Kindred Spirit

“But you can’t leave! What am I supposed to do without you?”
“I know, I don’t want to!”
“Well, maybe they’ll change their minds.”
“Yeah. They said it’s for sure though.”
“Oh. What if we hide you here? You could hide in my room, and then you would have to stay.”
Stephanie giggled and looked out the window as the bus jolted up and down, back and forth. Our sparkling velcroed shoes swung beneath us as we perched on the dingy green seats. I was completely serious in my suggestion, but then again, maybe it was unrealistic for her to just up and leave her family. The next few bus rides we spent either avoiding the subject or coming up with plans for her to hide in our small Massachusetts town, so her family would give up their search and move to Texas without her. We knew it wouldn’t happen, but it was fun to plan, and in some ways it helped our little first grade minds to wrap around the fact that we would be living 1, 872 miles apart from the first best friend either of us had ever had.

I remember Stephanie peering out the tinted window of the school bus every day as it squealed to a stop at the end of my street. When she saw me she would smile and wave, her short blonde hair bouncing around as she maneuvered in her seat, making room for me to sit by her. Her smile was always bright, causing her eyes to scrunch up and her nose to crinkle. Perhaps most memorable of all was the way her laughter would ripple through the air with a resonance of authentic joy- so pure it was impossible not to laugh with her. We had met on the school bus in first grade, and our companionship lasted for a total of that one year. Our exact same hair color was what had brought us together in the first place (as these things do in elementary school) but the rest of the friendship had followed suit as easy and joyful. We only saw each other for a total of 40 minutes each day, but that was more than enough time for two 6-year-olds to claim a new best friend.

“Ugh, I was kind of hoping she’d cancel,” I whined to my Mom. It was the night before Stephanie and I were planning to meet at a local coffee shop- just off the highway for convenience. “Like when I said I wanted to see her, I did, but just not this much for them to change their plans for it. And it’s probably going to be quick and awkward anyways, I’m going to be too nervous.”
Stephanie and I are now both sophomores in college, and with her location at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and mine at Trinity College in Connecticut, we’ve maintained our thousand-miles-plus-some distance from each other. Over the last decade, the communication we’d exchanged was as simple as a reciprocated follow request on Instagram. When the holidays had rolled around this year, my Mom had sent me a text amidst her Christmas card sending frenzy asking me to please text Stephanie to ask for their home address; the one we have must be wrong, the card bounced back last year. I had quickly logged onto Facebook and sent a polite, brief message making the request, not expecting to hear anything back. After all, I didn’t think I’d ever seen her post and assumed her account was old and unused. An hour later, though, a cheery message popped up on my screen. Included was a chipper “Miss you!” What a funny idea, I thought, to miss someone you only once knew at the age of 6. We barely know anything about each other anymore.
Surprised by the kindness she extended, I responded with my usual enthusiasm and extended the pleasantry that if she was ever up in New England again, I’d love to get together. Taking me by surprise once again, she quickly responded to tell me that yes, they would be up in the state in just two weeks, she would love to see me, and please, would I send her my phone number so she could be in touch?
Now that the agreed upon time was approaching, I found myself annoyed at the extra activity on my schedule when I was absolutely certain that our get together would be an awkward experience for us both. Sure, in theory it sounded nice to see her again, but what were we really going to have to talk about? We hadn’t seen each other in over 12 years, and our old topics of conversation about American Girl Dolls and My Littlest Pet Shops surely weren’t going to hold the conversation the way they used to. I was convinced this time was going to be cringeworthy and filled with uncomfortable silence.

