I met Leah on the first day of college in the fall of 2003, playing two truths and a lie, a forced ice-breaker game for my entire floor that only served to exacerbate my social anxiety. In the game, you put forth three facts about yourself, one of which is false, and everyone is supposed to figure out which it is.
Leah and I were both 17, young for our class, and I don’t remember the truths she told, but I do remember the lie. She said she was gymnast and a dancer, which was believable because she’s compact yet lithe, a look she maintained even after months of dining hall french fries and greasy pizza. About a week into school, we bonded in the dank hangout room in the basement of our dorm waiting for our laundry to dry, eating Cheez-Its and drinking pumpkin-flavored beer I’d scored from the deli across the street. But it wasn’t until we started leaving campus together that I knew we’d be friends.
Our first adventure together was a day trip to New York City, two hours away by train. In the first weeks (okay, months) of college I was desperately homesick: two thousand miles away from home and not quite ready for college. Leah was from New Jersey and going to the city was no big deal for her, but she was the only one who was game when, three weeks into the semester, I suggested a weekend trip. We took Metro North from its terminal stop in Poughkeepsie, and made sure to sit on the river side of the train. All the way to New York the gray-green Hudson narrowed and widened beside us. I felt myself relax. Maybe coming east for college hadn’t been a huge mistake. I was restless on campus and it felt so good to leave, even though I knew I should be going to open-mic nights at the college coffee house instead, or actually doing all of my homework. Leaving school was running away, but there was no one to stop us.
That first day it was raining, and Leah and I shared an umbrella as we walked in step down 42nd Street. We stood in a long line for discount tickets and saw The Producers on Broadway, sitting in the very back row. We got oysters at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central before taking the train back north to school, and I felt mature (no one carded us in the city) and high on New York, which I’d otherwise only visited with my family. When Leah agreed, improbably, to go to the city again two weekends later (it helped that her parents had a pied-à-terre in the west 50s, where we spent the night that weekend and many weekends after), we developed a pattern that lasted throughout college. When our other friends wanted to discuss weekend plans, they always asked first, “Are you guys going to the city?”
I never knew Leah as well as she knew me. I’m emotive and expressive in friendships, especially with other women, and by college, I was used to staying up all night with my closest friends, talking about sex and death and school and parents and which boots made us look the most fuckable. Leah was different. She’s naturally introverted and reserved, almost to the point of being opaque. She wasn’t like this just with me, but with all of our friends at school. Sometimes we’d speculate that Leah didn’t want to tell us who she was, that there was some secret that would explain her unknowability. She didn’t talk about her feelings, either, and if she ever got mad at me, I never knew it.
Travel became what Leah and I did together, to the slight yet palpable envy of our group of friends, some of whom joined us on occasion, but not nearly as often as Leah and I ventured out on our own. In college, we took road trips: to Bennington, Vermont, where we stayed in a bed and breakfast and took disposable-camera selfies at Robert Frost’s grave. (Classy, right?) At the end of freshman year and again the end of senior year, we drove my car, with two other friends, home to my parents’ place in Santa Fe, with pit stops in Graceland and Texas steak houses. We took a long weekend drive to Prince Edward Island, where we camped on the beach and ate lobster suppers in church basements. During the fall of our senior year, we went to England and rented a car (which we narrowly managed to avoid wrecking on winding country lanes) and stayed with friends in London, Oxford, and Cornwall.
When I was alone with Leah, I talked too much, partly because she didn’t—but even with her reserved manner and long silences on train rides, we had an intimacy that was easy when we were on the road. I knew I’d overpack with electricity converters and a clutch of markers, while she’d fit everything into a shoulder bag. Leah needed coffee in the morning to function and liked a mug of red wine at night. She was the friend with whom I exchanged covert gestures and eye-rolls when I wanted her to look at something or someone, at a party or in public. Leah always knew what I meant, without me having to explain. We had a shorthand and a familiarity that became even more pronounced when we traveled. We might be strangers in a strange land, but we had one another.
