Morgan Holcomb (3/4/15)

“Why did I decide to walk here?” I think as I stroll into to my friendly neighborhood Starbucks, feeling late and arriving not a moment too soon. The door jangles, the crowd assembled from the dregs of the morning rush parts, and in the corner is Morgan Holcomb: an angular answer to Ingrid Michelson’s gentility dressed in a wide black shawl, with auburn hair swept down her back and face fixed in an uneasy smile.

Yes, this might turn out to be an awkward encounter. It’s been about a thousand years since I’ve seen Morgan. And really, we never did know each other past the point of pleasantries and high school Drama of the literal kind. Oh, the high school theatre world: a place we spent so much time circling each other but never really interacting, too busy caught up in the compulsory parade of affection and affectation. In tracing my memories of her, pre-meeting, the thing I remember most vividly turns out to be that her name was always called in role right before mine. Holcomb. Horowitz. Ha ha ha.

That being so, as we order up coffee and casually relegate ourselves to a dusty corner of the store, her words brand her immediately as a friend.  She states plainly that she hasn’t lost her artistic bent. That she writes.  That the ever-enticing idea of “story” makes her world go round. She tells me she goes to Chapman University and immediately I’m struck by an image of a girl waltzing through the brown leaves and fallen oaks of old time Orange County, paying patronage at old once-movie theatre turned church or shopping for relics that would for others be antiques. Morgan, a self-proclaimed aesthetics person and “lover of pretty things” probably wouldn’t be too opposed to this set of images, facts or fictions aside. We talk of beauty, what makes a person beautiful and agree that folks are kidding themselves to think that attraction not tied up in romantic relationships.

But in terms of Morgan herself, I find kinship most in the visceral imperfections; the plurply-red lipstick caught on her coffee cup or settled on her front teeth, the nervous jangling of her cup, her propensity to talk my ear off. For she seems a person whose richness comes from the mélange of the perfect and imperfect, the high and the low art: the pride in her voice when talking Shakespeare mixing with gushing odes to her love for dogs and all things cutesy and feminine. She’s one who clutches at beauty in Lake Forest California and finds it with only varying success. I suppose she’ll make her own beauty, though, for something about the fearless way she holds eye contact strikes me as impossibly young and precocious and capable. As a version of myself, of all people, of the very idea of “compassionate human” just borne into the world and gingerly basking in the first acknowledgement of how young she really is. A college student, a business student, a citizen of the world. Labels of both pride and suspicion.

And so, our chat too is made of this mashing of the intellectual and the highly personal. We bring old skeletons out of the closet and blow dust off them for the other to see. We dance around topics of old loves and how the future just goes on and on, unfurling like a heavy woven tapestry. She tells me she spent the winter in Munich and I picture the girl at rest on a moving train. She’s a fan of trains actually, and a staunch believer in the idea that “any great story contains a train.” When I ask her why she loves Germany, the response is “it’s a country full of them.”

At the end of a very long conversation we stand outside the doors, swathed in midafternoon sunlight, unable to break the spell of conversation. A couple of hours have passed, and it felt like years; as it often can when rapt discussion taps thickly on the brain. When we finally do decide that yes, we must leave, because, yes, we have places to go and things to do, Morgan, for her own part, leaves me with an abundance of smiles and a promise on her light voice to work on ‘something art’ together. Which I hope we do.

Bonnie Davis (1/11/15)

I, for once, am running late, caught up in a barrage of thoughts and local children’s book stores. So, when I arrive at a salad place near Union Square in Manhattan, New York for our lunch date, Bonnie Davis is already there. She blinks at me from a rather angular booth, her coat and gloves and pile of winter outerwear stowed messily beside her. She leaves the stuff behind as a placeholder as we mosey on over to the food line. “Good thinking,” I think, though the place isn’t its usual lunchtime mob.

And with that, conversation is off and flowing. Much more off and flowing than one might ever believe it to be, considering Bonnie and I have only spoken in person three times, including today, and all such conversations have happened in the last few months. Before that, she was known to me as a tumblr persona I stumbled upon after finding out that I was a tumblr persona she had stumbled upon awhile earlier. She is also a recent NYU grad, and a friend of an ex, and so also friend to a handful of other acquaintances I’d known for stints throughout my four years at NYU.

Conversation flows easily from the shores the immediate (“It’s taken a lot for me to believe in salad,” Bonnie muses), to the best hotels in Las Vegas (The Venetian, we agree, mostly for its gondola rides) to her love for New Jersey, especially her impossibly picturesque upbringing in a house surrounded by a six mile wide open field owned by the local electric company.

