“Come, join us!” my host’s friend beckoned, pointing to the colorful cushion across from his 3 year old grandson.
I sat where he’d indicated, next to my host. Both men had grey hair frosted with white, just about their only similar feature. My host wore a taqiyah, while his friend sported an old-fashioned fedora.
“We are old school friends. We had 10 years of school together,” the friend informed me. “What is your name?”
“Nathan,” I replied, leaning across the table to clasp his hand.
“I am Ibrahim,” he replied, touching his jacket with his other hand.
“…and what’s your name?” I asked my host, embarrassed I hadn’t asked already.
“His name is Abdullajan, but you can call him Abdul.” Ibrahim answered for his friend, who nodded and grinned as he gripped my hand. “Vodka?”
Abdul held aloft a partially consumed bottle of vodka and an empty teacup.
“Sure,” I answered. After all, it was 1:30. Why not?
Abdul poured me a cup and set it in front of me. I let it sit for a few minutes, electing to nibble on some apples and flat bread first.
“Have some fish. It’s special fish, for vodka,” Ibrahim gestured towards a pile of dried fish on a plate. “It’s from Uzbekistan.”
I thanked them both and started eating, immediately choking on some tiny bones. Not wanting to spit out the meat, I forced myself to swallow the prickly bite. I could feel my eyes watering. I took a small sip of vodka to help it go down, only to have Abdul whisk the cup away as soon as I set it down.
He topped it off and set it in front of Ibrahim. The two men talked for a minute in Uzbek, then Ibrahim took a break to translate.
“To your health,” he said solemnly, raising the glass in my direction. Abdul nodded in agreement as Ibrahim threw back the contents of the cup. Abdul took the teacup and poured himself a few fingers.
Again, they talked for a few minutes before Abdul lifted his cup and said something very eloquent sounding in Uzbek. He gestured to Ibrahim–whose eyes sparkled with memory as he inclined his head gracefully–then to me. I followed Ibrahim’s example and nodded my thanks. After he drank the alcohol, I again found myself with the cup.
Realizing I’d erred in sipping without toasting before, I tried to think of suitable toast. “To your families,” I gestured to both the men, and they nodded solemnly. I drained the cup and handed it back to Abdul.
We talked for a bit more, Abdul speaking almost entirely in Uzbek and me speaking almost entirely in English; Ibrahim walked the line between both languages with ease. Both men’s toasts grew more eloquent before I again found myself with the cup. This time, I was ready.
“May your lives be full of happiness, and your homes full of laughter,” I said, looking at each man as I did so. Ibrahim translated and Abdul grinned, giving me a hearty slap on the shoulder.
“Are you married?” Ibrahim asked.
“No,” I chuckled, back on familiar ground from spending two years living in Korea.
“Do you like Kyrgyzstan?” he continued.
“Yes, very much,” I replied, a bit thrown off by the seemingly sudden transition. Ibrahim, though, was a craftier conversationalist than I gave him credit for.
“You must move to Arlsanbob. We will find you a beautiful girl, the best girl for a wife. And I will build you a house!”
I was a bit confounded, and said the first thing that came to mind. “That sounds really nice.”
Ibrahim burst out laughing and relayed the exchange to Abdul, who did the same.
I was surprised by how much I liked the idea.
The cup went ’round the table a few more times, the fish disappeared, and the delicious meal of potatoes, meat, and onions set in front of us by Abdul’s ever-patient wife and daughter was consumed.
“My friend,” Ibrahim reached for my hand, “if it is God’s will, I hope we will meet again. If not, I wish you the best life.”
“Thank you,” I replied lamely, “I wish the same for you. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
With that, the two men stood up and walked to the steps, leaning on each other for support. They laughed and joked with each other all the way down the driveway, Abdul’s wife and I looked on and shared a smile. I had a feeling she had watched this scene unfold countless times over the years.
I gestured at the two of them, then made a motion for friendship.
She nodded and smiled, mimicking them leaning on each other as they walked.
“Good friends,” I said, giving a thumbs-up sign.
She nodded in agreement and we fell silent, watching the two walk out of sight to where Ibrahim had parked his car.
Maybe it was due to seeing the time-tested friendship of Ibrahim and Abdul. Maybe it was due to the time that’s elapsed since I’ve been home. Maybe it was just the vodka. But, whatever the reason, I was suddenly, acutely aware of just how much I miss my friends.