I cried right before Taylor Swift came on stage. I did, I really cried. A grown woman with no kids and a corporate job, I was crying. And when I did, my best friend Kristan was sitting next to me with tears in her eyes too.

The 1989 World Tour was starting its Saturday night show in Chicago. “#TS1989” flashed on the Jumbotrons, and pop hits blasted in the background amping up the crowd. Pre-teen girls were bobbing their heads, grinning and singing all the lyrics, and their moms were busy snapping photos of their little girls. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be here.

All of us – all 55,000 piled high and low in the stadium – eagerly awaited the moment our souvenir LED bracelets would light up to signal that Taylor was coming on-stage. Bracelets that Kristan and I had to hunt down, running from our upper-level seats all the way back to the entrance because someone had neglected to give them to us when we first entered the venue. Forgoing the LED bracelets was never an option. We wanted the full experience.

That day in Chicago, there had been spontaneous, severe downpours, and even tornado warnings. With a heavy heart, I feared that the concert would be cancelled. I would have been devastated, especially because I had flown in from New York to see Taylor live.

But magically the skies cleared and the show went on. In our seats that towered over most of the audience, with excitement and anticipation building, I let my eyes water and some tears fall. I was really here! I had made it!

That night marked one month after walking away from a difficult relationship. There would be no more returning to our terrible cycle of fighting, breaking up, missing each other, and then allowing all the problems to resurface as we cobbled our relationship back together. It had taken me a few tries, but this time I was really done, and I was here to move forward with my best friend and with Taylor.

Like in her “Bad Blood” music video, when my ex and I ended things, I sought my army of friends to help me fight the battle inside myself. Don’t call him, they said. Don’t respond to his barrage of phone calls, voicemails, emails, text messages. Be ready for when he shows up at your door. They made themselves available to me whenever I felt weak or needed support. They helped me pack up my belongings from his apartment, leave my key behind, and even rescued me when he did turn up at my place unannounced. They reminded me of who I am and that I had the strength to make this time different. To make it stick.

A wise, older friend also told me that many women have gone through one of these types of relationships. The kind where you learn about your tolerance and your limits. During my time with this guy, I questioned myself a lot. I felt small and guilty about my own emotions. I felt pressure that shouldn’t have been there. I absorbed the names he called me, believed his interpretations and manipulations, and thought I deserved the actions he took against me. I lost my confidence.

Shortly after the breakup, when I told Kristan that I felt I had nothing to look forward to, and I was worried that I might lose momentum and regret being alone, she suggested we see Taylor Swift in concert – something I wanted to do but wouldn’t act upon without a catalyst. Now I had one. So why not? It would be a celebration.

And celebrate we did. We sang along to every song, especially her older country hits, dancing as much as we could in the small space in front of our seats. We cheered for and felt inspired by the empowering words and genuine emotions that Taylor shared in between songs. We shook our lit up bracelets in the air and had a wonderful time.

When I came back home to New York, I gushed about the experience to friends and colleagues. I joked with them that I teared up when Taylor Swift appeared. But truthfully, I cried because I’d been so happy to be there with my best friend, safe and whole and healing. It’s because even though I was sad, I had finally given myself the gift of self-respect.

P.S. Taylor, if you read this, know that you are a great role model, and going to your concert was once of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Let me know if you ever want to hang out or bake in New York.

3 years old. Shallow waters, and big orange floaties encircling each arm. Our mothers sit pool-side while we splash and play. You’re a mermaid queen and I’m your daughter, your best friend, your handmaiden, your loyal subject. The sun burns bright above our dark-haired heads, and we squint as the sunscreen melts into our eyes.

12 years old. Dive-bombing into the deep end, and shrieking with laughter when the lifeguards whistle at us. Our mothers sit at home across the street, but they check in on us through the windows, as if their watchful gazes can save us from drowning. You’re Marco, and I’m Polo. We hunt for each other, eyes closed against the sting of chlorine.

