4. degrees of comfort in friendship
Posted March 27, 2014on:
While to some, I appear talkative and friendly, there’s another side to me that some of my friends would describe as “intimidating” or even “scary” when they remember about meeting me for the first time. It’s because I go through life forcing myself to overcome weaknesses by means of overexposure. I hate speaking in public so I volunteered for acting roles, taught classes, and ran volunteer groups. I typically don’t care about anything, so I forced myself to volunteer or embrace causes to feel a bit more decent. I’m a very good candidate for keeping secrets and listening to other people’s troubles, because I can empathize and sympathize like nobody’s business, but at the end of the day, I can just as easily dust everything off and go straight to bed. The overexposure method produce results only half the times, so half of the times I can face the world with my approachable and caring persona, the other half of the times I show up detached and don’t give a damn. Some of my friends first met me when I forgot my nice persona at home and thought they would never like me. In that regard, perhaps he was lucky that I wore my nice persona for most of the time when I was with him. Or maybe he is someone who brings out the nice persona in me? Because at the beginning, he was someone I didn’t feel like I had to impress
It’s a good thing I write this down, because I’m beginning to forget how it all began, our friendship. One thing is for sure – I unintentionally initiated it because I felt it was my duty as the coordinator. After we scouted him and told him how important his car was to our organization (in the past we have had to ride the bus and walked for some 50 minutes to reach our volunteer site when one of our drivers couldn’t come), for some freak reasons, the first weekend on duty, no one needed a ride in his car. He kept on mentioning that his car had room so finally I said, “Oh, great, let me get a ride from you then” and ditched my usual ride to make this new guy feel needed. Losing a driver wasn’t a joke to us, so I took them very seriously and always told them that I appreciate their vehicle. My nice persona was in full swing that day, so I made small talk with him and we even joked a bit. Then the week after, and the weeks after, I kept on ending up in his car, over and over again. Were our volunteers dwindling in numbers or were our drivers growing in numbers? I can’t remember anymore. I just remember that’s how we became friends, during car rides.
His clothes and haircut were screaming FOB, yet the first thing I found out was that he was a FOB from Europe, which made him an exotic creature in my eyes. That he could speak the same amount of languages as I could – that, transformed him from a tofu block into a notable person in my head. His stories about attending grade school in an ancient castle somewhere north of his tiny european nation, stories about how he was top of his class, stories about school field trips that took him across borders into France or Germany, they sounded like he was some character out of the foreign books I used to read as a young child, back in my undeveloped, impoverished, and embargoed third world country. And he was never bragging or trying to impress me as I cheerfully jabbered away on those autumn Saturday afternoons. I’m just very good at asking questions when I want to get to know people. And he was good at giving answers. Whatever I asked, he candidly answered.
There were always incongruences in him that I found odd. Like he was missing a marble or five somewhere in his head which might have explained why he lived 70 miles away, but would wake up by 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning to come and volunteer with a bunch of Cal students. Why not join a group somewhere closer to home? Don’t people who work during the week love to sleep in on the weekend? What gives? Me, if I wasn’t fixated on chasing after that one hot guy in our group, I would have opted to stay home every Saturday and sleep in until noon. And then there was this thing about him wandering around Berkeley until evening on those Saturdays, after our volunteering work was done. Wandering alone. Was this guy looking to pick up chicks ?
He didn’t seem to act like it. In our group, he was very quiet and distant. To me, he seemed shy and approachable, but months later, when he left the group for good, still, only a few people knew anything about him. Because I was riding regularly in his car, I became the spokesperson for him by proxy. People would ask me about him, or asked me to pass messages on to him instead of approaching him directly. A few weeks in, he asked me one day if my friends and I would like to go grab a drink. We’re talking about a bunch of underage college kids here, so drinks meant boba tea. In the end, I think there were 3 of us who went with him. He bought my drink for me because I didn’t carry cash (“don’t worry about it”). The next week I tried to pay him back, he was quite vexed, saying that he said I shouldn’t worry about it since he worked and I was just a student. I think he was getting annoyed, and I was thinking wtf, I pay for my own drinks until I say otherwise. You can’t just buy me drinks because you say you will. What was the point of working 3 different jobs if I couldn’t sustain my pride ?
