***Just a warning that this post will have some pictures of the past, back when I was sick. Please avoid if you are easily triggered by pictures.
My high school best friend, Wen, came to visit me in Los Angeles this past weekend. We had not seen each other for seven years.
The last time I saw Wen was early summer of 2006. Her 19th birthday had just passed.
I went crazy for her birthday. I stayed up past dawn baking three kinds of desserts for her: some kind of chocolate ganache tart, a fruit tart, and a three-tier strawberry cream cheese cake.
I was insane. But even that didn’t feel enough. I just didn’t know how else to express to Wen how much I appreciated our friendship.
I distinctly remember standing by the door of my townhouse the night we said goodbye. My feet were bare, scrapping against the rough doormat. They were blue and veiny. We hugged, and before I could pull away, Wen drew me closer and hung her head down. Her shoulders shook and she started sucking in her breath as though she was having a panic attack. She was crying.
We had all just graduated from high school. I was getting ready to go to Northwestern; Wen was moving down to Georgia because of her stepfather’s new job.
Neither of us, at least according to our perception at the time, had much of a post-graduation future. I was sick in the brain and body, three months discharged from the hospital. Wen, having been rejected by her top choice school, was looking at community college in Georgia, where she would have to waste nine credits to pass ESL classes she didn’t need.
We were going our separate ways as new adults, and both of us were silently terrified and despairing.
I met Wen in the second semester of junior year in high school. She was the new girl from Michigan in our Pre-Calculus class. I remember her sitting alone by the front of the class while the rest of the students separated into groups to work on a math problem. I felt sorry for her. I remembered being a FOB in a new school and country, and how utterly alone I felt. So I walked up to her, said hi, and the rest is history.
We clicked instantly. We hung out after school every single day, walking to McDonald’s to do our homework over fries and coke, then visiting each other’s home and gossiping until the sun set. We became friendly rivals in Calculus—we were the two insane Asian girls who actually loved playing around with tangents and derivatives—and we chatted on and on about our hopes and dreams for the future.
Wen wanted to be a pharmacist. I wanted to be a journalist. She talked about a practical future, I talked about an idealistic one.
I still remember one time we were at a Chinese noodle shop in Chinatown together, and we happened to witness a reporter come in and interview the owner. We both walked out flushed and excited as though we had just met Will Smith. I was thrilled because I finally saw a “real journalist,” while Wen was thrilled for me as my best friend.
“That’s going to be me,” I told her. “Yes, that is,” Wen said, “But you’re going to be a rich one.” Hahaha, that’s how much of a supportive friend she was.
We also talked a lot about religion. At the time I had just given up leading the youth group at my church. Wen, who grew up in Shenzhen, China, was a free-thinker. “I don’t really believe in God,” she told me. “I would rather believe in myself.” Meanwhile, I tried to articulate what I believed in—and failed, because at the time, I was struggling with my own faith.
And then sometime in the middle of our senior year, Wen found a boyfriend, and I found anorexia. Well, more accurately, I was already engaging in certain eating disordered thinking and behaviors when I first met Wen. I just got exponentially worse in senior year, because I started drawing away from all social life, including Wen. Wen got busy working at the pharmacy department of CVS and going out on dates with her boyfriend, while I got busy walking and walking and walking up hills, down hills and around supermarkets staring and thinking about food.
And then some time in March, I disappeared from school.
I had been disappearing gradually that year. I didn’t weigh myself, but could feel my strength and life wasting away with my flesh. The day I got hospitalized, I barely thought of my friends. I could only think about myself and what was going to happen to me. But when a doctor asked me point-blank if I had no friends and was just starving for attention, I remembered that hey, I did have friends. Or I had them, once upon a time. And now I didn’t know if any of them still cared about me.
But I did call two friends. Just two. And Wen was one of them.
She came to visit with her mother. Her mother took one glance at me in the hospital bed with my gown hanging off my skin-wrapped skeleton, and hurriedly excused herself out of the room, her face stricken. I actually don’t remember this much, but Wen told me everything this past weekend when we finally met.
Seven years. We’ve both come a long way since then. I dropped out of Northwestern, she excelled in community college while working almost full-time. I recovered and entered the University of Southern California as a journalism student, while she became a Pharm.D candidate at the University of Georgia. We’re living those very dreams we talked so much about as 17-year-olds.
We had kind of lost touch, only sporadically updating each other. It was mostly my fault; during my sick years, I cut off contact with almost every high school friend. But the moment we saw each other again last weekend, we picked up right where we left off.
