My time abroad in Morocco was an experience. New food and exotic women taught me more than the history classes that had awarded me with a master's degree. The whole time, my psyche balanced between excitement and all-out terror. Every day was a hard teacher. Even after a year, everything around me still seemed brand-new. A whole world that accepted me as a curious alien, still held me in it's foreign grip on the flight back to America. When I stepped out of the plane into San Francisco International airport, I felt grounded for the first time in a year - I was home. I could breathe.
I was welcomed back warmly. My parents gathered our small family together, and we celebrated my return with a good American meal. I was very excited to get back into touch with my friends and tell them about my trip. Thom, one of the first to get in touch with me, messaged me on Facebook when he saw that I was back. We had become close friends as house-mates after college in a warm Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
I agreed to meet Thom at Frankie's on Divisadero. Arriving first, I took a seat facing the entrance. The cafe bustled with an equal mix of some artsy and some intellectual types. I flatter myself to think that I'm somewhere in between.
I saw Thom before he entered from the darkened street. He held his arms stiff in his dark jacket's deep pockets as he hastened towards the door with his shoulders up near his ears. A scarf was wrapped across his neck covering his mouth up to his nose and he wore a black winter hat. His frosted breath quickly dissipated when he closed the glass door and started to remove his black gloves. I threw up a two finger salute to accompany my head nod and stood up to greet my friend.
After we shook hands and succeeded in a pleasant though formal greeting, we both ordered a hot coffee before returning to our table. He asked me about Morocco - I couldn't wait to talk about it. I told him how my classes were all in the afternoon, so I was free to get out at night and explore and not have to wake up early. I met a guide, Tariq, who helped open me up to exciting sights I hadn't heard of. I got close to him throughout my extended visit and began to rely on Tariq's friendship and his expertise on the country. Thom raised his eye brows and moved his head back when I indulged in a bit of travel boasting about my female catches. The almond-eyed beauties I landed were by far the highlight of my foreign escapade.
After he gave me an update on his situation, Thom swayed the topic back to our last few months together before I went away to Morocco. I had last seen Thom when I left our Lincoln Heights house for San Francisco a month before my flight to make preparations from my family's place. At about the same time, Thom was moving to Sacramento because of his sour break up with his girlfriend, Alana. She ended up moving up to San Francisco about the same time he left Lincoln Heights. I had seen Alana in the city before I flew.
"What happened with you and Alana?" Thom asked. "I talked to her before I moved and she said that she wanted to meet up with you before you left for Morocco. What happened?"
I wasn't sure what he knew or what he had heard. Yes he was right. She had seen me - and not just once.
"We met for coffee much like you and I are doing right now," I answered.
He put both of his elbows on the table and leaned some of his weight into them. It had been more than a full year since then and it surprised me that he was still agitated. He clasped his hands and rested his bearded chin on them. His eyes' former brightness had dulled and his once fair skin seemed greyed.
"Did you sleep with her?" he intoned.
I couldn't tell him the truth. It just felt wrong.
"No," I said keeping my eye contact gentle, "we just got coffee and talked. She wished me safe travels."
He let out a breath of tension from his stomach that lowered his shoulders and arched his back slightly. I noticed some chronic tension in his face relaxing for the moment.
"Good man," Thom said. "I'm sorry I asked but I can't tell you how much that has been eating me up inside."
I can't say that I felt guilty. I didn't. I enjoyed those nights with Alana when I had nothing to lose. But I did betray his friendship twice, and in the very least, I'll admit, I've lost some trust in my own integrity. It's not what I call guilt, but I do have this feeling that what I did to Thom will come back at me. And it will probably come back hard.