Before heading to Bogotá a few weeks ago, I’d heard nothing good. In fact, I heard much of the opposite. Stories of about how wayward and conniving the taxi drivers there could be. Warnings to not ever hail a taxi from the street lest you be overcharged and swindled. How dreary, cold and overcast the weather generally is there. The high altitude which can assault those not accustomed to it with migraines, aches, pains, nausea and fatigue.
I wasn’t exactly excited about going there. Although I was excited about eating my way through Colombia at the up and coming Bogotá Wine and Food Festival. It was, after all, why I was there instead of continuing to hang around Medellín , where I had spent a magical few days prior to exchanging a city with “eternal spring” for one where I’d need to consciously layer.
And its coldness, the wind and the clouds hanging low in the sky, drifting beneath the golden green mountain peaks assuredly met me, a mere two days into the total five days total I planned on spending there. I was at El Chato surrounded by food writers and chefs. We were passing shared plates around the shared table, with the sound of a chorus of oohs, aahs and pleased food moans.
Towards the end of the lunch, I finally connected my phone to WiFi after being disconnected and offline for most of the day. As I often do, I pressed my thumb against the Gmail icon and did a cursory scan of the subject lines. The name of a friend popped out to me most. The name of my dear friend along with the words “killed in a fatal auto accident.” My breath left my body. Then I froze.
A heavy plate teetered in my hands and eyes darted back at me. I wasn’t sitting alone at the table and those around me, the strangers around me, wondered why I was acting so strangely, why it looked as if I was practicing a balancing act with the plate in my hands motionless. A nudge and gentle laugh from the person sitting next to me jolted me back to the present, to which I shared robotically, ignoring the compassion I received. I excused myself to the restroom. I didn’t have to pee.
Instead I sat on the commode, blinking ferociously, feeling nothing and everything at the same time. I held my phone in my hand, reading the subject title of the email over and over again, willing to believe the truth. I had a friend who was dead. A friend of mine, one who I had vulnerably shared bits and pieces of my life and heart for the past seven years, was dead.
The first time I met my dear friend, Precious was her name, it was the fall of 2010. I was 24-years-old in the first semester of my graduate writing program. She sat next to me and seemed to be scribbling on her notepad notes from our professor who rambled in circles for the entire three hours of class. I didn’t speak to her for months. And later when we became friends, she admitted she thought I was unapproachable, although we often caught each other’s eyes as two of the few Black women in our class.
Turns out, she wasn’t scribbling notes on her notepad. She showed me some months in the semester her sketches she spent her class time creating. She was a gifted artist aside from being a brilliant, fluid writer and poet. She was a year younger than me and wiser than me in so many ways. Her quiet strength moved me as she talked from her eyes and her heart.
She was and still remains the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Her friendship healed me after years of losing friends due to people telling me I was too exhausting, required too much and was too sensitive and feeling to keep people in my corner. I never gained that sense from her from the moment we became friends. She was open and honest, friendly and warm. We talked about our lives, our families, our joys and passions, our deep-seated and hidden pains.
Even after I graduated a year early and no longer saw her on campus during the week, we still kept in touch. Our friendship wasn’t predicated on frequency. Often we went weeks or months without seeing each other before we reconnected. But when we did? It was like no time had passed at all. It was as if, once again, I could pause all the tunnels, noise and distractions and be heard, be loved, be affirmed, be enough.
I never told her this and now, I wish I had but she was my shining star. I looked to her with seedy admiration because of how she channeled all her pain and past hurts into moving forward. Her shining example enabled me to do so again and again. After breakups, after disappointments. After moving to Spain, leaving Spain, moving to Washington, D.C. and leaving Washington, D.C. She remained my friend through all the changes and ups and downs, all the drama-filled phone calls and texts about my latest meltdown. And she never let any of lapses in judgments lessen the strength of our friendship.
The funny thing? She once told me she thought I was braver than her. I never agreed. I still don’t now.
Today marks three weeks since her death. Because we were those types of friends who didn’t depend on seeing or talking often to keep the love and nurturance of our friendship alive, sometimes, most times, most days, most moments, I can busy and distract myself with the lie she’s somewhere distantly still alive. That life hasn’t changed. That she didn’t die alone on the streets at night.
It works most times.
And other times the truths ripples over me and I ruminate. I turn it over and over again in my mind and still can’t come out with any shining truth. She is dead and intellectually I know this. Emotionally I wrestle with despair and disbelief.
The day after I’d learned she died, I opted out of morning outdoors yoga and a group dinner. I stayed buried underneath the crisp, white duvet in my room and ordered room service: a cheeseburger, french fries, tomato soup, a slice of cheesecake, an ice cold coke. My food arrived minutes later and as the TV blared in the background, I sipped the tomato soup spoonful by the spoonful. Then my chest heaved with heavy tears.
My last full day in Bogotá I balanced filling grateful with broken as I stuffed my face with at least five different burgers and Colombian artesanal beer. The day was uncharacteristically sunny and cheerful and the sun’s rays bounced off the full, blue sky. I still wanted to cry. I still wanted to ball my hands into two ardent fists and box with the shadows of the Universe until I had answers.
Instead I ate. I sipped beer. I had conversations with the families that sat around me and watched as they looked onto me in amazement when I told them I wrote, that I was there to write about their city and their country.
Then I gathered all my things up and left. I went back to my quiet, dark and lonely hotel room. I packed up all my belongings. I prepared to leave Bogotá and I pledged to never return. To never revisit the site of when I communed with the ghosts of grief and grief fully entered me.