She is dozing in her chair. In the twilight zone – that area between worlds where everything is possible – she is young again and she is looking at the big, expressive green eyes of the love of her life.
She had met him in Lisbon in the late fifties. She had been living in Lisbon for some time as she had insisted on coming to University to Lisbon and not to South Africa, as her parents wanted – after all South Africa was so much nearer to Mozambique but there had been no way to convince her, she knew how to be stubborn…
The first year had been tough and she had almost begged to go back. The winter was cold and rainy and sad…but she was very strong underneath her apparently soft exterior so she stayed. When she met him she was already in the last year of university and quite used to life in Lisbon.
A mutual friend – actually someone she was sort of going out with – had introduced them. To her he was no more than a friend but he was actually in love with her and she knew it. They went out as a foursome – she and her admirer, his friend and his friend’s girlfriend, but from the first moment they had been impressed with each other. At least, she knew she had been much impressed by him.
She was an attractive nineteen year old girl with the romantic dream – common to most girls her age – of finding a great love. She had had a few boyfriends but all relationships had been fairly innocent – a few kisses and nothing more. She remembered how shocked she had been when one of them had tried to give her a French kiss and she had pushed him back in some shock…Puritan times, those were. A girl was supposed to “preserve” her virginity until marriage, otherwise she would be “lost” and dishonoured and no man would marry her…such were the current morals in the years of the Portuguese dictatorship regime. Religion, country and family – all right and proper.
He was some nine years older, tall and handsome, with large green eyes and black hair. He was dashing – and a success with ladies. He was very experienced having had a string of girlfriends – and some of them without her well-bred girl reticence. Such was the girl who was presently dating him, she could see…
They continued to see each other, first in their group of common friends; but after some time he was seeking her out. She could not resist his charm and soon she was head over heels in love with him. They began dating and soon enough they were getting serious. When she went home for the following holidays she told her parents the news: she was in love with a young doctor and she wanted them to meet him. More: they wanted to be engaged and get married.
They were very different but they shared the same vision of life: she wanted to go back to Mozambique to work as a teacher and he wanted to go and work there as well even if he was from the north of Portugal. There was not much employment for doctors in Portugal back then and, ambitious as he was, he looked to Africa as an opportunity.
Her parents came to Lisbon and met him, and she also went to the north to meet his parents and brothers and sisters. Finally they had an engagement ceremony and set a date for the wedding.
They were very much in love and he was passionate, but true to her beliefs she managed to keep him at bay and she married a virgin – perhaps if only technically, as it was hard to resist his advances. They were married in the Cathedral of her native city and vowed to love each other forever. The reception was held in the gardens of her parents’ beautiful mansion – she was a lovely, but most of all happy bride and she thought they would live happily ever after, as in the romances she had read.
But they didn’t.
The first year was hard, because the job he had been promised did not materialise and she found herself pregnant with a jobless husband, and living only of her teacher’s salary. It was a fact they were still living with her parents and it would only take a word from her for her father to help them, but she was too proud to do so. Her husband was frustrated about his situation and she found him not as affectionate as she would have hoped, but she thought this would pass as soon as he found a job.
He finally started working at the hospital and life began to improve. Soon she gave birth to a daughter and three years after to a baby boy, and she felt happy. By now he had opened his private practice and his career was booming. Money was no longer a problem and soon he was telling her they should move to a house of their own.
Now she was torn – her parents were against their leaving, as they had become too attached to the children and kept saying the house was big enough for all of them. It was huge, actually, with a big garden, and she wanted to stay, but at the same time she understood her husband and one day, when their daughter was six, they moved to their own house.
But somehow things didn’t get any better – on the contrary, the situation worsened. As she and her husband had a very active social life they often left the children at her parents and soon the children did not want to go home with them. She enjoyed her career as a teacher very much but her husband was pressing her to leave it and dedicate herself to the house and the children, something she would not do. In addition she had absolutely no patience for household stuff, she delegated it all in her governess and the servants, she would never be like her mother who was a dedicated housewife and a great cook…the sort of woman her husband now wanted her to become, but she simply could – and would – not. She was too independent.
Quarrels became the order of the day. Meal times were terrible and the children resented this. They much preferred to stay with their grandparents who provided a more serene atmosphere. He would get home in a very bad mood and pick up at everything. Then he started arriving late with the excuse of too much work and she felt more and more unhappy. It was true they now had a very comfortable life, as he was earning very good money; she was always very smart and well dressed in the latest fashions and by the best dressmakers in town, she drove the sports car he had given her, she pampered herself…but this was not the most important thing for her, she was unhappy, she did not feel loved and felt very lonely…soon they were living lives very much apart and finally she began to suspect he had an affair – in fact he had. One of many, she later learned.
After some time she couldn’t bear it any longer. She was uncertain about what to do and her parents were horrified when she first spoke about a separation. This was the beginning of the seventies, when there was not even divorce for Catholic marriages, but she was adamant she wanted a separation; she simply could not bear it any longer. Their relationship was impossible to maintain.
