Sugar gripped the handrail of ceramic green dragon scales, breath coming in short gasps between her pouty brown lips.
Times before this trek to the temple, I—long-legged and mesomorphic—had darted up misty American mountains, distanced co-hikers, friends, without thought. Western independence, pride in equality marked by individual assertion. But here, equality was an abstract you couldn’t sign without a story, and friendship was a story told in small acts accumulated in thousands of hours. It struck me, just as my calves tingled to bound up the steps, that this was hour one.
Sugar waved me on with a hand that, upon its return, smudged her neon shirt with sweat. Go on. These steps weary me.
Chewing my lip, I lingered with the fidgets, not wanting to humiliate Sugar, not wanting to leave her.
Fact of Asia #1 People love photos.
Riffling around in my satchel for my iPhone, I waved up-and-down. Like I was swatting a fly or flailing half a Florida gator (the Deaf “hey you!”).
Smile! I gestured to Sugar. Photó! Wryly, I heard the Asian accent in my mind and, in that moment, knew the years, months, hours would bring many more such adoptions. Adoptions that wouldn’t be wrong but different.
Half-smiling with crooked teeth and soft eyes, Sugar stilled on the step. Her right hand, positioned by habit just to the right of her neon camp shirt, formed the universal sign for “I love you.”
After a collective breath—taken amid the clutterings and clangings of an almost-touristy sacred spot, such calls and vendor-chatter that only I heard and Sugar didn’t miss—we journeyed, onward, upward, to the wat.