Last Friday night, I picked her up from Union Station, and we decided to roam downtown Los Angeles. We were both so elated that we couldn’t stop shrieking, jumping, hopping, and squeezing each other’s hands.
I took her to Happy Hour at Fu-ga Izakaya.
We talked and talked and talked.
And then we went for second rounds at The Edison:
We talked and talked and talked. We just couldn’t run out of things to say!
And then, final stop, we went to Perch. We waited half an hour to be admitted in, and then waited a line again to go up to the rooftop.
But the rooftop view is always worth it, and that was where we finally reminisced about the old times. Specifically, my eating disorder.
I had been very self-absorbed at that period. I was paranoid about people finding out my “real condition.” I was angry and scared yet blindly hopeful that the nightmare will magically end when I leave for college. Everything was centered around my thoughts, my feelings, myself. I wasn’t able to think about what my friends were going through because of me at the time.
Wen told me everything. She told me how, when she first saw me at the hospital, she wanted to break down. She had to grit her teeth to smile and act as if it was normal for her best friend to be hooked up to the IV in a hospital gown. She had to listen to me feed her bullshit about why I lost so much weight. She got confused and torn between wanting to believe me and putting the puzzles together of my erratic behaviors.
She cried every day. She cried with my friends. She cried as they argued whether I was lying or not. She cried as she thought about how I might die. “I was so scared for you, Sophia,” she told me at Perch. “After I left for Georgia, I didn’t know how to contact you. I knew you too well. You wouldn’t pick up the phone. You weren’t updating your Facebook. I didn’t know if you were alive or not. I had to rely on others to check up on you for me.”
We were overlooking the gorgeous view of downtown LA’s nightscape, but the sky lights were blurring into wobbly spots because our eyes were teary.
And I saw clearly, once again, that I wasn’t the only victim of my eating disorder. I wasn’t the only on who suffered. I had once been bitter and angry that my friends had all “abandoned” me, only later to find out that the eating disordered me had abandoned them first. I felt I wasn’t deserving of love, yet I hungered for it. I pushed people away, even while desiring their touch.
I tried to take Wen to as many places as I could. Our weekend was so packed that by the time we stumbled back home, we both pretty much fell into our beds face-down. I took her around my school campus:
I’m still trying to convince her to do her residency here in SoCal, but this little country girl seems to like the open-road South.
Since Wen was craving real Asian food, that was pretty much all we ate. After a relaxing afternoon at the Korean Spa, I took her to chow soon dubu at So Kong Dong:
Where we had beef and seafood soon dubu.
And the fattest, crunchiest, gooeist seafood pajeon (pancake) EVER:
Behold, this glorious obesity of a pancake.
It came loaded with crabmeat, squid, onion and green onions, all tangled between sticky dough, while the surface sizzled on a hot stone platter.
We also spent a lot of time at Little Tokyo, munching on mochi, fried chicken and fried octopus balls, and sipping on milk tea and coffee.
We also hung out with some of my friends in Santa Monica:
We literally danced the night away and cooled down at the Santa Monica Pier.
The very last day on Sunday afternoon, I took Wen to church with me. I wanted her to meet my second family.
Wen had never been outwardly against religion; she was an agnostic who just didn’t feel she particularly needed God. But she had changed her views since high school. She, too, had suffered her own battles. Her meticulous plans for the future had all fallen through, and she had had to deal with one disappointment after another. She, like me, also had to swallow her ego, and accept the fact that we, despite all our assumed talents and intelligence, are just human.
I started praying for Wen ever since she told me she was visiting. And this time, when we talked about God, I was able to clearly articulate my faith because it was no longer a religion but a living truth for me. After all, my life is living testimony of God’s grace and love. And Wen noticed the change, too. “Before, I felt like religion was what your parents told you to believe,” she told me. “But now it actually feels real. It feels like yours.” That was actually one of the most encouraging thing a friend has said to me.
We promised each other we wouldn’t cry when we said goodbye at the airport. We didn’t, because this time it’s only a brief goodbye. I wasn’t too sad. Of course I was sad that Wen was leaving, but that sadness was just the shadow of brimming joy I felt.
We were both in very different stages from the last time we said goodbye in 2006. This time, we are looking into a summer in which I’ll be working for the Chicago Tribune, while Wen will be working the trauma unit in a hospital. We’re still both a little nervous, but we’ve both matured a lot and learned that things don’t always go the way we plan. But I believe God had always answered and worked so much in the last seven years, in His own amazing way. And I know there’s more to come. I’m sure of it.