On traveling across the world to come to terms with a long-distance friendship.
I hadn’t heard much from my college roommate, Sophie, in the past four years since our graduation. After college, I stayed in New York, and Sophie moved back home to Malaysia. We broadly caught up on birthdays and holidays. We gave obligatory likes on Instagram, commented how much we missed one another, but didn’t always receive replies. So when she asked me to come to Malaysia to be her bridesmaid, I was anxious about whether or not we were actually still friends.
This wasn’t just any wedding either. There would be multiple ceremonies over the course of a few weeks in various locations across Malaysia, where she’s from, and Indonesia, because why not? Malaysia’s Prime Minister was to be the honored guest (insert Zoolander joke here), and when news broke in the local papers that he would be attending, extra arrangements for added security were made—that kind of wedding.
Sophie and I met our freshman year of college on Long Island, where she quickly became one of my first and closest friends. I was nineteen, riddled with anxiety, and far from my suburban town in Northern California. She talked and joked with me as if she already knew me. Over the course of four years, we bonded over our connection to distant places and our need for constant adventure in new surroundings, taking off into the city whenever we got the chance, and we were always, always there when we needed each other.
I wondered if the definition of distance meant that we no longer knew how to be close, or if it meant closeness was only as far as you could reach.
Before telling me about this engagement, I hadn’t heard from her in over a year. The last thing I’d told her was that my partner was in the hospital after having a suicidal episode. The month after that, she finally told me that her previous engagement (to a different man than the one she was now engaged to) was broken off. We knew the vague happenings in each other’s lives, and we knew they were impacting us in major ways, but we weren’t trying to deeply understand or connect with each other.
There were so many gaps in our current relationship, I wondered if it was simply too futile to backtrack. I wondered if the definition of distance meant that we no longer knew how to be close, or if it meant closeness was only as far as you could reach. I kept imagining her telling me, “What happened to you?” fearing that I might be unrecognizable: the chronic bags under my eyes, thirty extra pounds, a weathered version of the person she once knew. What if we didn’t like who each other had become? Was our friendship worth feeling guilty over the things we had never said, shared, or given? As much as I feared the answers, I needed to know. I told her yes, I would be glad to be her bridesmaid.
When we landed in Kuala Lumpur, she was waiting for us with her husband-to-be outside customs. I’d replayed all the questions in my head, but the moment we hugged, I remembered how easy it was to be around her. In the taxi, she chatted with our driver in a defiantly playful tone, sharing a smoke like they had grown up together.
Although she looked and sounded pretty much the same with a few new additions (the fiancé, the ring, a scar from a monkey bite), she was obviously stressed, stressed beyond any wedding-planning-stress I had ever seen. To be fair, it wouldn’t be a stretch to compare the size and extravagance of this wedding to the plot of Crazy Rich Asians, and I wasn’t so sure we’d get a chance to reconnect. Before leaving the airport, she was already making plans for us to go somewhere else, do other things—bag drop-off, dress fittings, lunch.
An already uncertain environment felt increasingly foreign as events unfolded. I had known fragments of the lifestyle that Sophie grew up in, and when she paid for our flights from the States for this trip, I made some of my own assumptions about what I was in for. The celebrations’ main focuses were the bride and groom’s families, honoring their expectations—I didn’t always know what those expectations were. I asked repeatedly, “What do you need from me?” Her answer was always this: “Keep it simple.”
It wasn’t until the first ceremony, the solemnization, that I truly felt the weight of being there for my friend. More intimate than the rest of the wedding’s extravagance, the solemnization is when the “marriage contract” is discussed openly between the men of the families. I carried gifts down the aisle with the other bridesmaids to present to the groom. We stood to the side as the proceedings carried forward, placing a price on the marriage and discussing the duties of a wife. Her husband had to prove his worth by agreeing to the terms and stating his commitment in one single breath. Up to that point, I hadn’t had much time to be with Sophie or get to know the man she was about to marry, but despite the procedural nature of the ceremony itself, it was one of the most personal moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
The past, however present, suddenly felt a little smaller.
Then, on the day of her biggest wedding celebration, there was a new surprise: Sophie had two fathers walk her down the aisle, the one who raised her as well as her biological father, who she made the decision to meet for the first time earlier in the year. I couldn’t say what she was feeling moments before they met. I couldn’t say how the decades apart impacted their meeting. I just knew that regardless, he was there, linked on one side of Sophie and very much a part of her big day. The past, however present, suddenly felt a little smaller. I felt myself start to let go of my anxieties and reservations about what our friendship had become.
At the end of the trip, we finally had a day to ourselves, a chance to test the waters of our evolved friendship. In the jungles of Kuala Lumpur, it seemed wrong to sit inside for the day, but at her home, away from the fairytale of her wedding, we felt normal again. We ordered buckets of salted egg, watched scary movies, and reveled in doing nothing in beautiful spaces. Sophie and I reminisced about what had remained the same and didn’t dwell on the things that hadn’t. I was relieved to discover that change doesn’t mean an ending must occur, that our friendship could in fact survive despite how separate or lives were.
Sometimes it takes traveling to someone else’s world in order to understand what they bring into your life.
Sometimes it takes traveling to someone else’s world in order to understand what they bring into your life. She’ll never know how nervous I was to see her or how grateful I am to her for restoring my patience with time. I understand now that with Sophie, our friendship is simple. We can’t possibly share or be there for everything—and that’s okay. We don’t need very much to keep our connection alive. It will always be there when we need it.
Before leaving, she made a group chat for our friends to stay in contact more regularly. It’s been a few months since she sent a message saying she would send pictures to us soon. I know they will come eventually. Until then, I’ll wait for her reply.