‘Old Friends’

When you write about love, people respond. I did a bit of writing a few mornings ago, in an uncharacteristically sentimental email (in Chinese!) to my mother, who is currently in Osaka, Japan, playing in a Ladies (euphemism for ‘old women’) Badminton Tournament. Now temper your surprise – she’s not a famous athlete; in fact, my father scoffed when she told him and I said, “Well, at least you can tour Japan after you lose.” This is in fact, what she plans to do with my father, aunt, uncle, and another retired couple. They will all skip the tournament and join her this Friday.

How quaint and cozy, the six of them will be, with their giant red Costco parkas and expensive digital cameras, which not one of them will know how to operate. They will bus around the sites, frame by the gorgeous flaming reds, oranges and yellows of the Japanese fall. A heartwarming group they’ll be, obvious old friends, fighting over dinner bills and buying things in the old fashioned Chinese way, with the belief that Japan is still a stalwart of quality goods that unknown to them, are often available for cheaper, abroad. I too, had planned to tag along – I am after all in my last semester, a final stretch of academia no one takes seriously. But my father was stern: “You’re in your last semester,” he said, his voice thick with disagreement.

“Exactly,” I said, “It doesn’t matter if I miss class. I can talk to my professors about it.”

“No, no. You’re a student. I think you should attend your classes.”

I gave up after a while. I’ve been to Japan many times in the past, and once for badminton too (though as a spectator, not a player) and shrugged off this lost opportunity.

As the saying goes, a door closes and somewhere, a window opens. (Or something more poetic). This semester, instead of jetting off to here and there and screwing up my attendance records, I’m appeasing myself by having friends come visit me and by taking small trips. And I do mean small: an hour south to Sunnyvale to see my cousins; a short flight north to Denver this coming Veteran’s Day to visit an old housemate; and another trip south, to visit another set of cousins and an ‘old friend’.

So it was with these little trips in mind that I composed the email to my mother, who despite wanting me very much to graduate on time, also wanted me to accompany them to Japan. She likes traveling with me – many people do – it’s something I’ve learned, I do quite well. But alas, I woke this morning in Berkeley, California and she retired to bed in Osaka, Japan and there was nothing to do but write her.

“Dear Mom,”I wrote, and began telling her of my weekend plans (another old friend – a different kind – is staying a few nights. I am quite excited), and of next weekend’s plans to visit my cousin Ming Jie and her fiance Vikas in San Jose. I’ll spend Friday night with them and Saturday morning, be dropped at Stanford to meet with an ‘old friend’. This dogged insistence on calling him an ‘old friend’ arises from two truths: 1.) he is, in a categorical sense, an old friend. We are friends from home, first having met in elementary school, though the actual friendship did not commence until many years later, and 2.) While I would love to use his name, his character in the narrative I’m about to tell is a character familiar to us all. Man or woman each of us knows of such an ‘old friend.’

They are of the opposite sex and significant because at heart, you hold (not ‘held’, this sort of thing cannot dissipate, not even in death), a special place for them. Count them on one hand – because a person really can only have so many ‘old friends’ and think about them for a minute. Who are they? Where did you meet? What was your first conversation? And most importantly, why them? Why her? Why him?

For my fingers’ sake, I’ll call him and all the rest Ben – an umbrella name for all my past ‘old friends’. I met Ben in the fourth grade upon admission into the Gifted and Talented Education program. Yes. I was and occasionally, still am. Ben was two years older, a sixth grader with floppy hair, big tennis shoes, and a penchant for too-big striped polo shirts that amplified his rail thin arms and neck. Now, acknowledging the lust I have for my professor who dresses in a similar fashion, I can see that Ben was an early, miniature version of my professor. Superficially, I liked Ben because he was kind. I knew this even without speaking to him for the year we were at the same school. he played easily with the “popular” kids in our GATE class and always smiled at whoever smiled to him. My memory is poor, but I do recall quite clearly liking Ben from afar and watching him from the corner of my eye on the field during recess or in class, grinning to myself as he eagerly raised his hand to answer some question or other. I do not remember speaking to him.

Early on, I developed the habit of not speaking to the object of my affections, and this might also have something to do with Ben. He was ‘smart’ in every sense of the word and while I too, was educated under that label, I could feel my intellect (whatever intellect one has in the fourth grade), paling in comparison. I knew nothing of academic grandeur, college was a decade away, but I was keen to the fact that Ben had reaped plenty of awards in the academic decathlon and that our teachers, my treasured Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Carter, saw him as a vessel of potential and me as a talkative nuisance with a poor head for numbers.

