Farewell, Old Friends

My day began in earnest around 3pm when Kevin showed up to get me. We passed the hour’s ride in jovial banter, in a truck perhaps no younger than me. We spoke of current events, social gossip, personal humor. At last we found ourselves at his parents’ home in the country and set about the preparation of dinner: shrimp curry, red. Before long, the kitchen was a chorus of shuffling bodies, pots and pans, and champagne-filled glasses championing a series of toasts. The guests of the evening, Dr. Andriano and his wife, had arrived at some point in the middle of the madness, and since Kevin’s parents were kindred educators, the four stole away to the patio while the youngsters remained in the kitchen. We adore Dr. Andriano, our professor of science fiction (and all things pertaining to the consilience of arts and science), and respect him as a mind we aspired to emulate. We spent hours around the table sharing stories and gaining wisdom, seasoning our conversation with banal humor and internet memes. I did my best to remain charming despite my pitiable lack of familiarity with the rites and rituals of polite society. [I fear I may never learn which side of the plate the little fork goes on, the exact purpose of a demitasse, or when and how to politely refill everyone’s glasses with wine.] Around ten, Dr. Andriano and his wife bid us farewell, wishing me best of luck with my up-coming adventures in China, and Kevin with his in France.

I summoned a long-standing partner in crime to retrieve Kevin and me from the stately airs of the upper middle class and carry us down to the passion-fueled frenzy of urban youth. There were more people than seat belts in the tiny Honda Civic as it sped along the highway in the evening rain; and while the littlest among us lay sprawled across the backseat laps, we passed around a festive bottle of the local brew and chased it with bourbon. At Luis’s house we joked and laughed and drank and loosened our collective grasp on social mores. Feeling sufficiently intoxicated, we packed into the bedroom, the lot of us, which had been transformed into a booming, flashing dance floor. We lost some immeasurable amount of time writhing in the reckless abandon of rhythmic communion. The space was filled with a monochrome collage of bodies twisted in the throes of ecstasy, a series of still images isolated from the frames missing in the patterned blackness of the strobe light. At some point, we all became shirtless and the floor grew slick with sweat. I found myself lost in a sea (or perhaps a puddle) of young glistening bodies, my breath shallow in my heavily-stressed lungs, and I thought—pretentious as it may seem—that this display was every bit as holy as any whirl a dervish might offer, every bit as artistic as any brush stroke by Kandinsky, and I was very fortunate to be a part of it.

We whiled away the few remaining hours of darkness roaming the streets in pursuit of the latest internet craze, owling. We owled in a number of places, took pictures and posted them to various internet forums, as is the convention. Sunrise found us in the parking lot of the local doughnut shop, in search of freshly glazed itis. When we got back home, we crowded into whatever spaces we could find flat and soft enough to afford us a few hours’ sleep.

The following afternoon I made my way to the house of a pair of professors with whom I’m especially close, the Rices. Lydia lay indisposed while Clai took Kevin and I out to lunch. Lydia had insisted upon a particular establishment, El Ranchito, and so it was there that we dined. El Ranchito is located in the middle of a district populated largely by Latin American immigrants, and so there is hardly any English to be found. The wait staff spoke only enough to take one’s order, and of the three menus we received (no two of which were identical), there was not enough English to fully understand any one dish. We ordered blindly which was ultimately, to no one’s chagrin. I love having personal relationships with university professors. They’re (at least sometimes) intelligent enough to be entertaining, experienced enough to be fascinating, and weird enough to be relatable. At lunch, we delved deeply into a conversation about Plato and his tragic lack of a toilet. And then we said goodbye and Kevin brought me home.

