Vintage friendship


A friend and I were talking about another friend of mine (whom she doesn’t know and hasn’t met), and she mentioned how much she loved this friend’s name.

“Such a timeless name.”

Her comment made me smile. A big, huge, happy smile. What an apt description, because she perfectly described not just my friend’s name (whom I’ll call N.) but our friendship as a whole.

Have you ever had a friend whom you don’t see very often — in fact, entire years may pass before you’re even in the same city — but when you do, you just know that each encounter will be memorable? The kind of friendship that has such an outsize influence in your life that even if your meetings are rare, their footprints are all over the landscape of your past and future?

That was, and is, N.

I met N. when we were both in college, way back in either the fall of 1992 or the spring semester of 1993. In fact, I remember hearing him before I even met him. He has this clear, confident voice that he doesn’t seem capable of lowering, but everyone forgives him for that because he’s such a funny and charismatic personality. The first thing I ever remember learning about him was that he spent some of his high school years in Indonesia, after his oil-and-gas-executive father was transferred to a company site there from their otherwise humble lives in Norman, Oklahoma. As 1993 unfolded, he and I and a third student in our political theory class (P.) became fast friends, and we bonded over a group project where we applied game theory to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bonding consisted partly of calm discussions over sodas in my apartment, and heated arguments in empty classrooms. God, we were so precious.

We eventually lost touch with P. (last we heard, he’d been busted for drug dealing — ya think ya know people), but N. and I remained friends. Over the next few years, though, as our paths and career choices propelled us in different directions, so much of what happened in those early years of our friendship continued to have such profound and lasting effects in my life:

  • In August of 1993, N. took off for a semester-long internship at the U.S. embassy in Singapore. Two days before he left, he told me to go to Academic Computing Services and “ask for a VAX account. If they ask you what for, tell them you need it to get on the Internet.” I remember scribbling all of this down in my notebook, not having any idea what he was talking about. “What’s the Internet?” I still remember his sun-reflecting smile. “It’s a way we can stay in touch in real time for free, just over our computers.” Thank you for introducing me to the Internet, N.
  • When I landed the teaching position in Japan the year after I graduated college, N. was among the first people I called with the news. When I breathlessly screamed into the phone, “Guess what???!!!” he immediately responded with, “You got the job!” Unlike everyone else I’d called, he’d remembered the agony of the months-long wait, and instantly understood the joy that made the phone line between us almost hum. A few months later, in the days before I myself launched into my own adventure in the east, he presented me with a Swiss Army compass as a farewell/good luck gift. “To guide you when you get lost — and I know you will — in your journey.” I still have that compass. Thank you for remembering the important things in my life, N.
  • When I was in Japan, he emailed and said I should visit Singapore, one of his favorite cities in the world, and that if I wanted, I could stay with his mother and stepfather while there. I ended up visiting the city-state twice during my two-year tenure in Japan and instantly fell in love with it, as well as with his delightful parents, who are just as kind, generous and life-giving as N. In fact, I visited again in September of 2008, staying for three weeks, and am now writing a lengthy historical novel based in that city. Thank you for introducing me to what has become my 2nd favorite city in the world, N.
  • In the summer of 1995, I attended his graduation party at his father’s home in Fort Worth, TX. While there, I met the person who would someday introduce me to B., but that was months and months in the future. Thank you for turning what I thought was a fun but otherwise “normal” event into a pivotal moment that would transform the rest of my life, N. 
  • In August of 2001, I attended a two-day board meeting in San Francisco, hosted by a nonprofit for which I volunteered at the time. By then, N. was living in San Francisco, in a two-story, ramshackle Victorian home with a stunning view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. He shared it with a shy but equally friendly roommate named Paul, and they spent their days building and growing what would eventually become their meal ticket (i.e., they later sold the company to a much larger Internet enterprise for a small fortune). On my last day, N. and Paul spent hours taking me to see the sights of the city, and we finished the day flying kites on the beach at Golden Gate Park, in the shadow of the bridge, at sunset. Thank you for what has become my very favorite memory of San Francisco, N.
  • Shortly after I bought our airline tickets to Singapore for our September 2008 visit, B. and I found out that, by sheer coincidence, N. had landed a job launching and managing a global Internet company’s Emerging Markets division, and he could choose to base it anywhere he wanted. Not surprisingly, he had chosen Singapore, and he would be moving there the week after our arrival. I hadn’t seen him since that golden afternoon in San Francisco in the final summer days of 2001, but with our friendship, the years never seem to matter anymore. We had drinks at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel, which has since become my favorite hotel in the world, and then ended that hot, humid and memorable evening sweating over Indian curries at a hawkers’ stall somewhere in the central city. Thank you for yet another unforgettable Singapore memory, N.
  • And just a few weeks ago, I met N. again while I was in San Francisco for a conference. It had been nearly 9 years since our last meeting, 25 years since we first met, but he retains that same charm and warm sincerity that one of my college friends once said was his “magic”. He’s now just become a proud father for the second time and is married to a stunning woman I hope to meet sometime soon. As cheesy as this may sound, I couldn’t be prouder of, or happier for, my friend. We met for drinks (whiskey for him, Riesling for me) at the Lobby Bar of the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I marveled at how very far we’ve come from the days when we thought beers at Dick’s Last Resort in Dallas or midnight coffees at IHOP during finals week were the height of sophistication. And yet, in many ways, we’re still the wide-eyed college seniors we once were, our futures still shrouded in mystery but shimmering with promise.

Thank you, N., for the gift of your timeless friendship. My college buddy was right. You really do have magic.