My mother is a native Phoenician; my father, after having been kicked out of what is now Pakistan during Partition, left Delhi for the States in 1969. He’s lived in Arizona for nearly forty years. Perhaps in an effort to prove change was possible, my parents decided just before my fourteenth birthday that they would be selling the only house I knew to be ours—the one I’d inhabited since I was two—and moving us to the other side of Phoenix, the biggest city I’ve ever lived in.
When I moved to California to attend college, Kisa and Nicole drove to the university to surprise me but, when they pulled up, saw that I was already driving the opposite direction; they flipped around their car and maniacally honked until Nicole jumped out of the car at a stoplight and ran to my passenger side window. This was just like us. We had spent the last four years standing on top of restaurant tables to make silly announcements to strangers; we had laughing contests to see who could create the goofiest (Kisa’s) or loudest (my) laugh. We dressed up in crazy outfits—Punjabi suits, drawn-on unibrows, 1970s jump suits—and went to neighborhood parks to frolic and dance. We were regular girls who sought to be extraordinary. When we were together we had no shame. Later in college, when I went on a study abroad to London, Kisa emailed to announce the imminent arrival of two monkeys. Together, she, Nicole and I took a bus (a bus!) to Scotland. We sat next to the Guinness book of World Records holder for the most piercings.
I was not one for change. The only time I had slept away from my house during elementary school was when my mom had a medical emergency requiring my brother and me to stay at the neighbors’ overnight. Catching the school bus from the opposite side of the street is one of my clearest childhood memories.
When I got to my new high school, mid-school year, it seemed empty and vast. It was a new neighborhood—the other side of South Mountain—and there were only freshmen and sophomores in attendance. The school would grow with us at its helm. It was creating a new identity too.
I realized that the competition would be slighter here, and I could be anyone I wanted. This was something that my former high school didn’t allow for: we were who people branded us to be in junior high. I had become invisible; some of my old high school freshman year companions ended up dropping out of high school with meth addictions.
At the new high school, I joined the newspaper right away. Writing was something I knew well and was good at. I conducted my first survey on a topic of great importance to me: anticipation for getting a driver’s license. I distributed it during drama class and watched in terror as the pretty, popular girls scribbled their answers. But no one was laughing at the survey or at me.
I took the surveys from the girls and scanned over them; one of the girls, Kisa, had put her age down as 13. I was doomed: this group was going to be the same kind of snobs I had grown up with: sniggling girls who reeled others in just to mock and deride them.
“You’re thirteen?” I looked at the girl who had handed me the survey. She was tall—Julia Roberts tall—with long, black straight hair. She could have been in college.
She turned and smiled a full, knowing smile. She was beautiful. “Yes. I’m thirteen.” The other girls laughed, and I rolled my eyes. “I’m thirteen,” she insisted. “Really.”
I can’t remember the rest of that conversation or how I applied those surveys, but a few months later Kisa, who had just joined the newspaper staff, called me and said something like this: “I have never called someone I hardly know and asked them to hang out. But I like you and think we could be great friends. Do you want to go to the movies?”
The memory of first seeing the movie Groundhog’s Day will lead my heart home to Kisa, to that phone call, to the reminder that not all girls are catty. Not all girls destroy.
Also in journalism class was Nicole—a soft-spoken woman but bold writer and artist who interwove her half-Japanese heritage into her style and writing. Nicole, the paper’s managing editor, was free, but Kelsi, its Editor-in-Chief, was wild. Kelsi had her own car, her own voice, her own beliefs on issues that are just now coming to the helm of contemporary culture—twenty years later.