I did not pursue Ben. In the fourth grade, my main occupation was the impossible task of finding a close knit circle of girlfriends. I was included, then pushed out, then included, and pushed out again from the gyrating vortex of schoolyard cliques, but through it all I kept Ben in the corner of my eye and in my heart’s pocket. Summer arrived and Ben moved on to middle school and, just as I escaped elementary school (miraculously intact) to embark on my own middle school voyage, he took flight once again for high school, just down the street. He left in his wake, a bevy of impressed teachers, all of whom I had failed to impress in my awkward, ill-focused battle through fifth, sixth and middle school. Despite the proximity of our schools and the veritable hamlet they stood in, we would not cross paths again until I was a freshman and he a junior in high school.

Regardless of how poor one’s memory may be in the grand scheme of things, I remember that meeting as clearly as I know my mother’s face. I was lost. Thinking high school the biggest campus on planet earth, I was trying to make my way to one class or another, a ratty schedule in hand when I saw him coming from around a corner of blue lockers. Though he had been absent from my life for four full years, in spirit he had continued to grow and develop in my heart’s pocket. Several inches taller with even knobbier knees and lankier arms, he leaned slightly forward wearing a faded polo shirt, cargo shorts, and tennis shoes – the same outfit he favored in elementary school, only larger – his hair was still floppy, his face still kind. His dimensions had changed, but he was still Ben – the boy I had known and secretly admired in elementary school.

If what I had felt for him in the fourth grade was admiration, then his reappearance in my ninth grader’s vision ignited and imploded that admiration. Never had admiration roared so close to love’s burning edge and a moment later, nearly toppled into the fire when, not stopping to think whether he would remember me I called out, “BEN!”

My being lost was forgotten; I had found someone in the serendipitous way one does when one isn’t even looking and this made me bold. And Ben, my lovely Ben, in his easy way and his god-given photographic memory (for this is the only reason I can attribute to his remembering), smiled and said, “Betty! Hey!”

Fireworks! One-sided fireworks! My grin came close to ecstatic, maniacal – it didn’t matter – he knew who I was! He remembered my name! As he came closer however, my smile lessened; I realized I had nothing to follow my greeting with. After all, I had never said anything to him before.

‘Old friends’ are often instant friends. And Ben, even better at it than I, let me ramble on with my questions as though we had been best friends before. I took our concurrent year at GATE as a launching point and asked him questions to which the answers were obvious. What was he doing here? At school, like me. How was he? In one piece, apparently. How did he like it? He liked it very much. He was a junior now, which to me, meant we had two precious years together on the same campus before he left for the great black void of college. Finally in all my blathering I couldn’t bear it anymore and pointed out what seemed to me, the greatest discrepancy at our meeting:

“Ben,” I said, “I can’t believe you remember me!”

“Of course I remember you!” Kindness, kindness. And from that day on, we became old friends.

For those of you who understand the social intricacies of high school, nomadic freshmen (as I was that first year), did not hang out with nerdy juniors, who evidently, ate lunch in the Biology classroom. But as the year progressed I came to know Ben’s haunts, – he adored and was adored by the biology teacher, whom I detested for his yellow teeth and balding head, marks of a bitter man, not quite middle-aged, who had relinquished himself to teaching high school Biology after having failed the MCATs. But as much as I disliked the man, he was famous amongst the college bound (myself, at that time, included) for “knowing his stuff” and for being the most sought after teacher for letters of recommendation and approval in general. Girls did not swoon beneath his gaze, but nearly did when he awarded them A’s.

I’m not certain if Ben has outgrown his “respect” for Mr. H, but perhaps Ben was just returning a favor. To the sixteen year old Ben, Mr. H was powerful and recognized Ben as a prodigy, a boy capable of accomplishing great things with just his brain. Mr. H, with a quality I do appreciate, made class lively with discussions about everything from politics to what horrendous outfits we paraded ourselves in. He never shied from lambasting his students for not caring enough about their education (once calling to everyone’s attention that I was falling asleep) or for lauding those who did.

“Ben ______” he said one afternoon, “Do you guys know Ben _____?” Several of my classmates nodded and I sat up. He immediately earned my full attention. “Ben _____ is the smartest guy I have ever met and what makes him a really impressive,” he paused, glaring at some of the other “smart” kids in the class, “What makes Ben _____ really impressive is that Ben _____ is not lazy. He is curious. He studies, even though he doesn’t have to, and he works hard. He asks questions, he moves forward and will continue to move forward because he really does want to know.” He paused, knowing that there were many of us hoping we’d be the subject of a similar lecture some day, “You guys just wait. You’ll read about Ben _____ in the papers someday. I guarantee it.”

Not enough time has passed for Ben to make it into the papers, but time did pass – he graduated, yet again, to college and I stayed at my high school for two more years, picking up another Ben (for another story) along the way…but the candles that never burn can never be put out, and so I thought about the first Ben from time to time, wondering what mark he was making on this small world, and wondering if I would ever run into him again.

