“Didn’t it snow the other day?” I asked. “It was trending on Twitter.”
“Yeah, when it snows in Texas people lose their minds,” my friend Sarwat replied.
“Given everything going on in the world right now, though, it’s kind of funny how much they care.”
She shrugged. “You gotta find some joy where you can, I guess.”
“True. Wait a second. What time is it?” I asked, then exited FaceTime to answer my own question. “Oh my god, it’s 4:00 a.m.!”
“Is it really?” Sarwat laughed. “Oops. Sorry.”
“Why do we always do this?”
“To be fair, it’s been a while since we’ve had a good long talk,” she shrugged. “And it’s only 3:00 a.m. for me. Ha.”
“It’s not like I have anything to do on a Friday morning, but still, this is gonna mess up my sleep schedule for a week,” I complained.
“It’s fiiiine,” she soothed.
“I know. And I miss doing this in person,” I pouted.
“Me too. The second this pandemic’s over, I have to visit you in New York.”
“They’ll stick a vaccine in my arm, they’ll stick a vaccine in your arm, and then you’ll hop on a plane immediately. Promise me.”
The summer before college, Sarwat moved to Texas. Her whole extended family lives outside of Dallas, and her parents had wanted to move there for years to be closer to them. It was a small miracle that she was able to convince them to stay put through the end of high school, agreeing to attend college in Texas as a commuter. Her parents wasted no time packing up after graduation. They sold their house within the month.
The rest of us knew college was barreling toward us and that we’d all be moving away from home in one way or another, but a core member of our group leaving so early and so permanently forced us to face it. Our friendships wouldn’t really change, but it was sinking in that we couldn’t avoid the next phase of our lives.
None of us got more than three hours of sleep the night before Sarwat moved. I was up until 1:00 a.m. collecting the letters my friends wrote for her and jotting down my own in the harsh glow of my mom’s computer. That settled, I tossed and turned knowing that even if I fell asleep it wouldn’t do me much good. Sarwat’s flight was at five in the morning, and since she lived next door to the small Burlington airport, she could comfortably leave her house for the last time at 4:15. But we couldn’t take chances; my alarm was set for 3:00.
I picked up some of the group on my way; since I’m the oldest and have had a driver’s license and car the longest, that’s my job. And I took them to Dunkin because coffee detours are also my job.
The airport was desolate. It only has two terminals, both starkly abandoned this early. The grayish fluorescent lights crackled halfheartedly above the baggage claim where we solemnly gathered. We got right to business. I plopped myself down on the ugly tile floor with a stack of printer paper and a case of Sharpies.
“Any requests?” I asked the group.
“H,” Henry called out.
I outlined a block letter H, then offered the page over my shoulder without a backward glance.
“Ooh, can I be an exclamation point?” asked Helen.
I scribbled one out and continued this way, randomly assigning letters to those who were indifferent. I claimed the Y for myself.
Of course, we should have known that Sarwat wouldn’t show up until 4:30, but we entertained ourselves. We arranged ourselves to spell “HEY!, “WHY,” “WHEY,” and “YEAH!” and snapped silly photos which we’d later use relentlessly when responding to texts. But of course, when the clock ticked down, we tried to be serious. We got into position with the intensity of a military drill. When Sarwat walked in, she was stunned to see us waiting there for her in the middle of the night with letters taped to our shirts spelling “YEEHAW!”
I felt a little bad that we’d put her through the emotional wringer. Goodbye hugs are painful, and even though ours had been fake the night before, we’d cried. When Sarwat got on the plane, we felt the uncertainty of her sudden absence. But that was just how it had to be.
“So . . . Denny’s?” Zane ventured.
I laughed as he buckled into the backseat of my Prius, still wearing his W and the cowboy hat I’d given him. We were all reluctant to take the letters off because that would be admitting the goodbye was done, plus it was really fun to wear them. We sat in a semicircle booth at Denny’s like WEAH!YE and ate greasy pancakes and eggs as the sun came up, keeping reality at bay for a few hours longer.
Eventually, Paige and I had to go to work while the others went to bed. I was irritable all day. When people asked me for things, I responded in as few words as possible. I drank more coffee than usual and waited to go home.
Sarwat and I have long joked about “sharing a brain.” Once she asked me to tie her shoe in the middle of a conversation with Henry, and I did so without hesitation. Henry made a joke about us being codependent, and we stared at him blankly because we already knew that. We’d worked together as stage managers for school plays year after year, and through that we forged a telepathic bond that I’ve never experienced with anyone else. We can have a full conversation through a second of eye contact. Whenever something is bothering me that I can’t quite put my finger on, Sarwat helps me articulate it. She and I just get each other.
The fall of our freshman year of college, Zane and I visited Sarwat in Texas. His visit was planned; mine was a surprise. I felt devious keeping our plans a secret from her for months, especially because I was so excited to see her. I was a little nervous, too. We would only have a short weekend together, and I worried that our surprise might interfere with her ideas for that time. A couple of days together, then many more months apart. I couldn’t stand the idea of squandering it.