As we reclaim our booth from invisible hawkish salad squatters, we find ourselves, on our most beloved shared topic of convo: theatre. Bonnie herself is an actress, though one through which the body is a medium for the love of theatre, not in which the theatre is a medium for the love of self. Her eyes shine bright and her affect glows with gloss as she extols the virtues of Stephen Sondheim and we collectively gush over one of our favorite songs from Into the Woods. When the conversation turns to finances (or lack thereof, living in New York), Bonnie sighs into her bowl. “Theatre and food,” she says, are the only things she spends money on, by both necessity and choice. Theatre is a lifestyle she buys into, and acting as a profession is a natural outgrowth, the only natural outgrowth, of that love.

Her dream role is Laura in The Glass Menagerie, and as she says this, I easily picture her plopped unobtrusively on the edge of a stage in the role, auburn hair a mess, surrounded by a tiny glass figurines, legs bent awkwardly in front of her yet perfectly at home. But nonetheless, in her time in training at NYU, she ended up on programs cast as witches, servants, and often, roles for men. When I say it’s a mark of bravery to be an actor who can step so far outside of herself, she looks down sheepishly, for through she possibly agrees, she’ll never take a blatant acting compliment with an overt embrace.

And I know on some level, perhaps through deprecating humor, she must feel unconfident. In fact, the thing I’ve heard her speak most confidently about is her own strangeness and lack of confidence. And yet, there is a curious inner strength derived from this unabashed abashedness. There is an absentmindedness to Bonnie, sure, but also a surefootedness within that; a self-awareness of every aspect of herself, from strengths to shortcomings, and an acceptance, or even commitment, to that. There is something so completely determined about her from moment to moment, from the way she messily picks at salad bits at the bottom of her bowl with her fingers to un-bridled her enthusiasm for Molly’s Cupcakes, a place we decide to move to, putting an end to our healthy salad lunch.

So, when we get there, we sit on a couple of wooden swings strapped to the ceiling, perched over individual swabs of dessert, talking theatre and identity and which NYU acting studios align to which Hogwarts Houses. And as a group of little boys enter, act rowdily, and are kicked out by the shopkeeper, she mumbles “don’t kick them out, they’re only kids after all,” and looks at their sad forms through the window with a frown that goes all the way up to her eyebrows. At that moment, I smile back at her; the kindest under-30-year-old in New York proper.

Connie Wang and Glenn (1/7/15)

The meeting time was noon. And though it’s nearly 12:10 when I arrive, I saunter in slowly, knowing that the wait has really just begun. This is lunch with Connie Wang, after all. She’s one of my dearest friends from yesteryear and a perpetual late-runner, though she texts me this time and swears it’s her astronaut boyfriend. “Astronaut” because his name is Glenn (a la John Glen), not because of any professional aspirations, though the nickname carries all the weight and gusto of a professional title or decree. This is just another hallmark of our friendship; we name something, and then hold fast and hard to its moniker, reveling in any and all quips that can come from it. This is just the type of game we play during 11th hour interactions in Lake Forest California to distract us from the melancholy that soon comes as she boards a car to board a plane taking her back to Houston, Texas, where she attends Rice University.

This meeting, however, is not taking place in Texas nor California, but rather an all-too-small ramen noodle luncheon spot in the West Village of New York City. My neck of the woods, in other words. The place is far too tiny, and too hip too, judging from the yuppie hens I overhear crowing about macaroons and gym memberships as I perch awkwardly by the door; waiting for my the rest of my party before I can be seated. I tap my snow-booted foot, toes still slightly numb from the obscene January cold as I take in the women, the soupy smell of fresh broth, and the overloud and ill-fitting Spanish guitar sounding brightly through a nearby speaker.

Finally, after a copious amount of text messages, at 12:40 my party arrives; consisting of a 22 year old 5’2 girl with brown hair in her face, wrapped, as she herself proclaims, like a marshmallow in a borrowed Burberry coat. With her is a much taller and more affable looking gentleman of a similar age, her boyfriend in question. The three of us sit down at the table by the window. Connie hints at wanting veggie dumplings and Glenn obliges cheerfully, revealing a tangible glimmer of the mutual affection that follows them like a shadow. Glenn has impeccably good posture, I notice, and I take right away to the game he invents when he asks me if I am “the best” of all of Connie’s friends from home. “Naturally,” I say, and then jokingly attempt to prove it over and over as ramen bowls are brought and lunch progresses, looking over at Connie for confirmation. She just stares back blankly between pickings at a dumpling with the grace and speed of a pigeon in a park; all beak and no hesitation. Connie’s eating habits are one of those unchangeable and lavishly individual things about her, and watching her behavior, matching the lunch table habits I observed at Serrano Intermediate School or and her finesse in eating chocolates on floor of my living room is one of the things that makes this meeting, under such unusual conditions, feel natural.

