Can you see me in that picture? I’m the one in the jeep, with the white GAP hat on reading a thick book. I’m on vacation, in Aruba, with my mother. See the church behind me? It’s got some significance to it, but what exactly I don’t know because I was fourteen and so anti-social I couldn’t be bothered by history or anything outside of the binding of “East of Eden.” My mom’s the one taking the photo. This day was supposed to be one on the list of special outings, this during our first vacation after my father’s death. My mom chose Aruba and while secretly I couldn’t have been happier, I was fourteen. Ergo, everything on the planet sucked.
I remember, on this day, going to see some natural bridge, whatever that is, and driving on sand or somewhere that clearly interfered with my reading. I can’t remember if we shared our Jeep with another couple or if it was just very awkwardly me and my mother. Can you imagine the hell? A mom and her fourteen year old daughter who cannot bother to look up from her Literature to manage a look around paradise or a smile simply because she’s fourteen and smiles and paradise both suck.
It was probably three days of this terrible attitude, the worst attitude imaginable. And then, like we did each night, we went out to dinner. It was a terribly hokey tourist restaurant where they make the diners get up and dance around the restaurant to Caribbean music or whatever the case may be, and I wouldn’t have done it at all, any of it, if it hadn’t been for Jake. He was, of course, the most recent–as in fifteen minutes–object of my affection, and I was seated three seats away from him in the touristy restaurant. We caught each other’s eyes and I was hooked. I think it was the first time I smiled the entire trip.
I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating—how Jake and I danced around that terrible table with everyone else in the restaurant, how I avoided eye contact with him because I didn’t want to seem so desperate but how I could barely keep a conversation with my mom–not because I was 14 and full of suck, but because I was 14 and infatuated with a boy who I couldn’t even look in the eyes. I know I already said, months ago, how later that night after my mom and I had left the restaurant that I met Jake officially in the kids’ game room of the Holiday Inn, a few doors down from the hotel’s casino. He had commented on my hair or something and I promptly turned him down when he asked if I wanted to go get icecream. Instead I chose to spend my night fawning over a kid named Shaun, I think, who lived in Duxbury. And I was SO fourteen that I actually said something to the effect of, “Duxbury? That name’s not as stupid as my town’s name.” Anything to out-stupid someone. Jake, meanwhile, sat with us and waited patiently for me to hurry up and get over this Shaun from Duxbury, and when I did, which was the next day, we were each other’s best friends.
I know I already wrote about how we kept in touch through real mail–the kind with envelopes and stamps–for three years. How he was the first person I thought to write to when I had any trouble. I know I already told you about the time he gave me a blown glass ball for my birthday to hang in the window and a bear named Federico the next year. Once, when we were sailing on Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, he told me about “good pain” and “bad pain,” and the emotional symptoms for each kind. And I believed him because he was Jake and he hung the moon. And then he told me he made up all that good pain/bad pain stuff and laughed because I believed him.
But there was some truth there, that we wouldn’t realize until later. Shortly thereafter, when he decided to attend Ithaca College, I wanted to visit him. We made plans, while I was a senior in high school, for me to come out from Vermont for a long weekend. However, he’d started dating a girl who, for some reason, didn’t like me in the picture. And Jake made a choice. He chose her, and then he married her. And then later, he had a son with her. And during that time, it was bad, bad pain for me. He’d made his choice, as I figured, and that meant he had no room for me.
So we didn’t talk. Once, after he asked that girl to marry him, I called because I’d heard he’d gotten engaged. I was a freshman in college, and I wanted to say congratulations even though in my deepest heart I didn’t mean it. He told me the story of how it happened and I felt the bad pain again, like it was really real. There was really no room left for me.
And then, two years later, I wrote him an e-mail. I found out he got a dog with that girl, who was now his wife. And a little while later, a few years, I heard they’d had a child. And then it was pretty much clear I’d never be around again. It was bad pain.
And then last year, while I was here in Brazil, I got a comment on this blog. It was Jake. And he was going through some bad pain of his own. Turns out that girl made a choice, and she chose to move on and away from Jake. And so, like we had done thirteen years earlier, we began writing each other back and forth. Epistles of our troubles and our sorrows and of our forgiveness for each other’s silences. We told each other again and again how thankful we were to talk again. And while he, on his end, was deep in his bad pain, I was here with the good kind. The kind that ached–both from longing and from sympathy–for my friend.
I write this tonight because he is headed out on a plane tonight to visit me here. I shouldn’t be so bold, actually. He’s coming to Brazil to go to a conference here, and he’ll be staying one night with me in Campinas. It will be one of the best moments of my life, to see him again, and certainly the best reunion I could imagine.
I wish I could go back in time, there to Aruba, and be a nicer person. I wish I could erase the fourteen year-old syndrome from my body and get my face out of my book and look around. I wish I could have smiled more and been kinder to my mother who was just trying to get away from a bad pain herself. I wish I could have seen that Shaun was just a passing fascination and, from the moment I caught eyes with Jake, known it was going to be a friendship deeper than any I’d ever know. I wish I could have eaten icecream on the beach in Aruba with my friend and kept him close to me all through the years. But that regret, that right there, is the good pain. Because at least, at the very very least, I can say he is my friend now. Tomorrow I will see him again, and this time, I won’t let go.