Isabel Lee

The first time I saw him, he was standing on the grass outside of the pool, surrounded by laughing teenagers and smiling sheepishly.

His name was Itai, I would soon find out. He was the golden boy of the delegation from Britain, a charming and self-deprecating nationally ranked swimmer. During the first week, his name fluttered off of the Brits’ lips, generating a group-wide Itai obsession.

I was at the International Summer Science Institute, called ISSI for short, a fellowship for the summer after high school. I had been selected into a group of 70 students from 17 different countries to spend three weeks at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, conducting research and exploring the country.

For me, ISSI was about starting fresh, beginning the process of rebuilding myself. I had woken up the day after my high school graduation feeling dazed, stunned that four years had escaped me in a whirlwind of coffee-filled all-nighters, frantic group text messages and last-minute review sheets. I noticed my journal sitting on my shelf, a gift from my dad in elementary school, and opened it up on the dining room table. My most recent entry was from eighth grade. I touched my face hesitantly, feeling water gathering on my cheeks, as I read the unselfconscious and hopeful anecdotes I had written before high school. I realized that I had lost my sense of wonder and eagerness to soak up the world around me in the intense marathon that was my high school experience.

My goal for that summer was to get back my true self, to breathe once again the air of being more than a student, to be an active, hungry partaker in the beauty of the world. I hoped to make genuine, interesting friends who would enable me to tap back into that true self. Itai was nothing more than a good-looking, charismatic distraction.

I easily became a part of a friend group of American girls. My circle expanded to include non-Americans by week two. I was exposed to real-world issues, like hearing my Barcelonan labmate’s perspective on the Catalan conflict as he shared a story of how he guarded his high school during the referendum voting. Slowly, I felt myself returning.

By the time we packed up large duffels, covered ourselves in sunscreen, and boarded a coach bus for the culminating desert excursion trip, I was happier than I had been for the past four years. ISSI felt like my personal paradise: thought-provoking individuals from around the world living together among palm trees and world-renowned research labs.

On the first night of the excursion, a few of us stayed up late talking. I remember asking a nerdy question about the future of artificial intelligence. Itai, whom I had never heard make more than a funny comment, seemed to come to life, his face suddenly becoming much more serious and his voice quickening as he shared an endless stream of arguments, complete with statistics.

I smirked, thinking about how even the popular blond boy was intelligent at nerd camp. Friends kept drifting off to bed until just Itai and I remained. As I spoke with him that night, I grasped that Itai was literally a genius, a math prodigy with mastery of philosophy, history and literature.

We stayed up till 5 a.m. that morning, just talking. When I stumbled out of my cabin the next morning for sunrise yoga, he caught my eye and grinned, sauntering over to explain how he didn’t feel tired because of sleep-cycle timing. Barely able to hold my tree pose, I unsuccessfully tried to convince myself that I had experienced the same scientific phenomenon.

Nonetheless, we continued our late-night chats for the rest of the desert trip, talking until we saw the sun peek above the mountains. I had never admired someone more, and I felt Itai continuously transform my worldviews as he shared his thoughts on everything from string theory to what defines a life well-lived. He would often veer off into tangents, his love of knowledge bubbling out of him as he apologized profusely for getting sidetracked.

Itai was almost unbelievable, too perfect to be true. And I had discovered this depth in him, this depth that he casually hid from the rest of the group under his veil of constant jokes. One night, he said, “I feel that we were all these awkward, quiet kids in high school, and ISSI is our chance to connect with each other and be our real selves.” I nodded but did not appreciate how right he was until months later.

Our last night in the desert, we slept under the stars, in a mush of sleeping bags in the sand. We had night shifts to watch for wolves, but Itai and I weren’t in the same shift. When I woke up for my 3 a.m. shift, I saw Itai alongside the other members of my team. He had waited up for me, and when my 15 minutes of wolf-watching ended, Itai and I walked far away from the campsite, sitting on a hill of sand.

I knew that Itai was interested in another girl on the program. But moved by the vastness of the stars or perhaps my complete lack of sleep, I did something that I had never had the courage to do with other boys: “Itai, can I tell you something?”

After a long introduction about how I didn’t want this to hurt our friendship, I told him, “I like you a little bit.” In that moment, I was filled with adrenaline, feeling brave and powerful and unafraid. I wanted to feel how I felt with Itai forever.

And our friendship did continue. As I packed up my sleeping bag in the morning, Itai appeared next to me, pointing out a celestial change from the night before. When we returned to the Weizmann Campus for the last three nights of the program, we continued to sneak out of our dorms, roaming around acres of the massive campus in our pajamas until morning.

I assumed that Itai would be a part of my life from then on, a vibrant new thread in my life’s tapestry. On my flight home to New York, waiting for takeoff, my laughter at his text messages caused curious stares from fellow passengers. At baggage claim, I received a text with a customized bingo board whose boxes contained randomized hours of the day and night. “For phone calls,” Itai wrote in his text. “Every time we are on the phone during a time on your board, which I promise I’ve deleted from my computer, you cross off the box. I have saved a different randomized board on my computer. Whoever reaches Bingo first wins.”

Yet, during the rest of the summer, his texting became distant and infrequent. In September, once I had already begun my gap year, I sent him a text at 3:33 a.m.: “Why do you never share any details about your life?”

He responded, “I hate writing down things because that makes them feel unnecessarily permanent.”

I sent back a polite “that’s interesting.”

“But obviously,” I thought, “it is necessary that things are permanent.” I needed my friendship with Itai and the person I had become during ISSI to be permanent.

I texted again, “But once things have happened, aren’t they automatically permanent, so why would writing them down make them more permanent?”

“Your perception of events is not permanent and is very actively changed. The issue of context of when you are remembering a specific memory must be considered,” Itai answered.

After this conversation, we started talking even less until we stopped talking altogether. When I say we stopped talking, I mean that every couple of months, I optimistically send him a text — a part of me expecting to discover that he just woke up from a long coma. But WhatsApp shows he’s awake, just not responding. I began to consider Itai a temporary gift, an exquisite pattern within a specific spot of my life’s tapestry, the most incredible conversation partner that I have ever had. I wrote a journal entry about him and reassured myself that the impact he had on me would remain forever. Nothing could take that away from me.

But as the months have passed by, I have started to rethink what Itai said about permanence. I am realizing that my past experiences remain alive in my head, replaying themselves again and again. And during each replay, my relationship to these memories develops new layers.

As I learned about nihilism in philosophy class, for instance, I was brought back to that moment under the stone gate outside of our bunks where — seconds before the automatic sprinkler system surprised us — Itai explained why he’s a nihilist but life remains meaningful for him. Reliving that memory, this time with a better understanding of nihilism, I was more touched by Itai’s brilliance.

It’s not that Itai changed me in a permanent way. We as humans are constantly changing; permanence is a delusion, a human-made safety net whose absence is terrifying but real. And in the gaping hole of impermanence, Itai continues to change me for the better, for now.

** Names have been changed to ensure privacy.

Ayelet Kalfus |