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, they had their own language. Across the nation, we couldn’t talk to each other. Then 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, 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 33 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.
The two of us never exchanged names. We parted at the bus station in Montreal with no thought of meeting again. We were best friends for an afternoon on a long bus ride between cities. Three decades later, I remember the conversation.