BEST FRIENDS FOR AN AFTERNOON – Marilyn Armstrong

It has nothing to do with hooking up or any other kind of sex. It has to do with becoming the closest of friends with a complete stranger for one afternoon, then never seeing him or her again.

One year, about 30 years ago, I was visiting friends in Montreal. I was poor, didn’t have a reliable car, so I took the bus from New York to Montreal. It was a five-hour ride. I figured I’d sleep most of it, but instead, I found myself seated next to an Indian (from India) medical student who was studying medicine at McGill University. He had just been visiting friends in New York and it was time to go back to studying.

He explained that he was on a scholarship from India and the deal was, he would study, become a doctor, then go back to India and do three years of work there to compensate the government. But, he said, he wasn’t going back.

I was surprised. “But you took the money,” I pointed out. “Don’t you feel you owe them something?” He sighed.

“India is so big,” he said. “So poor. There is very little I could do there that would mean anything. But I could do some great work here in Canada. Research work that might save many people and not just for three years. Maybe for a hundred years.”

He then talked about India’s relationship with Great Britain. “Mostly, everyone hates the British, but they gave us one thing for which we will always be grateful.”

I raised both eyebrows (I can’t raise just one, sorry) and looked at him.

“English,” he said. “Before the British, we spoke hundreds of languages. In each valley, the villages had their own language. Across the nation, we couldn’t talk to each other. Then along came the English and suddenly, we could communicate. For that, we are grateful. It may not be our best language, but it the one everyone speaks.”

After that — getting a look at India I had never seen before — I passed along all of my current issues including trying to get a Jewish divorce in Israel while living in New York, a process so complicated that even 32 years later, I get a headache thinking about it. Not to mention the nasty piece of work who,  for hard-to-fathom reasons, I had married. And children. Mine. His. Ours. As well as the big ocean between us.

Greyhound bus terminal

The two of us never even exchanged names. When we parted at the bus station in Montreal, we had no thought of ever meeting again.

We were best friends for one afternoon on a long bus ride between cities. And three decades later, I still remember it.

27 thoughts on “BEST FRIENDS FOR AN AFTERNOON – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Those were the days when you actually spoke to someone sitting next to you. Today, he’d have ear buds in to tell you he wasn’t interested in talking and he’d either close his eyes or scroll his phone. I like your memory better.

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  2. What a beautiful tale. As someone who travels much, mostly on trains, I made several unforgettable ‘part time, short term’, friends. The latest was with a woman who boarded the same bus in Zurich and then we went to change for the same tramway. We re-made the world of faith, religion, God and Humans, all in less than one hour. We came from the same concert in an Senior Residents’ Home and we both wished to see each other again – but of course won’t.
    My most memorable friendship was when a gentleman and I both had reserved the same 1st class seat in a practically empty TGV (high speed) train from Paris to Zurich. He was a philosopher and not only did we start chatting because he sat on ‘my’ place but because he had this really serious looking book open. And so it started…. He told me much about his life, his talks he was giving, and whatnot. For a philosopher he was very happy to communicate.
    When tickets were checked, he (stupidly, he realised, afterwards) told the man that the SNCF (French railway co) shouldn’t sell the same place twice…. both our tickets were checked again and his return ticket was for the same day but a month later (February). He had to pay another €100 extra…. We DID stay in contact this time, and corresponded a couple of times across a few years. I’ll never forget that extraordinary day and our talk.

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  3. I sometimes take a day-long train ride into Texas Hill Country to visit my daughter. Listening in without really meaning to, I’ve heard how personal the conversations often get on these trips! People seem to reveal more when they know it’s just for the day.

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  4. I am hopeful that he made it, became a doctor, and wherever he decided to live, was able to make the difference he so hoped for. Life’s like that though, isn’t it? Sometimes someone can become a friend for a day and leave an impact.

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  5. Lovely story, Marilyn. Maybe he’ll turn out to be one of your readers and will contact you.

    When I lived in DC, I used to take a bus home to Buffalo occasionally. I remember one trip when I had a very nice young man sitting next to me, and by the time we reached Buffalo, we were practically in love. The only problem was that we had been sitting during the entire trip and didn’t realize that I am short and he was very tall. When we stood up to leave the bus, I barely came up to his belly button. Well, that wasn’t gonna work! We both laughed and went on our ways.

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    • It was for me a wonderful conversation. I learned more about India and local customs than I’d learned in all my 40 some odd years before. He was much younger than me and it was just a great conversation between two people stuck on a Greyhound together. And yet I still remember it.

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      • You could have such an afternoon…on a long distance bus ride….when people were more open to conversation. These days, I suspect, they would be involved with their tweets, i-phones and the like.
        Too bad.

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      • I’m guessing that he also got something from you pointing out that he’d accepted the terms of his scholarship and would return to his people in India.., and maybe discover something to help millions of others around the world?

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