Less than two years later I too was a high school graduate, lounging around my uncle’s house in Taipei wondering what to do. The world stretched out before me in a long, languid heat – I had only to enjoy the summer, a most difficult task. What does one do in another country? Use the computer, of course – I signed on, as I always did, to AIM, the preferred mode of communication during those days, and saw Ben’s screen name boasting an interesting update: He was in Taiwan, studying at a technology research center less than an hours’ drive away. Emboldened by this God-given coincidence, I messaged him in GIANT CAPITAL LETTERS, lest my enthusiasm at being on the same tiny island (what were the chances?) as he was escaped him.

He was friendly, as I knew he would be, and as though it were the most natural thing in the world, we arranged to “hang out.” He brought along two of his research partners and a girl they had met on the subway who turned out to be excellent company, and I brought along two cousins and my brother – it didn’t occur to me then, but I had essentially orchestrated a meeting of strangers – but is this not the strange essence of chemistry backed by history? Ben and I went way back, and now we had finally caught up in the present – Taiwan was new to him and I did my best to show him what I thought were the very best things about Taipei: shopping malls, food halls, night markets, and movie theaters – half of that list can be found quite easily in America, but to share them with a startlingly homogeneous group of people can be an exhilarating experience. We ate, shopped and even watched “The Last Samurai” as one giant group, and still I managed to learn more about Ben than I could have ever hoped, and what’s more, I got to examine him up close.

There is something alarming about seeing an admired person up close. The danger of placing someone up on a pedestal becomes apparent when you are allowed to step up to the pedestal, or if the admired person voluntarily comes down. Ben, not knowing he had been placed on a pedestal, remained where he was. I seized the opportunity (the island was my stepladder) and I climbed with my magnifying glass to peer more closely at the bones and flesh that made him who he was and, tilting the glass a certain way, tried too, to peer into his soul.

He slouched a bit more than I would have liked, and during some of the film’s more violent scenes, flinched more than I think a man should flinch (I’m not one for a sensitive nature, being rather insensitive myself), but overwhelmingly the portrait I had painted was quite close to the original. Ben in the flesh, through and through, was just as I had imagined and hoped and desired. And he was kind.

The summer ended and that was the last I ever saw him in the flesh. After, life continued – he finished his research in Taiwan and returned to the states a few weeks after I had already departed for New York. Perhaps then I shut him out – or thought nothing of it because what was there to think? We had a good time – nothing too personal or romantic – and we left on a high note. He had seen my favorite place outside of Orange County, my second life and met important members of the family (all of whom thought Ben the bee’s knees) and it was all so easy. That meeting reinforced for me the knowledge I had already possessed of him, and being more reasonable than I have been in a long time, I tucked the information away along with the fond memories and went on with my own life. We kept in touch – or rather, I sporadically wrote long emails to him from various places in the world and in each one blathered on and on about whatever interested me that particular day, and each time, rather promptly, he would reply in a rather dry (Ben is not a writer) but earnest way, what he was up to. He graduated from college. Was accepted to a prestigious graduate school. Was working on this and that (computer jargon I have no hopes of ever understanding). He envied my travels, reminisced about the summer in Taiwan (saying more than once that it was the happiest two months of his life) and, like small tap to my cheek, let me know that he was dating someone.

One year, two years, three years four – and now, it has been a total of 6.5 years since that summer in Taiwan – he is still with his girlfriend and I am still in college… But other people, their relationships, their work, other people move so fast. But a few weeks ago I messaged him, a short, friendly message asking him generically, how he was doing.

I did not expect much of a response but he replied quickly and I, sensing an opening window, arranged to meet him for lunch next week. Breaking the rules? No, no, the girlfriend is still very much in the picture, along with wedding bells and babies and silicon valley success (Acuras, tennis lessons, birthday dinners in the city). No. by now, we are ‘old friends,’ in my book at least. I’m driven by curiosity – sin enough in itself, an old blind poet once said – and I want to know what forces caused me to take notice of him at the young age of nine and to never forget him, his floppy hair, his slouched shoulders, his calculator brain and his kind, crooked smile. His name. Every time I think it, it is thus: We are old friends now.

I wrote this to my mother, though with less expression, unnecessary because the subject itself is tinged with a muted sadness. There is no regret; I was never in a position to create regret, but sadness, yes.

My mother wrote back two days later:

“Dear Betty,

Thank you for taking the time to write me such a wonderful long email. I am doing fine in Japan. I leave tomorrow to tour the country with your father…I have to return to the tournament now, but I wanted to say: Don’t waver, don’t rush. One day, my darling daughter will find her knight in shining armor.

Love Mom”

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