We hung out together in high school, her and I.
At that time, being part of the same group qualified as being friends. In that sense, we were. But we really weren't. There were no late night phone-calls, no shared secrets or aspirations, no knowing every tiny detail of each other's life, no big fights. We went to the same school, knew the same people and somewhere in between all that, we knew of each other.
She was the popular one, attractive, confident and boisterous. She used to sing and play basketball. The guys loved her. I was academic, or so I liked to believe. Quiet and reserved, I couldn't sing to save my life or play sports for that matter.
That's how I remembered her. She moved to the US from India when we were both sixteen.
I was on a flight to Ontario, California, trying to sleep. A five o'clock start that morning should have led to guaranteed slumber but it hadn't. My mind as racing, cluttered. Was this weird? I hadn't seen her for seventeen years. We'd barely spoken to each other thrice over the phone in that time. I didn't even know who she was now. Did I even know her back then? I wasn't sure. Yet, I was going to spend the next five days in her house, with her husband, three kids and a dog. Why was I doing this?
She called me once, years ago. I was living in New Zealand at that time and it was in the middle of the night. She had apologized for waking me up. She said she'd gotten my number from my sister, who was her friend on Facebook. She was excited, I, was a bit disoriented. She'd urged me to use Facebook too. Next morning I didn't remember much of what we had spoken about. The same day however, I joined Facebook. She was my first friend on it.
What was I going to say when I saw her? She was picking me up at the airport. Would I hug her? Should I hug her? What's the first thing she would say? I knew what I didn't want her to say. 'You haven't changed a bit.' I hated that. I got that a lot. Mostly because I was still tiny, short and had the same face.
Ten months ago, I had moved to the US temporarily and while here planned to travel as much as I could. We caught up with each other over chat one night. She invited me to California. Her home was my home, she wrote. I really wanted to go to California. A week later, I booked my tickets.
In the weeks leading up to my departure, I convinced myself on how happy I was. Getting to see an old friend after so long. On the morning that I left home, I gave up and indulged the one thought that I had been suppressing for days. Did I really want to see her or was this just too good an offer to pass? Was the excitement for her or for California? Was I being selfish? I wasn't sure.
Her husband picked me up at the airport and half an hour later we were at her house. Through the windscreen, I saw her come out of the front gate. She was smiling. I got out of the car as she came around from the back. We hugged each other. 'It's great to see you.' she said.
"You haven't changed a bit," I blurted out almost instantly.
Over cups of coffee, we spent the evening talking. I told her about my life, my writing and travels. Also, about my first solo trip, how I'd couchsurfed and loved it. She worked for a bank, had lived in California for the last seventeen years, I found out. She traveled every year with her family and loved her life. I believed her, she looked happy.
We talked about common high school friends. She told me about the two who were getting divorced and the one who recently had a baby.
She drove me around LA and Hollywood the next day. Took me to dinner at a famous Chinese restaurant. At some point during the drive, she mentioned that she wanted to retire by the ocean. She loved water. I wanted to retire on the road, I said. To this she smiled and nodded knowingly.
On our way back home that evening, the two of us sang loudly in the car, old songs that we both knew in high school. Music was her life, she said. Mine too. We exchanged our favorite songs one by one. Didn't take long to realize that we both liked the same sort.
She went to work the next day. I stayed home. I spent time with her children and thought, on and off, about the last evening. I waited for her to come home and also acknowledged that feeling to myself. I realized that I could have gone sight seeing. Instead, I called and asked her what time she'd be back.
We drank ourselves silly that night. Starting with tequila shots, we polished off two bottles of wine between the two of us. We cracked dirty jokes, fell off our chairs laughing and fought over a bowl of peanuts. We made plans to go backpacking around Australia together. She made me promise that I would take her when I went.
I invited her to my house in Kansas. She made a face and asked me where that was. I pretended to be offended before we both burst out laughing. There was no sense to it all. And yet, somewhere there was.
We went to bed around three am, chanting repeatedly that we'd sleep till noon. At eight in the morning, we found ourselves sitting across each other in the backyard, sipping coffee and trying to get over the hangover.
I watched her as she removed nail polish from her toe, dealt with each one of her children patiently and talked to me, all at the same time. This when she was apparently hung over. We talked about life and how far we'd come. She mentioned that I wasn't anything like she'd thought I would be, that I'd changed. For an instant I wondered what she thought of me back then. I told her that she was just how I expected her to be, confident and in control of her life.
That night, she dropped me off at the airport. We made plans to travel together at least once before I moved back to India. We stood outside the front door of her Endeavour, facing each other silently for a few minutes. Eventually, we hugged and said goodbye.
I sat in the airport lounge waiting to board my flight, thinking about the last five days. I thought for a moment about all the time I'd spent before coming, researching spots and must-see attractions.
Turned out I hadn't seen much. And then there were new questions. Wasn't travel supposed to be about more than just places? Does travel itself have to be the focus at all times or can it be the medium to something more? What did I 'get out' of this?
I knew I had the answers to these.
For the next half an hour, I browsed through our pictures on my phone, stopping at each one, sometimes half-smiling and at most times thoughtful at the memory of what had brought the moment on.
In doing that, I realized what I had come to California for, but more importantly, what is was exactly that I was going back with.