Almost Friends

I first met Tamara 14 months ago on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor’s house.

It was a cold, late Sunday afternoon in December, the air heavy with moisture off the frigid North Sea. The weak sun had managed to emerge briefly from behind large swaths of gun metal gray clouds. Husband and I had just left the house to take Oli on a walk in the nearby wooded parkland before it got too dark.

We were barely more than 30 feet when we encountered a couple looking to be slightly older than us walking in our direction. Husband pulled up on the dog’s leash and exchanged greetings with the man as they approached.

Introductions were made and the conversation took on the friendly yet slightly inquisitive tone of people scoping each other out: how long had they  (and we) been in The Hague, how did they (and we) like the neighborhood, how refreshing it was to see so many people outside walking and biking all the time, did we/they have children, where our respective sons were attending university and what they were studying, were they getting settled in alright, how were they coping with the damp cold and darker days?

James was Husband’s new boss (‘second level supervisor’ in organizational parlance); he and Tamara, American expats like us, had arrived from another European capital two months earlier. I knew that Husband found James to be a sharp, knowledgeable and colleagial sort of fellow.

Tamara initially seemed a little reserved but as the conversation flowed she joined in more freely: she had inquisitive eyes, a warm smile and an easy laugh.

We eventually bid our goodbyes with the mutual promise that we had to get together for dinner sometime.

Well, finally a fellow American woman here in the neighborhood, I remember thinking. She seemed friendly enough, and it would be nice to hear a familiar accent from time to time. We continued our walk, me flush with the promise that a new acquaintance might possibly end up becoming a friend.

Time passed quickly as the Christmas and New Year’s holiday came and went, followed by the dark, dreary days of January and February. I tended to be at home researching and writing most days, venturing out occasionally to meet up with friends or attend a class; mid-to-late afternoons were taken up with walking the dog, picking up Daughter from school activities, ducking out to the Albert Heijn for that evening’s dinner or running last minute errands on the Fred.

Every so often I’d run into Tamara and we’d lapse into easygoing chat about husbands, children, neighbors and the weather. I knew she was dealing with an empty nest but she always seemed genuinely upbeat and had become involved with an international women’s group. We would declare how we needed to get together for koffie or maybe grab lunch at a nearby café sometime, but between my projects and chauffer duties and the volunteer work she’d taken on, we never could seem to find the time.

I’d walk away thinking We really should invite them to dinner sometime, but we both always seemed so busy and besides, I wasn’t sure of the office etiquette as to who asks whom when one’s boss was involved.

A month later I caught sight of James and Tamara on their bikes one weekend afternoon, bundled up against the chill wind, riding side by side.

The days grew longer, the temperature climbed and the trees grew heavy with blossoms. One Friday afternoon in late April Husband came home with an invitation from James and Tamara for dinner two weeks later.

Oh good, I thought. It will be nice to finally spend some time getting to know them better. We’d go have a nice meal and convivial evening, then we’d reciprocate the invitation, and the next thing you know we’d all be friends.

I knew that as employer and employee Husband and James might choose to keep a certain reserve between themselves, but it still would be nice to get together as couples now and then. More importantly, Tamara and I would be able to accelerate our friendship; it was clear we enjoyed chatting whenever we ran into each other, and a get-to-know-you dinner was just the thing to cement ties.

Husband and I enjoyed the dinner immensely. Tamara and James had invited another couple and the six of us spent an enjoyable evening of delicious food, flowing wine and effortless conversation.

Tamara and James regaled us with tales of meeting in a Southeast Asian country while both were idealistic dreamers brand new to international development work. They met and married, Tamara chose to stay at home when they had their son, and life became a dazzling parade of one exotic locale after another as James’s career progressed.

She was witty and lively and relaxed; James was an accomplished cook and an eager party to the fun. They made a good team, cooking and serving and making us feel at home.

I promptly sent a thank you email and mentioned we should set a date to have them over to our house. When I saw Tamara two days later she lamented the fact that she was getting ready for a short trip to their previous city to visit friends. Upon her return their son would be arriving back in The Hague, fresh from six months in a study abroad program in Japan.

Shortly after that, Daughter and I would be heading back to the US for college visits and time spent with family. My father had been diagnosed with cancer and had been experiencing additional medical problems; we wanted to spend as much time as possible with them.

What about mid-July when Daughter and I would get back? They would be getting their son ready to return to school followed by their own summer holiday. By the time they returned in early August, we would be off on a family trip before Son had to head back to the States for university.

But as often happens, fate intervened.

My father’s health took a turn for the worse, Daughter and I extended our stay while Husband cancelled the vacation plans, and he and Son joined us at my parents. We returned to The Netherlands right as Daughter’s school was about to start, and suddenly weekends were consumed with catching up on chores on the to do list, last minute shopping and her sporting events.

I ran into Tamara once in September (James was traveling, she was up to her eyeballs in work preparing for an upcoming volunteer event) and again in early October. Both times we hit it off, but the stars never seemed to align to get everyone together.

In our last conversation two days before I was to make a quick trip back to visit my ailing parents again, we laughed about the scheduling difficulties. It nagged at me how months had already slipped by, but I knew we’d have plenty of time to make it right once we both got over the pop-up hurdles life kept throwing our way.

When I returned from Florida in mid-October, Tamara was off to Southeast Asia to visit old friends. I remember thinking that she’d be back by Halloween, but then another far more serious family emergency presented itself, and immediately our time, attention and energy were focused elsewhere.

It wasn’t until early December that I surfaced enough from dealing with that last crisis to inquire of Husband about Tamara and James. That’s when he dropped the bombshell: Tamara had left James weeks earlier. Apparently she’d taken a trip back to Indonesia to visit friends and decided not to return to life with him in The Hague.

I was stunned. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it coming (although I didn’t), because I know that no one can really know what goes on in a marriage, and Tamara certainly never opened up about any unhappiness or difficulties. I felt badly for both of them, knowing that when a marriage ends, no matter how amicably or not, there is great sadness, pain and grief both for what the parties once had and for what had become of that somewhere along the way.

I felt as though I’d let Tamara down, hadn’t done enough to make make her feel welcome and help her find her way in a new place, racking my memory for fear I’d missed signals of loneliness and despair. I felt sorry for James, left adrift by himself without family or close friends to help pick up the pieces.

And as selfish as it sounds – and indeed it is  – I mourn the loss of the promise of the deeper friendship we never had.



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