Poems & Essays

17 Dec

The Magic of a First Best Friend

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I never imagined that my American son would be on the living room floor making art with his Japanese best friend, both speaking flawless Spanish. But that’s exactly what’s happening now. After much back and forth about who gets to use which marker, who can draw which superhero and whose superhero is best, the conversation takes a turn that catches my attention.

“Did you know I’m going to Japan tomorrow?” Hayato asks my son Flynn in Spanish. “I’m sad, sad, sad. Did you know all my things are in boxes?”

Flynn turns to me on the couch. “Hayato’s leaving tomorrow?”

His dad’s job is taking the family back to Japan, but I explain that no, they aren’t leaving tomorrow.

Hayato looks over. “When?” he asks, his voice low.

“Next week,” I say.

I know his parents told him this, but to a five year old, time’s a fuzzy concept. Flynn, for instance, still insists that the minute I lay with him after bedtime stories is one long minute, never a short one.

“What day next week?” Hayato persists.

“That, I don’t remember,” I admit, “but I know you have another week of school.”

Flynn and Hayato stand. They grasp hands, meet eyes and jump up and down. Hayato isn’t leaving tomorrow! Not only do they have tonight’s slumber party, but the boys also have another week of school together! To them, it’s an eternity.

Flynn and Hayato first met two years before, at age three, when they were the only foreigners at their Mexican preschool. Flynn’s teacher told me that he bonded with a boy named Hayato, born in the United States to parents who were Japanese. New to Mexico, Flynn couldn’t yet speak Spanish, so I assumed he chose this friend because he could actually communicate with him.

Then, at a birthday party a month later, I finally met Hayato myself.

“Hi there,” I said.

The boy stared blankly back.

“How are you?” I asked.

No reply.

A petite Japanese woman swooped to his side. “Hayato speaks Spanish and Japanese,” she told me, “but we left the U.S. before he picked up English.”

“I didn’t realize.“

“Anyway, it’s nice meeting you,” Hayato’s mom said. “I hear about your son a lot.”

“Yours too! Although now I’m confused. I thought the boys bonded over English.”

Hayato’s mom smiled. “Seems they just like each other.”

Flynn and Hayato were typical three year olds in many ways—their new love for superheroes eclipsing that for dinosaurs—but they were also gentle in a way some of their peers were not. They glued miscellaneous objects onto paper and then gifted each other their art.  They did somersaults in the soccer field instead of drills. At a tender age when they were the essence of their basic inclinations and desires, not yet molded by the worlds around them, something about their two souls connected.

At age four, Flynn and Hayato attended a summer day camp that held an optional sleepover on the camp’s last day. From my American parenting perspective, this seemed destined for disaster, but Hayato’s mom came from Tokyo, where six-year-olds ride the metro alone, and she talked me into it. I lay awake all night waiting to be summoned by camp counselors for Flynn, but the call never came. After that, the boys began enjoying sleepovers at one another’s homes.

“It’s okay if you’re sad about Hayato’s move,” I told Flynn before Hayato arrived for this final sleepover.

“I’m not,” Flynn said decidedly.

“It’s okay if you’re sad about our move too,” I added.

In a few months, our family would leave Mexico for India, so it wasn’t just Hayato—many more goodbyes were coming.

I’d never been much for goodbyes myself, always having been the sort to slip out of parties unnoticed. When I took a job as a foreign service officer that would uproot my family to a new country every few years, I thought more about the hellos—about the wonderfully diverse and interesting people we would get the chance to know.

Six years into expatriate life, despite lots of practice with goodbyes, I was actually getting worse at them. I’d learned that most people, however much I enjoyed their company, would be replaced in my life by new people whose company I would enjoy too. I told myself that since their absence wouldn’t impact me significantly, no emotional and uncomfortable farewell was necessary.

Then there were those rare few who weren’t so easily replaced, but I avoided goodbyes with them too, although for a different reason. It allowed me to stuff down my sadness about seeing such strong friendships go.

Yet like any parent, I wanted better for my son. I wanted him to be braver with his feelings, so I pushed him to face his goodbyes. Especially this one with Hayato.

At tonight’s slumber party, Flynn and Hayato finish their art, then change into matching Superman pajamas. They settle with an iPad atop piles of blankets on Flynn’s bedroom floor. They promise they’ll go to sleep very soon, but much later I peek in and see two grinning, wide-awake faces illuminated by the glow of a screen. In the morning, I have to wake them for a quick breakfast before Hayato’s mom arrives. They hug goodbye and say they’ll see one another at school. They act like everything is normal, probably because to them, everything isnormal. An eternity remains.

