My Famous Friend

My first best friend was a boy. Christopher and I would play in the mud, sometimes with frogs. We lived in Mclean, Virginia, which my mother called “the country.” Back then, it was the country, and there were lots of wild things—turtles, frogs, ferns, dandelions, acorns—with which to construct vast imaginary universes. We were four. At five, my mother informed me that Christopher’s father, a diplomat, was being sent to work in a far-away country and that it would be years until the family returned. I was heartbroken.

I don’t say this lightly. To this day I remember the emptiness that filled my stomach, the sadness that engulfed me. Darkness lapped at the corners of my room and lengthened its shadows. Not that I had anything like words to describe my feelings to my mother, but she must have sensed how undone I was, and hastened to explain the ins-and-outs of the State Department and how Christopher’s father had some important job in service to America in a place called Istanbul. As if I gave a rat’s ass.

Kindergarten started. Fall became winter. And then one magical day I came home from school to be presented with a large white manilla envelope addressed to me. Inside was a beautiful hand-made Valentine’s Day card from Christopher consisting of a shimmering red heart glued to a silver doily. Lovely, but unhelpful. Not to be overly sentimental, but the dude—red-haired, chubby cheeked, freckled—really had been the light of my life. And now he was gone. Gone Christopher! Gone frogs! Gone mud-towns filled by acorn people! And I was stuck at home where the depression that would in a few years swallow me whole had already put down seeds and shoots, where I felt like an outcast in my own family, and where every night I had to enact elaborate rituals to make sure that the Nazis who were lurking in my closet stayed put. So it totally sucked that Christopher had abandoned me just so he could live with his parents in Turkey, which didn’t even sound like the name of a real country.

I started first grade at a fancy, waspy private school, where in the 1960s and 1970s most of the kids were children of the Washington elite: the sons and daughters of power lawyers, U.S. Senators, Supreme Court justices, treaty-makers, diplomats, and those who toiled in “the foreign service,” code for the CIA. And here was I, a curly-haired, dark-skinned Jewish girl with absolutely zero aptitude for anything approaching the rough-and-tumble of competitive sports, tossed among a sea of blonde, blue-eyed children born with either a lacrosse or field hockey stick in their hands.

At six, though, I wasn’t so attuned to my classmates’ fancy-schmancy ur-wasp backgrounds, and I graduated from the first grade (learned to read); the second grade (played the Dove in the Christmas Play); and the third grade (mastered the intricacies of Cat’s Cradle) without incident. But something weird had happened: I now played only with girls, and the boys, for whom I had developed a distinct distaste, played only among themselves. Then came fourth grade, and this is where things began to get dicey. First, we who had been free to frolic in our regular clothes were now forced into uniforms so hideous and uncomfortable that they qualified as cruel and unusual punishment. Second, dismissal time, which had been set at a reasonable 2:30, was now pushed back to four. Third and most horribly, in place of making colorful maps of Africa and listening to our teachers read The Hobbit out loud during rest time, we now had to do things like study French and learn our multiplication tables. Oi, what a shonda it was when I failed to master those numbers higher than seven! What a humiliation to be quizzed by the smartest girl in the class, with her perfectly straight hair in two perfect braids down her back, while I stammered out the wrong answers to “6 x 8” or anything higher than 24 in the twelve-times table.

But the kicker of all kickers was that it was in the fourth grade that Christopher returned, now enrolled in the classroom next to mine, where despite my high hopes, he didn’t so much as say hello to me. And this, my friends, is what happens when suddenly you are a nine-year-old girl and your true love and first best buddy is most definitely a nine-year-old boy.

