I first met Kate in a coffee shop in Portland, Maine, where our friend Jason worked. I was sitting at the bar, reading the last ten pages of The Foremost Good Fortune and Kate leaned over and said, “Oh, I loved that book.” I told her I was about to head downtown to hear the author, Susan Conley, speak. Jason looked at both of us and said, “You two don’t know each other? You should know each other.” I invited Kate to join me, and she agreed. It was March, so we kept a brisk pace down the snowy streets of Munjoy Hill toward Longfellow Books, chatting about our respective jobs—she, a nurse, I, a teacher—trying to keep warm and not slip as the evening faded into gloaming.
We exchanged phone numbers after the reading under the glow of a street lamp and I remember thinking about the kind strength that emanated from her. We saw each other again a month later and sporadically over the course of the spring. I had no idea then that in the summer she would move to Nigeria to work for Doctors Without Borders and I would move to Spain to teach at an international high school, but move we did. In November, Nurse Kate came to visit me in my new home of Barcelona. We strolled the streets together, more slowly than our first walk, thanks to the warmer climate. I took her to my newly discovered favorite dive bar for tortilla, pimientos de padrón and pan con tomate. She bought mushrooms at the market while I was at work, cooked them with sage and butter and served them over pasta. We drank red wine, skyped with Jason and forgot that a less than a year before we didn’t even know the other existed. The next year, Nurse Kate moved to Rwanda for a different job.
In February, I flew to Kigali to visit her and, after a few days in the city, we took a bus west to Lake Kivu. There was still a slice of daylight when we arrived, so we went for a swim. We talked about Maine and how if you squinted away the tropical flowers, the rolling hills of Rwanda and tree-covered islands in Lake Kivu looked a lot like home. I remember saying, “If anyone had stopped me that day in the coffee shop and said, ‘In two years, you two will be floating in a lake in Rwanda together,’ I would have laughed.” And yet. There we were, laughing together almost 7,000 miles from Hilltop Coffee. We swam to shore quickly; twilight does not linger on the equator as it does in New England. I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world on a teacher’s salary. I’ve driven across the United States and around Iceland. I’ve hiked in Nepal and skied in France.
I’ve eaten salted cod in Lisbon and soaked in geothermal water in the Azores. I have read hundreds of books on public transit, in the air and on ferries, beaches and mountains. I have carried gratitude for my health and good fortune with me along with my passport, journal and a pen. This past April, Nurse Kate, Jason and I rendezvoused in Copenhagen, where we rented bikes and cycled around the city, admiring spring flowers and two-wheeled rush hour. We pulled over at one point to check the map, and found ourselves in front of a store with an English sign: Friends Collected. We didn’t go inside. We didn’t need to. We all felt it, a feeling we had carried with us for years, suddenly labeled: friends collected. Adventure is thrilling, travel is life giving but true friendship is about safety and love. It survives distance and jetlag, broken toes and broken hearts. Wherever and whenever we find ourselves together, collected, laughing about an old joke or troubleshooting an itinerary problem, cooking dinner in Portland or trying to read a menu in a foreign tongue, if I just stop for a moment I can feel my heart within my chest, not just beating but swelling, grateful and free. I feel most thankful in my heart.
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