Friday, February 27, 2009

Cambodian Silver

To the students of Miss Miller’s first grade class:

You know more about me than I know about you. During your recent writing unit on “special friends,” I have been told, your teacher used me as an example. It is an honor that I have done little to earn, except for growing up alongside Miss Miller and occasionally spoon-feeding her Dairy Queen Blizzards on long car trips. That, and driving across the Everglades once to retrieve her when she forgot the date of our vacation, missed the plane and had to fly into Miami instead. These are relatively minor requirements, given the length of our friendship.

That length is important, I think. You have not yet had the chance to be friends with anyone for eighteen years, but I hope that time will remedy that for all of you. I do not trust people who lack very old friends the way I trust those who have them. We need people from our past to remind us of who we used to be, to serve as a connection to all the beauty and ugliness of our former selves. It is one of the difficult things about living in Cambodia—that no one here, save for my boyfriend, has known me for longer than a few months. It is too easy to feel lost in the whirlpool of the present.

But friendship has ways of adapting even under imperfect conditions. Here, where everything is in constant flux, friendships spring up quickly like hothouse flowers; things bloom that could never take root in colder climates. Take Elizabeth, for instance. She is one of my closest friends here. She is a lightning bolt trapped inside one tiny human body, a blur of color that leaves Diet Coke cans and homemade valentines in its wake. I have come to adore that energy, to crave her company because of it. But could we ever have been friends back when we both lived in New York? One a quiet and introverted writer, the other a high-powered insider of the fashion industry—I doubt very much that our paths would have crossed, and if we did pass each other on the street, we were probably too busy staring down our noses at the sidewalks of our very different Manhattans. But here, none of that seems to matter. We live in Siem Reap, we like books, we like Cheez-its, we think Khmer aerobics classes are funny—all of this is far more important than the points in our lives where our paths diverged.

Most of that, of course, is due to Elizabeth’s generosity, not Cambodia (she is unusually gifted at being whoever other people need her to be), but there is something about the transient nature of this place that strips friendship down to its simplest parts. In some respects, I know Sheree very little. I have only a small assortment of collected facts about her life (probation officer with an easy smile and a Newcastle accent). And she is leaving in just a few short weeks, so it is highly unlikely that I will ever know her in the same way as my older friends, the kind whose voices and thoughts and personalities have become a part of my own. But these brief snapshots of Sheree—lanky atop a horse on her birthday or doing an ingenious comedic impression of her meddlesome grandmother—give me a sense of her solid goodness, kindness peppered with just enough frankness to make her sweet nature interesting. That immediate certainty has its own kind of weight when it comes to friendship. One day when we first came to Siem Reap, I was feeling sad, and Hak, the young Khmer guy who manages the guesthouse we were staying at, gave me a free cup of coffee and a heartbreaking look that said, “I’m sad sometimes, too.” And that was it. That was enough. I rarely see Hak, our conversations are brief and often a little awkward, but because of that one understanding look, he is a friend. Bonds are forged quickly in Cambodia out of necessity, but that does not make them less important.

Perhaps it is strange that something as small as a single cup of coffee or a horse ride could be the foundation for friendship. But then, maybe it is always that way. When I was nine years old, miserable and scared to be going to a new school, a blonde girl in a white sweater walked down the aisle of the school bus, and from her eyes alone, gentle and blue behind thick glasses, I knew that she would sit down beside me, that she would save me with her friendship because I needed her to so badly. If there is a lesson in that, it is simply that these small kindnesses around which our lives come to revolve happen unpredictably but with regularity, and they encapsulate everything that I find good and right about the world. The person sitting next to you today on the school bus or the person you wrote about as your “special friend” just might be the one who will send you emails about her first grade class when you are eighteen years older and half a world away from one another. I hope that in this respect you are as lucky as me.

With friendship and affection,

1 comment:

elizabeth said...

i am utterly speechless, moved to tears, honored, humbled and grateful to have the great fortune to have YOU in my life. you make me a better person, a person i want to be.