As I prepared to leave her grandmother’s home, I offered a perfunctory, “I’ll see you around”, believing that we had left a nice enough impression to think a future rendezvous with these thirty-somethings was likely.
To my slight surprise, our host for the evening took mild exception to my casual farewell.
“I don’t really like it when people say “I’ll see you around” because in my experience, anyway, they never really do.”
Without wanting to dig any deeper and employ on-the-spot therapy, I figured best to evade deep waters and swim around to where it was shallow.
“Ah, so we could say something else then. What would be more appropriate?”, I offered.
The innocence in my tone could not mask the awkwardness that had quietly entered the room. How sneakily of it, to have arrived just as we were about to leave.
I could not remember if anyone offered up another way to say goodbye and another way to ensure there ever was a next time. Our only saving grace this moment was simply, that we were too old, not to.
When you are thirty or hovering around it, as I am, I find that there just isn’t much room for unnecessary pleasantries. By now, we should have learned the tactful art of saying what we mean. As our host did, that evening.
There was a New York Times article making the rounds about how difficult it is to make friends after 30. For my wife and I, it was already true before we had even gotten there. Granted, we left all the friends we had and moved to a country where we knew hardly anyone, and we found ourselves in a netherworld space between families tending to their crying children, and families tending to their aging parents.
Considering the context, not having friends wasn’t entirely our fault. Our cats are partly to blame.
Some of the deeper connections we have made feel somewhat anomalous — one with two avid hikers in their late 40s and their precocious son who never runs out of questions for me about Marvel Superheroes, another with a vegan couple that religiously listens to The Young Turks, and finally, the first family that hosted us when we arrived, a young couple around our age with two beautiful tots that look like golden Viking children.
And then we have the friends we’ve made fortuitously, who surprise us at every turn with their kindness and willingness to tread the deeper waters with us. A “Chindian” who runs a local cafe and his wife, with whom we share the occasional foodie adventure around town. A young couple from East Malaysia, just finishing up at university, who worship the same way we do and share a similar taste in movies. And a young girl with a shaved head and a radiant smile whose gentleness is refreshing, and whose hatred for injustices committed against migrants in Penang, inspiring.
It was she that invited us to our host’s home – a magnificent place in a tucked away part of town we never traverse, with a sprawling lawn and its own little round-about driveway.
We were, for all intents and purposes, celebrating “World Book Day”, which may be all the detail you need to guess the sort of crowd we were amidst. But before I welcome any further judgment, suffice it to say, it was a lovely evening. How often do strangers come together to share passages from their favorite books? We literally read to each other, as if everyone were taking turns playing parents and children at bedtime, except we substituted warm milk and cookies for wine and cake.
The initial goodbye had morphed into a mundane ritual of standing and sitting until we realized that sitting and talking was our fate for the evening. And we welcomed it – this surprise gathering of Millenials, local and expat alike, sharing stories about everything and nothing, really. Just, slowly unraveling.
At this age, there isn’t any more need for pretense. It’s hard enough cutting through all of the fluff to get to the bottom of what it is that we all really crave – human connection. When we grow older, we stop counting stuff, and instead, we start counting friends, desperate to make sure that particular number isn’t plummeting.
To know we sat with strangers and read and told stories for hours is a good enough sign to think that, yes, maybe we will see them around. As scary as it might feel to say it, or as off-putting as it might be to hear it, there’s that hope implanted, for “a next time”.
And if that next time isn’t quite around the corner…well, we’ve found each other on Facebook. Now, there isn’t an excuse.