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#10: A ceremony for change
Hi everyone! It’s been a while. I keep thinking I’d write and write and write, but lying to myself is what I do. Trust me I’m trying! (It’s very hard, I’m going through a thing, etc.)
This week I write about Rocky leaving, a.k.a I dump any and all thoughts related to this that have been circling my brain for practically the past month. I say that as a warning that what you’re about to read may lack coherence. I’ve been writing this for two weeks, wondering if I should even send this out at all because not only does it feel the least cool type of vulnerable(?), there’s also a part of this that feels slightly “origin story”-ish that I find hard to write about without sounding like I’m self-therapizing, idk. It’s also one of those things where any word I string together feel like a misrepresentation and a reduction of the real thing.
Anyway, I wanted to get this out because, like I said, it’s hard but I’m trying. I have a reminder on my phone that goes off every two hours that says “hot girls write finished pieces” and so here is one finished thing, because I want so bad to be hot — story for another time.
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Is change a good thing? Or do we just like to think of change as good because the alternative would be too bleak, given how central and fated it is to our day-to-day experience of life?
The night before Rocky’s last day in Jakarta I found myself desperate to talk to him over video call, even though I had quite literally just gotten back from his place, where Audi and I spent the afternoon helping him pack (or more like, we both made our last-ditch attempt to convince Rocky to leave behind his skinny jeans and make room for newer, better, baggier pants in this new PhD-pursuing phase of his life). He missed my call while in the shower and texted back: “u good????”
Me? I could not be more the opposite of “good”. I’d spent the entire ride home from his place ugly crying as silently as I could in the back of the GoCar. It didn’t help that I was also nursing a cold, so not only was my crying barely silent, I also had snot all over my shirt.
I told him I just wanted to talk while we were in the same timezone, fully aware I’m being sooo melodramatic. Sue me. I wanted to call him like it was just any other day. A little check in, talk about his day or mine, complain about something, eventually ask what each other’s dinner plans were and decide to go somewhere or just read at a coffee shop. But it wasn’t one of those days. Times have been hectic as he prepared for his departure, and the busier the week got, the more I selfishly craved for some semblance of normalcy, which I thought the call would offer.
Once home, I looked around my room and all I could think of was that time last July when Rocky, Audi, and I were getting ready to go to Club Vixxen’s prom-themed party, which happened to be the last time Rocky visited my place. We’d planned on a movie night in the weeks that followed, mainly to watch the new season of “And Just Like That”, but never got around to it. All those thoughts obviously made me feel some type of way and I promptly launched Twitter (or “X” — the fuck?) to numb the sads. That, too, turned out to be a stupid idea because as I browsed through the different tabs on the app, it suddenly dawned on me that these things I was seeing on the screen would soon be the default visuals of our friendship. Message bubbles in lieu of loud animated conversations. Emojis in lieu of actual hugs. The idea that this life-affirming experience of a same-city, I’m-walking-to-the-MRT-be-there-in-ten, spontaneous-weekday-brunch friendship would soon turn exclusively into pixelated user experience, little avatars across social media platforms, and text notifications felt like life was regressing.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have become so overwhelmingly sentimental a person — so emotionally overworked, honestly — had I not spent so much of my teenage years mourning friendships. I’d spent what some would call “formative years” living on-campus at a post-graduate institution abroad, where my parents studied for their doctorate programs. Friends walked in and out of my life as people (other parents) arrived on campus and eventually graduated from programs of varying durations. My parents were there for four years, one of the longer programs, and throughout that period of my life crushes, friendships, sisterhoods came together just as quickly as they seemed to disintegrate when it came time for someone to leave.
Each year when a good friend leaves, we would print photos, write letters, put together scrapbooks, anything to be handed over as mementos, reminders of how special these connections had felt. Sometimes, we’d stay up late the night before their departure, crying into the morning, holding each other, promising forever. On the day, those left behind walk around like zombies. Eyes swollen, hearts broken. Over summer break we will attempt to fill the void. With luck, you’ll snap out of it and try to mix with potential new friends, but for the most part you don’t really ever recover. Either way, you get sicker and sicker with nostalgia, and by the time it was my turn to leave, I didn’t have that many close friends left to mourn my departure. Plus, I think the lesson here is that there’s more pain in staying behind than leaving.
It’s funny because in hindsight, four years is such a short time. I’ve stayed at a job longer than four years. Six months from now, it will have been four whole years since the pandemic and yet it’s almost like no time has gone by at all. At 15, though, four years was a whole life. As far as I was concerned, everything and everyone who happened to share a space with me in that moment were past, present, and future. I wanted those four years to last forever.