29 years old. Seeking quiet and relaxation, but instead encountering neighbors I’ve never met before and don’t really care to know. The mothers complain loudly about kids who aren’t present. The red-faced men are drunk and showing off. You’re hundreds of miles away, probably sound asleep, while here I’m remembering the silky slither of aqua water around our young legs. My eyes gloss over, and the memories settle around me like the vast evening sky.

Someday, I imagine, we will go swimming together again.

It started as a tickle in my throat. Just a little soreness, a small discomfort. I ignored it. Told myself there was nothing to worry about. Lots of people feel funny after flying, and I had taken a long trip over the Atlantic Ocean to spend a week in Europe with my best friends. (Our first trip all together!) No doubt I would feel better soon.

But after a week, I felt worse. Much worse. My sore throat turned into a head cold, which then wormed its way down and made a home for itself in my chest. I started coughing and hacking and sneezing in public – you know, that person who you shoot annoyed glances at and stand far, far away from.

Worst of all, my home was on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t curl up in the coziest spot of my couch with a book and a blanket and my dog. I couldn’t hide from the world until I felt human again. Instead, I was stuck in a stranger’s apartment, which my friends and I had rented in lieu of a hotel room. The city outside our windows was cold and unfamiliar.

Of course this was the one time I had decided to pack light and leave my “just in case” meds at home. At first I thought I could tough it out, but it quickly became apparent (to my friends, if not me) that I would need some pharmaceutical assistance. Best friend and co-columnist Angie Liang dragged me to a little grocery store in Berlin, where I used my smartphone to look up “cold medicine” in German and bought a box that had those words on it. Erkältungsmittel, if you’re wondering.

Unfortunately the Erkältungsmittel didn’t do much. We later translated the rest of the package and discovered that I had basically purchased a natural supplement full of thyme. (Apparently thyme is a very popular herb over there.) It didn’t even give me a good placebo effect.

At this point my condition was sliding from “a little under the weather” to “completely miserable and useless,” so I gave in and went to an actual pharmacy. (Throughout most of Europe, this is the only way you can get real medicine.) A kind-faced pharmacist supplied me with extra-strength cough drops and nasal spray, plus a few travel packs of tissue “as a gift.”

Now properly medicated, I was ready to vacation in full force — or so I thought. But my body was not quite up to the challenge. Fortunately my friends were careful not to let me over-exert myself. They made me bundle up against the chilly spring air. (Angie even forced me to wear her coat.) When I ran low on energy, they urged me back to the apartment for a nap. They rearranged our schedule, delaying the most interesting attractions until the end of our trip, giving me time to recover. They made hot tea and cooked for me. They even let me have the single bed so that I could toss and turn and cough and snore all night, in privacy and without reservation.

Nothing they did could cure me of my cold — only time would do that. But knowing that I had such good friends, who were so thoughtful and generous in taking care of me? That made me feel better in a different, possibly more important way.

During the second half of our trip, when I was too weak to explore Copenhagen with them, I had a lot of time to think about how lucky I was. Yes, even sitting alone in a strange apartment in a foreign city in the middle of the day, I felt lucky. Because I could look outside and see tall, narrow apartment buildings in all shades of pastel, their windows shuttered and trimmed in white. I could watch people whizzing by on their bicycles with fresh fruit and baguettes for dinner. I could hear children playing in the courtyard, and neighbors laughing as they went down the stairwell.

I had the privilege of exploring two beautiful, magical cities with two beautiful, magical friends. Being sick was nothing in the scheme of things.

Every morning, I leash up my dog Riley and head out the back door for a walk around our suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. We go early enough that the woods are still quiet, the skies a soft blue-gray. I usually bring a book and flip to the page where I left off the day before, while Riley sniffs the grass. Together we meander our way down the street.

We’re kind of famous among our neighbors. They get a kick out of Riley’s unique markings – big black patches around both eyes – as well as my ability to read and walk at the same time. There are a few regulars who Riley and I run into frequently. Sometimes we walk in a group, chatting about books or the weather. Meanwhile the dogs take turns marking the trees and gobbling up every naughty thing they can find.