When I pulled open the heavy glass door of the coffee shop we immediately made eye contact and she jumped from her chair in excitement. Her hair is darker now, and we don’t look quite as identical as we did in elementary school, but I soon realized that everything else about her seemed the same: she was not the stranger I was expecting to meet in the coffee shop.
“Do you get anything in your coffee?” She asked after we exchanged pleasantries.
“Probably too much sugar! I know it’s bad but I figure if there’s ever going to be a time in my life when my body can handle it, it’s now.”
“Me too. Oh my gosh, do I relate.” As she said this she laughed the way I remember so well, and all at once a flood of memories came back. These ones, though, were not the kind of memories you watch play through your mind like a movie: they were the kind that you feel in your core, that bring you back to a simpler time, to safety, innocence, and bliss. To giggling and telling jokes, to a time before friendships required anything more than joy in each other’s presence- no drama, no gossip, no secrets. Home. Or at least, an old sense of home. I told her this, and she agreed with a giggle.
I was unsurprised to hear that she is pursuing a degree in Nursing, as it only fits with the selfless heart she’s always had. We joked how squeamish people like me need people like her in this world. Our conversation quickly surpassed the superficial catching up, as we dived head first into getting to know each other again. We asked each other the hard questions: What’s it like being on a liberal campus? It feels like nobody else shares my faith. How do you cope with the being homesick?
“I had a hard time finding friends on campus at first because it felt like the only social thing people wanted to do was drink or smoke. I just don’t want to experiment with that stuff.”
“Wait, me too! So you don’t drink either? I had the exact same problem starting at Baylor.”
“Ok, yeah, you totally get it then! It’s just insane to me the things people try-”
“Yes! I always tell my friends I don’t need alcohol to make me fun, I am a blast the way I am!”
“Oh my gosh, I’m not kidding you, I’ve said that exact same thing so many times!”
The number of times “Me too!” was exclaimed during our conversation was uncanny, and when we sympathized with each other, we sympathized genuinely. It wasn’t the artificial “I understand” that people offer each other: the more we talked, the more we came to understand that we were the same person as the other, each trying to navigate a different world. I shared from mine, and she shared from hers. In fascination, she listened to my story of what it was like to be a Christian in New England, the “preacher’s graveyard”. Just as enthusiastically, I listened to her story. about what it is like to be Christian in Texas, how she can just assume everybody shares her beliefs and people will hand out Bibles on street corners in front of the public schools.
“Wait, so like, everybody just assumes that everyone else is Christian? Doesn’t that ever offend people?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it that way, it’s just our way of life. There used to be people even standing on the street corner outside of my high school handing out Bibles. That’s why it’s never been that kind of challenge for me like it was for you- like I never had to seek those communities out on my own.”
“That’s just crazy to me. It’s so different.”
We compared and contrasted the lives we had built since departing each other in first grade, in simultaneous awe of what the other had handled and how we had managed to grow into adulthood almost identically. She doesn’t drink, and neither do I. She needs a clean living space, and so do I. We both love learning and are excited about the things we study in an unapologetically-nerdy way. We both need way more sleep than most people our age. We both had a hard time with our freshman year roommates and struggled with leaving our younger sisters behind. We both fall in the middle of the political spectrum, and somehow, someway, have almost the exact same worldview as the other.
There was no tension or fear of offense, just pure curiosity and willingness to be open. As we sat in the coffee shop, I saw the January sun dip beyond the horizon and realized we had been sitting together for hours already. I sat in awe as I realized that the girl I hadn’t spoken to for 12 whole years felt like someone I had known my whole life. Whatsmore, although separated by nearly the entirety of our country, we had been living parallel lives all this time. How in the world did we find each other in first grade? It seems to me that it is much more than a coincidence that we were both placed on bus route #20 those many years ago.
After we had sat in the coffee shop for a total of 4 and a half hours, and Stephanie had ignored many restless texts from her parents saying they were still waiting to pick her up, we said goodbye. This time, the goodbye felt different than the first one. The first one we were sad, but only in the way that first graders can understand missing someone. This time, it felt like I was letting go of a sister I had just started to get to know. We truly were kindred spirits, and I felt nothing but gratitude for the happy coincidence that had put us on that bus together. I asked her – genuinely this time- to let me know whenever they were back in town. She laughed and said she would, and that if I ever found myself in Katy, Texas, I was expected