Long before I knew about the existence of blog, I used to send out a mass email to everyone I knew, about once a week, sometimes once every other week. My email content was just my own ramblings, written for an audience. I forced them all to read. Many of them enjoyed reading it, because most of the time it’s funny or at least amusing. Once in a while, it would get somber. Once in a great while, it would get deep or beautiful. On one such rare occasion, his email got added into the mix, because I could never have enough audience. He replied to my mass email with a poem he wrote, and that gave him another brownie point, because what he wrote was praiseworthy. I like poetry, I like writing poetry, and I hate reading other people’s poetry, because 90% of the time, they bore me. But his didn’t. The poem begins:
time to refill or unload
we want you back fresh and clean
so you would have enough energy and strength
to see and understand or maybe
appreciate this struggle, this spectacle
I really like that poem a lot. He hasn’t written anything else noteworthy since. I still have that first email containing this poem. The only other poem he has composed – this one was for me – and I have yet to make up my mind about its greatness – is this gem of a couplet:
I love you like a chicken / for your breasts and thighs…
Thus began our email correspondence, which connected us beyond the previous once a week occurrence. Through emails, he invited to take “you and your friends” to his favorite pho joint in town when I lamented the lack of edible pho in Berkeley.
Recently, when I was going through my old notebooks, I found a stack handouts from English 45C, a class Thien and I took together that semester. In the back of the handouts were filled with our writings, notes passed back and forth during lecture, and the subject du jour was him. I was telling her that this guy has a few missing marbles somewhere in his brain, he might be one of those crazy loser freaks or maybe a lonely desperate guy who has something up his sleeve. Thien was agreeing with me saying that I should be careful around him and not let him latch onto me. I agreed to be more cautious and that if he makes any weird moves, I would kick his ass. We ended that paper chat session agreeing that she would meet me later that night so we could all go check out his pho joint, since I didn’t want to ignore his invitation, in case he was a real deal nut case and might take offense if I snubbed him.
We ate together that night as planned, and then afterward, because it was still early, he offered to take us to run errants as needed, since he had his car and we were a couple of bus hoping college students. We ended up in the chinese mall, me running into the Chinese market to buy some produce. I was joking and making conversation as usual, while the he and Thien were just reacting and responding to me. Then, suddenly the mood turned dire, because Thien and I were playing our usual “what if” game, where we came up with all sorts of true love meets real life challenge scenarios and asked each other what we would do. Except the scenario that I came up with, ugh, got him crying. It was awkward. Suddenly we had a grown man crying in front of us, and since this was the first time I saw a guy cry in front of me, and since I hate seeing people cry and cringe at the sight of tears, I had to immediately get into damage control mode and tried my best to comfort him. We decided to call it a night. In the car, he was complaining that he was hungry, since he did not eat well at the restaurant. I felt guilty for making him cry, and could tell that he was reaching some sort of breaking point internally, so we arranged for Thien to be dropped off at her place, then he and I would relocate to my apartment where I would make something quick for him to eat before sending him off to drive 70 miles home.
That night he never drove home, and I suddenly found myself with a guy whom I had barely known for 2 months who suddenly took out his bleeding heart & soul for me to see what was bottling up inside, who told me about the love of his life and how it ended. All the intimate details, the drama, the ugly, the beauty, all rolled into one nice big mess in my brain. 2 a.m., 3 a.m., he sat there sometimes answering my questions, sometimes recounting, sometimes reading from his little black book that he had been writing poetry and proses into, during his dark moments. If I had asked him a million questions that night, I’m sure he would have duly answered them all. If I had asked him for his deepest, darkest secrets, I would have gotten them. It was like I got this gateway to the twilight zone that I didn’t know what to do with. It was incredibly intimate, gazing into someone’s soul. It made me feel so burdened with the knowledge that I am now responsible for that person, because he had shown his vulnerable side to me. And if there was one way to make me care instantly, showing me how vulnerable you are was it.
So at 3 a.m. I pulled out my old sleeping bag and told him to just sleep in my room. I told him that tomorrow will come, and slowly we’ll get through it somehow. I don’t remember what I had told him, actually. But my instincts now are still the same as my instincts back then. If I were 10 years old, I would have told him the same thing. That he will be ok, I will take care of him.