with new stories to tell and old ones to remember. We had exchanged sandy hot streets for icy cement ones, brightly-colored maxi dresses for black jeans.

We spent the next days in the company of five amazing women, dropping into our old habits of talking philosophy and the world and what we hope to do in our lives. We ran down the streets, but this time it was to escape the blistering cold instead of the heat. We swapped mango smoothies for whiskey and drank them in a dimly lit bar that looked like a grandmother’s parlour. A little bit of those old party habits snuck in, and while you didn’t drink the fire shots I poured into people’s mouths on New Year’s, you were there to cheer me on.

***

Our most recent meeting was ironically in the same city as the last, again, two years later. But this time, I knew the city because it’s my city. I felt like I could trace our story with my finger, although I bet if you told us back in that first cafe where we’d be, we definitely would have laughed. We’ve swapped countries. I’ve ended up with a German and you with an American. You are the same and you are different. So am I. We shared stories with our partners and reminisced, but no matter how many stories we tell, we’ll still be the only ones to truly know.

One of the most amazing things about having friends, is that they are like time capsules that hold specific memories and parts of you that even your other closest friends might not know. When you live parts of life with someone, they remember you as you were and know better than anyone how you’ve changed. You both evolve and go on to live other parts of your lives separately from each other because, alas, you were meant to live out your separate adventures.

There always comes a time where you must say good-bye to your life together, give each other a long hug and promise to see each other again. I’ve often cried over this concept: The knowledge that the life and friendship you’ve built together with someone is held hostage by time. You can never have it back except through memory. To try to hold on to it is pointless.

I am grateful we knew each other then and that we still know each other now. Perhaps we were more reckless than we are now, with partners to care if we were hacked to bits by a machete or thrown from the back of a pickup (or a wild horse) on a rough turn, but I know you are still my soul sister and always will be.

I can’t wait until the next time I see you.

*When I First Met You will be a series of story letters I am starting about the first time I met my friends, some of the greatest people to have ever come into my life. They will be random and in no order at all. I will not reveal them out right in the story, although if you know them, their identity is not very carefully concealed. Thank you to the people who have made my life so rich.

 

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