The palm of my hand was filled with mini salt rocks. I threw my head back, poured them into my mouth, and let the acidic vinegar and dill flavors dance on my tongue before swallowing the extra saliva that rushed to my mouth to dissolve the salt.
“Do you like it?” Jackie asked, excitedly awaiting to discover one more thing we have in common.
“Yes! It’s awesome. I can’t believe I’ve never had it.”
“I love pickle salt. I love pickles.” She added. “We both sing, we both hate this island, we both went to schools called JJHS before.”
Her bob of black frizzy hair was waving in the breeze from the fan as she bent down to put the pickle salt back on her bedside table. She paused and ran her fingers across a series of deep maroon and purple books on the bottom shelf.
“Harry Potter?!” she inquired with the same excitement.
I was so sorry to disappoint her, “no, I don’t know anything about them.”
The whites of her eyes expanded as she looked at me in utter disbelief. “Harry Potter?” she said a second time, the enthusiasm in her voice deflating.
“I wasn’t allowed to read them.” I explained.
She shrugged her shoulders and moved on. “But you like to read, right?”
Inside I was thanking her for being so gracious as to not require an explanation on the afore mentioned lack of societal adeptness. She recited the long list of our similarities again and I chimed in to note the ones she forgot.
While she disappeared to the kitchen to get snacks, I observed the few pictures she’d already put up on her wall. Most of them depicted a petite olive skinned Jackie with her big hair slicked perfectly back on top, smiling in a gold and black cheer uniform in some cheer-related pose. She was surrounded by identically dressed friends and had several pictures of her with another blonde cheerleader I assumed she was good friends with. An uneasy and familiar feeling of inadequacy washed over me. In middle school none of the cheerleaders had ever even glanced in my direction, let alone spoken to me. On the rare occasion they even recognized my presence, they gave me judging condescending looks that made me want to voluntarily jump inside my locker and disappear forever. Yet, here I found myself in the bedroom of a sophomore cheerleader, our soon to be cheer captain at school, it didn’t add up. The little voice inside my head screamed, abort!
Just then Jackie arrived with 2 Cokes and a napkin folded over a long cylindrical flaky piece of food.
“Lumpia,” she stated, “My mom makes the best lumpia, better than any other Filipina we know. She’s just the best cook.”
Inside I fought back against my will, She has Coke at home. She’s never experienced being poor. One less thing we share.
I pushed through the negativity flooding my mind and instead exclaimed, “My mom is the best cook in her family too! She’s never made lumpia though. What is it? Like an eggroll?”
She popped open the tab on her Coke and took a sip before answering, “Kind of, but Filipino. Try it.”
I felt as if it were a test I had to pass in order to continue down the path of getting to know one another. She watched with hopeful anticipation.
As I bit in through the flaky outside, the soft cabbage and crunchy carrots met the inside of my mouth with bliss. I savored the first bite but devoured the rest of the piece.
“Oh My God, this is SO GOOD.”
Jackie smiled from ear to ear, relieved and delighted I enjoyed it. It was at this point I realized the anxious expression on her face was probably because she’d been disappointed by others who were not as inviting to her and her family’s cultural differences. I overcompensated by repeatedly expressing the pleasure it brought me and asking for more. It truly was one of the best foods I’d ever tasted.
Throughout that first afternoon we spent together, Jackie shared stories about her last school, her old friends, the boyfriend she had there. She showed me videos of her singing solos at choir concerts there and some cheer competitions. She made me sing the chorus of one song for her so she could hear my voice. She was trying to share things with me but was also mourning the loss of her past. It was one thing we shared, an uncertainty of this new island and school, a fear of not belonging that we disguised with disgust. Her long haired Chihuahua followed us around from room to room and every few minutes barked to demand her attention which she freely gave through kisses and squeezes. She asked me lots of questions to which I gave vague undetailed responses. In short, I told her I didn’t have very much freedom when I lived with my strict mom and stepdad and that’s why I chose to move in with my dad just before he got orders to Lajes Field. I didn’t speak of the sanctuary in the garage or the plan to make an exodus to Kenya. I was embarrassed by my evangelical background and had not even begun to process it in a way I could explain it to another. This was my chance to make a friend, to start over, to be liked, to feel normal. Jackie was secure enough to show me videos of her performing and to invite me to taste and experience part of her heritage. She was so sure of herself it left me in awe. I didn’t believe I had the experience or personality necessary to be her friend. Regardless, she was relentless, asking me questions while bouncing around her house and from topic to topic, covering everything from favorite colors (hers: pink, mine: green), to least favorite subjects, to favorite foods. In that one afternoon we discovered neither of us had ever dyed our hair or tweezed our eyebrows or even kissed anyone. I let my guard down just enough to let her touch but not see my heart. We could read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences from day one and already unintentionally said the same things at the same time. We had an undeniable connection.
In school we immediately became a duo. Though we only had one class together because I was only a freshman, we met up between classes, at lunch, and before and after school. If someone said the name “Jackie” the words “and Kayla” would follow. For years I’d been longing for my big sister’s attention, begging for my mom to see me, I was desperate for a companion, a bosom friend I could bare my soul to. I threw myself into the friendship. Jackie was this strong confident girl who saw her own strengths and was proud of her background, who knew herself and her values. I was exactly the opposite. I didn’t see myself happily camping out in her fearlessness and getting lost in our friendship.
Problems arose any time she made a new friend or wanted to go clubbing off base or do something I didn’t understand or couldn’t relate to. We fought a lot, usually because I was accusing her of not caring about me as much as I cared about her. Any time other people were involved in our hangouts, I shut down. I didn’t know how to be around all these other people. Her friendship alone was enough for me. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t enough for her. Thankfully, we always apologized ourselves out of these fights. I realize now that it’s a miracle, really, because I couldn’t even properly express who I was or why I was hurting, so I don’t know how we managed to overcome those times without reason.
When I visited Ohio a year after I initially left to be with my dad, I had adopted some of Jackie’s boldness. At one point, there was gossip going on about my father and I’d had enough of it. My mom and the rest of the family were taken aback by how brazen I came off. Mom scolded me, “Look who’s gotten outspoken.” And Grandma murmured, “she used to be so precious.” It was more than a criticism, it was an insinuation that my choice of leaving them had turned me into not only a sinner, but a worldly monster. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks and stormed outside.
I was lucky to have those two years on Terceira Island and even luckier to have Jackie. For just a little while, I escaped the madness at home and cultivated some normalcies of teenage life. I met people of different cultures and uprbinging who were vastly different than any I had encountered in the small towns and churches I spent most of my time in before. It was a time of pretending none of my real deep rooted troubles and insecurities existed. From the day I met Jackie and tasted pickle salt for the first time, I made a decision to spend my time on the island just letting myself be a kid and having experiences I couldn’t otherwise have. Today, I’m infinitely grateful to myself for making that choice.
I didn’t leave Lajes knowing exactly who I was, but I left having found in myself a bravery I didn’t know I possessed. I left with memories and new life perspectives. I left knowing it was possible, even for me with all of my unique and unrelatable differences, to make a friend in this world.