This friendship starts with a firm handshake. I never wanted a new friend. Especially this one who doesn’t speak a word of English and, worse, a friend forced on to me by insistence of my mother.
“He’s new to our congregation and he’s new in this country and he has nobody.” She has the uncanny ability to make simple statements sound like commands.
Hanging out with him means that I have to speak Spanish, something that I, at the age of 16, am not willing to do. It’s not that I don’t speak it (in fact, Spanish is my first language), but I can’t be bothered. I associate the language with two things I hate the most: the conservative doctrines of our cult-like religion and my mother’s determination to uphold those outdated Old Testament views at home.
But I have no choice and I reluctantly agree to meet him. His name is Alex. Turns out we’re the same age, born a month apart. I ask him what he wants to do.
“You’re the expert, here,” he says. “Show me what the kids in America like to do on a Saturday.” His Spanish is thick with the Chilango accent of the uppity natives of Mexico City. Being the quintessential teenager, the only thing I can think to do is hang out at the mall and listen to music. So that’s what we set out to do.
After wandering around the mall and flipping through albums at Rhino Records, I sense Alex’s boredom. Yet, he hesitates to say anything. I’m sure by now he’s feeling like a hostage to the American youth culture of the late 1980s. Annoyed that he can’t understand that this is what teenagers do, I ask him if there’s anything he’d like to see.
“I would like to see the beach.”
I roll my eyes and off we go. I have a great distaste for the ocean. Ironic, since I live forty-five minutes by freeway from the so-called beautiful Southern California beaches.
I tune into KROQ, the premier new wave/synth pop alternative radio station in the Los Angeles area. I turn up the volume as high as I can and get lost in a pollution of synthesizer rock. It’s always been a great pleasure for me to drive around town listening to music without any real destination. It’s something I still take pleasure in doing now.
We say very little to each other in the car. But I do notice that there’s a big grin plastered on his face all the way there. We arrive at Newport Beach. I park as close to the water as possible and we get out of the car. I have to catch up with him as he instantly gravitates to the lazy waves that roll up on to the beach.
Five minutes later, I call to him to get back in the car. I’ve got better things to do. On our way back, I decide I want to make a pit stop at Tower Records in Hollywood. It’s out of the way, really, but it’s a great excuse for me to continue listening to my music. And still, we say very little to each other. We do briefly stop off at Tomy’s Burger and continue on our way. I see Alex’s eyes widen with excitement as we turn on to Hollywood Blvd. Looming over to our right is the Hollywood sign. Still, he says nothing but cranes his neck to get a better view. We drive past the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre…
The rest of the day is uneventful. We head home. Before I drop him off at his place, I ask him if he had fun. His face lights up.
“Yes,” he says. “I’ve never seen the ocean before. Thank you. I’ll always remember this day.”
My heart sinks.
“Look,” I tell him in Spanish. “We have nothing in common, but my mom wants us to be friends, so… Let’s give it a try. I can’t promise anything.” I extend my hand out. He takes it firmly like businessmen striking a formal deal. “If it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings, OK?”
“OK,” he says. And we leave it at that.
In the following 10 years, we become closer than brothers. In a way, I become a hostage to his charming personality. We were inseparable. A handshake sealed our association and a decade later, a handshake undoes the bond of friendship we effortlessly worked to build.