To this day I remember the place where I met her. It was my first semester back at school, in north-east Tennessee.
One of my first classes, in late August. Having had spent only about 7 days in the US at that moment, the cultural shock was in full blast. School starting in late August instead of October… being allowed to choose my own subjects (how cool!)… courses with only a handful of students enrolled in them. This was a whole new world for me.
I entered the class with hesitation, looking ahead but scanning everything left and right with my side view. It seemed like I was one of the first, as only 3 other people were already there. But the professor entered shortly after me, chatting with a fifth student, and just like that, started the class. I thought this must be a mistake. This is not a class; we are 5 folks sitting here around 2 desks. But that was it.
During introductions, a last student walks in, just smiling (doesn’t she apologize for being late?), taking time to unzip her jacket, searching for her notebook and pens, pulling a chair… the whole nine yards of disturbing an otherwise smooth running class. The professor didn’t seem to mind at all. He actually greeted her, cheerful… obviously an old acquaintance. The first thing I noticed about her was the red tennis shoes matching with the pullover. Nice coincidence, I thought. Later, for the next classes, this girl would come in blue tennis shoes with matching pullover, and then in yellow tennis shoes with…yes, a yellow pullover. An initial reason to remember my new colleague.
Shortly after her late entrance into the first class, she turned to me and said: you must be Monica, right? Hmm…my voice stopped mid-word. How did she know my name? I had just arrived a week ago.
We became team members for the class projects and started spending more and more time together working on our assignments. Then, one evening after class this Argentinean girl, with silky dark hair and a smile to kill any bad mood, asked me if I wanted to join her at a party. The following Saturday, my initiation on the international-crowd parties started, once again with the help of my newfound friend.
She helped with many firsts during my stay in north-eastern Tennessee. First time I was able to go downtown in this small American college town, with no public transportation whatsoever was when she gave me a ride and showed me the biggest attraction: the Mall. The first time I had a Starbucks coffee…ever. With her, at a drive through, no less!
I had found a nice colleague, a potentially good friend, but there were so many other nice colleagues and new friends I met during my stay in the Tennessean Appalachians. A moment which changed our relationship forever was at the end of my first school year, when all the people I knew and grew fond of left for the summer holiday.
The campus was dead empty in the burning sunshine. I was stuck there though, working to earn my stay. Alone in a country half-way around the globe from my family. Increasingly lonely during a summer which was not a holiday for me. The moment came when I had to share this with someone. I needed a friend.
With a deep breath and a lump in my throat, I called my Argentinean sister-to-be and told her my wish to spend some time with a good friend, to have someone to share the summer sun with. I anxiously waited for the response on the other end of the line. She was happy I called her! She was a bit lonely too, working across campus in another summer job. She needed a friend too! Huge sigh of relief let go from my chest.
This phone call marked the change of our relationship from one of good colleagues to one of true friends sharing a strong bond. I gained a huge, more instinctive than rational, trust in her. She was my older sister now, my party friend, my discussion partner, my self-reflection sometimes. She always had the most helpful piece of advice. She always had a story to illustrate my recent tribulation or to teach me a needed lesson.
She always saw the good in me. She always believed in me.
Even when I stopped believing in myself, she was optimistic. When I had the most painful cultural adjustment issues, she was there to tell me I am not wrong and everyone else right. We are all different; I just needed to learn new lessons. She always defended me and my behavior. She is able to see beneath my skin. Sometimes, better than me.
When she visited me in Miami, 9 months after we had seen each other last in Tennessee, it was like we had never been apart. A familiar face in an unfamiliar place. A piece of home.
I was happy. I was entirely fulfilled with my life and she saw that. She couldn’t stop talking of how much I had changed, for the better, while in Miami, of how much happier I looked. She noticed how comfortable I was there, like I had truly found myself in those places. I confessed to her that her remarks were quite precise. I had found a suitable universe for me there, indeed. I was happy in that tropical paradise, apparently for no reason. She concluded that, without doubt, this was the place for me to live, where I had found my peace and my happiness.
She just didn’t know that I was so happy those days because she was there, an important person for who I had become. My mentor, my guardian, my sister. My Maju.