When our server set down a plate of anticuchos in front of us, I thought I might burst. We’d spent four days hiking through the clouds along Peru’s Inca Trail and one full morning listening to my friend Elise describe the history of seemingly every church in Lima. After that, access to fast food, especially at a local chain like Norky’s, felt like a revelation. We clawed with gusto at the sizzling beef hearts before us.
Elise, Meredith, Evan, my future husband, John, and I had coalesced as a group in our 20s—a mishmash of high school friends, college classmates, and one Craigslist roommate situation—and had seamlessly made the transition to fellow travelers. While our merry, bedraggled band focused on the kebabs and Inca Kola, children screamed and laughed in a massive ball pit, and cheers filled the room as televisions blared the Peru vs. Uruguay World Cup qualifier match.
One by one, we became conscious of our surroundings. One by one, we began giggling. Soon, laughter gripped us until even the futile cheers for Peru’s soccer team couldn’t drown out our guffaws. After finishing our glut of local specialties, we resumed a discussion of the modern legacy of Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru.
Variations of that glorious meal at Norky’s have played out over the years. Before marveling at the Universidade de Coimbra’s famous library in Portugal, we fought back hungry pigeons while Meredith savored a pile of garlicky prawns. On an overnight train across southern India, we consumed an entire package of sticky, sugary gulab jamun while studying the interfaith history of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves.
These fleeting moments capture why this group of friends is so special. Nothing is taken too seriously or for granted. Every opportunity is taken to make meaning of the world around us—and to eat. Lots and lots of eating.
But it’s more than that to me. The isolation I felt growing up in small Midwestern towns as one of a very small handful of students of color, an even smaller handful of gay students, and the only known combination of the two, taught me the importance of “chosen” family members, the people who see me for who I am and remain steadfast because of—not despite—that.
This didn’t occur to me until I found myself lying in bed recently, gripped by another bout of pandemic- and panic-induced insomnia. Most nights, I can stare out my window at the Charles River and calm my racing heart. That night, it wasn’t working. So I closed my eyes and recalled a time when I was truly free of fear and worry. I saw the golden sun setting quietly behind the Andes Mountains at Wiñay Wayna. I smelled a francesinha in Porto, Portugal, with its gamy combination of wet-cured ham, linguiça, chipolata, steak, melted cheese, and spiced tomato sauce.
I pictured my friends.
And yet, a flight across an ocean was never required to feel the divine comfort of their presence. In moments when I need a laugh, a cry, or a frustrated scream, these are the people to whom I can turn regardless of time and place.
In December, the five of us returned to Lisbon—sort of. This time, we attended a live Portuguese drag show via Zoom. The performers regaled us with ribald stories, asked us uncomfortable questions, and taught us how to make sangria. Once the show ended, our quintet spent hours drinking the cloying cocktail, discussing pressing parenting challenges, and sharing our opinions about how to dismantle America’s authoritarian proclivities. Drunk and exhausted from laughing for the first time in a long time, we dreamed aloud about the day we could travel together again.
It took a pandemic to remind me where and with whom I am happiest. We’ll always have our memories, and we’ll always have each other.
And yes, we’ll always have Norky’s.
Anil Hurkadli is a graduate student at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.