But little by little, day by day, their eternity dwindles. A few days later, they say another goodbye after a play date at our house. Standing by the door, Flynn whines that Hayato didn’t watch his new magic tricks. He clings to my leg. He cries. I wonder if what Flynn means but isn’t saying is that now, Hayato never will see his magic tricks. He never will because Hayato is leaving forever.

After the car drives off, Flynn collapses onto the floor. His tears flow freely. “I just wanted to do my magic! Why wouldn’t Hayato watch my magic?”

I sit beside him. I hug him. I’m crying too for the first time in I don’t even know how long, crying because my son is crying, because I think he’s sad about more than he’s letting on. I’m sad that Flynn’s sad, but I’m also sad for myself.

I’m happy in Mexico. Every bit as happy as my son. Like him, I’ve found some of those rare people with whom I really connect. If I had a choice, I probably wouldn’t go.

After a while, Flynn’s sobs stop. He looks up. “Maybe youcan watch my magic?” he asks.

“Of course.”

With a few disappearing card tricks, he seems back to normal. And I stuff my own sadness back in.

Flynn and Hayato’s final goodbye comes a few days later. It happens at school, and I hear it goes smoothly—all smiles and no tears.And just like that, Hayato is gone.

Days pass, then weeks, and the sorrow I expected to envelop Flynn in the absence of his best friend never does. I don’t know quite what to make of this. It surprises me.Also surprising to me is that Hayato is gone but at the same time not gone. The boys exchange video messages recorded by us parents whenever they ask. Hayato takes Flynn along on Tokyo’s subway. Flynn tells Hayato about the latest class birthday party. Hayato plots a slumber party with Flynn once he gets to India. Flynn draws pictures he promises to bring Hayato in Japan. They plan a joint sixth birthday party at their favorite restaurant in Mexico.

Their understandings of geography seem as fuzzy as their senses of time, but I don’t correct them. When a bond is strong enough, maybe to five year olds, time and place stretch to accommodate it. Maybe that’s one of Flynn’s magic tricks.

I start to wonder if I was wrong in my assumptions about all Flynn was feeling on the playroom floor. Maybe he did just want to show Hayato his magic. Maybe he wasn’t and still isn’t devastated about Hayato’s move.

The weeks stretch to months, and the gaps between the boys’ messages grow longer. As Hayato’s family settles into life in Japan, our family says goodbyes in Mexico, stops for visits in the United States, and then arrives in India.

One day, out of nowhere, the boys decide they want to talk by Skype, something they’ve never before done. It’s been seven months since they’ve seen one another in person, and connected in real-time through screens, they struggle to interact. Hayato speaks in Japanese. Flynn asks in English what he’s saying. Spanish words and phrases that used to come naturally now escape them both. We moms try to translate, but they’re not having it. They both want to end the call.

And this, I think, is it. Two boys, once inseparable, were flung by the fates towards futures in different corners of the world, andI’m devastated to watch their beautiful friendship come to a crashing end right here, much like my own friendships recently did when I boarded that plane leaving Mexico.

Then, Flynn has an idea. He hops up, turns his bottom towards the screen and makes a fake fart. Hayato’s eyes grin, and he reciprocates with a fake burp. Giggles burst from Flynn’s mouth. I smile. Hayato’s mom too. Well how about that. Their friendship seems to have stretched again.

Now the boys are performing limb-flailing dances for one another, each move crazier than the last. They’re laughing uncontrollably, and Hayato can’t be thinking about how much he still misses Mexico, which I know from texts with his mom that he does. Flynn must not be thinking about the fact that in India, he hasn’t yet found a new close friend.

I never imagined I would learn so much from two five year olds, but watching them, I realize I have some calls to make. Some emails to send. Flynn and Hayato’s friendship may not last forever, but even without physical and linguistic barriers, friendships rarely do. Yet strong enough friendships, if we let them, can stretch and contract and bend and morph to last however long it is we need. It’s not magic, but it’s magical.





Alexis Wolff is a U.S. diplomat and mom to two young boys whose childhoods have been spent in Benin, Mexico, India, and the United States. She has an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in African Studies from Yale University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Brain Child, Mamalode, Kveller, and others.

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