It’s standard protocol; we’re used to it now. The car pulls up to the airport or the bus terminal or the train station. We sit there for a while and avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying if we’re not already. We wonder how long it will be after we part that the tears will start or how many people will be around when it happens (this mostly applies to me and my tear ducts’ apparent requirement of an audience to perform properly). We are professionals at “parting is such sweet sorrow,” and yet this well-honed skill has not aided in the process.
I met Jessica on the first night of my freshman year of college. I had just moved 2,000 miles from home in an attempt to escape the grief that followed my mentor and friend’s suicide. I had friends at home who loved and cared for me, or the little damaged pieces of me, and that was more than I could have hoped when I started high school. But now, after a year of funerals and “let me know what I can dos,” I just wanted to hold fast to the assumption I’d made in middle school that in college, one didn’t have to make friends.
When I was 13, I subscribed to the idea that I now know most everyone had in some capacity—that I wasn’t normal enough to have a posse of friends who thought I was just the coolest. I didn’t have enough of the charismatic, sparkly energy that so many of my female peers seemed to possess. This is so John Hughes ’80s cliche, but I have a distinct memory of sitting at a lunch table in seventh grade in total angst. I was quiet and never a bother, so I was could easily slip in anywhere but never talked. As I recall on this occasion, I was trying desperately to drum up some idea of pre-teen conversational fodder, and thinking, “When I’m in college, I don’t have to try to make friends. I can just go to class and do my homework and graduate and talk to absolutely no one. It will be great.”
But on my first night of college, there was Jessica, sitting next to me on the bus on the annual freshmen trip to Fred Meyer. A blond, energetic high school cheerleader, she had that familiar sparkly energy and as we crossed the Ballard Bridge she turned to me, bouncing, and said, “Hilary! We’re in the city! Look at us. We’re city girls now!” We. We’d only just met an hour before and we were already a “we.” That was the night I threw out my seventh grade wish. I had a friend in college—a peppy, charismatic friend who wanted to talk to quiet, bookish me.
Jess and I talked again later that night, when I posted for some unknown, completely nerdy reason that I was “sleepless in Seattle.” I guess you have to say it once, right? She responded, “Me too! I’m in the lounge. Come talk to me!” I told her everything I promised I would leave at home in Missouri—how my teacher had killed himself, how pissed I still was. How no one understood why I would go to Seattle for school and how I was tired of trying to explain it. How I didn’t know if I could. The spunky girl from the bus suddenly understood her seat partner as someone who came to college as a bunch of broken little bits, and she listened to me anyway. We talked into the early morning, and we’ve kept up the conversation ever since.
Maybe I was right in seventh grade. I didn’t have to make “friends” in college, not the kind who surrounded me in the cafeteria, at least. The kind of friend I made in Jessica was someone who helped me figure out where all the little bits could fit back together or if maybe some of them are better left discarded. She’s the kind of friend that the phrase “I’m transferring back home,” doesn’t apply to because you don’t ever really leave a friend like that.
When I was 5 and my parents and I first moved from St. Louis, my grandmother starting singing a song to me over and over: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold…” She sang it to sort of pacify me in my first period of real change in life, but it remains a constant for me with each goodbye I encounter.
Just as it has in the past three years, the car pulls up to the curb at the airport, and we avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying and I know I will as soon as I hit security. This time, the wait will be longer. We’ll have to exercise our “be seeing you” muscles for the next 27 months, after Jess leaves for Nicaragua and the Peace Corps.
We’re still in the car and neither of us move. I look over at Jess and think about the last four years. I think about this trip and all the ones before it. I think about how each time, I leave with new insight from my friend. Three days ago, she looked at me during lunch and said in a casual tone, “So, do you think you’ll stop worrying after graduation?”
Jess always knows how to make her point without saying so directly. She’s bossy in the best way; she accesses my thoughts without having to poke and prod her way in.
Finally, we get out of the car and participate in the traditional hug. We go through the steps of the goodbyes, but we both know this time is different. We know when we see each other again, our “we” will have changed dimensions. We will be older, 24. I will have graduated, and she will have been for more than three years. The college stage of our friendship will have ended.
“Will you write about us?” Jess says, as she gives me a final squeeze.
“Of course,” I say. I’d already started this blog post in my head.
I turn, “ripping off the Band-Aid”—the clichéd comparison I’d used to describe this particular departure—and walk toward my terminal. The pacifying tune starts in my head.
“The circle’s round; it never ends…”
“See you, Jess!”
“That’s how long you’re going to be my friend.”