It was a December Saturday, precisely forty years ago. It was dusk, as it is now, and we were standing by the window looking at the blue sky slowly darkening outside. We were opening our hearts to each other and finally there was a moment when you told me you loved me, and I no longer saw the fading light but millions of fireworks exploding in the sky. A slow song began to play and you grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor and we danced it close, so close I could feel your heart beating against mine. As you held me tight I was the happiest girl in the world. Afterwards – when the slow songs ended and we finally came apart – I learned one of them was Lilac wine by Elkie Brooks. The rest of the party went by as if in a dream, but I can remember we also danced John Paul Young’s Love is in the air, a popular song then, and all I could think about was how true it was, love was in the air and in my life too.
We had been friends for over a year and to this day I remember when I first met you, a newcomer to High School where I was one of the most popular students. You were fifteen then – only a few months older than I was – and I thought you looked shy. You were thin and slightly taller than me, with brown eyes and cropped light brown hair. I thought your legs were slightly crooked and I didn’t think you dressed too well but you had a genuine smile and I found you cute. Soon you were part of my group of friends. Sometimes I thought I would like to be more to you but then I didn’t want to spoil our friendship; however, some inner voice had made me invite you to that party as my date and in the end it had been worth it as it seemed you too found me special.
We were happy for a few weeks but one day as we were walking in Campo Grande, the park close to High School, you told me you didn’t want to go out with me anymore, and you broke my heart. I was shattered, humiliated before my friends – everyone knew it was you who had broken up with me – but above all I could not understand why, after all you had told me, after such a long time caring for each other in silence… how could it end so quickly, so brutally? But it did, and I cried many bitter tears and thought my life would end; and then I swallowed my pride and promised myself no one would make a fool of me as you had.
I moved on and when I found another love you were put out and that was the sweetest revenge, but by then I was over you. In time, we became friends again, and it was only a few years later, when life had led us through different paths, that I understood the reason why you had left me so suddenly, but it no longer mattered at all; you remained as a cherished memory, for in the distance a broken heart no longer hurts and you remember the good moments of a love story rather than the bad ones.
Our paths never crossed again – not even a fortuitous encounter on the streets of Lisbon – and for decades I knew nothing about you, what you had done with your life, what job you had, if you had married or had children…then when I researched for my book, going through old diaries made be remember long forgotten episodes. Do you remember when we went to see Saturday Night Fever at the Tivoli cinema with our group of friends – including both our little brothers – and you shouted so loud the usher told us he would send us away if we didn’t stop the noise immediately? Or my birthday party when we danced the slow songs behind the closed door so that we might come apart should my grandparents open it to check if propriety was being maintained…one of those songs being the six minute long Hotel California by the Eagles, that we danced so close in the green light – do you remember taking off your dark green jersey and putting it over the lamp in order to create a more romantic atmosphere? How I loved seeing your smiling face when I arrived at school or walking hand by hand in the park…
It was only recently that a common friend of those years told me some news about you, that you had become a pilot. We were so happy to have found each other we agreed we should try to organize a reunion of that group of long ago; she agreed to get in touch with you and a few others while I would do the same with another old friend I had kept in touch with over the years.
Sadly, it was not to be. This very friend sent me a text message this morning, telling me you were the pilot of the Emergency Service helicopter that crashed yesterday evening – and I knew all four people on board were dead.
I looked for news about the tragedy on internet and suddenly there you were, in a recent photo but looking every bit like the boy I had loved. The same almond-shaped eyes, the same open smile, the same short but slightly unkempt hair. You looked quite young and so full of life.
I later learned that you have been a helicopter pilot for years; at first you were in the Air Force but then you moved on to the Emergency Service where you have served for quite a number of years. While the reasons for the accident are still unknown – the weather conditions were certainly poor, with rain and fog – there is no doubt about your being a very experienced pilot, with “thousand of flight hours”, or so they say. I also read that you had been involved in fighting many fires as well, and how much work you must have had and under very dangerous conditions too in the last few years, when terrible fires have ravaged our country. Apparently you were some sort of hero, having received awards for rescuing people in highly difficult situations.
So, I thought, that shy boy became a man, whose life was dedicated to helping, rescuing others. Who would have said? A life you ultimately lost in that purpose. How unselfish, how noble. Together with the co-pilot, a doctor and a nurse, your last mission was to take a patient with a severe heart condition from a city in the interior north of Portugal, near the border with Spain, to a hospital in Porto, and as you were coming back your base lost all contact with you.
Today was a very sad day for me. Even if I haven’t seen you for a long time it was so good to know you were still there and who knows, we might even have been able to organize that meeting of friends of long ago who in their fifties wanted to recall memories of the good times spent together. It will never come to pass now, but my memories will remain with me. You were my high school sweetheart, my first “real” love and I will never forget you. I listen to Lilac wine, something I hadn’t done in a long time, but then it seems only natural to listen to this sad romantic song, today more nostalgic than ever. As Elkie Brooks sings her words make me smile and remember how sweet and heady our love was on that December evening of precisely forty years ago, when we were young and carefree and had our whole lives ahead of us. A life you have just lost, in the service of others. Wherever you are, I blow you a kiss. I put on the song once more, and dedicate it to you.