So, Asian soup is eaten. Awkwardly, for my part with my half-asian hands, and less so for Connie and Glenn, despite the fact that his hands are as happa as mine own. Conversation is made about home and elsewhere, and when we leave it is to give up our table to the hoard of hungry lunchtime yuppie New Yorkers who take lunch breaks here in the West Village. And so we stand in the vestibule, applying layers and layers of outerwear the way Connie and I once spent summers (and winters for that matter) applying sunscreen. We head down a few blocks to Rocco’s (a nearby dessert place for nearby dessert), where Glenn searches sadly for lactose free pastries and I munch on a black and white cookie. Connie picks apart a fruit tart, chats me up about Turkish ice cream, and when I have to dart off to class, she blatantly refuses the three dollars that I throw (literally and unabashedly) at her, vehemently picking up the check for the second time today. Classy broad, that one, and one I’ll miss until I see her again under sunnier skies.

Alex Zou (12/15/14)

As I wait for Alex Zou on the creaking bench outside OST coffee on 12th street and Avenue A I find myself thinking “what will he look like this time?” For Alex that I know exists in many forms; from a surefooted Chinese-American be-spectacled boy of 19, to a one-half of his head shaven skater, to a world traveler who sent me a letter from Paris, complete with a drawing of a baguette. But I get so lost in wondering that when he actually arrives, sporting a tan jacket, jeans and his hair in a neat bun, I’ve surprised by my familiarity with his form. I guess that after a year of sporadic encounters, we’ve lately been seeing each other with enough frequency that his appearance doesn’t change as drastically from meeting to meeting. He greets me with his usual toothy grin, and an apology for his lateness. I knew he’d be late, five minutes by custom, but I waited outside anyway.

Alex has got the kind of innocent spirit that the East village is just dying to adopt and infect with cynicism and artistic impulse. His ease here shows as we walk these streets, his streets, looking for an uncrowded perch for our hangout. Not that he wasn’t always a bit artistic, though less so cynical. He is a film major, after all. And that is, in fact, how I met him, two years ago now, as my next-door neighbor in the fanciest NYU dorm known to man. That was mere weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit, and catapulted us into a complicated and convoluted friendship that I’m elated has turned from strangeness to regular coffee and lunchtime hangouts as of late.

As we head to a nearby bagel shop, (one that I swear we’ve been to before in stranger times), I notice two things: 1. He’s traded in his rectangular glasses for hipper Ray-Ban frames (that are missing one chunk over his left eye) 2. His characteristic longboard, strapped across his back on a bungey cord is absent from his shoulder. When I ask him about it he tells me that this place is “too close to his apartment to justify it” though later he notes that he’s been skating altogether less lately; less in need of the “unrestrained release of male libido” that once, allegedly drove him to wheels. “Driven to skate by hate more than love?” I reply, and he shakes his head in reply. “Driven by both.” In equal measure, I add to myself.

In a few hours, we’ll head back to his little nearby apartment. I’ll chat excitedly with his darling girlfriend, Anise, and meet their cat. He’ll shed his overcoat to reveal another brown jacket underneath and I’ll joke to myself that’s he’s really just a pile of brown at this point. But at the same time I’ll think that this new look, this new place and life, with all its tranquility and docility, suits him fine. There was a onetime Alex, so wild and full of joy and angst that he was nearly unhinged by it, one that almost pales in comparison with this more domesticated, deeper human being before me.

In a few hours; he’ll roll a cigarette and the smoke will rise from his mouth and he’ll seem whole again. In a few hours, he’ll cut up fruit in a way that will remind me of the old days; the shirtless cooking and the clanging of pots and pans at midnight. In a few hours, he’ll be perched in black socks with a water cracker between his lips, rolling it back and forth before biting down, in a thoughtless carefree way that seems somehow eternal.

But right now, we sit, eating matching bagels with scallion cream cheese, borne from the same bag. We make fun of birthday flavored cream cheese this shops sells. He swears he doesn’t remember the last time he came here with me. And we look out the window, each smiling at our own reflections and our mutual company as I realize suddenly and avec enthusiame that in four years in New York, he is the best friend I’ve made. We share the silence, and low-key delight.