We were friends for the first time at twelve, and then again at fifteen, but that second year doesn’t matter. Fifteen was a ghost friendship founded on your being new at school and my still feeling new, even though it’d been two years.
Anyway, the story I want to tell is from that first year, when both of our parents had (temporary) jobs in Tokyo, and we were all living there and going to international school downtown in the Juban. Back when I was saucer-eyed and my teeth were too big. When you were freckly and green-bean-skinny and not at all pretty like you would be.
We used to follow this girl around, Amelia, because Amelia was the prettiest girl in our group and also the bravest. She used to hit on teenage boys when we went to Baskin Robbins, and not even get embarrassed if they rejected her. She once leaned over to me during Japanese class, pointed to a boy sitting two rows in front of us, and whispered, “I want him.” I laughed and felt cool like I understood what she meant, even though I didn’t really.
The two of us always took the subway to Amelia’s apartment on Friday nights, even though my building was closer.
So, the three of us were on the subway like it was any other Friday night, and you were sitting next to Amelia, while I stood and watched the disembodied lights float by in the tunnel.
ou were leaning together and sharing Amelia’s pink headphones to listen to that Avril Lavigne song I pretended to know the name of. You were dancing in your seat, wiggling your hips and flipping your hair like a nervous tick, and relishing the way Japanese businessmen had to force themselves not to look at you. And it was all because Amelia was the beautiful friend and you were the weird one, and so you had to always make sure to be doing something weird because otherwise you wouldn’t be anything.
Whenever you were both listening to music, I’d either try to look really thoughtful or really happy so you wouldn’t notice how out of place I always was. But that was the thing that really hurt; neither of you would really notice anything.
We got off the train by Amelia’s apartment complex and walked hand in hand through the entrance, Amelia in the middle. I know this is kind of gross, but I loved so much when I could tell her hand was sweating. It felt like this incredible secret I had with her that not even you could ever know about. This is silly because, of course, the hand you were holding was probably sweating, too.
Amelia’s complex was great because it didn’t feel like it was in a city. There was a pool and miles (or what felt like miles) of lush gardens and, most importantly, there was The Fountain.
We walked down to the pool, avoiding the path that went by The Fountain. I remember that the sky was gray and large that day and the skyscrapers were partially obscured in the fog.
Not seeing The Fountain was part of the fun, maybe even the best part. I could feel the hum of its otherworldly energy everywhere and the rocky slosh of anticipation in my stomach. Amelia picked an orange flower and pushed it behind her ear. I watched your hand jerk out to grab one too; then, of course, you changed your mind and let it fall limply at your side.
“Emma has a crush on George,” you said, because that is what you would do. You would be loud and obnoxious to make sure nobody looked at you long enough to call you shy—like they did me.
“Chace!” I squealed in that horrible, shrill little kid way I still haven’t grown out of.
Amelia turned to me. “You should go for it. What do you have to lose?”
I thought—and this is something you’ll understand—everything.
We reached the pool. A group of guys a little older than us were sitting on the steps at the shallow end.
“You should practice flirting with them,” Amelia said.
“They don’t even speak English,” I responded.
“So? They’re cute.”
“I would,” you said, safe in the knowledge you wouldn’t have to.
“They’re too old anyway.”
Amelia nudged my arm. “Not for me.”
Her eyes were trained on something in the distance, not the boys, something further out and less tangible. I would remember this look years later and practice it over and over in my mirror.
We skirted along the edge of the pool, and I fought the urge to look back at the boys. I felt the familiar twisting sensation in my gut that told me I’d made a small and irreversible mistake, even if I was too scared to regret it.
We ended up sitting in a patch of clovers and searching for ones with four leaves. It was the kind of aimless thing we always did on Friday nights while we waited for it to be late enough to go to The Fountain. We probably talked about boys or the girls in our class that were mean to me. Maybe we joked about how much you burped when we weren’t in school and there weren’t any boys to see. Probably we talked about boobs and when and if we’d ever really have them. It doesn’t matter what we said. The things that mattered were the things we didn’t.
It must’ve been close to summer by then because I remember it took an excruciatingly long time for darkness to fall. The sun set in great stripes of orange and pink, and there was that buzz in the air that never went away that whole strange year, and was kind of like being drunk and reminded me, over and over, you are so far from home, far from home, far.
We linked arms and skipped through the dust along the stone pathway to The Fountain.
The green bushes and trees of the gardens had taken on that sinister fairy tale look that all twelve-year-olds recognize and understand.
The stone of The Fountain was covered in thick green moss, except at the spout where it was shining and silver. A statue of an angel bent its cold lips to the bowl and stared deep into the gray-green of the barely stirring water. Dried leaves left over from another season had gathered in piles around The Fountain’s edge.
The first part of the ritual was always performed in silence. Amelia turned to each of us in turn and nodded. Amelia pulled off her shirt and then the tiny cloth of her training bra. You and I followed suit and, weirdly, this was one of the few times my body didn’t seem embarrassing. I let my eyes close for a second and breathed in the coolness of the air, trying to fill my whole body with it. Not my air, I thought, not my country or my city.
Once we were all completely naked, we joined hands. Amelia’s hands were cool in mine and, looking at her, pale and blonde, she was an angel. So were you, awkward and loud and un-pretty.
“Majestic Gods of The Fountain,” Amelia intoned, “Our bodies and lives are for you.”
“For letting us worship at your waters,” you continued, “We grant you our souls in return.”
My knees shook, knocking into stone.
Amelia leaned forward and dipped her hair into the dark pool of water.
You were next, solemn as you never could be during the day.
And then me. I let my legs bend beneath me, let my head sink beneath the rippling surface. I thought of the boys at the pool who I hadn’t spoken to and wouldn’t. I thought of the three of us sitting in the patch of clover and how we never said anything that mattered out loud.
Let something happen, I thought. Just this once, let the magic be real.
Water dripped down between my eyes and I could feel the slime of strings of moss or leaves on my shoulder. The water continued to rise and fall at a slow trickle, and the stars were barely visible amidst the bright lights of buildings.
The final part of the ceremony came when we each asked The Fountain for something.
“Please, Majestic Gods of The Fountain, give me the hottest boyfriend when we get to eighth grade,” Amelia said.
“Please, Majestic Gods of The Fountain,” you started.
Tell the truth, I internally begged. Ask The Fountain to make you confident, beautiful.
But instead you said, “Let me become a famous pop-star.”
And then it was my turn and I suddenly realized I could say whatever I wanted to, that it was my ritual as much as yours. “Please, Majestic Gods of The Fountain, let me be home everywhere I go.”
Neither of you looked at me. The water in The Fountain did not shimmer and rise or turn into sheets of gold. The stone angel did not lift her wings and fly off into the flickering lights of cars and windows. Our nakedness became awkward again, and I still did not know how to be at home in my own skin. You and I took the subway to our separate apartment buildings, and we did not talk about The Fountain or about Amelia and the selfish way we loved her.
Yesterday we spoke for the first time in months, and I wanted to say something real but I couldn’t because, even after our second year of friendship, I still haven’t learned how to talk to you. And now we have drifted apart in ways more permanent than distance, and we will never again come and go from each other’s lives in the quiet way we used to. But this is not the truth I want to leave with you. This is not why I’m writing to you. I am writing to you because, in a vague way, I regret not complimenting you. I regret letting you think we had to compete for Amelia’s love when I always knew she loved you the most. I regret letting you think you had to be loud to avoid being boring. I should have told you the truth, which I think on some level I always understood. There was never any miracle when we went to The Fountain because we were the miracle, awkward and brave in our ability to want and ask for more and more and always more.