Last month I said good-bye to another friend. We sat cross-legged on the tile floor, a blanket thrown down where her table once stood. I pulled out plastic plates and a Tupperware full of spaghetti with red sauce. Her eyes were tired from the exhausting process of packing up your life into six suitcases. “Thank you,” she sighed as I opened up a bottle of red wine and poured it into two clear plastic cups.
Her kiddos were sleeping, and mine was at home with my husband, so we sat uninterrupted on that chilly evening, and filled her empty living room with memories. “I can’t even quite remember when you and I met.” I laughed, trying to scroll through our various conversations from the past three years. “Maybe at yoga? Or was it at Heather’s house? No, wait. It was book club.”
She shrugged, “I can’t really remember either.”
We switched to talking about the hassle of trying to end cell phone contracts and transfer a car title. We shared stories with part annoyance and acceptance about the lines and paperwork that remain an ongoing part of life in a developing country. She talked about transitioning back to life in the U.S., her concern more for her young girls than herself. Her husband had already left; his new job started two months ago.
She had sold most of their stuff in the previous weeks; posting each item on Facebook, like an online garage sale, a common occurrence in this transient expat community. I bought a plant and a few craft supplies for my daughter. I have watched friends do this before. It’s a weird feeling to put a price to the items that make-up your life, and empty your cabinets and closets one-by-one. But the golden rule of living abroad is you must return with what you came with; two suitcases and a carry-on.
“Do you have a lot left to do tomorrow I asked?” As she tossed a few more goodies for me into a plastic bag: Three tubes of Crayola washable finger paint, a half-used bottle of quality bug-spray and a some barely opened spice jars from her kitchen. Things that were not worth the space in her suitcases, but worth just enough that you can’t just throw them away.
“I just need to bring this box to Rache and someone is coming by to pick-up the bed.” Her eyes got teary. “Oh and the girls’ curtains. I am bringing those. For some reason I feel attached to them.”
I nodded, completely understanding. Sometimes seemingly insignificant things, like curtains or a tea kettle, ground you and remind you of the life you don’t want to leave behind.
“It’s not the things that are hard to say good-bye to” she motioned toward the empty rooms where both of her girls have slept for the past 3 years, “it’s the people.”
She wiped away her tears, and I held back mine.
I knew exactly what she meant. There are two sides to every goodbye; the mourning of those leaving, and the loss of those that are staying. I have learned that it’s ok to acknowledge both.
I hugged her goodbye at her door, knowing that we’d stay in touch. Friendships form quick and deep when you’re both foreigners trying to become familiar in a new place.
I got in my car to drive home, and adjusted my mirror to pay better attention to the road. I have lived here for almost six years and am still surprised by how empty and dark the roads are by 9:30pm. Things like electricity and companies like Utility Saving Expert associated with it are privileges that many Guatemalans don’t have.
I pulled into my own neighborhood, as the metal gate closed behind me. I parked in front of my house. I needed a few minutes by myself to try and understand my own sadness. I began making a mental list:
Crystal. Heather. Rachel. Abbey. Carrie. Lindsay. Marcia. Megan. Kamille. Jane. And now, Denise.
The names of dear friends who I have said good-bye to came to mind like credits rolling by at the end of the movie. These are women who I used to go on walks with around town and who were at my baby shower three years ago. We have shared birth stories and traffic checkpoint tips alike. We have discussed the multiple meanings of “fijate que” and the best ways to carry a box of groceries and a baby to your car when leaving the local grocery store..
Thanks to modern technology we stay in touch via texts and emails from around the globe. They will always understand parts of expat life better than anyone else because they have lived here. However, that doesn’t diminish the reality that they are gone right now. If I am not careful it can make me want to stop making new friends. It’s not a conscious effort, but maybe more a subtle form of self-protection.
Later that night, as I was drifting off to sleep. I remembered how Denise and I had met. I was tempted to text her right at that moment, but it was too late. I knew she was getting up before dawn to drive to the airport.
It was a Saturday in February. We were both waiting by the back table at local cafe to pick-up our organic vegetable baskets. She was 9 months pregnant with her first daughter; reaching that point where even maternity shirts are a bit too snug and everything feels a tad uncomfortable. I was 5 months pregnant with my first child, too. I don’t know if it was her calm presence or that fact that our obvious growing bellies were a natural conversation starter, but I leaned over and asked the question women say you should never ask a pregnant lady, “So, when are you due?”
“Today, actually.” She smiled, rubbing her very round belly, with equal parts affection and discomfort.
We chatted about pregnancy and prenatals, and found out we were both using the same German midwife. We made the usual small talk. She asked how long I had lived here. I asked where she was from. She paid for her basket of veggies, and I set mine on the table. As she turned to leave, she casually mentioned, “You know I am going to have a whole bunch of maternity clothes hopefully really soon that I won’t need anymore. I mean, iif you’d like to borrow them.”
It wasn’t so much of a question, but rather a generous offer.
I was stunned that she would offer me, someone she just met, her maternity clothes, and yet thoroughly excited at the prospect of new clothes for my growing belly. I hadn’t yet figured out where to find maternity clothes in a country where it’s even hard to find normal clothes in my size.
Two weeks later we ran into each other again on a Saturday morning at the same local café. Only now she had a little one tightly curled up against her chest. I walked over to congratulate her and she handed me two shopping bags full of maternity clothes.
That was how our friendship started; over shared maternity clothes. And with it the reminder that seemingly small acts of generosity are the perfect starting points for new friendships in a foreign land, or anywhere.