On the way back we reminisced over the last few years of our friendship, its highlights and star players. In this humble town of around 100,000 we had amassed a very closely-knit group of like-minded individuals. These were people I knew like the closest of kin, who beam from ear to ear each time I encounter them, to whom no subject of conversation is lost, who have challenged me mentally and physically, people with whom I’ve travelled the country many times, who have shaped me into the person I am today. If I should need a kidney ten years from now, it is to my college friends that I will turn. And all of us, within a couple months’ span, are separating, going off into our respective corners of the world. Mine happens to be China. Little will anyone know that the last seven years bear themselves upon every aspect of my being. I fear that I will never again know the warm embrace of a social circle carved so precisely to fit the dimensions of my peg. I fear there may be no others whose loyalty, intelligence, and interests are so closely attuned to my own, or if there are, that I may never find them. Show me the people who can compare on these fronts, and I will move Heaven and Earth to beat the path from my doorstep to theirs.

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The Parting Heart

By the time we’d reached the rose garden, most of the perspiration had dried. We were exhausted, out of words, punctuating the silence every so often with soft laughter. We sat on steel benches, the three of us, still noticeably high on the revelry of the evening.

“I’m really gonna miss America,” I said finally, oblivious to the conversation that had started as I’d sat lost in thought.

The two boys gave each other an awkward, confused glance, then turned their attention to me. Nick, the American, finally broke the silence. “Of course you are. But you’re gonna make amazing memories in China, too. And when it’s time for you to leave there, you’ll have the same sense of longing, nostalgia, and regret.”

He was right. There was no need to voice my agreement, as this was a sentiment I’d already expressed countless times over the past several months. But equally undeserving of mention was the fact my experiences in my hometown were not being paused, waiting to be resumed once my time in China had transpired. They were coming to an end, and with them, the reckless frivolity of youth. I had finally reached the ever-receding horizon of adulthood, and would be charged with the responsibility that it entailed. I’d known something of this for a number of years, bill-paying, insurance, the constant balance of various aspects of personal well-being. But now I was headed for my “future,” my “career,” and the whole gambit of maturity-oriented scare-quote nouns. Needless to say, my discontent was no small matter.

Earlier that evening, we’d found ourselves at a large free concert downtown, watching the groupe du jour, and surrounded by no less than fifty of my closest friends. Ever the social butterfly, I’m rarely as happy as I am when among good friends dancing without restraint. We’d brought Pan with us, in an attempt to show him more of the local culture. A very traditional exchange student from China, I was concerned that throwing him in the middle of a crowd of several thousand highly-energized dancing Americans so soon after his arrival might not be most conducive to his acclamation. Much to our great surprise, however, it wasn’t long before he, too, was thrusting and swaying (albeit hopelessly arrhythmically) with the rest of us.

“You know, if you really like dancing, you could always try going to night clubs in China,” Pan offered.

“It’s not the same, though,” I exhaled, sinking into my bench. “I hate clubs! And besides, I won’t know anyone there. What makes going to things like this awesome is the fact that I’m having such a great time with people I already know and like.”

“But you can give it a try,” he insisted. “In China, we don’t dance. But at night clubs, they will dance. They will be very impressed with you.”

I chuckled politely and nodded. There was no way, given his linguistic and cultural limitations, to impress my chagrin upon him. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll try it out.”

*****

This was about two months ago. Since then, there have been several other situations that’ve made me pine to lengthen my dwindling time here. In recent weeks, it’s made studying Chinese practically unbearable, as it’s served as nothing more than a constant reminder of the death clock that hovers ominously above this city. However, lest I run the risk of making my Journey to the East sound too much like a prison sentence, I should qualify these sentiments with the nearly palpable excitement that overcomes me when I start to seriously consider life in China. The exoticism, the learning opportunities, the adventure, I would trade none of it to remain stagnant in a city I have honestly outgrown. This much, I suppose, is obvious; but it bears mentioning. Consider this an homage to the town that made me, a lover’s lament as she watches her darling go gently into that good night. Soon, I’ll be boarding the plane that will carry me to both a new world, and a brand new chapter in my life. This notion fills me largely with positive emotions. But I’ll never be able to shake the painful twinge of regret which stems from nostalgic remembrances of youth. Truth be told, I wouldn’t want to.