Zane flew from Burlington to Newark so we could take the same connecting flight to Dallas. We were a month and a half into our first semester, and we became so absorbed in catching up with each other at the gate that we missed our flight. To this day, our parents won’t let either of us live it down. Thankfully, flights run from Newark to Fort Worth practically every hour, so our mistake didn’t derail anything but our dignity. On the new flight, both of us were too shy to ask the people in our row to swap seats, so we just stared at each other periodically and snickered from across the aisle.
When we landed, we retaped the letters to our shirts to give the illusion that no time had passed. Zane went out first and distracted Sarwat with a hug while I snuck up behind her and whispered “howdy” directly in her ear. She freaked out just as much as I’d hoped, but as soon as we got into her car, the three of us relaxed into the dynamic we’d always had, only with Sarwat in the driver’s seat and me in the back.
“There are yeehaw people at my school,” she explained as she pulled onto the highway. “But Fort Worth and Dallas are blue, so it’s not so bad.”
I looked out the window as the Dallas skyline appeared, and it indeed seemed calm. No gun-toting Republicans in sight.
“People always mistake me for Latina, though,” she added.
She’s Arab, but her dark hair, dark eyes, and facial features rarely let her pass for white despite her pale skin.
“Oh, to be brown in Texas,” I empathized.
“Ethnic white,” she corrected.
“Right, sorry, ‘ethnic white.’”
“Can’t relate. You guys should try being white men,” Zane chimed in, and we rolled our eyes as we tend to do.
“Yeah, Zane, good call,” Sarwat replied.
“Hey, I’m just saying, don’t knock it ’til you try it.”
We went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and when the host spotted Sarwat and me, he greeted us with an exaggerated “¡Hola!” I shook my head as politely as possible while Sarwat replied with a pointed “Hiii!” He looked like some combination of relieved and embarrassed and quickly seated us. Zane shot me a bemused look, but I just smiled and shrugged the moment off. He took the cue to change the subject.
“Wow, I can’t believe you guys are actually here!” Sarwat beamed. “This is so exciting! We have to do something really fun this weekend.”
“Yeah, we have to go to Panda Express,” said Zane.
“The Dallas Aquarium is really cool. Would you guys be interested in that?” she asked. “It has birds and last time my cousin and I went I got really scared, but I’m willing to push through it for you.”
“Aw, what a noble sacrifice,” I teased.
“We don’t have Panda Express at home, either,” Zane pointed out.
“Okay, let me pull up the website and we can buy our tickets now!” said Sarwat.
“Panda Express doesn’t require tickets.”
“Zane, we’re in the South, the land of Tex-Mex and barbecue, and you’d really rather have Panda Express?” I asked.
“Why are you like this?”
“It’s fine,” Sarwat broke in. “We’ll have time for all of it. Right?”
We did go to Panda Express that night, though I didn’t think it was worthwhile, and we did buy tickets for the aquarium the following morning. Sarwat dropped Zane and me off at our hotel and came up for a bit. Zane and I took turns getting ready for bed as we finalized our plans.
“Alright, well I guess I’d better get going,” Sarwat said reluctantly.
We all looked at each other for a second, feeling the same newfound awkwardness.
“This weird,” Zane blurted out, voicing what we were all thinking. “Planning everything out like this, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “No more aimlessly driving around, huh? No more wasting time.”
“It is what it is. I just hope you guys are having fun. I want to be a good host.”
“You are,” I reassured her, and she smiled.
Sarwat kept a lid on her fear of birds at the aquarium, and for dinner I got the brisket I was promised. Zane had to go up to the counter to pay the check, giving Sarwat and me our first moment alone of the entire weekend. We locked eyes immediately and jumped on the second of privacy.
“Okay, be honest, should I have told you I was coming?” I asked.
“Nah, it was funny; you got me really good. And I’m obviously so glad you’re here.”
“Are you sure? I can’t help feeling like I’m butting in on your plans with Zane,” I frowned.
“Sabrina! You really think I’d rather you weren’t here?”
“Well . . . I don’t know. You were looking forward to it.”
“Dude, I love you, and I would have been looking forward to your visit, too.”
Before I knew it, Zane and I got the emails reminding us to check in for our return flight, but I felt more at peace with leaving than I had the night before.
“Well, I guess this is it,” I told Sarwat as I reached for a hug outside of the airport. “So long, partner.”
“Y’all come back now, you hear?”
When I got on the plane, I opened up my laptop to start working on the essay I was supposed to write for Monday, but my mind kept wandering off. I found myself pulling up the letter I’d written for Sarwat to read on her flight months before. My eyes stopped on one line: “This morning it occurred to me that we’ve been friends for a third of my lifetime. Six years out of eighteen. What would I even be like without you?”
People always talk about finding your lifelong friends in college. They’ll say they never felt accepted or understood until they moved out of their hometowns and away from their childhoods. But for reasons unknown to me, I found my best friends where I grew up, and I continue to find myself in the people I fly across the country to visit. Until widespread coronavirus vaccines make that possible again, I’m happy to lose some sleep on FaceTime calls.