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.