It wasn’t just serendipity that allowed us to globe-trot. While we were budget-conscious in our travel decisions (especially after college when we were paying for everything ourselves), our trips were still the result of enormous privilege: time off from work and disposable income. We made good choices, like camping or staying with friends, and questionable ones, like choosing destinations based on cheap airfare. We took two big trips together after college: one to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore (this was a group tour with other 20-somethings; we chose it because airfare and accommodations were included in the price of the tour) and another on our own to Scandinavia (we were excited by the cheap plane tickets, and then dismayed by Denmark and Sweden’s well-known tendency to be astronomically expensive). Our inexperience sometimes led to less than ideal planning, but it was almost beside the point. If Leah and I were together, we’d have a great time.
Leah and I brought out the last vestiges of each other’s childlike tendencies, and this came to the fore when we were on vacation. It was an adventure to shoplift chocolate bars and mini-bottles of wine from a Tesco supermarket in Oxford, then lay out on the grass next to the Thames and eat our stolen booty. We were enormously pleased with ourselves later that evening, when we snuck into the student-only bar at Magdalene College. We invented an elaborate exchange student backstory, complete with fields of study, which we were prepared to deliver if anyone asked us what we were going there, which of course no one did. In England we didn’t need fake IDs, but back home, we obtained some at a passport shop in the East Village. The guy who made them had us residing at the same fake address in Scottsdale, Arizona. We had a specific backstory for that, too, which centered us being half-sisters. (A few sharp-eyed bartenders did ask us about that.) Petty theft was a favorite of ours: in Singapore, we stole a set of salt and pepper shakers from a cafe at the grand and old-fashioned Raffles hotel. Afterwards, we went swimming in a garden fountain.
I thought that travel was so profound, that things that happened far from home were so transcendent, that simply by experiencing them together, Leah and I would be bonded for life. Sometimes, when it was just the two of us, it felt like we were the only two people on earth. I’ll never forget things I did with her, like riding bikes and getting high (and then gorging on smørrebrød) in Copenhagen, or the rickshaw ride we took through an afternoon monsoon in Bangkok—but impermanence, so intrinsic to travel, is part of friendship, too.
The idea that best friends are forever is readily promoted in popular culture and in girl culture especially. I’ve always had best friendships with other girls, cemented by summer camp or passing notes in French class, and the media I consumed as a kid (From The Babysitters Club to Anne of Green Gables to Beaches to Thelma and Louise, I could go on) reinforced this. Leah and I aren’t friends anymore; I’m not entirely sure why. She lives in Brooklyn and I live in New Mexico, but distance never stopped us before: we’d write long e-mails to each other that I’d read three times over. In 2013, Leah was having a hard time at her job as a teacher in a public elementary school, and she was depressed. In September of that year, I had my first baby three and a half months early; my daughter ended up spending five months or so in the hospital. Life crises intervened, and we grew apart.
Yet I resist the idea that our friendship is or was less valuable because of its transience. Recent studies confirm the fairly obvious idea that experiences have a lasting impact on us that’s more important than the things we buy, in part because even after the experience is over, the memory remains. Remembering is melancholy practice because it means that the moment is gone, locked in an increasingly inaccessible past that shifts and fades as we get older. This is growing up; this is loss. And it’s OK.
Vacations are temporary; looking forward to them with Christmas-morning-style anticipation is almost better than the vacation itself because once they begin, you just can’t hold on to the setting sun, glinting on the Andaman Sea. It’s better not to try: the rush of travel, like the most intense moments of love, is fleeting, and even if it were possible to dwell in the exhilaration of waking up every morning in a new place, the afterglow has its merits. We enjoy the experience, then revel in the memories.
We’ll never be 21 again, tooling down the Cornwall coast, but in my memory, Leah and I are always on a great adventure: facing the waves on the red sand beaches of Prince Edward Island, feeling like hot shit because we got away with something, like trespassing at an abandoned insane asylum deep in Dutchess County. (Or, less romantically, reveling in the pleasures of stuffing our faces with duty-free European chocolate and mustard-slathered sausages on a crowded jetway.) Our friendship may be over, but when I think of Leah, we still shoot one another a conspiratorial glance, stolen salt shakers in hand.
Image via Shutterstock.
Adele Oliveira is a writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.