So that was it. Christopher, who was now called Chris, went his merry way, no doubt learning his multiplication tables just fine, not to mention palling around with all the fleetest and brightest boys in the class, and in no time, as flirting ramped up, the girls, too—the popular, the athletic, the beautiful, and those slated to fulfill their ancestral duty to attend an Ivy League college. And then our time at school– where we played field hockey and danced around the Maypole, chanted the Lord’s Prayer and competed like Olympic contenders– was over. We dispersed: first to secondary school and then to college. And from there it all went as expected for any group of kids privileged enough to have been sent to a private school on a large, well-maintained campus surrounded by playing fields, rolling hills, and woodlands. We grew up.

We grew up but, for those of who wanted to remain in-the-loop, we did not grow indifferent. In my own case, during those pre-Internet days, my mother, who was friendly with many of my former classmates’ mothers, kept me abreast of every whiff of news that came her way. From her a ceaseless stream of bulletins regarding my classmates’ love affairs, departures to parts unknown, decisions to go to Yale rather than Harvard law school. Thanks Mom, this news of all this bright and shining success, academic and otherwise, I needed like a hole in the head. My poor mother, I don’t think she got that I was still trailing all that self-loathing and sense of inferiority that I’d entered grade school with, probably because by then I was overcompensating so successfully that I myself didn’t know what a mess I was inside. Boyfriend, check. Grad school, check. Job, check. Apartment, check. Marriage, children, friends, a house and mortgage and career all of my own, check, check, check and double check. Why on earth wouldn’t I appreciate my mother’s news flashes? But even if I weren’t on the receiving end of my mother’s broadcasting empire, news of my classmates, their families, their real estate, careers, children and adventures would have come my way, and that’s because not only do people talk, but the school we attended as children kept after us—for money, yes, but also for updates for the alumni magazine and networking loop. Cringe-worthy confession: I desperately wanted my former schoolmates—those so superior by the reckoning of adolescence that even in our teen years they appeared not to recognize me—to know that I too had graduated: not only from college, but into my own version of growing up to give my parents a reasonably supply of bragging rights.

True, I was not an A-list Hollywood actor like our most famous classmate, or a glamourous keeper-of-the flame like the girls who were the nieces or grandchildren of Presidents, or even a power lawyer at a power law firm, like so many of my former classmates that you’d have to conclude there was something in the water. (There was: it was our fathers.) But at least I wasn’t a putz.

Still, there was one among us whose star seemed to twinkle more brightly than the other stars in the class firmament. And along with her verbally-delivered news flashes, until her death at the age of 72, my mom sent me clippings about him from the Washington Post. And that’s because Christopher eventually became Senator Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland. Mazel tov!

The years passed. Then, in my 62nd year: a group-invite to the class of 1974 to attend a fund-raiser for the Senator, hosted by another classmate at his home in Brooklyn, appeared in my email in-box. Truth in advertising: over the years I’d heard plenty about Chris, usually from my ancient but still ardently politically engaged father, leading me to conclude: nu? What’s not to like? I’d also learned that I was not the only five-year-old girl who’d received a beautiful Valentine’s Day card from Istanbul in 1964, a bummer for sure, but I got over it. The point is that that was then, and this was now, and before me was an actual invitation to come see the Senator as well as a number of other former (and formerly terrifying) classmates. I live in suburban northern New Jersey. Brooklyn is right around the corner! Okay, not really, what a shlepp, but by the time I’d resolved to attend the fundraiser, the only thing that might have stopped me was a blizzard.

Good golly had things changed in the decades since we kids were breathing the same chalk dust. I’m not referencing the obvious stuff—the gray hair and wrinkles, the talk of retirement—nor even the thrill of no longer being the only Jew among a sea of distinctly non-Semites. The real thrill wasn’t even a thrill, but rather, a joy. The shadows of my difficult childhood finally banished, I stepped into the bright light cast of our hosts’ dining room chandelier to find myself in the embrace of my first best friend.

About the Author
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and non fiction, including The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition. Her journalistic and opinion pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Newark Star Ledger, USA Today, Salon, The Jerusalem Report, Commentary, Moment, and many other publications. She is also a painter.