I’d yet to develop the ability to imagine a future without the people I loved. Too bright-eyed to register the possibility of outgrowing them. These people filled nearly every minute of my day in a way that made me sure they were my whole world, so it always comes as a shock to find myself living life without the very friends I’d made such loaded promises to stay in touch with. It’s almost alarming how generally OK I am without them that sometimes I take my current life as a betrayal to my younger self.
I write about all of that because when Rocky left, I felt what I haven’t felt in a very long time, which is the inevitable, gut-wrenching ending of a thing that had managed to make itself too important for me to lose. It felt like confirmation of a thought seemingly too corny to hurt: that good things don’t last forever. Suddenly I was 15 again sitting at home, wondering what to do with this void, wondering if that was it for me and this beautiful thing, wishing I could have had the good thing for just a little longer. Nevermind that it’s so much easier now to stay in touch compared to the dial-up era of the early 2000s. Nevermind that I was literally tracking Rocky’s flight and he was literally able to text from inside the airplane. Nevermind that I now know enough about myself and about friendships to know that this one is fundamentally different from the ones I’d formed in my earlier years. His moving away for an indefinite amount of time was the end of an era, and as far as I’m concerned, when eras end, friendships do too. At least they tend to.
I was sad for the immediate changes that come with his absence: Sunday nights I’d have no choice but to spend alone with my anxiety instead of out on some spontaneous dinner with Rocky, the random movie nights at my place, the iconic dance moves at parties, the sheer lack of planning that living in the same timezone affords you. But I was gutted for what it could mean long-term. Will we still be friends in five years? Seven years? Will I evolve in a way that would still be worthy of this friendship?
I still don’t know if change is good or bad. All I know is that I hate it, because of how little control I have over it, and how little information I am afforded about the future at any given time. One thing I know is that some changes are bigger than others, and whether that’s Rocky leaving for his PhD or maybe just this particular time in my life, but this cycle of change feels like one of the bigger ones in recent memory. Suddenly things feel unfamiliar and mapless in a way I didn’t realize life could still be, and I have yet to extract enough clarity from it to be excited by the blankness of this canvas.
I wish there was a ceremony for when you knowingly decide to jump into scary things without the guarantee of a happy ending — something like a wedding is to marriage, except it’s not marriage you’re getting into, though it may call for just as much commitment (in Rocky’s case, a five-year PhD program? If that isn’t commitment I don’t know what is). I love the idea that ceremonies help give language to nuanced life events. Rituals and symbolisms to acknowledge the weight of change or the inevitable duality that comes with periods of transition: the mourning of past selves, the celebration of who you could be, where you could go from this point on.
Spending days helping Rocky pack his life into three suitcases, riding in the back of a Bluebird to the airport with me clinging to him like physical touch was suddenly my love language, having Sate Senayan dinner before finally walking him to the departure hall, and crying endless bittersweet tears, though universal enough to be a ritual, didn’t do justice to encapsulate the leap that his leaving meant for him and whatever it could be for everyone watching him go. The ritual of airport goodbyes can often feel a little too “such is life” for me, if you know what I mean. And if I may be allowed to add just one more thing I hate about changes it is exactly that — the “such is life” attitude we tend to adopt as a response to the buffet of uncomfortable feelings that come with change. Like riding on a roller coaster and being told to sit still and shrug it off. No. Change makes me want to scream and throw up. It makes me want to cry, it definitely makes me laugh, and in that moment just before you’re released from the highest drop point, there’s that millisecond of thrill that makes you think it might be worth it after all, for everyone involved.
I think what I was hoping to get out of that phone call that night was assurance that we were going to be OK. Sure I was sad that he was leaving but I was also feeling insecure about the friendship. Beyond time zones and the obvious distance, are we going to change? Will we make time? Will I still matter? Clearly a single phone call wasn’t going to give me all the answers.
Two weeks in and I know that the best reference I have to just how well we might do this long-distance friendship is in the things that have already happened. The two years we spent staying good long-distance friends during his Columbia program. That one pandemic year I ditched Jakarta and moved to Bali. The very real ways that we have shown up for each other, made each other feel safe, seen, and understood. Everything that could potentially serve as meaningful examples to how OK we will be, all of this change be damned, has already happened. And while the way life works is that nothing is 100% guaranteed, the clues are all there, real as they can be. A little faith could go a long way.
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