Dogs aren’t the only mischievous creatures running about. Our neighborhood is a popular thruway for deer. I often see them through our big back window, frolicking over the hillside or nibbling on the greenery. My favorites are the little spotted fawns, all long-limbed and uncoordinated. The young bucks are handsome too, standing tall to show off their regal antlers.

At night, teams of raccoons peep out of the drainage system to explore. Their favorite spot is the community dumpster, where they forage for discarded treasures like chicken bones and fruit peels. They’re shy guys, though. I might catch one flash of those bandit-masked eyes, or one swish of those black and gray bulls-eye tails, then they’re gone, disappearing back into the safety of darkness.

My neighborhood is full of small charms like this. We also have a community clubhouse, where the neighborhood association hosts monthly gatherings like Chocolate Fondue Night or Book Swap. There’s an exercise room available year-round, and a swimming pool that’s open during the warm months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Street lamps line the long driveway that separates our complex from the busier streets nearby. And behind us is an elite Catholic high school for boys, who we often see running through the neighborhood during track and field season.

A lot of my friends – young, hip professionals without kids – have moved downtown and keep trying to convince me and my husband to join them. I have to admit, there’s a certain appeal. My husband could walk to and from work every day. At night we would be right down the street from most of our favorite restaurants. We could meet up with other couples on a whim, maybe even enjoy a drink and some music at one of the city’s rooftop bars.

But how can we give up our little oasis?

As I sit here writing this, it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. But I also know that we can’t stay here forever. Someday my husband and I will have kids, and our family will outgrow this space. Maybe his job will take us to another part of the country, or even another part of the world. For one reason or another, we will eventually have to leave this beloved neighborhood behind.

And that’s okay. Home is where the heart is – and fortunately, hearts are mobile. For now, mine is here, in this neighborhood, with the sunshine streaming through my window, the joyful shouting of boys playing football in our shared backyard, and Riley curled up with me on the sofa, his furry head on my lap, just happily taking it all in.

If you ask me, Fall is the most beautiful time of year. The leaves are changing colors, setting fire to the world. The air is crisp, like biting into a harvest apple. Simply being outside fills me with joy – and makes me feel like anything is possible. Maybe that’s the reason I’m itching to make a few changes right now.

At the top of my list, I want to do a better job of examining and appreciating life. After all, that’s why Angie and I created this column: as a space for reflection and sharing. We joke that it’s “just between us,” but by publishing our words, we do hope to connect with people like you.

We started writing JBU in college, a time in our lives when everything felt fresh and exciting. Even then, we weren’t terribly prolific, but at least it felt easier to come up with interesting ideas. We were always exploring – both literally and figuratively.

Now, as we near 30, things seem more static. We have each settled into our own routines, and there isn’t always something new to talk about.

But not all stories have to be epic sagas like Game of Thrones, or impassioned soap operas like Grey’s Anatomy. Home life, work life, love life – these topics have been mined for centuries. It’s time for Angie and I to start digging.

To begin, I’ll bring everyone up to speed on my 2014 so far. It’s been a pretty exciting year for me.

In January, after years of writing and revising my novel, I was finally ready to search for a literary agent. I sent out “query letters” describing my story and myself, then I tried not to obsessively check my inbox. Eventually the responses rolled in – some negative, some positive, and some in between.

The best email came in April, from an agent who loved my book and wanted to speak with me on the phone. After talking with her for over an hour, I knew she was the perfect champion for me and my work. Partnering with her is a huge milestone in my writing journey, and hopefully a big step in the right direction for my career.

Then, in case you missed the announcement that was printed in an earlier edition of the newspaper, I got married in September. After nine years together, Andy and I tied the knot in a small outdoor ceremony, with the wind whispering through the trees around us. A couple weeks later, our parents hosted receptions in each of our hometowns so that we could celebrate with a larger group of family and friends. All three events were lovely, and a ton of fun. And like any wedding, there were ups and downs and little emergencies that are just funny anecdotes now.

