Once, I had a brief, powerful friendship with an older woman—in life, if not much in years. She was a married woman of nearly two decades, and a working mother of three. Our friendship was in some ways illicit, a furtive affair: we’d met because I was her teenage daughter’s junior varsity basketball coach.
I had left Seattle by then, after six years of trying to make a life, and I was flitting from country to country, picking up odd jobs along the way. I’d just guided a tour in Alaska and backpacked through Ecuador when the head coach asked me to return for another basketball season. Not knowing what else I’d do and in need of some pocket cash, I accepted. In those four winter months, as I sat in traffic along our steel-gray lakeshores, it seemed impossible how all of it—our lives in Seattle—had changed before we knew it was changing. After graduate school, after sports games in neighborhood bars, after last calls on Capitol Hill and summer picnics at Golden Gardens, my friends got real jobs and started to spend their spare time on Tinder and Match. Then they started to leave. To New York. To Chicago. To the suburbs. It was, I guess, what we were supposed to do—to grow up.
I wasn’t looking for a friend, exactly, when she volunteered to host the team and invited us into her house. As the teenage girls roared with giggles on her wrap-around couch, carefree and full of life, the two of us sat at her dining room table. Perhaps to both of our surprise, our conversation was effortless and joyful, laced with a primal, deep-celled delight in each other’s company. That night, even long after her husband had put their two younger kids to bed, long after the girls had gone home, we were still sitting there, getting to know each other.
Her arrival into my life kicked my time in Seattle into high gear. I ignored the warnings heeded upon generations of youth sports coaches about parents—who we were supposed to be in front of them and how we were supposed to act—and we quickly became inseparable, attached at the hips in the grown-up, 21st-century, devices-in-our-hands kind of way. We went through our days in flurries of texts and calls. She was the last person I talked to at night, and the first to message me in the morning. Our friendship was new and exciting. We laughed at nearly everything, our laundry list of inside jokes miles long, and I savored every detail I discovered about her like a slice of privilege.
On the nights after my team—her daughter’s team—lost, I often ended up at her house in a cul-de-sac just behind the school, a Microsoft suburb of similar front yards and driveways. She had a wreath on her wooden door and a mirror from Target in the foyer. A family portrait hung in the living room, all five of them dressed in their Sunday bests, touched up and smiling, on a tree-lined road fallen with red and yellow leaves. We sat in the heavy-set chairs in her kitchen, scratched and stained by toddlers, and we talked and talked, laughing deliriously, almost childishly, into the quiet, intimate hours beyond midnight. By then, the outside world had stopped still; rain fell, light as a feather. And always, we lost track of time. With her, it felt like I was traveling again, talking to a stranger on an empty pier, our hearts wide-open, our bare feet hanging over an ancient lake.
I left Seattle a month or so after the basketball season ended, and it nearly broke my heart. I didn’t know what any of it meant—if we were friends, or if we’d continue to be. After all, was the woman I called my “twin” from a drunken college night long ago still my friend if she lived out across the country? What about my friends from graduate school, or my former colleagues whom I used to see every day? How much, exactly, did it take to hold on? I didn’t know. All I knew was that in those few months, she was the closest person in the world to me.
While I was traveling in Scotland, in the Republic of Georgia, we spoke of grand ideas of what we’d do together when I returned: day hikes, road trips, bubble teas. But it turned out that we would not do any of those things. By the time I came back for the next basketball season, the heavy-set chairs in her kitchen were gone, replaced by a sleek walnut set. Her husband had redone their backyard and they were putting in hardwood floors. Adulting, she texted with a laugh-cry emoji, is so hard. Our conversations began to come in bits and pieces. I started to realize that she had a habit of saying things she didn’t quite mean. I chased her through Costco and watched her whip up oven-baked nuggets and microwave mac-and-cheese for her children. I sat beside her in her car as she put on make-up and watched her bright and lilting greetings with suburban mothers. She was suddenly a stranger to me, no longer the woman I knew in her pajamas, her knee pulled up to her chest, airy and light-hearted, sipping on her sun-colored wine in the half-glow of her house. Somewhere along the way, I’d become an intrusion, a puzzle piece that no longer fit in the business of her life.
Since then, there’s been a whole lot of hurt, a whole lot of misunderstandings, and even more apologies. I became clingy and desperate, both exhausted of clawing at her shadow and terrified of being left behind, and I tried to end our friendship. When she walked into the bubble tea shop that night, she did not hug me and I did not offer. For a while, across a table that felt vaster than any ocean that had been between us, we talked, and at times, a semblance of our old selves peeked through—only to disappear again. But, as she stirred the jelly in her drink, I wondered if what we had was, at best, an elusive feeling, always in a state of vanishing. Maybe, after all, we were always leaving each other behind. Perhaps we were—had always been—on borrowed time.
It turned out, though, that she didn’t see us as broken. She said she thought that because we’d survived my nomadic lifestyle and her working-mother life, she felt closer to me than before. It was that kind of intimacy that allowed us to go to Costco together, to chat through her daughter’s physical therapy appointment. I don’t know. Maybe she is right. Maybe who we are is infinitely complicated, some complex equation of those different versions of ourselves. Maybe what the two of us had in a frenzied, capitalistic civilization was all we had to give: our love with overwhelmed and imperfect hearts. But, again, maybe that was just what she said.
We talked that night until we were the only two people left, until the college kid asked us, apologetically, to leave. Her eyes had welled up at one point, swimming right beneath her mascara. I feel like I’m just spinning plates, she said. And I’m doing my best trying to keep them all from shattering.
Was this, I wondered, what people did with their affluence and freedom? I left again, out of this manic society, and went to Colombia with a German friend I’d met on a rooftop hostel in Tbilisi. One night, in Villa de Leyva, a small, colonial village in the mountains, my friend walked ahead with a Colombian composer she’d met, the two of them bantering with the hurried thrill of two people getting to know each other. On the immense cobblestone square, I stole a moment and stood still, the air silver and crisp. I watched the villagers huddled on the steps together, under a gibbous midnight moon, beers in hand, whispering in a low, beautiful voice as if they had all the time in the world.
Up ahead, my German friend threw her hair back and cracked up, her laughter sailing through those alleyways between white-washed houses and red-tile roofs, through neighbors chatting in their doorways and chuckling from their balconies. Something about it all shattered my heart. I believe her; most of the time, I really do, her and all of my friends at home who were always running from one responsibility to the next. But I couldn’t help but wonder that if we can’t find time for each other, what, exactly, are we doing here?
We are still friends, I think, in brief, incremental moments; most of the time, but maybe not always. In that quiet, colonial village in Colombia, all I wished then was to live in a small place where nothing much happened, where there was nowhere else to be, and that I could walk over to her house and knock on her door. I wished the two of us could sit side-by-side again, when the rest of the world had fallen silent, and talk about everything and nothing. Or, maybe, just maybe, I wished that we could be strangers once more, and meet all over again.
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