succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, October 17, 2009

This Guy

A coworker and I were reminiscing a couple of weeks ago, and I was reminded of this guy. This guy I met in Berlin. This guy who, frankly, was probably my first love. Not the sort of grown-up love I like to think myself capable of these days, but certainly the sort of impassioned, puppy love I could muster at 14. The story goes like this:

Mom and I were in Germany for a gymnastics competition, and all the competitors wore ID cards around their necks, with different colors to identify different countries. This ID card got you on all forms of public transportation for free, which was great, but also provided easy conversation starters, as you knew who else was American or from an English-speaking country. We were in the Pergamon Museum, and I noticed we were just behind this guy and his dad - they were always just leaving rooms as we were entering them. Finally we walked into one to find this guy and his Dad paused to consult their map. We walked over to see if they needed help and start the same small talk we'd been engaging in all week - which gym are you with? where are you from? staying in Europe after the competition? This guy, J, traced a line on the map with an index finger featuring a class ring with a green stone and a fingernail splashed the same shade. We made our small talk, then went our respective ways.

Later that night was the opening ceremony. Truly amazing - held in the same Olympic Stadium that once held Hitler and Jesse Owens. Also truly never-ending. Many teams bailed before the end, but my coach, true to his nature, refused to let us leave, insisting we show respect. Which is how we ended up adopting J for the evening. He wandered away from his team for a bit to trade with other countries (it was common practice throughout the week to swap t-shirts, jackets, pins, hats, etc. between international teams) and when he got back his team had already headed back to the hotel. So he wandered around looking for other Americans and found a familiar face from the museum.

He and I and Mom and a handful of other members of my team ended up being practically the last people to leave the stadium, thanks to one of my coaches leaving his bag behind and having to go back and search for it. So by the time we finally boarded the train back to the hotel it was the last train of the night, which, evidently, didn't run all the way to our hotel. So we found ourselves stuck, somewhere in the middle of Berlin, in the middle of the night. We walked for a while (brilliant, since none of us had a map or spoke German) before finally giving up and asking for directions at a hotel. The poor concierge was horrified by the crazy Americans and promptly called us a cab.

By the time we finally did make it back to our hotel J and I were fast friends. We stayed up most of the rest of the night talking. For the next ten days he was the last person I spoke to at night and the first in the morning (besides Mom). My coach enforced a curfew on our team, but J's did not, so he would go buy ice cream for the two of us after I was confined to the hotel and we would sit in the hallway outside my room and talk. I was his wake-up call and every morning he joined Mom and I for breakfast, even if his team's schedule meant he could have slept in.

He gave me a letter the night before we both left Germany, made me promise not to read it until I was on the train. I carried that letter in my wallet for years, and it's the thing I was most upset to lose when that wallet was stolen in college.

He drove a dozen hours to spend the following Thanksgiving with me, and I took the train to visit him twice while in Boston visiting family and colleges. In between we had a standing date, once a week, to spend an hour on the phone and we mailed a bound journal back and forth to keep track of our letters. He got me drunk for the first time, off four shots of goldschlager. But otherwise our relationship was incredibly chaste.

By the time I left for college we had drifted apart, and we've only spoken at two random intervals since then. I don't know where he is or what he's up to these days.

I like to think that I did not take him, or our friendship, for granted. I'm fairly sure that I did not. But I did take that level of intimacy for granted, in the way all kids do. I needed the clarity of hindsight to see it for what it was, to recognize the uniqueness and the closeness that we shared for a few years.

So, J, who my mother always called worthless, if you're out there somewhere, I hope you know that you're thought of fondly.


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