The following year, Kisa, Nicole, Kelsi and I charged down Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach for a journalism convention, singing every word to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It was during that trip that I told them my secret history of sexual abuse. I had only told my story to another girl, a girl whose grandfather had been mistreating us both. And so I had hidden in my chamber ten years of shame, two molesters, and the impending task of telling my parents about them both. But these girls were my girls; they held fast to me, the Innocent who felt guilty for being who she was. After telling my parents the news, after nearly losing my life to depression, after converting to Christianity, I needed them near—particularly Kisa because it was while at her church that I had my first encounter with the living God. They inspired me. They helped me begin to overcome.
|I and Kisa playing dress-up at the park (age 17)|
The summer before England, Kisa—who had been my kindred spirit in faith—took me to a park across from my college to tell me she no longer espoused Christianity. I was heartbroken because I had lost a compatriot in belief—but I respected Kisa for her honesty, for her refusal to adopt a religion merely because it was that of her parents.
Kisa and I fell into a silence sometime after college, and I can’t remember why. Although I visited her and Nicole in their now-home in Northern California, and she visited me in my then-home on Eastern Long Island, we somehow couldn’t connect as we had in high school, in college. For that, I grieved.
In 2006, a few weeks before Kisa was set to marry a man from my father’s part of the world, she called me up and said: “In high school, I remember making a promise that if I ever got married, I would want you there. Will you be a bridesmaid?” I said yes without even checking my teaching schedule, which turned out to be free since it was spring break.
I brought Greg with me on the road trip from Phoenix to San Jose. We were just friends then, but he wanted to come and I wanted him there. I was still at an impasse with my identity: I had recently lost the thirty pounds that had accumulated during grad school, and I had just exited a toxic and demonic relationship. Having befriended Greg shortly after that breakup was a testament to me that my God cared; He would not allow me to believe that I was nothing, that I was weak, that I was without worth, that I was forsaken. But these thoughts contributed to how I felt about myself, confirmed by a lifetime of sadistic men.
At her wedding, I felt estranged from but connected to Kisa. I wanted her to know I cared about being there, that I wanted her to be happy.
Four years later—after Kisa and Kelsi had sung “Amazing Grace” at Greg’s and my wedding (a promise I had made to them in high school), after I birthed Ariel and Kisa birthed her son, after chats and thumbs-ups and fervent connections over Facebook—Kisa called me to tell me she had separated from her husband.
I felt so near to Kisa, a woman whose strength was compromised by a man who took but would not give; he manipulated her into thinking she was not who she truly was: a bold, vibrant woman who had run with the bulls in Spain, lived on the island of Malta, and—together with Kelsi and Nicole—offered aid to a tumultuous situation when they moved to Chiapas, Mexico. Kisa does not equivocate in conversation; in her blog, she writes cogently about her experiences, her candid thoughts, her beautiful, smart, and strong son. She is not afraid to start a new life; she never has been. Kisa is herself again.
When I called Kisa a few months ago to tell her about my marriage nearly coming to its end, and its subsequent resurrection, she was sad that I hadn’t said anything at the time, and even apologized for letting her personal circumstances impede me from sharing mine. But this is not how friendships always work. Bearing Kisa’s burden last year was my honor and my responsibility. Her listening ear this year regarding my story was hers.
When I look back on our lives—our life together—I see that Kisa has been an inspiration to me. I can tell her anything and know she will not judge. I can even share my spiritual experiences and understand that, although she does not share my worldview, her ability to see past our disparities gives me the freedom to be myself. I hope I offer the same grace to her.
I love Kisa and feel compelled to write about our friendship. She’s not the only woman who has inspired me—and maybe I’ll write about the others here, too—but she was the first. Kisa’s presence in my life has contributed to my having become a healthier person, a kinder woman, a more sensitive wife, a genuinely appreciative parent.
Kisa’s and my friendship is a testimony of solidarity and peace. In all of our fearless travels away from Phoenix, I know that when we reflect upon our childhood home, we think of the arid desert that we could not appreciate then, and remember it now with gratitude and longing; it’s where we found each other.
|1993: Nicole, me, Kelsi, Kisa|
|2006: Nicole, me, Kisa, Kelsi|
I'm linking up with Sarah Cunningham's Great Big Friendship Blog share!