What It Took

A good friend from college days dropped by a couple weekends ago while en route from Lesotho to Washington D.C. via Amsterdam.  I met Mark during my last year of college at Berkeley.  He and I lived in the same dorm, where he´d liked hanging out in the doorway of my room, chatting up my roommate Valerie, the Graduate Student Instructor in his history class.  After graduation, we even shared a San Francisco apartment one summer on the corner of Bush and Leavenworth.  He taught me how to hop onto moving cable cars, and he took me to my first culinary dive.  The hole in the wall on a block of the Tenderloin was minutes from our flat and served cheap, incredible heaps of Saj Paneer and Chicken Korma.

Besides having a fearless knack for finding the best places to get affordable, ethnic eats, Mark is one of those people who is very, very good at keeping in touch.  When he likes you, he will travel across the globe to be at your wedding, sleep on a mattress on your floor or re-route flights to stop over in the city you happen to be living in at the moment.  What makes him different from other friends I have known as long is this: he maintains the relationship with unconditional generosity.  He has visited every European city I have lived in since graduation, and he has even seen my parents´ home in the good old Inland Empire.  But this is all thanks to Mark, who gives without expectations.  All I have ever had to do is respond to his e-mails or answer my cell phone to say, “Yeah, come over.  We want to see you.”  When he comes, it´s like we´ve just had lattés the day before in Berkeley, Heidelberg or Amsterdam.

After his last visit, Mark posted a photo of the two of us on Facebook.  It had been taken exactly eight years ago to the month, in October of 2001.  I had forgotten about that visit, mostly because I had been living with the roommate from hell on the otherwise hip and beautiful Oranienburgerstraße in Berlin.  I must have repressed every memory associated with the two months in that apartment, Mark´s Berlin trip notwithstanding.

In the photo, we are sitting on a bench waiting for the subway at Unter den Linden.  I am wearing my mother´s Polish trenchcoat, an angora sweater she sent me and a cheap scarf I´d bought at H&M.  The coat and sweater are now in attic boxes, but even if I wore them, I´d look like another girl than the one on the bench.  My hair there is chin length, I am not wearing makeup, and I am smiling at the camera in that way Europeans find typically American.  Mark is looking off to the side with half a grin.  I wonder now who he had asked to take the picture.

Looking at that photo, I have to cringe a little.  It´s not about the fact that my hair is puffy, or that my face is soap-scrubbed.  It´s about the period ahead that lies in wait with scholarship searching, secluded dissertation writing, five moves in two foreign countries and, to top it all off, the cancer that would end my mother´s life.  I look at myself in the picture and I can´t believe that the year before, I had already met the love of my adult life, and that he, too, had chosen me, in my life so untouched by experience.

While standing in an aisle of a local convenience store last week, mulling over some craft supplies my daughter seemed keen to own, I took out my wallet to check my cash.  As my daughter chirped away, crinkling the plastic of the bag holding Styrofoam stars, rainbow-colored pipe cleaners and miniature pom-poms, I looked down at the fingers holding open the black, vinyl billfold and saw my mother´s sun-stained hands.  I saw the responsibility of all the plastic tucked into compartments of the wallet´s sleeves, and the decisions behind the receipts that lay neatly creased into some side pockets.  Without having to open the change purse, I actually knew how much cash was left, because I kept track of what I spent, because my husband and I earned it together.  We had a new mortgage to pay off, and a second child on the way.

Meandering through the park with her following our store visit, she stopped every couple of steps to hold up a brown, broken leaf and exclaim, “Ahhh!”  After I smiled and answered, “Oh, how beautiful,” she beamed from ear to ear before stashing her treasures into the compartment under the buggy.  Strolling home, I watched the way the wheels crunched over wet foliage.  I saw my own roller skates skidding over damp sidewalks and broken branches on the long walk back from pre-school, my mother at my side, keeping my balance with her hand in mine.

© 2009 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.

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