She was suddenly offered a “happy release” – she was invited to lecture at the University but for that she would have to take a master’s degree and the opportunity arose to do it in London, so she travelled there and there was no need to publicly announce their separation, the official version being she had gone to London to study.
The children stayed with her parents and she was heartbroken when she left but she knew in her heart she had to get away from things, and, most of all, she had to get away from him.
Then it all happened so quickly: the following April there was a revolution in Portugal, and soon it was clear they were going to have to leave Mozambique for good. Her husband left almost immediately and managed to open a new practice in a city south of Lisbon. She stayed in London, where for the first time she was feeling free and enjoying life to the full – while looking for a University to do her master’s degree – and had a few affairs, which was only normal for a recently separated woman. But her heart was still bleeding for him.
Over the next few years they would meet when she came to Portugal; after all they had practical issues to solve. After the revolution divorce became a possibility for Catholic marriages (if only for the civil part, as the Catholic part is not dissolved) so they decided for it. At the same time they somehow hesitated, and there was a time when she thought they might have tried again. But their differences were always the same: she was the romantic, dreamy person who wrote poems and dreamed of an adoring Prince Charming, and he was the practical man who wanted a woman wholly dedicated to him and adapted to his wishes. He was too chauvinistic, she too independent – it could never work between them however strong the feelings that remained. So one day, when she was already living in a city in the north of Portugal where she was a professor at University, he came to see her and bluntly told her he was beginning a new life with someone else, and this time it was for good.
She was devastated even if she knew it wasn’t possible between them. But somehow she had kept the dream that they might solve their differences and give each other a chance again- only now she knew it would never come to pass. The day the divorce was to be decreed she spent the whole afternoon listening to the song she used to listen to long ago in Mozambique, when they were still together and that always made her think of him – a beautiful romantic song by Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos – and crying bitterly.
Time went by and she continued with her successful career. She loved teaching, she loved her students, and the University…she was happy there. She went to Lisbon to be with her family very often, her children were now teenagers, soon going to University themselves…while back in the UK for her PhD she had met a wonderful Irishman who loved her deeply and with whom she had felt protected and safe. She had loved him in some way, even if he had been aware that she was still attached to her husband. Once, as they were watching together “Casablanca” on TV, he had to console her as she cried disconsolately because Humphrey Bogart always reminded her of her husband…the one she had not got over. And this new man in her life knew this, but he was generous enough to hold her close and let her cry on his shoulder. She had a happy time with him, because she felt truly loved.
But she had a restless spirit and one day she thought she had found someone in Lisbon who would allow her to be closer to her family, and she very pragmatically ( unlike herself) decided to give him a chance – actually a new one, as he was a former boyfriend who had never stopped loving her. So she went back to England and broke up with the man who so loved her. He was devastated and could not understand why. And soon she was married for the second time (curiously only a few months after her former husband’s remarriage) and hoping this time she would be happy. But she wasn’t, and barely two years – and much pain – after again she divorced. When she next went to England she met her former lover, who had married since. She was regretting her decision by now, but to no avail, and the only thing he could tell her was: “It took me two years…”. And she asked “To get over me? “; “No” he replied “to get over what you did to me!”. And they said goodbye for good.
Over the years she had several affairs. A very charming woman, men were attracted to her like a moth to a flame. But she was never really attached to anyone – her heart was like stone.
She didn’t see her former husband for many years, and they were only reunited at their daughter’s wedding. It was all very polite and civilized, and she even met his current wife. After that they met occasionally for their grandchildren’s christenings and birthdays, without any fuss.
Then she knew of his illness and when he died she was broken hearted. She called his wife to give her condolences and she mourned him as if she had lost him just then, when she had lost him so long ago…she cried many tears, for all that had been and for all that might have been and never came to be.
And now, still in her sort of dream, she hears “their” song and the lyrics are so true to what she has felt so many times during her life:
“Many times/ have I pondered coming back / and telling you my love is still the same/ but the silence that prevailed has been stronger/ and makes me die every day / without you”.
The song’s title ” À distância” (literally “In the distance” in Portuguese), describes very well how she has lived this love that has accompanied her during her whole life – far away from him. Her love never changed over the years, but somehow she could never tell him that. And after a certain time it was not worth it. But he was, undoubtedly, her great love. The one and true love of her life.
She wakes up from her dozing, his face – his young face – still very vivid in her mind. She smiles. What a lovely dream she thinks. I hope I can dream it all over again. I would love that. After all, in our dreams everything is possible. Even to live a great love all over again. With its good and bad moments, because there is no great love without heartache. But then, how poor would life be without a great love – certainly not a life worth to be lived.
Ah, she thinks, there goes the poet in me, yet again. I must write a poem about our story. Our own fairy-tale story with an unhappy ending.