Her flight arrived a half-hour late into Mexico City, and as I stood on my tiptoes trying to spot her among the arriving throngs, it was her familiar smile that gave her away.
"The smile is a universal language," I'd stammered in my feeble Spanish our first day together years before. She had smiled to accentuate my point.
And now, more than seven years after that first awkward conversation, I stood watching her weave her way toward me through the airport crowds.
"Bienvenido," we spoke in unison and then said hello with a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek - the Mexican way, she'd once told me.
We'd agreed to meet here in the capital city to see the sights, visit her relatives, and relive a friendship - an unlikely fellowship that had been born in uncertainty.
'THIS is my niece," my friend Gaby had announced one afternoon in 1990. "She's visiting Los Angeles, and I was wondering if you'd be willing to show her around town."
I was reluctant at first. Gaby's niece couldn't speak English, and my Spanish repertoire was somewhere south of nonexistent. In spite of this linguistic hurdle, I decided to accept the assignment and so, with English/Spanish dictionaries in hand, we ventured out on shaky footing into the waters of cultural diversity.
Her name was Claudia, and our first day was composed of long spells of silence broken by spurts of intermittent dialogue. But by nightfall the bare details of our separate and diverse lives had somehow managed to trickle out.
She was from Villahermosa, Tabasco, a Mexican state in the heart of the Yucatn peninsula. She had a sister and three brothers. She lived at home. Her best friend was named Lupita. As I dropped her off at her aunt's house that night and drove home, I had to admit that things had gone pretty well.
In the weeks to come, I strove to be the perfect American host. I took her to the movies, concerts, the best restaurants, and, of course, to Disneyland. At the end of her North American holiday, we each penned our address in the front of the other's dog-eared dictionary and promised to write.
"This is my family," she said one sweltering afternoon a year and a dozen letters later. They smiled at me in unison, still not sure what to make of the tall, gangly, sunglasses-wearing American standing in their carport. I wondered what I was doing here in this barrio so far from my comfortable, familiar world. Maybe I'd made a mistake in coming.
Then her mother turned and gestured for me to step inside.
I had no way of knowing that stepping across that threshold would change my life in a profound way. I'd go through that doorway time and again in years to come, and there I would learn that dinner was served in early afternoon, watermelon juice really hits the spot on sweltering summer afternoons, friends are always welcome to drop by, and a good squeeze of lime can bring out the flavor in just about anything.
I would grow to love and appreciate this tradition-rich culture through my annual ventures south of the border, and the family that had taken me into their home without hesitation would come to call me one of their own.
"What do you think of me?" Claudia asked out of the blue. Our time in Mexico City had passed much too quickly, and we found ourselves back at the airport waiting out another goodbye.
I was wholly unprepared to answer such a query and didn't respond right away. How could I tell her in a language she could understand just how much her friendship had enriched my life? Then the answer came in a memory, and I reminded her of a rainy night years ago and her friend's broken-down car.
We were driving through a Yucatn rainstorm when we came upon a friend whose car had stopped in the middle of the street. Claudia pulled up behind the stalled car and turned off the ignition. I expected that we would settle back in our seats to wait out the storm before taking any action, but Claudia had other ideas.
She flung open the car door and bolted out into the deluge wearing her best dress and high heels.
Without so much as a glance back in my direction, she threw her weight against the back bumper and began to push with all her might while her stranded friend manned the steering wheel. I took my place beside her and, as the torrential rain pelted us, the thunder rumbled overhead, and the passing motorists blared their horns, we moved the vehicle safely to the shoulder.
"That is what I think of you," I said without further explanation. Claudia smiled at the remembrance, and I could tell that my answer had pleased her. Then, without fanfare, we parted with another embrace and quickly walked off in opposite directions to return to our separate worlds. As my plane climbed north into the evening sky, I thought about how very little we had in common, my friend and I. But then, I reasoned, perhaps friendship is all you really need anyway.