While rifling through the candy basket in our kitchen cabinet, I came across half a bag of Vermont maple candies, so pasty and sweet. And, immediately, I got sad. The maple candies, long forgotten, were purchased last summer on our family vacation to Vermont. The perfect vacation with my husband, four year old son, and thirteen month old daughter. We rented a ski lodge off a winding country road. We, despite the cool temperatures of that summer, swam in the waters of the private lake that came along with the A frame rental home.
And mid-week, our good friends joined us for an overnight visit on their way to their own vacation in Maine. Together we canoed, most of us for the first time, and fished in the sunny lake. I have pictures of this: Mati, Noam and Dana’s four year old son, and his giant toothless smile. Dana and her mother aboard the teetering canoe—not quite as worried as I would be. That day was one of perfect summer weather, the sweet feel of it in the sand.
Our boys were best friends. They were 2 1/2 years old and instantly loved each other. It just happened that way, their love. They saw each other nearly every day—if not at daycare, then the park after daycare. They loved Lightening McQueen and dressing like Iron Man. They loved talking about underwear and poop. They felt they were owed each other, even. And we, the four parents of these two boys, did not disappoint. We spent summery Friday nights at a local ice cream shop, Kelly’s Kone Konnection. We talked while the boys drenched themselves in ice cream.
Shortly after our return from the Vermont trip, still the heart of that summer, we met at a local carnival. The boys rode every ride their height allowed, ate hot dogs and cotton candy. It was there—in the twilight din of carnival—that Dana told me that she was moving back to Israel to take a job with her old law firm and Mati was going with her. Noam would stay behind and finish up his doctoral work. And there in the midst of snow cones and cheap stuffed animals, my story begins.
Or maybe it begins much sooner than that, when I was five and my best friend Jenna moved to some southern state. Florida? Georgia? Both sound true. Anyway, I couldn’t imagine living without our sleepovers, our flower-picking treks through the woods, our friendship. My mother told me there would be visits, trips, meet-ups, more time for us to play. And by the time I realized these promises were all lies, I’d forgotten the color of Jenna’s hair. Her last name, forgotten. She did visit once when I was much older. She didn’t expressly come to see me, rather other neighbors of ours. Our parents re-introduced us, but we looked at each other like strange cats—disinterested, cautious. Her skin was bronze and she wore white leggings and crimped hair and we never said a word to one another.
This, I consider at the carnival, when Dana tells me she will move with Mati. Our boys and their fathers are on a green caterpillar roller coaster, happy. The sadness I felt when I realized I didn’t care about Jenna anymore, this would happen to Tristan and Mati. There would be a time when they no longer cared to know each other, when they might meet up and regard each other as animals of a different scent.
In this world there is a force that keeps pushing us forward, propelling us into a future for which our past selves are not quite ready. Only the past we crave keeps changing, constantly rendering itself obsolete.
When I told Tristan Mati was moving to Israel, he asked if we could go on the train to visit. “Like Maisy’s?” he asked. “Like when we went to visit Maisy?” Earlier that summer, during what could only be termed a temporary lapse in sanity, I boarded an Amtrak train in New Haven with a four year old and a one year old in order to visit my friend and her family in North Carolina. During that night on the train, North Carolina had seemed a lifetime away. My daughter cried almost the whole time, and my son was terrified of the dog that accompanied the soldier sitting near us. She had been injured with shrapnel in the Iraqi War, and her guide dog lay at her feet, loyally.
“No.” I said. “Only on a plane. It would be hard for us all to get there. We might not see him for a little while.” To make our boys feel better, and maybe ourselves too, Dana and I told them that the following summer we would all take a big road trip, rent an RV and travel through America together.
“When? When?” Both boys would ask.
“When you are five,” we would answer.
One warm September day in 2010 my husband and I took Tristan to Bassett Park to say goodbye to Mati. Bassett Park, the place where their friendship grew sturdy, where they smeared their hearts with dirt and let their lungs fill with cool wind. Even though they were four and a half years old, they knew this day was the last of its kind. Tristan did not want to get in the car to meet Mati. “. . .because if I don’t see him today, then it won’t be the last time I see him,” he rationalized. But once together, they stuffed their sadness somewhere deep in the trees behind the park where they ran for pee breaks.
The morning Jenna moved she came over one last time to swing on my swing-set with me. It was early and the dew-coated grass shone like snow against the morning sun. Eventually we heard her mother calling her. Maybe the car was loaded, and ready to go. Who knows? She slid down the slide, told me the word vagina was actually pronounced bagina, and left. I believed her and said it that way for a long time.
When it was time for our boys to say their goodbyes, they ran together to a club house where Mati said, “Tristan, I need to tell you a secret.” I pretended not to hear the secret, but I listened closely. I won’t tell it here, but it was sweet and honest, and my son had serious eyes.
A few days later, Tristan started full-time pre-kindergarten at Davis St. School. Our little world of daycare, park, home became a bit more complicated. I told Tristan’s new teacher, extremely experienced with small children, about his best friend moving. Like a fool, I couldn’t even breathe the words without tearing up.
“This must be hard for you too.” Mrs. Bryant’s sympathy made me feel stronger. “Small children are amazingly resilient. He’ll stop talking about his friend before winter, you’ll see.”
But the truth was I didn’t want him to stop talking about Mati. I wanted their story always remembered, always clear. And, really, for a whole year Tristan asked about the road trip with Mati. “Are you and Dana planning, Mommy?” he would ask.
“We’re planning.” I’d lie. Although, it’s not exactly a lie if you want it to be true. The truth was that Dana had become pregnant with baby Dori, and plane tickets either way were expensive. We tried to explain the cost to Tristan in i Pods, something that he was saving his own money for. “It would cost our family twenty i Pods to get to Israel, Tristan.”
“Twenty? That’s a lot.” But still he would ask, “How long until we see Mati, Mommy? Is it months yet? Will he look different?” Each time the trip seemed too close, we’d put it off until September. Then May. Then. . .
So, as probably you assumed, the trip to Bassett Park was the last time (to date) that the boys saw each other. They are now seven, and thriving on their own sides of the world. We still send each other gifts—mostly Israeli and American candies for the kids. Dana and I talk on the phone and email each other; Noam stays at our house when he has business at Yale.
Once, while talking to Dana, I heard Mati in the background. “Put him on the phone!” I suggested. “And I’ll put Tristan on the phone.”
“He’s lost most of his English.” Then she added, “But it comes out at random moments. Still, I don’t think he could converse in it.” I admit, my heart sank, and I hated my heart for doing that. Added to the countries and oceans that lay between them, would be a language barrier … perhaps the greatest rift of all.
And then there was the day Tristan came home from kindergarten proclaiming, “Joe is my new best friend because we both love army and have a secret code.”
Last week at dinner my husband shared the contents of his email with Noam: “Mati is taking guitar lessons!” Our son didn’t even look up from his pizza, as if the name itself didn’t register as familiar, loved.
If, for Tristan, Mati has been relegated to what Hawthorne termed the “irrevocable past,” where does that leave me? Afternoon visits to the park have been replaced with baseball games, meetings at work, or doctor appointments. My life will never be as blissfully uncomplicated and innocent as it was in those days of two little boys digging buried quarters from the earth until the air became thick with the hum of crickets.
Or, I suppose, as blissfully uncomplicated and innocent as it was in those days of two little girls crossing a splintered foot-bridge to get to one another’s yard, a passageway that still haunts me.