As I was driving over to her house, I was thinking about what I might say. We had been building toward this moment for the past few months, if not years. In fact, probably all our lives. We grew up in the same church, attended Sunday School together. We even made music together. Sweet, sweet church music. She played the keys for our ragtag praise/garage band while I led sweaty and passionate worship sets every Sunday for our youth group on my starter-kit Fender acoustic guitar. Between the two of us, we only knew 9 or 10 chords: G strum—D strum—C strum—JESUS!—G strum—D strum—F#m strum—JESUS! There wasn’t much to it, really. But what I’m trying to say is that she knew all my secret chords. And I knew almost all of hers.
She held one back. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pry this one out of her. Jessica lived the classic double life. At church, she played the role of sweet, blameless Christian daughter, older sister, and unnie for the younger girls in the youth group. But away from all that, she harbored forbidden desires. She talked to me once about wanting to get a tattoo on her left shoulder (a dolphin or a heart, I can’t recall). She had a thing for bad boys too, though she’d never admit it. She was more AC Slater than Zack Morris. More Pacey than Dawson. Not many people knew this, but she even had an Eminem poster on her bedroom wall (her favorite track was Stan). This is why she never let anyone into her room. It was a room of secret, smoldering, and shameful desires. Not many people knew this about Jessica, but I did. I knew because I was her best friend.
I was not a bad boy. I was as good as they come. People would tease us all the time. “Ooohhh, are you dating??” they’d goad. “Ludicrous!” I’d respond. “Do you think I’d risk this hard-earned trust by being one of those typical boys who…one of those boys who date girls??” To me, to date was to lust, and though I lacked the conviction to pluck out my own eyes, I’d never once think to degrade our precious friendship. I had seen her Eminem poster (from the hallway) because she let me. Why would I ever give up that level of intimacy?
But Jessica had hidden something from me, and it drove me crazy. As far as I was concerned, my best friend status was on the line; I simply had to know what it was.
I knew she had a secret because any time I’d say something nice to her, she’d hide in a hole of her own making. “No, Chris. You shouldn’t get too close to me,” she’d say. “You think you know me, but you don’t. I’m not good and you are.” She saw me as the pre-fallen Adam, glorious and unashamed. She was Eve, felled by the serpent, the half-eaten apple hidden behind her back. She was Mandy Moore and I was Shane in a Walk to Remember. As her best friend, I knew that she would never flourish holding onto this shame. I was very mature for my age to know something like this.
So, when my Nokia ringtone sounded off one balmy, Southern California afternoon, I knew what Jessica was about to say. “Chris,” she started, her voice trembling. “I don’t think we can be friends anymore. I don’t think I’m a good influence on you.”
I had heard enough. I told her I was coming over. Before she could object, I hung up the phone and gunned my ’98 Honda Accord straight to her house. When I pulled up to her house, I had no set plans, no strategy. I started by calling her.
“I’m in the driveway,” I said solemnly. “Ok,” she whispered.
She slipped quietly into my car; I could tell she had been crying. Though I had no idea what this “thing” she held onto was, I took a leap of faith.
“Whatever it is, I want you to go and get it. Right now.”
I surprised myself with how decisive my tone was. I projected control and calm, a maturity beyond my years. She nodded and went back into her house. When she re-emerged 20 minutes later, she was clutching a small box, approximately 12×12 inches, to her chest. It was smeared with dirt. Whatever it was, she had buried it in her backyard. I had the wisdom to refrain from asking her what was in it.
We had to drive somewhere so I instinctively started driving toward Huntington Beach. It proved to be the right decision for both practical and cinematic reasons. For one thing, the 40-45 minute drive measured out to about 9-10 songs on the mixed CD I had recently burned for her. With this CD, the literal soundtrack of our friendship, we didn’t even need to speak. Instead, Paula Cole did all the speaking for us:
I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
I want to know right now, what will it be?
I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
Will it be yes, or will it be sorry?
The Goo Goo Dolls. Third Eye Blind. Savage Garden. I was telling her a story, and in this story, everything was going to be alright. Sarah McLachlan crowed, Jewel cooed. Eagle-Eye Cherry pleaded with us to save tonight, while Natalie Imbruglia’s anthem struck a more defiant tone. We chased it with a cool sip of BBMak.
I parked the car near the pier. At this point, I knew what we had to do. For the first time in our friendship, I grabbed her by the hand. A shock of electricity shot straight up my spine. She was letting me, perhaps even wanting me, to hold her hand. I was in uncharted territory.
I led her down to the end of the pier. We hadn’t said a word in about an hour, so I broke the silence.
“We’re here,” I whispered. She began to cry.
I didn’t know what to say, but the way we were standing there at the end of the pier—the proverbial edge of the world, nothing in front of us but horizon and ocean and the seagulls cawing, the sea salt breeze lapping at our skin and sending gentle ripples through her hair—it all reminded me of Kate and Leo. Taking their cue, I found my words, at last.
“You have to let go, Jess. You have to let it go.”
She gripped the box tightly to her chest as the moment finally came, the moment she both dreaded and needed the most. She didn’t move for what seemed like 10 minutes. I was beginning to think she hadn’t heard my perfect line.
Just as I was about to repeat myself, I heard a distant splash. She buried her head into my chest and began to sob. She had done it. People, especially the ones who were fishing on the pier, were staring.
“Let them stare,” I thought. This was too important.
But then, I looked over the edge and to my abject horror, the box was still there, floating, and floating rapidly toward shore.
I turned her so that her back was to the water.
“You did it Jess,” I said abruptly. “Now, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the box tracking next to us as we walked the length of the pier, slowly but surely making its way to the beach. I knew that if she saw it, everything would be ruined. And by ruined, I mean, symbolically ruined.
Fortunately for me, we made it back to the car without incident and Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger restored my confidence that destiny was firmly on my side that day. As we drove away, the weight of the box became lighter, and we both understood that a chapter in our sweaty adolescence had come to a close. Shame had transfigured itself into a 12×12 box in the sand, the contents of which some unsuspecting child might have stumbled upon—God only knows. All I know is that Jessica breathed a little easier that day and we remained good friends terrified of touching each other for the rest of our youth group days.
When I found out what was in the box 17 years later, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. There was a truth then that remains the truth today: Hope floats, but apparently, so does shame.
About the Author: Christopher Paek is interested in authentic Asian American storytelling. He writes less often than he should, but he makes up for it by devoting part of his time encouraging other Asian American writers to share their stories.
Photo by: Pat Nolan via surfline.com