One year

With regularity the days go by. The anniversary dates of first job offers, visa approvals, leaving parties, and flights all roll past as the summer ends and September begins. Now in October the memories are of our busy first days of house hunting, my last weeks of packing our San Francisco apartment, and those first few weeks in our Hong Kong home.

Mr. Squish doesn’t seem to remember arriving in a pee-soaked state one year before, having traveled farther than most cats ever do. Or maybe he does, but the trauma of that memory and the loss of his SF rooftop are not moments he chooses to commemorate. It can be hard to tell. Either way he naps under the red sofa in the afternoon heat and sprints around the house in the dark with the comfort of a cat familiar with his surroundings. This move may have taken him away from cool weather and the Mission rooftop, but it has given him air conditioning, a variety of rooms to nap in, and the company of a work from home human. I like to think he’s satisfied.

As for the humans, our memories are as fragile as ever. I remember biking home from long days at the office in SF, up hill into the wind, and wondering where we would live next, and how long it would take to get there. A year later I can answer the question, but not remember the urgency with which it was asked.

“I don’t want a vacation, I want a new life,” I used to say.

It took more than a year to get one, and while I think often of how lucky we are to be in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the move is as good a time as any to reflect. This morning I do some light shopping in our neighborhood, for my sick partner. The shopping list is not long: avocados and passion fruit from the old couple’s street stand two blocks down. This fruit and vegetable stand, visible from our window, was a major perk of the apartment when we first saw it a year ago. A year later we’re frequent customers and were correct to value it. After that comes sourdough bread, from the coffee shop downstairs. This was a bit of luck, as the coffee shop opened in December, after our lease was signed. It serves wine and cheese in the evening, coffee in the morning, and whole beans and sourdough bread in between. Few establishments, opening directly downstairs, would have both signaled gentrification and fit my work from home routine as well. Last on the shopping list, of course, is some dong lai cha, iced milk tea. In the past year we’ve tried almost all of the small street restaurants and corner breakfast shops in the immediate vicinity, and have favorites for almost every type of dish. This tea, from the slippery egg place, is by far the best, and so a special sick day request.

Living somewhere, as opposed to visiting, is the art of learning a place deeply, enough to have a routine, and also of becoming part of the routine of others. At each of these stops I am no longer a stranger, if not exactly a local. At the small noodle shop I visit first, for myself, I’m by now a regular, if one who orders few things and understands little Cantonese. A year in though I’ve started to learn, and will get better.

A year in a place is both a long time and not. This year has been enough to make friends and change jobs, it’s been enough to become part of established social groups and to start new ones. A year though, as I first realized in Tokyo, is not long enough to really know much, or to have explored everything. In some ways a year is no time at all. And so, starting the second year of our lease, becoming comfortable in each of our second jobs here, looking back makes me happy. We’ve come a long way from those last weeks in San Francisco, from our one bedroom in the Mission. We’re settled, and home, in this new city.

Familiar faces

We live together, celebrating the years since our meeting. After so long, though, it becomes hard to remember what we saw in each other’s faces, that first time. The features have become people, the strong nose or odd eyes faded into friendship.  Looking at each other today, we do not evaluate. Well, occasionally, of course.

“You look pretty today,” she says. It is a shy moment, not something I am used to being told. Is anyone? Sometimes we’ve made a special effort, preparing for an interview, or a business meeting.

“Nice outfit,” one says, as they look in the mirror one last time.

“Thanks.”

Even this is not the same, it is recognition, and our response something likewise known. Praise for attention to clothing, or a new haircut. We have grown familiar to each other, and each specific quirk, vocal habit or emotion has ceased to be a moment of discovery. We offer comfort for fear, anger at a story of injustice, or laughter. We no longer prepare for one another, showing up instead unannounced at any hour, in any garb. Faces become familiar, and our knowledge of each other’s features background to our daily adventures.

This is a good thing indeed, and it holds us together in spite of illness or anger, good dress or poor, because it is the person we see, not their appearance, or face.

Yet sometimes, on anniversaries, say, it is good to get out pictures and try to remember each other’s faces as they were before we knew them. What we thought before we had watched the other awake without shower or coffee, eyes closed and uncertain of the world around. This shared exploring of our memories is another form of familiarity. Trying to remember what we were so inclined to know better, to photograph, to tease laughter from, is indeed treasuring how far we have come.

There is another goal: an awareness of this change. So that with practice we may be able to see those first faces again, without pictures or special occasions, scattered randomly amidst the familiar daily expressions. And with these observations we remember both why we have spent all these years together, and where the desire to do so began.