That’s what I’ve been up to recently! Hopefully there are still more good happenings to come. Either way, you’ll be hearing from me and Angie again soon.

– Kristan

Call us what you will — BFFs, kindred spirits, or soul mates — Kristan and I are very lucky to have each other. Months ago, when New York City was feeling overwhelming, I made a quiet escape to Cincinnati. Kristan didn’t ask why; she just welcomed me with open arms. Her dog Riley did, too.

One might think I would be bored in Ohio, coming from a bustling city that never sleeps, but that was not the case. A recent National Geographic article highlighted great attractions in Cincinnati, and by coincidence, Kristan took me to a majority of them. All just to put a smile on my face. We dined at the tastiest restaurants, munched at the sweetest bakeries, admired the trendy contemporary art, browsed the farmers markets and antique malls, and even took day-trips to nearby places.

My favorite attraction was hiking Hocking Hills, a scenic park with trails and ancient hills. Kristan prepped everything, including carrying the backpack of supplies, while I just gaped at the views with my camera. We mustered our way through a forest blanketed with leaves, up and down small stone stairways, and over several bridges, as I snapped away. Finally we reached our destination: a vast half-walled dome called Old Man’s Cave.

The caves in Hocking Hills have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. History hypothesizes that the region was a meeting point for nomadic populations, who then settled in the area because of its natural resources and food supply. Now it’s a state park that draws visitors from all over, withstanding the test of time, just like Kristan’s and my friendship.

What’s our secret? We accept each other for who we are and communicate honestly. Being best friends means offering support, but also challenging each other and pointing out flaws. We’re both stubborn and opinionated, and we don’t always agree, but that is the perspective we seek from one another. And whatever decision we make, we always help the other fulfill it.

During the trip, as we walked Riley around a local park, I thought about how serene I felt with us just chatting away, contemplating life and our goals. Turns out, despite all the activities we did, what made me happiest was simply talking to my best friend in person. I might not get to see her often, but I feel very lucky when I do.

Angie's visit 054

Ten years later, there we were. Somewhere between 100 and 200 members of the Bellaire High School class of 2003 had gathered in a dive bar near the Southwest Freeway, overtaking the regular customers. Red and white banners staked our claim and announced our continued school spirit. Camera flashes kept going off. The entire night was dedicated to mingling and catching up, drinking and sharing stories, shouting to be heard over the other voices and music.

Like true best friends, the two of us stuck together for much of the night, trying to spend time with each other, while also wandering around and reacquainting with our old peers. Despite people’s newly acquired beards, changes in fashion, or extra pounds gained here and there, everyone still felt vaguely familiar. It made us wonder: Were we mostly the same too?

A sense of curiosity had us talking to everyone we passed, whether we recognized them or not. Former boyfriends, dance team buddies, tag-along spouses, and even one lovely girl who remembered us far better than we remembered her. Like a choreographed dance, the crowd kept splitting into pairs and small groups, then swirling around and dividing again. In each new configuration, we laughed over fond memories, reminisced about old teachers, and marveled at all the things that had fallen between the cracks, waiting until that night to be unearthed again.

Once or twice we were ignored by people who we approached or waved to, which was puzzling more than offensive. It seemed to go against the whole spirit of a class reunion. But it didn’t matter — such petty matters were left behind in high school — and only showed us who our friends really were, both then and now.

Overall, the reunion was enjoyable in an inessential way, like eating a slice of cake. It tastes good in the moment, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t nurture or fulfill you in any way. On the one hand, it didn’t really matter how our classmates had turned out. They had been absent from our lives for a long time, and as soon as we walked out the door, they would disappear again, with no impact on us one way or another. But on the other hand, it was nice to look around the room and think, “Hey, we did all right.” As a group, we’ve experienced such interesting things over the past decade — like working on Wall Street, studying volcanoes for NASA, becoming parents, chasing and living our dreams.

At the end of the night, we felt a sort of collective pride — and honestly, a sense of reassurance. We had all survived, and maybe even thrived, in these first ten years after high school. That meant we were probably in good shape to do the same or better in the decades to come.