My best friend from home, Sophia, travels a lot. As an artist, published author (her memoir, published by HarperCollins, was reviewed by the NYTimes here), filmmaker, and sometimes lecturer (yes - see below), she's constantly on the go. Sometimes I see her, sometimes I don't. But whenever I do, I soak up every minute of her presence because she reminds me so much - among other things - of home.
We grew up in Small Town, USA together and she sat behind me in pre-algebra. Our school was massively underfunded and classes were outsourced to "portables" - little blue shacks with ramps that housed some desks, an overhead projector, and one very wary teacher. Every morning of my 7th grade year, in second period, the lights would switch off and I'd settle down in my seat by the window to learn about simultaneous equations, the quadratic formula, and y = mx + b, which I learned and compartmentalized in my 13-year-old brain both quickly and methodically.
The girl who sat behind me wore black Converse tennis shoes and severe, bleached bell-bottom jeans that she sometimes drew on (is that right, Safi? Or am I making this up?). Her hair, parted in the middle, nearly covered half her face. She also stared out the window and talked to herself. I ignored her because I thought she was crazy.
"How was school?" my mom asked after my first day. "Good," I said. "A really weird girl sits behind me in pre-algebra."
But somehow, we became friends. Really good friends. We gathered at the local library and talked about our dream of escaping "this place" - this shitty, hellhole of Small Town in the Puget Sound, which refused to accept our brown and yellow skin or "foreign" last names and mocked us, abusive. We listened to teachers mispronounce these names over, and over, and over, and over again. We stopped at red lights behind pick-up trucks, our headlights glaring at the confederate flag bumper stickers and "NOBAMA" plastered to the side. We shopped at Value Village - a second-hand clothing store that played classics from the 60s and 70s and rummaged through the racks on 99 cent Mondays.
We traded notebooks with photos of Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher hastily pasted inside. I mused about typical, nonsensical teenage things like clothes and bands I liked. Sophia, the more sophisticated of the two of us, made line drawings and scrawled notes about cult films and directors she admired. Flipping through one of these old notebooks last summer, however, it was clear that a common thread ran throughout: "I want to move to London," we wrote to each other."I want to live in England."
I wonder what would have happened if someone walked into that darkened portable and showed our futures to us in a crystal ball.
Fast forward sixteen years later, and we find ourselves having dinner at the newly opened Granger & Co. in Clerkenwell - an Australian restaurant whose namesake, Bill Granger, has the celebrity chef following in Australia akin to that of Jamie Oliver's. Sophia is wearing a gorgeous, pleated black Whistles skirt and her hair is very much not in her face. She looks beautiful, as she always has and as I always try to tell her - though it comes out sounding insincere even when I mean it so much.
The restaurant is huge: filled with large windows, big mirrors, warm lights, and minimalist decor (the bathroom is one of my favorite parts - pink tiled with old-fashioned sinks and Aesop products). The menu, comprised of small plates, big plates, and a section called "bowls and grains" (think: pappardelle, veal & pork ragu or prawn, chilli and rocket linguine) is both inventive and impressive. I had a difficult time deciding between the crab, chorizo, and house kim chee fried brown rice or the tea smoked salmon, green tea noodles, samphire, daikon with soy mirin dressing.
In the end, we both choose the salmon dish and share grilled asparagus with yuzu pepper creme fraiche to start.
For dessert, I order the Dutch pancake with ice cream, coconut, and kaya curd (a childhood favorite of mine that's reminiscent of summers spent in Hong Kong eating 2-inch thick slices of white toast slathered in butter and kaya spread) which is so sickly yet delicious, it makes my stomach feel like it's about to burst.
Sophia orders the prosecco and elderflower jelly with berries and I film her shaking her plate so that the gelatin quivers - making me shake with raucous laughter and causing the table of Americans next to us to give us some serious side-eye. I don't care because when I'm with Sophia, as it is with my closest friends back home, I lose all sense of self-consciousness.
I talk a mile a minute about everyone and everything - no topic of conversation left untouched. We see each other so infrequently that I save up everything I've been meaning to or wanting to tell her: observations, gossip, personal anecdotes, complaints, internet trends, and fashion. Then I ask her question upon question: "Where are you going? What are you doing? Who will you be with?" She tells me. Her next talk will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver B.C., where she - alongside William Gibson and Michael Stipe (yes, him) - will be discussing the future of art. You see?
As we descend to the pink-tiled bathroom once again before leaving the restaurant, I clap my hand on her shoulder and say, "What do you think those girls in pre-algebra would say if we walked up to them now and told them that this would be their life in fifteen years or so?"
"Oh god," says Sophia. "Our acne-ridden selves? We'd be like, 'Whaaaat?'" she says, making a high-pitched, drawn-out sound while scrunching her face up in confusion.
I laugh so hard.