The Unconscious Bicycle Girl
Have you ever looked into the eyes of a stranger and known immediately they’d be a friend? It’s rare and a bit magical. I can count on one hand the times this has happened to me. When I was a college freshman, I kept hearing the name of a girl who appeared in each of my classes. Her last name began with C and mine with D, so her name was rattled off the roster just before mine. When I finally figured out who she was, I knew she’d be a friend. I can’t say how. I just knew. Something about her laugh. Or the way her eyes crinkled up at the corners when she smiled. Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? She began as “my” Julie, then my parents eventually named her “our Julie.” She’s still my Julie even though we live miles apart and speak but a handful of times a year.
Years later, I had another moment of clarity and kismet. I was cradling my first baby – tiny at just more than five pounds – in the crook of my arm as I sat in a circle of bleary-eyed new mothers. We were in the cramped conference room of a lactation consultant seeking wisdom, fellowship and a reason to get out of the house. We went around the circle saying our name, our baby’s name and why we were there. I wasn’t listening too carefully, instead fussing with a swaddling blanket that had far too much material for my whisper of a boy. And then a velvety voice caught my attention. I looked up to see the face that went with it and burned her mysterious, boyish name, AJ, into my brain. Our eyes met and we exchanged tired smiles. Yes, you, I thought. The next day we lugged our baby carriers into a movie theatre for a daytime showing of “Brokeback Mountain.” She filled in the blanks for me when I had to step out to change a diaper at a most unfortunate time. Ahem. And once again, I just knew.
The story I’m about to tell you is a little more complicated but most definitely worth telling. It happened squarely between Julie and AJ. I was just a few years out of college and living alone in my first big girl apartment in Chicago. I was in great shape at the time. I had just run my first marathon and felt like I could do anything. There is no reason I should have collapsed after riding my bike for just 10 minutes. But I did. I begrudgingly walked myself to the ER and was whisked back to be gowned and bedded in a hot second. A medical student wearing a white coat and scrubs walked in with a clipboard and began asking questions. It was possible my head wasn’t quite right – I hadn’t recognized the friends I was with when I finally came to on that bike trail – but I was pretty sure something tugged at me inside. What was it about this guy? I couldn’t say. He asked me what I had eaten and a lot of mundane questions. As he took a detailed medical history, I couldn’t help but to feel something for him. It was nebulous but very real. I didn’t know what it was, but fuzzy head not withstanding, I didn’t want him to go away.
But go away he did. I was discharged from the ER. He went back to medical school in Alabama. I went on with my life. I had a lot of inconclusive tests and determined on my own that the incident was a fluke. I was stressed out by my job at an investment bank. I was applying to graduate schools. I was probably a little dehydrated.
Almost a year later, I was volunteering at the Chicago marathon with my friend Geni (another kindred spirit who burrowed into my heart with little more than a laugh) and there he was again. The medical student was arm’s length away looking right at me. “I know you,” I blurted out. I knew exactly who he was. He blinked once or twice, then cocked his head to the side as he brought his fingers to his chin. “Yes,” he said, studying my face. “You’re the unconscious bicycle girl.” Bingo. Once again, that same feeling – undefined but so very present – tugged at me. Don’t go away. I need to keep you near. “I’m Frank,” he said, extending his hand.
I didn’t know why. But it was clear he had a place in my world. I couldn’t be sure what that place would be or what it would mean. He had gradated medical school and was now living in Chicago, a first year resident at Northwestern Hospital. He suggested we run one evening after work and make dinner at his apartment. We agreed on a time and I headed to his place in my cold-weather running clothes. I knocked on the door and was greeted by Frank’s room mate, a tall, lanky guy in light blue scrubs. Andy. My Andy.
“I’m here for Frank?” I said to him. Andy stood in the doorway for a second, then let me in. He likes to tell this part of the story. It’s funny. He says I was wearing “a skin tight black running outfit” and that he was momentarily mute. He never actually uses the word mute, but he stood there with his mouth open saying nothing initially.
It was the beginning of a promising friendship. Frank and I did some running and we did some cooking. These are my two favorite things to do, so I loved having a friend who enjoyed these things as much as I did. This little friendship blossomed in a way that was sweet and gentle. I know what you are thinking. Was it romantic? Were there fireworks? No. But I will admit I didn’t know that for sure in the beginning, though I suspected there was something much different at work here. Instead, it was more of a deep connection on a level that can’t be easily explained. The better I got to know Frank, the more I knew he’d be around for a long time. We talked about books and travel. We ate and ran and ran and ate some more. I eventually met his long-distance girlfriend, Amy, a PhD candidate living in Nashville. I’m not sure she knew what to make of me at the beginning, but with time we formed our own lovely, freestanding friendship.
And Andy? Well, that’s a story in and of itself. I didn’t take enough pictures this week to weave through that long tale. But what I can tell you here is that after a couple years of casual gatherings and finding awkward excuses to talk (he asked if he could park his car in front of my apartment, which was on one of few unzoned streets in the city), we finally cut through the clutter and figured out where we belonged in each other’s lives. Right in the center, that’s where.
Andy stood up in Frank’s wedding. Frank stood up in our wedding. Amy has become one of my dearest friends. Now she and I discuss books and travel when we aren’t cooking or running. We are crazy about their gorgeous and frighteningly smart children. Our children adore each other. We vacation together and watch our four children interact like siblings, friends and occasionally spies and mad scientists. What a treasure it is to find friendships that continue to be as pure as they are pivotal.
The recipe I’m sharing this week is from Frank. He asked me, like three years ago, if I would consider trying these black-eyed pea cakes. I told him yes. Then I proceeded to do nothing about it. I’d never eaten black-eyed peas in my life. Not once. They are considered to be good luck when eaten on New Year’s Eve. Funny enough, we spent New Year’s Eve with Frank and Amy this year in Puerto Rico (the photos above of Frank with Andy and Amy were taken by me on that trip). We weren’t eating black-eyed peas that night, but Amy and I were dutifully wearing our yellow skivvies, another New Year’s tradition thought to bring luck and prosperity in the new year (thank you, Jill N., for enlightening me!).
The recipe Frank tried belonged to Sara Foster of Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill. I took the basic idea and developed my own recipe. Though I was eating my first taste of black-eyed peas around Chinese new year (appropriately enough!) and not New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t help but to think about how lucky I have been to have friends like Frank and Amy. Try these black-eyed pea cakes when you’re itching for a hearty vegetarian meal. I served them with oven roasted broccolini and for the boys, a slice of warm cornbread. Take a moment to think about the magical human connections that have shaped your life. If this isn’t a recipe for comfort, warmth and long-lasting health, then I don’t know what is.
Musical Pairing: The White Stripes, “We’re Going to Be Friends”